How NATO Can Avoid a Strategic Decoupling in the Eastern Mediterranean

Since an extraordinary naval standoff occurred between French and Turkish warships in the Eastern Mediterranean in early June, Paris and Ankara have been trading increasingly sharp verbal blows over their respective actions in implementing the UN arms embargo on Libya. While this may appear to be just another moment of friction between NATO allies, particularly with Turkey, it is not. This incident represents a more deep-seated strategic dilemma for NATO as well as an increasingly stark divide between the European Union and Turkey.

This strategic dilemma is rooted in Turkey’s new regional foreign and security policy, based in part on its “Blue Homeland” doctrine. The implementation of this doctrine has caused a series of serious incidents that have been observed by Turkey’s allies but fleetingly, if rarely, addressed. Encountering little resistance, Turkey believes its actions to be largely accepted (as some are, such as limiting Russian influence). But the totality of Turkey’s policies and actions have now reached a point of dangerous escalation, which could substantially challenge the coherence of NATO’s collective defense posture in the Mediterranean and weaken its political cohesion. Turkey’s actions threaten to hinder vital NATO-EU cooperation in the region as well.

To avoid this, allies should approach the growing instability in the Mediterranean through an integrative policy that seeks to deescalate tensions and define, with Ankara, common interests by identifying some agreed principles to guide regional behavior. If Turkey is unwilling to join such an initiative, greater transatlantic tensions lie ahead.

Turkey’s Blue Homeland Ambitions
Turkey’s Blue Homeland Doctrine has its origins in a plan drawn up by Turkish admiral Cem Gurdeniz in 2006. It sets out an ambitious goal to underline and expand, through assertive diplomacy and military means, Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas while enabling access to energy and other economic resources. President Erdogan adopted it in 2015 as an integral part of a national strategy of “forward defense” in the context of his sustained drive to assert Turkish independence in all aspects of foreign policy to include influence in its surrounding regions.

Manifestations of the doctrine were on full display during the February 2019 Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) exercise, which was the largest combat exercise since the establishment of the Turkish Navy and was conducted simultaneously in the Aegean, Black, and Eastern Mediterranean Seas. The Turkish government-controlled media described the exercise as a “war rehearsal.” Another example has been Turkey’s assertive energy claims around the disputed Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In February 2018, Turkey sent naval vessels to stop an Italian drilling vessel on its way to drill for gas off Cyprus’ coast. Then in the spring of 2019, Ankara sent ships into Cypriot waters, escorted by the Turkish navy, to conduct its own drilling activities. European Union member states unanimously denounced those “illegal actions,” expressed their support for Cyprus by restricting EU pre-accession aid to Turkey, and suspended negotiations of an air transport agreement. Israel also encountered Turkey’s naval activism when its oceanographic ship, Bat Galim, operating in Cypriot waters in cooperation with Nicosia, was forced out by Turkish warships. Regional tensions reached a new high in November 2019 when Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord. The agreement defines a maritime border between the two countries in the Mediterranean Sea and permits Turkey to defend Libya’s maritime interests (which extend to six nautical miles from Crete) as well as allowing for joint extraction of energy resources in the Mediterranean.

To date, Turkey has met little resistance from either the European Union, NATO, or the United States in response to its actions, with the exception of harsh words and limited sanctions. Some EU parliamentarians have denounced Ankara’s “gunboat diplomacy,” and EU high representative Borrell released a declaration stating that EU countries are “growing increasingly concerned about the recent escalations from Turkey.” EU foreign affairs ministers convened on July 13, asking Ankara to provide “clarifications” on its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Syria and asking High Representative Borrell to provide options to reinforce the sanctions imposed on Turkey for its gas and oil drilling activities in Cyprus’ EEZ. Secretary of State Pompeo has called Turkey’s illegal drilling in Cypriot waters “unacceptable,” yet this is unlikely to be followed by concrete action given that the Trump administration has not yet imposed legally mandated sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

This lack of a holistic and united transatlantic response to Turkey’s naval actions has emboldened Ankara to take further actions, particularly at a time when Erdogan seeks to project independent power abroad and heighten nationalistic sentiment at home to distract the Turkish population from great economic difficulties. The restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque is a powerful example of this policy in action coupled with its military interventions in Libya and Syria. Absent international resolution of the Cypriot and Libyan disputes (which are on the cusp of bringing in other powers, such as Egypt and Israel), President Erdogan has (rightly) concluded that Turkey has more to gain by its unilateral use of hard power and reaching its own diplomatic agreements that suits its needs rather than through broader diplomatic engagement and dialogue.

