As US President-elect Joe Biden may discover as he prepares for office, the Eastern Mediterranean is far from a quiet place. In the Aegean Sea, Turkish and Greek warships are watching each other nervously, while in Cyprus a decade-long peace process to reunite Turkish and Greek Cypriots is threatened with collapse after Turkey approved a formal division of the island into two states in October. Adding fuel to this fire is a long and unresolved maritime and hydrocarbon rights dispute between Cyprus and Turkey that has attracted international oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Total, as well as Cyprus’s eastern Mediterranean neighbors Israel and Egypt.
As tensions have increased over the past year, the United States has largely taken over its traditional regional roles of referee, referee, and the occasional wearer of a big racket. However, this could change soon. The choice of "Joe Bidenopoulos" – as he once envisioned a group of Greek Americans – has become music for Greeks and Greek Cypriots looking for more US support in their dispute with Turkey. Despite Biden's harsh rhetoric against Turkey, it remains a key nation in this strategically important region. As of January, when he takes office, the president-elect will have to weigh a number of interests to tackle the sea of problems in the eastern Mediterranean – and keeping the reins in Ankara may not be his top priority.
The last time Turkey and Greece nearly came to a blow in an argument over Imia, a pair of uninhabited islands in the North Aegean, in 1996, US President Bill Clinton sent American warships to separate warring neighbors. Under the outgoing President Donald Trump, the country "did not constructively defuse the immediate crisis situation across sea borders," said Ekavi Athanassopoulou, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Athens. Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, echoed these assessments, saying that "the US role has been cautious".
Biden, on the other hand, knows the region and its leaders well from his time as Vice President and his official visits to Ankara, Athens and Nicosia. And unlike Trump, he has no close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the contrary: in the past, Biden has made no secret of his hostility towards the current Turkish government – and, conversely, of his support for Greece and Cyprus. While Trump was playing off his friendship with Erdogan, Biden has called him an "autocrat" who, as he told the New York Times in an interview last December, "has to pay a price."
Biden is not alone in his feelings. Washington concerns about Turkey have recently increased across the political divide. Even so, Biden, the president, may not quite say the same thing as Biden, the candidate, Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, in November. “Turkey borders on Syria, Iran, Iraq and across the Black Sea on Russia. Whatever US policy is in these places, it will be a lot easier and cheaper with Turkey on board. "
The region's problems consist of a series of interrelated disputes, all of which have Turkey as a common denominator, as Ankara seeks to challenge what it sees as the unfair regional status quo. "Turkey feels that it is being 'cooped up' in the eastern Mediterranean," said Cagaptay.
This feeling is most evident at sea, where Turkey has long complained of an inequitable distribution of sea areas, arguing that the status quo leaves a largely coastal area while its neighbors have extensive sea zones. Ankara therefore refuses to recognize Greek sea border claims in the Aegean Sea, where dozens of Greek islands are located near the Turkish coast. It also does not recognize Athens' claim to seas south and east of the Greek island of Crete – regions where a 2019 agreement between Turkey and the United Nations-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli is considered Turkish, but international law of the sea continues to do so considered Greek.
Tensions mounted this fall when Turkey dispatched a hydrocarbon exploration vessel, the Oruc Reis, to these waters near Crete, sent Greek and Turkish warships to battle stations, and induced France to send naval vessels to the European Union in support of ally Greece send.
At the same time, since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, which divided the island into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south, there has been no agreement between Ankara and Nicosia as to where their respective sea and air space borders are. After 2012, when natural gas was discovered in Cyprus claimed waters, which Turkey is now claiming, it became a far more controversial issue.
Disagreements over how to deal with the region's unexpected hydrocarbon bonanza have also plagued US-sponsored talks on the reunification of Cyprus. Those talks collapsed in 2017, at which point Turkey began sending seismic research vessels and drillships into the waters it denies with Cyprus. Those ships are still there today, and Cyprus, with the support of Greece and France, continued to protest their presence, calling on the EU to punish Turkey with economic sanctions – a call that has so far gone unnoticed but will be re-examined by the EU leader in December .
While there is widespread expectation in the region that a Biden government will bring new activism and engagement to the stalemate, addressing these interrelated issues will not be an easy task. The October elections in Northern Cyprus, which are only recognized internationally by Turkey, only complicate matters. The new Prime Minister Ersin Tatar, an ally of Erdogan, supports the new Turkish position of a two-state solution for Cyprus. This would permanently divide the island between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, separated by a United States-controlled buffer zone since 1974.
Turkey's position contradicts the last five decades of US-sponsored negotiations, which have always – unsuccessfully – aimed at a comprehensive settlement for the reunification of the island. This goal continues to be supported by the Greek Cypriot leadership, Greece, the EU, the United States and the wider international community. However, Turkey argues that after five decades of failed negotiations, reunification is a waste of time and the de facto partition of the island should be done de jure.
While this position has few supporters outside Turkey and Northern Cyprus, it does increase the possibility of a permanent collapse of the negotiations in the United States. The Cypriot Foreign Minister, Nikos Christodoulides, also expressed his fears in November that Ankara's position could lead to a possible annexation of the Turkish Cypriot north by Turkey.
With the possible failure of new reunification efforts, Biden may have to decide whether to continue trying to find a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem or to address the hydrocarbons problem separately and immediately, said Erol Kaymak, professor of international relations at Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, Turkey.
In the Aegean, where Greece and Turkey have even more controversial territorial claims: "Biden will want de-escalation, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of his first calls wasn't Erdogan to ask him to help," Cagaptay said. Unlike Trump, Biden cannot rely on a personal relationship with Erdogan. Instead, he works more with multilateral organizations to leverage change. "Biden will place much more emphasis on alliances and institutions than Trump," said Cagaptay Ian Lesser, Vice President of the German Marshall Fund.
In particular, we can expect him to address the EU as Cyprus and Greece are both EU Member States. "On the basis of President [Barack] Obama," said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, "the US expected Europe to play a bigger role, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, where there is ultimately a dispute." between Turkey and two EU member states. "
In the meantime, "Turkey will also recalibrate its foreign policy to take account of changes in the White House," said Ulgen. "It will also mean that there has to be a difficult but more open dialogue between the US and Turkey on a number of grievances." These run from the Syrian civil war to the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles by Turkey – and threaten US sanctions in response to the latest tests of these missiles, which means that “turbulence could well be imminent in the Turkish US. Relationships, ”said Ulgen.
This turbulence, in turn, may mean that rather than solving the region's problems, Biden may just add to the choppy waters of the eastern Mediterranean.