Lawmakers seeking to counter Turkey and Russia are investing in new efforts in the Mediterranean region to bolster U.S. allies like Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
Congress passed legislation last week as part of a $1.4 trillion spending package that makes the U.S. a key player in the market for natural gas in the region through a security and energy partnership with Eastern Mediterranean countries.
The measure strengthens military ties with Greece and lifts a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the countries and positioning the allies to keep Turkey’s regional ambitions in check.
“By lifting the U.S. Arms Embargo on Cyprus and extending necessary Foreign Military Assistance to Greece, this legislation brings forth a comprehensive approach to the stability of key regional partners,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the lead Republican co-author of the legislation, said in a statement.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-author of the bill, said the legislation “marks the dawn of a new day for the United States’ engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
The discovery over the past decade of large fields of natural gas in the separate maritime waters of Cyprus, Egypt and Israel has altered the dynamics of the sometimes volatile region.
In addition to offering new avenues for increasing cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it’s also a boost to economic development and increased competition in Europe’s energy sector, to Russia’s detriment.
Left out of these developments is an increasingly belligerent Turkey, which recently signed a maritime agreement with Libya that cuts through the territorial waters of Greece and Cyprus and threatens those countries’ claims to any gas discoveries agreed to be in their economic zones.
That move came at a time of already historically low relations between the two countries, with Athens accusing Ankara of repeatedly violating Greek airspace.
Cyprus, for its part, is in a nearly half-century-long territorial dispute with Turkey. The island country is cut in half between the independent Republic of Cyprus to the south and Turkish-occupied territory to the north.
“In an increasingly unstable region, and with Turkey making a decisive turn away from the West, the Greece-Cyprus-Israel partnership with the U.S. is especially timely,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who supported the bill on the House side.
Key provisions in the measure are meant to rebuke Turkey explicitly, including text preventing the NATO ally from rejoining the F-35 fighter jet program while it holds Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.
Turkey, in a statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded to passage of the bill by saying the U.S. is hampering efforts to achieve a political solution in Cyprus by lifting the arms embargo. It added that “anti-Turkish colleagues” in Congress are “exploiting” the appropriations process and “unfairly” blocking delivery of the F-35.
Congress is also mandating U.S. agencies report on any Turkish violations of sea and air borders of Cyprus and Greece, a NATO ally.
Julie Rayman, deputy director of policy and diplomatic affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the groups that pushed for passage of the legislation, said the bill puts the U.S. in a position to participate in the changing realities on the ground but also forcefully hold Turkey to account.
“The bill itself is doing things that are logical and makes basic sense of what’s happening in the region,” she said. “But what it allows Congress and the U.S. government to do on a day-to-day basis in response to Turkish aggression or provocation may be even more impactful.”
It also flies in the face of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Congress has condemned for leading an incursion into northeastern Syria against Syrian Kurds who are allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.
Christians United For Israel (CUFI), one of the largest evangelical organizations and a key, loyal base for President Trump, strongly condemned Erdoğan for threatening the U.S. and Israel.
“Under Erdoğan’s authoritarian administration, Turkey has abandoned the values that once made that nation an American and Israeli ally. The least we can do is increase the cooperation between the US, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to show Ankara that nations large and small will not be bullied by Turkey,” CUFI founder and Chairman Pastor John Hagee said in a statement.
“If Turkey persists in its turn towards Russia and Iran, their economy will suffer, and very soon they will discover the only allies they have are those who encompass the small axis of pariah states,” he added.
But Turkey is not completely being shut out from the regional developments, despite steps to hold it accountable, said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council and a supporter of the bill passed by Congress.
“I’m not sure anyone wants to write off Turkey. I think people have come to terms with the fact that we can’t let Turkey play hostage politics with us,” he said.
The foreign ministers for Greece and Cyprus recently signaled they are leaving the door open for Turkey to join in agreements surrounding the development of natural gas energy in the region but at the same time are bolstering their defenses against Ankara.
“We have common goals and approaches and I believe that the proper framework is being created to counter the actions of some who wish to create conditions of instability in the eastern Mediterranean by violating international law,” Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides told The Associated Press, referring to Turkey.
Israel, Greece and Cyprus are set to launch plans on Jan. 2 for the construction of a natural gas pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said the alliance is open to any country that agrees to their framework.
“We don’t see our initiatives as being directed against anyone,” he told the AP. “We see them as positive steps, and we invite whomever to take part as long as they agree with the wider framework.”