Biden and the Eastern Mediterranean: Greek optimism, Turkish caution

Biden and the Eastern Mediterranean: Greek optimism, Turkish caution
Analysis: With Greece seeking a more active role from Biden in the Aegean Sea, Turkey could find itself constrained by the president-elect.
6 min read
25 November, 2020
Greece wants the Biden administration to play a more 'decisive' role in the Eastern Mediterranean.[Getty]
There is cautious calm in the Eastern Mediterranean following the victory of Joe Biden in US presidential elections. 

While Athens could not hide its optimism about Biden's victory, Turkey's silence was finally broken by a congratulatory message from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both responses provide an initial picture of the shape of future relations between the two sides and Washington.

Amid the Greek media's celebrations of Biden's win and the Turkish media's focus on events in Nagorno-Karabakh to distract attention from US elections, a geopolitical perspective is needed to understand the impact of the 46th US President on developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Prior to Biden's election win, Ankara was able to accumulate a series of regional geopolitical advantages. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the agreement to end the war provided three benefits for Turkey.

The first was Azerbaijan coming one step closer to Turkey and moving away from Iran, with Ankara redefining itself as a strong ally on which all kindred countries of Central Asia can rely. 

Military and economic co-operation also increased between Ankara and Baku, paving the way for Turkish exports to a new market which could lead to the renegotiation of lower-cost Azeri gas contracts. The third advantage was to Turkey's military industry. With proven capabilities, especially in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), demand will only increase, positively impacting the Turkish economy.

There is cautious calm in the Eastern Mediterranean following the victory of Joe Biden in US presidential elections

These achievements are reinforced by political talks between the two warring parties in Libya, which are progressing slowly but positively. As the resignation of the Turkish finance minister monopolised the international press, the Turkish pound also experienced a recovery, somewhat contradicting the expectations of many economists who were confident that Biden's victory would lead to an accelerated collapse of the Turkish currency. But will the expectations of political observers be at odds with the way Biden will deal with Ankara?

In reading Democratic Party politics, there is a general headline under which Biden will operate: America's main enemy is Russia, and its main competitor is China. This strategy will inevitably affect Biden's policy towards Ankara.

Read more: US elections and the Eastern Mediterranean

Contrary to Trump's independent policies, Biden will listen closely to the State and Defence Departments, which will inevitably advise him not to antagonise Ankara, which has a significant regional role and NATO's second largest army, and is closer to Washington's most important enemy internationally, Moscow. 

On this basis, Biden's strategy will balance the carrot and the stick. The Democratic administration could use the CAATSA law to levy financial sanctions against Turkey as a means of pressure and control over three issues. The first is the Syrian conflict and the Turkish presence east of the Euphrates; the second issue is Turkey's prospective activation of Russia's S-400 system, and the third is the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish movements in the Aegean. 

Turkey will address these issues with careful diplomatic language, emphasising the protection of its influence and national security, especially in the case of Kurdish militias in eastern Syria. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the most pragmatic approach for Washington is to maintain Germany's mediating role in the complex talks and negotiations, without any significant change on the ground.

Athens, meanwhile, has announced a new lockdown across the entire country following a steady increase in the number of people infected with Covid-19. This comes amid the accelerating decline of the Greek health system and difficult economic conditions. Treating Biden as the saviour of Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: "We have every reason to welcome, together with all our partners in the region, the return of the United States to its central role as NATO leader."  

Prior to Biden's election win, Ankara was able to accumulate a series of regional geopolitical advantages

Athens' approach is based on Biden's statements last year, when he stressed hostility to the current Turkish administration. However, the Greek government, which has built its foreign policy on a singular focus, that is, to support its allies, will be less enthusiastic and more constrained by Biden's relations with these same partners.

The French president with his populist rhetoric, one of Athens' most important allies, will face a difficult challenge with Biden, who has a more open-minded centrist approach. And as Paris expands its ties with Moscow in the Libyan conflict, Biden will certainly work to reduce Russia's presence there.

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

In addition, human rights issues could become, along with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a nightmare for Athens' allies in the Arab world, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). So, is Athens' excessive optimism realistic? 

Greek American relations were and will remain positive during the Biden administration, as military cooperation between the two countries will continue. Both the current and previous Greek government under Alexis Tsipras have signed agreements that give Washington the green light to build five new military bases, the most important of which will be on the island of Crete. Agreements for the purchase of American warships will also proceed. 

The problem in the Aegean was not, and will not be, the White House. It concerns politicians from both countries using the tensions as a means to bolster domestic support

But these are the limits of Biden's support, as he has never been an ardent sponsor of the Greek economy and this will not change during his rule. Talk of any potential US support in the event of a military confrontation with Turkey is also wildly exaggerated.

Indeed, the maximum achievement possible for the Greek government would be for Biden to prevent Turkey from exploring the Eastern Mediterranean, but this will not give Greece ownership of these disputed waters without an economic return that could save the country from an impending financial crisis.

Biden may choose to use the stick in the face of Ankara's moves in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara may choose to escalate its rhetoric and actions in the region and turn to increasing militarisation. If this occurs, Athens will have a reason to proceed with military vigilance and increase the defence budget with money from the pockets of Greek citizens. 

This scenario may not come to pass, but it is also a possibility, especially with a Greek government that does not have the courage to resolve its differences in the Aegean and the island of Cyprus through negotiations.

The problem in the Aegean was not, and will not be, the White House. It concerns politicians from both countries using the tensions as a means to collect electoral votes and bolster domestic support.

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

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_