Escalating Tensions with Allies
As Turkey secures its regional interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, it sets itself on a collision course with official EU and NATO operations, which undermines broader regional and international stability. The first major collision occurred in April 2020 when the European Union launched Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI to implement the UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya. Despite a lack of policy unity over Libya, EU countries agreed on a common objective: the importance of preventing further military escalation by taking joint action to enforce the UN embargo. Turkey denounced IRINI as taking one-sided approach to the embargo that focuses only on constraining the Government of National Accord, which Turkey supports. The U.S. State Department seems to agree. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker sided with the Turkish interpretation, questioning whether the EU mission was “serious,” because it only focused on interdicting Turkish materiel and not preventing Russian military equipment from reaching Libya.

On June 10 2020, Operation IRINI unsuccessfully tried to investigate a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship, escorted by Turkish warships and headed toward Libya. The Turkish ships prevented the Greek navy from inspecting the vessel, claiming the cargo was “medical equipment.” Tensions further escalated that same day when the French Navy ship Le Courbet, operating in the Eastern Mediterranean in the framework of NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, a maritime security operation launched by NATO in 2016 to support maritime situation awareness, counterterrorism, and security capacity building, tried to inspect the same civilian cargo ship. But the Turkish escort intervened again, leading this time to a more aggressive and dangerous incident. According to the French government, Turkish warships turned their fire-control radars on the French warship (the preliminary phase before launching a weapon on a target) and pointed guns at the warship to dissuade any attempts at inspecting the cargo. Ankara rejected these claims, calling them “groundless,” and instead accused the French ship of conducting a “high-speed and dangerous maneuver.” Speaking to reporters in Paris this week, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the United States was “very sympathetic with France” in its dispute with Turkey, and “NATO allies shouldn’t be turning fire control radars on one another.” At France’s request, NATO has launched a formal investigation into the incident, but the results of the investigation have not been released publicly.

The Risk of a Mediterranean Strategic Decoupling
Since the incident, tensions between Turkey and France have escalated as both presidents have used very strong rhetoric against the other. Although it might be tempting to hope that tensions will fade, they are likely to escalate again and have major implications for the European Union, NATO, and the rule of law.

First, tensions have now reached a level where they risk significantly impacting NATO. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system against the wishes of the United States and its NATO allies, its unilateral military interventions into Syria against Kurdish forces, its frequent military interventions into northern Iraq (its most recent air and ground operation was in mid-June), its violations of Iran (and likely Venezuela) sanctions, its continued probing of Greek airspace, and its recent veto over important NATO plans for the defense of NATO’s eastern flank (which was suddenly lifted days after the naval incident) leads one to conclude that Turkey is increasingly pursuing its national interests over NATO’s collective defense interests. The decision by the United States and other F-35 program partners to remove Turkey from the program (although it continues to contribute to the supply chain) will diminish NATO defenses in general as well as its readiness, interoperability, and effectiveness of NATO’s air defense capabilities. Likewise, the announcement of France’s withdrawal of its forces from NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian following the naval incident with Turkey reduces much-needed naval capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean for both the European Union and NATO to jointly enforce the UN arms embargo in Libya.

NATO has always struggled to articulate and deploy forces to protect and defend its southern flank and has devoted too little strategic attention to the Mediterranean over the last few years while powers such as Russia have consistently reinforced their military presence. With a dramatic increase in conflict as well as migration challenges, NATO and the European Union need to be an effective and unified presence in the Mediterranean despite disagreements with Turkey. The European Union relies on NATO intelligence and other support to execute many of its missions, so a diminished NATO also diminishes the European Union.

