Tensions are rising in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s sparring with Israel is combining with its conflicts with Saudi Arabia and its partners, and is increasingly drawing in other countries—from Libya to Greece, and maybe soon the United States. Just a few months ago, there appeared to be signs of rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, but that now seems unlikely. The considerable rise of conservative ethnic and religious nationalism in both Israel and Turkey over the past couple decades is often cited to help explain this tension, and nationalist sentiment is associated with aggressive foreign policies. But this emphasis misses a strategic dimension of critical importance. Ankara and Tel Aviv are on opposing sides of a broader struggle for regional hegemony that is remaking the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean corridor.
Despite being one of the first Muslim nations to recognize Israel—doing so in 1949, only one year after the formal creation of the state—Turkey has increasingly found itself at odds with Tel Aviv over their respective struggles for regional influence, particularly following the 2011 Arab uprisings. Israel, on the basis of its shared enmity with Iran, has increasingly aligned itself with the “Counterrevolutionary Bloc” (CRB), which comprises Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and post-2013 Egypt, all of which have sought to crush the wave of mass mobilization that emerged in 2011 and maintain the regional geopolitical status quo. The CRB is opposed to the other two primary ad-hoc regional alliances: the bloc represented by Qatar and Turkey, both of which have sought greater independence in their foreign policies by supporting certain elements of the uprisings, and that of Iran and its regional partners.
For Turkey, the more assertive approach it has assumed in the Middle East is a reflection of the country’s more general “turn to the east.” As Kadir Yildirim explains, this shift is due to several factors, including the repeated rebuffs by the European Union to grant Turkey membership, the desire of the ruling Justice and Development Party to strengthen domestic support, as well as its desire to assert Turkey as a strong actor in its own neighborhood. The uprisings presented Turkey with the opportunity to apply a more proactive regional policy to potentially tip the balance of power in Ankara’s favor.
Turkey quickly emerged as a major regional power broker in the post-2011 context and has found itself in direct competition with the CRB. Ankara has directly engaged in Syria, Libya and Iraq; has provided extensive support to the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots, granting several of its leaders asylum in Turkey; stood firmly with Qatar amid the land, air and naval blockade launched by the Saudi axis; has maintained good working relations with Hamas in Gaza; and remains engaged in intense competition with the CRB in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, viewing the recent normalizations between Israel and several Arab states as a way to more formally solidify the CRB and isolate Turkey, Ankara has increasingly sought to present itself as the “champion” of the Palestinian cause by blasting the Arab states of the CRB and calling for all Muslim countries to take a clear position.
Israel has stood firm with the Arab states of the CRB in concomitantly denouncing Turkey’s behavior in the region as “imperialist.” Israeli officials have also repeatedly accused Turkey of allowing Hamas to recruit in and plan attacks from Turkish territory, and have lobbied the United States to sanction Turkey as it has Iran for allegedly supporting terrorism in the region. This culminated in the Israeli military formally labeling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regional policies as a direct challenge to Israeli interests for the first time ever in its 2020 annual intelligence report.
Perhaps more than anything else, what concerns Turkey the most about this competition is its rapid expansion to Turkey’s strategic underbelly: the eastern Mediterranean corridor. Diplomatic, economic and military relations between Greece, Israel and the Arab states of the CRB have grown exponentially as part of the broader struggle to shape the post-2011 regional order.
In response to Ankara’s ratification of a maritime agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) designed to create an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean border to Libya’s northern coast—a zone that passes directly through waters claimed by the government of Greece—Egypt and Greece signed their own agreement on an EEZ passing through the eastern Mediterranean that severs Turkey’s proposed zone with the GNA. Following the signing, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias claimed that the Turkish deal is now where it belongs, “in the trash can.” Egypt has also dramatically expanded its military ties with Greece, with both countries regularly conducting joint air and naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. In April 2021, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus signed a tripartite cooperation deal to further strengthen their military ties, with retired Egyptian Army General Nasr Salem stating that “this growing cooperation mainly aims to rein in the Turks and trim their violations in the region.”
