Tired of the constant crises emanating from Turkey, top U.S. lawmakers from both parties are pushing a potentially pivotal change to Washington’s approach toward Ankara , and thwarting Erdogan's government plans to explore for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean region.
The US Foreign Policy Magazine (FP) said that a new Senate bill, introduced Tuesday by Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez, aims to reshape U.S. policy toward a corner of the world that, thanks to big energy discoveries, Russian military adventures, and Turkish ambivalence, has become a potential big-power flash point. The bill is a grab bag of some old U.S. ideas—such as helping speed the development of newly abundant offshore natural gas resources in the region—leavened with a much tougher line toward Turkey, a longtime ally.
Michael Leigh, an expert on the Eastern Mediterranean at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the legislation is best understood as a symbolic move to convince Turkey to come back in from the cold, specifically its dalliance with Moscow.
“I think you can see the U.S. as one of those proverbial oil tankers that take a very long time to change direction. But it’s beginning to shift away from Turkey, and that by definition means shifting toward the other actors in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Leigh said.
Specifically, the bill would end the three-decade U.S. arms embargo on Cyprus meant to make the divided island’s reunification easier, a way to both tweak Turkey and offer an alternative to Russian military hardware, and it specifically warns Turkey not to interfere with energy exploration in its neighborhood, as it has in the past with Cyprus. The bill would also boost military cooperation with Cyprus and Greece; accelerate the exploitation and export of big energy finds in the region; cement the nascent U.S. alignment with Greece, Israel, and Cyprus; and try to force Turkey out of Russia’s embrace—or out of America’s.
Turkey, a key member of NATO since 1952, has in recent years crept closer to Russia, signing huge contracts in the energy sector and deepening defense cooperation. Most recently, Turkey has moved ahead with plans to buy a Russian-made air defense system, a decision that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last week called “reckless” and which U.S. officials say could jeopardize American defense capabilities and the broader relationship. The new Senate bill includes a measure to ban the transfer to Turkey of advanced U.S. F-35 fighter jets if the country goes ahead with the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. (On Wednesday, Turkey said it would accelerate the delivery of the controversial weapons.)
Taken together, the disparate elements of the bill put meat on the bones of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent regional summit in Israel and could represent a reappraisal of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean with potentially historic consequences.
“There is a growing awareness in the U.S. government that these crises with Turkey are becoming a permanent feature, and the perception is that Turkey is gradually tailing away from the U.S.,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “For the first time since the 1950s, U.S. policymakers are wondering whether Greece or Turkey will be the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
And while the legislation is partly a warning shot at Ankara, he said it reflected an underlying reality: “The strategic realization that Turkey may not be the keystone of U.S. policy in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
The bill ties together several different strands of U.S. policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean. On one hand, it aims to boost the development of large natural gas discoveries off the coasts of Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus that U.S. officials hope can become an alternative source of energy for Europe, which relies heavily on imports of Russian natural gas.
The legislation also seeks to push back against Russia’s influence in the region, which has steadily grown over the last decade as it has cemented deeper financial and defense ties with countries like Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and even Israel. Additionally, since Russia jumped into the Syrian civil war in 2015, Moscow’s growing military footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean has been a worry for U.S. planners. (Just last month, it dispatched more surface ships and additional submarines from the Black Sea fleet to its base in Syria.) The bill calls for reports to Congress on Russia’s efforts to interfere with countries in the region.