Absent more focus on the Mediterranean, Ankara and Southern European NATO members may conclude that the alliance has become, de facto, exclusively focused on its eastern flank. These members may see to protect and pursue their own interests in the region as well, modeling Turkey’s behavior of ad hoc arrangements, new regional alignments, and reversible bilateral understandings, thus creating even greater regional instability.

Second, these tensions reveal troubling divergences between Turkey and the European Union. From the EU perspective, Ankara’s aggressive pursuit of energy interests, disregard for the rule of law within Turkey (which should concern NATO as well), and use of migrants to pressure the European Union and destabilize the European neighborhood are at odds with EU values and interests. In the case of Cyprus, the European Union cannot be an unbiased actor. It supports its member state Cyprus and its ability to advance its economic interests within its EEZ according to international law, as the European Union would with any country elsewhere in the world. And while Turkey is free to pursue its national interests at the expense of collective European interests, its actions move it away from a more constructive partnership or strengthened economic ties with the European Union. And a more problematic EU-Turkey relationship further complicates conflict resolution efforts in the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and the Caucasus.

Eastern Mediterranean Principles
The preamble of NATO’s Charter states that its members pledge to “promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.” All NATO allies, including Turkey, need to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. A first step would be to create an agreed set of principles to include: (1) ensure that all regional partners reap the benefits of energy exploration in the region, with a path toward equitable sharing of energy revenues acting as a confidence-building measure toward restarting the Cyprus peace process; (2) contain Russian influence and presence in the region; (3) ensure NATO’s freedom of action from the Black Sea through to the Mediterranean; (4) work toward regional stability in the Middle East and North Africa region, including counterterrorism efforts; (5) uphold international legal norms and UN resolutions, such as the UN arms embargo on Libya and efforts to reach a cease-fire, as well as countries’ territorial or maritime integrity (regardless of existing disputes); and (6) redouble efforts to avoid future maritime incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean between NATO allies by establishing new procedures.

Stronger U.S. political and security involvement in the region will help strengthen NATO’s resolve in the Eastern Mediterranean, be a bulwark against Russia’s growing military presence, and better balance tensions between France and Turkey. The European Union (and France in particular) will need to identify pragmatic ways to engage with Turkey on a range of issues and not simply denounce its actions. As Turkey’s economic situation deteriorates, greater economic opportunities, such as expanding the EU bilateral trade relationship with Turkey or increasing U.S. foreign direct investment, might encourage Ankara to participate in the development of a regional framework of principles. Unfortunately, these relationships have grown very fragile as tensions have risen, and Turkey’s unilateral actions have significantly destabilized the region. Hopefully, refocusing on a set of agreed principles and incentivizing progress can restore NATO unity and restore focus on protecting its southern flank.

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                                                                           ANDREW MANGO

              There are no examples of the reconstitution of multiethnic societies, after these have broken up into separate ethnic components.


Negotiations are continuing between the European Union and the government of the Republic of Cyprus – a government which is composed exclusively of Greek Cypriots and which rules the southern two-thirds of the island inhabited by Greeks. According to a statement made on 19 March by Günther Verheugen, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, the negotiations are one third complete. At its meeting in Helsinki on 10-11 December 1999, the Council of Ministers of the European Union declared that “the Union should be in a position to welcome new member states from the end of 2002…” The (Greek-controlled) Republic of Cyprus is one of these states, since the EU promised in 1995 “to incorporate Cyprus in the next stage of its development”. In the Helsinki declaration the Council of Ministers underlined that “a political settlement will facilitate the accession of Cyprus to the European Union.” But, it added: “If no settlement has been reached by the completion of the accession negotiations, the Council’s decision on accession will be made without the above being a precondition. In this, the Council will take account of all relevant factors.” What are these factors at the present time?