Likewise, Saudi Arabia and Greece have embraced one another, with Riyadh demonstrating support for Athens in their eastern Mediterranean disputes with Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Greece conduct joint air exercises in the Mediterranean, and in 2019, Riyadh formally declared Saudi support for Cypriot sovereignty “against claims of autonomy from the Ankara-backed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” In April 2021, Greece and Saudi Arabia signed a deal whereby Athens would provide Riyadh with a U.S.-built Patriot air defense system in order to “protect critical energy facilities.” The UAE has similarly expanded its relations with Greece considerably, signing a strategic partnership agreement in 2020 that includes the provision that each country come to the aid of the other “in the event that their territorial integrity is threatened.” The agreement also establishes cooperation on defense and foreign policy more broadly. Greece hailed the agreement as one of the most significant pacts it has entered since the end of World War II. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE has also acknowledged the Greek Cypriot government as the rightful authority over the island (as opposed to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus), and in August 2020, the UAE deployed several F-16 fighter jets to Crete amid growing tensions between Greece and Turkey. The Emirates have also participated in several Greek-led military exercises in the Mediterranean, often alongside the militaries of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a show of strength directed toward Turkey.
As relations between Greece and the Arab states of the CRB have grown, so too have the ties between Athens and Israel. In April 2021, Israel and Greece signed a record defense deal between the two nations, which includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force. This followed a meeting earlier that month in Cyprus between the foreign ministers of Greece, Israel, the UAE and Cyprus, at which all agreed to deepen their cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel has also participated directly in the air and naval exercises hosted by Greece, and the two nations recently agreed to further increase military cooperation. Moreover, following the most recent escalation in violence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Athens stood firmly with Israel by condemning the “firing of thousands of rockets by Hamas against Israel” and asserted that “Israel has the right to self-defense.”
Particularly alarming for Ankara is the eastern Mediterranean pipeline project, or EastMed. The project is an agreement signed by Greece, Cyprus and Israel to transport gas from Israel’s Leviathan gas field to Greece and mainland Europe, passing through Cyprus. Designed to circumvent Turkey and undermine its efforts to become an energy hub linking Europe and Asia, EastMed has also been endorsed by Egypt and the UAE, with the latter investing in the project.
As Harun Karcic argues, Ankara sees these actions as “a common front designed to confine it to its own shores geopolitically and militarily.” Despite talk of “rapprochement” or the “mending of ties,” Turkey and Israel remain on opposite sides of the broader struggle to reshape the regional order. As this competition for regional dominance continues to expand to the eastern Mediterranean, it will continue to entrench divisions between Turkey and Greece.
Turkey and Greece are both NATO members, and Israel and the Arab CRB states are also close U.S. defense partners, so although U.S. officials have expressed their desire to scale back in the region and pivot to Asia, these tensions risk dragging Washington into these squabbles. Some policymakers are already taking sides. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez recently proposed a bill designed to cast Washington’s support firmly behind Israel, Greece and Cyprus. The bill states, among other things, that “the United States should support the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Greece to include those produced for but never delivered to Turkey as a result of Turkey’s exclusion from the program due to its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.” Moreover, it appears that the bill intends for Israel, Greece and Cyprus to serve as a bulwark against increased Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East, stating that the United States should cooperate against these countries in areas of “maritime security, defense cooperation, energy initiatives, and countering malign influence efforts by the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation.” However, the bill fails to recognize how states in the region are increasingly manipulating the return of great power competition to the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean corridor to advance their own agendas. Initiatives like the proposed legislation are counterproductive in the sense that they exacerbate regional geopolitical struggles while further entangling the United States in the region.
The United States should be trying to use its position to tamp down tensions, not promote them. The challenge moving forward will be to discourage further escalation and promote freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean corridor while simultaneously abstaining from assuming a more direct role in the conflict. As a start, it can refrain from openly taking sides in the conflict. U.S. interests are best advanced by assuming a hands-off policy that discourages further escalation while simultaneously preventing regional states from dragging Washington into their geopolitical struggles. Washington should strive to distance itself from the broader struggle for regional dominance as it seeks to pivot away from the Middle East. This way it can impede further escalation while keeping the conflict at arm’s length.