THE BLOG
12/02/2014 04:33 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Losing the Mediterranean

The fight against the Islamic State has been the major source of discontent in a difficult U.S. - Turkey relationship. Yet in trying to get Turkey on board on this front, the U.S. risks a setback for its interests in the larger Eastern Mediterranean region.

One of the U.S.'s great successes during the Cold War was to deny the Soviets serious influence in the Mediterranean - limiting them to a sole client state in Syria. Despite the persistence of flashpoints and rogue actors (Syria, Libya), the U.S. was able to establish enough peace (Israel-Egypt) and détente (Greco-Turkish relations) that its interests were safeguarded in the region.

The importance of such stability in the region seems to have been taken for granted in U.S. policy circles and editorial pages, and by 2011 we were "leading from behind" in the region, letting NATO partners take primary roles in Libya, and outsourcing much of Eastern Mediterranean leadership to Turkey. This backfired, as Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda related groups became forces on the southern edge of the sea.

Deferring to Turkey in the region has turned out to be the most serious error by the Obama Administration. Turkey quickly abandoned its alliance with Israel - transforming a source of stability in the region to another flashpoint. In Syria, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went from personal friend to Assad to empowering elements of the Syrian opposition that would eventually become core players in the Islamic State. Erdoğan would create even more problems for U.S. foreign policy by reacting to the deposing of his ideological kin Mohamed Morsi by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the Egyptian President he now refuses to work with and calls an "illegitimate tyrant." Thus, two pillars of U.S. strategy in the region are anathema to one another.

Now Turkey threatens to unravel the latest progress in regional stability and cooperation. Over the past few years, significant natural gas fields have been confirmed in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt. Seismic surveys have indicated that even more natural gas - and perhaps oil - can be extracted from these EEZs as well as those of Lebanon and Greece. These discoveries have obvious economic benefits for the states involved, but even greater political benefits for the region as a whole.

All the aforementioned states are cooperating - either directly or indirectly through Cyprus - through EEZ delineation agreements, joint exploration, trilateral agreements (like the recent Egypt-Cyprus-Greece Cairo Declaration), and plans on how to bring natural gas to the market. The U.S. has been involved in this cooperation, both commercially - Houston's Noble Energy is a major player in these fields - and diplomatically - the State Department has made regional energy cooperation a priority, and Vice President Biden visited Cyprus pushing for the same.

You know who isn't part of this new spirit of cooperation? Turkey. Ankara refuses to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, making cooperation on that front impossible. Despite Prime Minister Netanyahu's apology over the flotilla incident, the Erdoğan government has continued to antagonize Israel, both by words and actions. Finally, Erdoğan's personal animosity towards Al-Sisi led to a provocative reaction to the Egypt-Cyprus-Greece agreement: Turkey sent seismic and naval vessels into Cyprus' EEZ, made claims on the same EEZ and aggressively challenged Greek airspace and territorial waters in the Aegean.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. keeps insisting on Turkey's participation in regional energy arrangements. For all states involved, involving Turkey makes financial sense. Indeed, sending Eastern Mediterranean gas up to Turkey to link up with existing and about to be built pipelines is the cheapest delivery option available. Erdoğan's Turkey however, - no matter how much the U.S. may need it against the Islamic State - is primarily a wild card and bully for its neighbors in the region. The U.S. is paradoxically urging Europe to diversify its energy supply away from Russia while at the same time pushing Israel, Cyprus, Greece and even Egypt to rely on a pipeline through a Turkey led by Erdoğan, who at best has acted Putin-esque towards all of them.

In 1950, as Europe recovered from the destruction of two World Wars, France's foreign minister - Robert Schuman - declared an aim to "make war not only unthinkable, but materially impossible." Thus, the precursor to the European Union - the European Coal and Steel Community - was born. Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides declared that natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean can be "coal and steel of the 21st century." This seems to be the goal of the U.S. To make it a reality, the Obama Administration must seriously push Turkey to act like the Germany of Adenauer, not that of Bismark or Hitler.