The most important relevant factor is, surely, the de facto situation on the Island. Contact between the Greek and Turkish communities was severed in December 1963. As a result, for the past 36 years Greeks and Turks on the island have lived separate lives. They do not learn each other’s language in school; they do not fraternize; they do not cooperate either in the public or the private sector. Moreover, since 1974, the communities have regrouped in two ethnically homogeneous areas, where they have ruled themselves in a stable and democratic manner. There are de facto two separate states in Cyprus.


The second relevant factor is that there are no examples of the reconstitution of multiethnic societies, after these have broken up into separate ethnic components. True, the international community is currently trying hard to reconstruct multiethnic societies in Bosnia and Kosovo. But results have been meagre.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the European Union has set itself a limited aim: to form a weak central government and allow the federated states a maximum of self-rule. But even within one of these federated states, which, to complicate matters, is itself a federation of Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians, the EU has not been able to reunify the city of Mostar. There is some progress, but it is both limited and slow. It is proving impossible to revive the past pattern of ethnic settlement.

In Kosovo, the situation is worse. Not only have the international authorities on the ground been unable to re-establish former settlement patterns, but the geographical separation of the two main ethnic communities is becoming ever more pronounced.

So much for the two attempts to reverse the flow of history – a flow that in the last two centuries has moved steadily in the direction of homogeneous nation states.

Elsewhere the realities produced by conflict have been accepted: Germans are not returning to Czech Sudetenland or to western Poland, Muslim and Hindu refugees are not moving back across the partition line in the Indian sub-continent; Palestinian refugees are not returning to what has become Israel.

Accepting the reality of the break-up of multiethnic societies does not, of course, mean that one should do nothing in the face of ethnic cleansing. One should prevent it or stop it when it is still possible, precisely because its nature is irreversible.

The third relevant factor is that a federation – the system of government, which the international community has in mind for Cyprus – requires the support of the inhabitants of its constituent parts. Where this is lacking, the federation breaks up. This has happened in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. As President Denktaş has said “a federation is the end of the road – not the beginning”. In other words, communities, which are to come together in a federation, must first of all develop the will to federate. The UN formula that any solution of the Cyprus problem must be viable and acceptable to both sides takes cognizance of this fact. The Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou has said that he did not want a successful divorce in Cyprus, but a happy marriage. A marriage cannot be valid, let alone happy, without mutual consent. At present this consent in lacking in Cyprus: the Greeks, who violated the 1960 Cyprus constitution in order to gain full control of a unitary state, have accepted a federal solution, at least for the time being. The Turks want a confederation of two sovereign states in Cyprus.

This leads us to the fourth relevant factor, viz. that a confederation of two initially sovereign Cyprus states does not preclude an eventual closer union. If a confederation functions well, it could lead to a federation.

The fifth relevant factor is that the absence of bloodshed in Cyprus, achieved since 1974, is a boon to be treasured. There has been no bloodshed because the Island’s inhabitants are secure in their lives, homes and property, and because men of violence have been kept apart. To put it crudely, there has been no inter-communal violence because there has been no inter-communal contact. Any settlement, which jeopardizes this security, born of separation, is likely to lead to a renewal of violence.

More specifically, any attempt to reunite Cyprus without a preliminary agreement on the borders of the two national areas, on reciprocal property claims and on the criteria of citizenship would be a recipe for conflict.

The sixth relevant factor is that there is no Cyprus nation, as anyone who has been to the island knows full well. What is called a “Cyprus identity” is nothing more than the fading memory of eighty years of British rule. Otherwise, there is no Cyprus nation any more than there is a Cretan nation in Greece or a Cilician nation in Turkey. There are Greeks and there are Turks, and their two motherlands, Greece and Turkey: two peoples with different languages, cultures and aspirations.

Today Greece is a member of the EU. Turkey has only recently been designated a candidate for membership, with no date set for the beginning of membership negotiations. If Cyprus preceded Turkey in membership of the EU (an outcome which the current timetable presupposes), the two motherlands would have unequal access to the island, and equality between the two communities would be impossible. To give one example, if Cyprus became a member of the EU at a time when Turkey would still not be a member, any Greek from the mainland would have the right to go to Cyprus, buy property, settle and start a business there. Turks from the mainland would not enjoy any of these rights, unless there were special provisions, which, however, would be difficult to reconcile with basic EU rules.

