New legislation energizes US policy in the Eastern Mediterranean

EPA-EFE//JIM HOLLANDER

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L), Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiades (2-L), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3-L), and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Jerusalem, 20 March 2019. The heads of the three Eastern Mediterranean countries met with Pompeo for talks on energy and security.

Evolving US approach toward the region integrates military and energy aspects


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Important new bipartisan legislation has been introduced by two ranking US Senators to reshape and energize US strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, taking into account the deterioration of the US-Turkey relationship, the steady evolution of the Greece-Cyprus-Israel partnership into an informal alliance and recent large natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean.   While this legislation does not actually spell out new directions in US foreign policy, it should be seen as a sign of the crystallization of US policies supporting deeper engagement in a range of issues in the Eastern Mediterranean which has been visible for some time.

Important bipartisan support

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez, (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019” on 9 April.  Introducing the legislation, Rubio said “this bipartisan legislation will continue to enhance our energy and security cooperation with our allies in the Eastern Mediterranean region.  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.”

Senator Menendez added “the United States has significant national security interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, bolstered by strong and expanding relationships with Greece, Israel and Cyprus. The cooperation in energy security among these countries in recent years has paved the way for cooperation on broad regional security, economic, and energy agenda.”

A paradigm shift in US policy

In the US, the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) welcomed the introduction of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. Endy Zemenides, Executive Director of HALC, said in a media note “today’s Mediterranean is reclaiming much of its historic importance.”  AJC CEO David Harris said, “at a time when the Eastern Mediterranean is emerging as a distinct and vital geopolitical region, efforts of Congress to secure US leadership and bolster existing partnerships should be applauded.”

Speaking to New Europe, Zemenides described the new legislation as “a paradigm shift for US policy as it looks at the Eastern Mediterranean as a distinct region, not part of the Middle East or an extension of Southeast Europe.”

Unanswered questions about Turkey’s role

The trilateral collaboration between Israel, Cyprus and Greece has been accelerating significantly in recent years but has long been a topic of seminars and conferences in these countries’ capitals and Washington, with a focus on both geopolitical and energy issues.  The American role in the trilateral regional collaboration is being gradually institutionalised.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the last trilateral summit in Jerusalem in March.

The status of Turkey and its regional role has long been the unresolved question, and the rapid deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with Israel opened the door for the current trilateral formulation.

Clearly, the drafters of the legislation intended to send a clear message to Ankara about the costs of opting out of most forms of regional cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the risks of procuring Russian weapons systems.  There is no language in the legislation as it stands that would prevent Turkey from gradually expanding its participation in various forms of Eastern Mediterranean collaboration if it so desires, assuming the Russian S-400 air defence system procurement plan is dropped.

Key provisions in the current draft

The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 will, of course, evolve after it is introduced to the House of Representatives and processed through the committee system over the rest of 2019.  Its supporters have voiced a determination to prevent its core elements, much of which were drawn from an assortment of pre-existing legislation, from being watered down in the House.   Key features in the current document will:

– Authorise $2,000,000 for International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance for Greece and $2,000,000 for Cyprus;

– Authorise $3,000,000 in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance for Greece;

–  Lift the prohibition on US arms sales to the Republic of Cyprus, in place since 1987.

– Impede the transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey, as long as Turkey continues with plans to purchase the S-400 air defence system from the Russian Federation, a purchase that would be sanctionable under US law;

– Require the Administration to submit to Congress a strategy on enhanced security and energy cooperation with countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as reports on malign activities by Russia and other countries in the region;

– Authorise the establishment of a United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center to facilitate energy cooperation between the US, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus.

Full text here: https://www.rubio.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/8e95052f-83e8-4970-8528-bdd1941dccfc/08177CD5B2BB6CB876E76F2EAFC5847A.eastern-med-res.pdf

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