The US should mediate the maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece-Cyprus

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BY NICHOLAS SAIDEL – 08/08/22 2:30 PM ET 

AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pictured in Ankara, Turkey, on May 16, 2022.

To help stabilize the eastern Mediterranean and challenge Russia, President Biden should mediate the maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece-Cyprus. Direct negotiations between Greece and Turkey have­ stalled indefinitely, weakening NATO and the West, as troops and resources are being diverted to fend off each other, rather than deterring adversaries such as Russia.

In May, Greece went so far as to ban Turkey from a NATO exercise after Turkey violated Greece’s airspace 125 times in 24 hours. In late July, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Greek counterpart, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, to reaffirm American support for Greece’s security in the face of mounting Turkish threats and an arms race that potentially could lead to open conflict.

Biden has congressional authorization for mediating this dispute. The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 states: “The President is authorized to appoint a special ambassadorial level envoy who shall be responsible for representing the United States in direct negotiations with the parties to the Cyprus dispute. … As agreed to by Greece and Turkey, the special envoy shall also represent the United States in promoting mutual discussions between those countries concerning their differences on Aegean issues.”

All Biden must do is act, and the time is ripe for American leadership and statecraft.

The eastern Mediterranean is a geostrategic location that hosts an array of littoral states working to secure their interests in the resource-rich environment below the sea. In its quest for natural gas, Turkey has carved out a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for natural gas exploration that violates the maritime rights of Greece — a fellow NATO member — and Cyprus, a European Union state. Turkey’s maritime deal with the Libyan government that largely ignores legal Greek and Cypriot claims is destabilizing the eastern Mediterranean, as are Greek actions such as militarizing Aegean islands close to Turkish shores. The Turkish navy’s aggressive maneuvering has led to numerous naval incidents with Greece, Cyprus and Israel.

Russia and China perceive the eastern Mediterranean as a node for great power competition. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is expanding into the region, while Russia seeks to undermine U.S., EU and NATO objectives in this theater. Russia’s soft power initiatives aim to peel away U.S. allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Turkey — countries that are susceptible to Russian offers of investment, energy and tourism dollars. These Russian efforts hinge on exploiting fissures among eastern Mediterranean states, and between them and the U.S., especially fissures that could be fixed by Russian energy or political capital.

Robust U.S. diplomacy in the form of maritime dispute mediation would help bring order and cohesion to NATO allies and would have the downstream effect of cordoning off areas of opportunity for Russia — and China, to boot. Additionally, successfully brokered U.S.-sponsored talks would strengthen American ties to the region and help to restrain a recalcitrant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Engaging Erdoğan will require vigilance. Some analysts rightfully point out that Turkey is unreliable, deceptive and cooperates with our adversaries, including Russia. The U.S. should leverage the tanking Turkish lira, the upcoming Turkish election, and Erdoğan’s pursuit of an F-16 deal, to attach concessions to any agreement that inures to Turkey’s benefit. Turkish compromises should be expected in the Greco-Cypriot context, but also with respect to other U.S. goals such as a commitment from Turkey that it will never again purchase Russian weapons systems, which pose security and interoperability risks to NATO. Having said all that, Erdoğan’s recent pivot to the Gulf and Israel — and seemingly away from the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran — gives cause for cautious optimism.

Notably, the Biden administration is now mediating a maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon — countries that, like Turkey and Cyprus, do not have diplomatic relations and need externally-led arbitration. The current U.S. effort in Lebanon, which appears to be working,  should serve as precedent for a more broadly conceived mediation strategy aimed at stabilizing the totality of the eastern Mediterranean, notwithstanding malign local actors such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon’s terrorist militia, Hezbollah.

Given the strong congressional mandate for hosting talks and the escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. should mediate the dispute between Turkey and Greece-Cyprus. Compartmentalizing and resolving the EEZ issue could lead to the resolution of other Greco-Turkish-Cypriot disagreements and a more integrated Western-leaning regional architecture. Negotiating a maritime accord would help instill confidence between aggrieved parties and could lead to cooperation on important matters such as renewable energy, water scarcity, climate change and regional security.

Moreover, this low-cost, high-impact strategy would contribute to creating a more united front against enemies and rivals in the region.

Nicholas Saidel is associate director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously was a fellow at the Penn Law School’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law; an associate at the law firm of Wolf, Block LLP; a legislative aide to Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.); and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

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