This would upset the balance between the two communities established by the 1960 agreements under which an independent Cyprus Republic was set up. According to Article 1 of the Treaty of Guarantee, the Republic of Cyprus undertook not to participate, in whole or in part, in any political or economic union with any state whatsoever. Article 50 of the Cyprus Constitution gave the Turkish Vice-President the right to veto the membership of Cyprus in any international organization, unless both Greece and Turkey were members. EU lawyers have expended a great deal of ingenuity in arguing that these legal provisions do not invalidate the application for full membership of the EU made by the Cyprus government without the approval of the elected leadership of the Turkish community. But no amount of ingenuity could disguise the fact that the consequences of Cypriot membership at a time when Turkey is not a member of the EU would run counter to the spirit of the 1960 agreements.

Most inhabitants of Cyprus, whether Greek or Turkish, would like to become citizens of the EU. But Turkish Cypriots desire also security and equality. They can achieve both within the EU only if Turkey became a full member.

By designating Turkey as a candidate, the EU has implicitly declared its belief that Greece and Turkey can establish the kind of relationship, which two member states must entertain with each other. A dialogue has begun between the two countries, and, at the time of writing, some peripheral agreements have been reached. It is to be hoped that the two countries will also reach an agreement on Cyprus which would be acceptable to the two communities on the island, or, more properly, that the two communities will be able to agree among themselves and that their two motherlands would thus see their conflict over Cyprus resolved. Until this happens, the best course is for Greece and Turkey to put the problem of Cyprus to one side, and pursue agreement in other areas.

In practice, this is what is happening at the present time. Several years ago, Greece and Turkey had agreed on a similar approach at a meeting in Davos. But “the spirit of Davos” soon evaporated, as the Greek government, for domestic political reasons, tried to link progress on Cyprus with progress in other areas. Now, too, in spite of the realistic understanding that the Cyprus problem should not figure in the present phase of bilateral negotiations, there is always the danger that continued disagreement in Cyprus may involve the two motherlands.

Similarly, the problem of Cyprus does not figure directly in the current negotiations between the EU and Turkey. These negotiations concern the text of the Partnership Accession document, which will chart the way for Turkey’s convergence with the EU. Cyprus will be taken up in the next stage – the political dialogue that will follow agreement on Partnership Accession. But, as we have already seen, the EU is concurrently negotiating with the Republic of Cyprus on the subject of the island’s accession as a full member. Inevitably, negotiations with the Greek Cypriots will have a bearing on negotiations with Turkey. The effect could well be damaging.

There must be consistency in the aims, which the EU sets itself. This, surely, is the most relevant factor, which the Council of Ministers has to bear in mind as it pursues its negotiations with the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus. Accepting Cyprus as a member state in advance of a settlement would create problems both in Greek-Turkish relations and in the new relationship between the EU and Turkey. If the EU wants Greece and Turkey to get on, if it wants to see Turkey eventually as a member, and in any case as a constructive partner, it should at least delay accepting the Greek part of Cyprus into the fold of  full   memhership.  Otherwise,   the.   EU  would   negate   its   own purpose.

A Cyprus settlement needs a great deal of time. Instead of pressing for a quick settlement, the EU (and the international community) should seek preliminary agreements (on borders, property, de facto mutual recognition, etc.), until, with the passage of time, the wish for a closer association develops in both parts of Cyprus.

In his statement on 19 March, Commissioner Günther Verheugen has again appealed to Turkish Cypriots to take part in the negotiations with the EU, and has warned that there would not be a second set of negotiations. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Turkish Cypriots cannot take part in the current negotiations because this would mean, first, recognizing the validity of the application made by the Greek-controlled government of the Republic of Cyprus and its validity as the interlocutor of the EU for matters concerning the whole of Cyprus. It would mean secondly, accepting the consequences of accession, which, in the present circumstances and in the absence of a preliminary intercommunal settlement, would endanger their security and their title to their homes. Logically and practically, the slow search for a settlement on the island must precede any change in the attitude of Turkish Cypriots.

