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US elections and the Eastern Mediterranean tinderbox Open in fullscreen

Eva J. Koulouriotis

US elections and the Eastern Mediterranean tinderbox

Biden and Trump will likely pursue different strategies in the Eastern Mediterranean. [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 October, 2020

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Analysis: The road to a solution between Athens and Ankara is shorter if it does not pass through Washington.

After almost two months of mutual escalation, Greece and Turkey finally agreed to sit together at the negotiating table in September to reach a solution on maritime borders and their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea.

Germany's role in ending the standoff was crucial, with Berlin an intermediary in the August ceasefire in Libya which significantly contributed to reducing tensions in the Mediterranean. 

Indeed, on the ground in Libya, there has been a significant rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara. This was reflected last month in a phone call between Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan and France's Emmanuel Macron, in which both leaders agreed to use diplomatic opportunities to de-escalate the situation.

While this diplomatic détente saw both sides remove naval forces from the Aegean Sea, the next phase of the saga will likely be linked to the results of the upcoming US election.

Indeed, the Eastern Mediterranean crisis and the future of Greek-Turkish talks will be directly impacted by whether the next US president chooses a policy of resolution or escalation.

As is well publicised, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have conflicting views on US foreign policy. Trump is seeking escalation with Tehran and is wielding the trade stick against Beijing, with a clear movement to reduce US troops around the world, especially in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. 

The Eastern Mediterranean crisis and the future of Greek-Turkish talks will be directly impacted by the next US president

Biden, on the other hand, may see a need to maintain America's presence in the Middle East while increasing the level of support for allies in the region, especially the Kurds.

Biden may also choose to return to the nuclear deal with Iran and reduce tensions between Washington and the Iranian regime by lifting economic sanctions. This policy disparity also extends to Greek-Turkish negotiations, which could play out in several ways. 

Read more: Is Turkey's new gas discovery a game changer?

Trump in the White House 

As has been seen in recent years, the economy has always been Trump's compass for setting his political orientations. Thus, in the Eastern Mediterranean, the US State Department has already begun in recent weeks to lay down important steps towards demarcating maritime borders. 

Washington considers it important to resolve outstanding issues in the region in order to open a new market for US energy companies and gain additional shares in the gas and oil sectors. The demarcation of maritime borders is also at the heart of ongoing negotiations between the Lebanese and Israeli governments, mediated by the US and the United Nations (UN).

Energy policy was at the top of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's agenda when visiting Cyprus and Greece last month, together with receiving assurances that the dispute must be resolved as soon as possible.

If Trump wins the election, he will continue with the same policy, and so Washington will play an important role by pushing the Greek side to make concessions and draw up a clear map that will pave the way for consolidating the influence of US energy companies and the acquisition of long-term contracts in the region.

The US has already begun to lay down important steps towards demarcating maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean

On the other hand, the issue of the Russian S-400 system purchased by Turkey is the perfect means of blackmail to force concessions, especially on the issue of Cyprus. 

Despite the Russian S-400 agreement, Turkish military operations in north-eastern Syria, and Ankara's intervention in the Libyan war, US-Turkish relations under the Trump administration could be described as calm, with an exchange of interests forming the basis of the relationship between the two countries. 

The impact of Donald Trump's potential victory in the forthcoming elections may therefore be positive for the future of unresolved issues in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Read more: Aegean angst: Greece and Turkey's dangerous Eastern Mediterranean game

A Biden presidency

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has made no secret of his displeasure with the current Turkish government, and with Erdogan personally, as was clear two months ago in a leaked discussion in which he called the Turkish president an "autocrat" and advocated supporting the Turkish opposition. 

This position was reaffirmed through his recent statements on Eastern Mediterranean tensions, in which he stressed the need to impose severe sanctions on Ankara to prevent it from escalating in the Aegean Sea.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has made no secret of his displeasure with the current Turkish government, and with Erdogan personally

This approach shows that Biden's presence in the White House could lead to more complications in the Eastern Mediterranean, and against Turkish influence in the region in particular.

Despite former president Barack Obama's policy toward Ankara and the AKP government, which improved Russian-Turkish relations and led to the S-400 deal, Biden appears to insist on adopting the same line, and probably even harder. The effects of this policy on the Eastern Mediterranean could well be catastrophic.

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Any American escalation will be met with Turkish intransigence, dangerously increasing the temperature in the Aegean Sea, something that will also have an impact on the Greek side, which will not be able to distance itself from the tense atmosphere.

Assuming that Biden's support for the Turkish opposition materialises, and it wins any early Turkish elections, Athens should take into account its positions on the Eastern Mediterranean, which are more extreme and involve more maximalist claims than those of the AKP. 

Beyond the outcome of the US election, there is a single path to resolving the Eastern Mediterranean crisis: direct negotiations with neither preconditions nor external pressure, leading to a comprehensive solution that will end the state of hostility.

Any such agreement would mark the beginning of a new economic era for all parties to the conflict through non-disputed maritime trade zones that will transform them from importers of energy resources to producers and exporters. 

The road to a solution between Athens and Ankara is shorter if it does not pass through Washington.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_

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