In the meantime there are steps, which can usefully be taken to reduce tension in Cyprus. One such step would be the creation of a permanent liaison committee on which the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC would be represented. If this were done, meetings between the two sides would not have to be arranged ad hoc by the United Nations. A UN official could, if necessary, chair a permanent liaison committee. The committee would deal with current problems and also seek to eliminate obstacles to closer contact between the two communities. There have been several meetings organized ad hoc and preceded by laborious preparations, between private citizens from the two communities – businessmen, trade unionists, politicians (usually opposition politicians), etc. The time ha now come for authorities from the two sides to come together on regular basis. A permanent liaison committee would foster habits of working together without which no federation or even confederation could function.True, the representation in the liaison committee of the sets of authorities on the island would imply mutual de facto recognition. But even the current proximity talks carry implication, for they would have been both impossible and pointless unless Presidents Clerides and Denktaş recognized each other as leaders of their respective communities. A permanent liaison committee, which would embody this existing implicit recognition, could become with time the nucleus of a confederal and, if intercommunal confidence allowed it, eventually of a federal government

The reduction of antagonism between national communities requires a great deal of time. Europe has waited for more than fifty years for Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany to begin thinking of an association, which would allow their respective citizens to own property in each other’s country. More than a century after Schleswig-Holstein dispute between Germany and Denmark, there are still restrictions, which apply to Germans wishing to settle north of border. So the idea that communities, which have fallen apart, quickly come together again is not only unwise; it is dangerous. It is a recipe for trouble. Whole generations must pass, before memories conflict – particularly if there has been bloodshed – can be forgotten, and a new spirit can arise.

There is no comparison with the reunification of Germany Germans on both sides of the border were kept apart forcibly by Soviet power. They were one nation, which reunited once the Russian  army – the force that had kept them apart – had departed. In Cyprus there are clearly two nations, and the Turkish side wants the continued protection of the Turkish army. So there is no similarity between people who had been artificially kept apart and people who want to stay apart in order to be free and safe in their homes. Two conclusions follow from this premise:

First, any attempt to hurry the process would be self defeating, and any arrangements based on the false presumption that antagonism no longer existed would be built on sand.

Second, transitional arrangements are needed to keep the peace and foster habits of cooperation while antagonism gradually simmers down.

I am not content, however, with the pessimistic observation that Greeks and Turks in Cyprus cannot be reunited today. What I want to stress is that in the meantime one must reduce the danger of antagonism, and set up a mechanism to reduce tension, while recognizing facts on the ground. More generally, one must stop Cyprus from being a bomb, which could explode at any moment. The destructive potential of the Cyprus dispute is greater than its intrinsic value. It is a danger to world peace.

Some years ago a Greek Cypriot politician was quoted as saying “I do not want Cyprus to start a Third World War. But if that is the price for winning our just cause, so be it.” This is not a price, which any of us should be willing to pay. We do not want Cyprus to start a world war, or even a Greek-Turkish war. So measures are needed now to defuse the bomb. I suggest that the creation of a permanent liaison committee bringing together the representatives of Greek and Turkish authorities on the island would help defuse it.

I believe that the EU should facilitate such transitional arrangements, instead of forcing the issue by conducting accession negotiations with a government which exercises authority in one part only of the candidate country. Recently there have been some signs of realism: President Denktaş, has been received by the German Foreign Minister; the fact that the government of the Republic of Cyprus does not rule the Turks on the island has been admitted. On the other hand, as we have seen, pressure is continued to be brought on the Turks in Cyprus to enter negotiations against their will and against their interests. The sooner this approach is abandoned, the better.

This does not mean renouncing forever the aim of accepting into the Union the whole island of Cyprus, but postponing it until the population of the island reaches agreement on its future governance. For, in the last resort, the EU cannot decide what kind of Cyprus it is to accept within its ranks. Only the people of Cyprus, Greeks and Turks, defined pragmatically as the permanent residents of the island, can take this decision.

(*) Published in the fpi Quarterly “Foreign Policy”, Vol.25, Nos.3-4

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