Turkey has threatened Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean and condemned the United States after the US decided to lift an arms embargo on Cyprus. The embargo itself and many US policies in the Middle East have been geared toward appeasing Ankara over past decades because Turkey posed as a worthwhile member of NATO and as an ally of the US.
However, the rise of the Islamist AKP Party in Turkey and Ankara's close alliance with Russia, Iran, China and other authoritarian regimes have meant that Turkey is increasingly at odds with the US and threatens US friends such as Cyprus, Israel, Greece, Armenia and other states.
Although Turkey claimed to be moving toward reconciliation in the last several years, including working to renew ties with Israel, the overall trajectory of Ankara has been one in which it continues to threaten the stability of the region and the Eastern Mediterranean. The latest controversy is about Cyprus, which has worked increasingly with Israel in recent years, and with Greece.
Turkey's plan to divide and conquer
The country was divided by a Turkish invasion and by ethnic cleansing of the Greek community of part of Cyprus in the 1970s. There was a movement toward peace and reconciliation, and reunification of the island more than a decade ago, but Ankara's policies have torpedoed that.
The US in a report recently announced more changes to an arms embargo of Cyprus.
"Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken determined and certified to Congress that the Republic of Cyprus has met the necessary conditions under relevant legislation to allow the approval of exports, re-exports, and transfers of defense articles to the Republic of Cyprus for fiscal year 2023.
Compliance with the conditions is assessed on an annual basis. As a result of this determination and certification, Blinken lifted the defense trade restrictions for the Republic of Cyprus for fiscal year 2023. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations will be amended to reflect the new policy, effective October 1, 2022, the report said.
Blinken's office noted the following details about his decision: "Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019 and the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 require that the policy of denial for exports, re-exports, or transfers of defense articles on the United States Munitions List to the Republic of Cyprus remain in place unless the President determines and certifies to the appropriate congressional committees not less than annually that the Government of the Republic of Cyprus is continuing to cooperate with the United States government in efforts to implement reforms on anti-money laundering regulations and financial regulatory oversight, and that the Government of the Republic of Cyprus has made and is continuing to take the steps necessary to deny Russian military vessels access to ports for refueling and servicing. In accordance with both Acts, the Department reviews compliance with the Acts annually."
Turkey raising tensions with rhetoric
ANKARA IS NOT pleased with this decision. As Turkey's president flew to Uzbekistan to meet with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – including Russia, China and Iran – Ankara strongly condemned the Americans. Turkey claims the US decision is "in contradiction to the principle of equality of the two sides on the island," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Turkey slammed Cyprus for "intransigence" and said the arms flow "will negatively affect the efforts to resettle the Cyprus issue; and it will lead to an arms race on the island, harming peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean."
The key point here is that Ankara is upping rhetoric about the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and Greece have been at odds recently, and Ankara has fanned the flames of anti-Greek nationalism in recent months, celebrating the historic ethnic cleansing of Greeks from Anatolia in the 1920s. This is important because both Turkey and Greece are members of NATO.
It is also important for Israel. Israel had considered the prospects for an EastMed pipeline that could see Israeli energy resources that are being developed off the coast, flow to Europe. However, recent reconciliation with Turkey is geared toward making Israel dependent on Ankara again for export of those resources.
It's not clear what will happen in the long run. Turkey's regime has a visceral dislike for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu was an architect of Israel's growing ties with Greece and Cyprus, and Netanyahu could be back in power after Israel's elections this fall.
Turkey is angling for a meeting with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and has done much to rekindle ties with Israel. But its agenda may be to use Israel to harm Greek ties, or even to use pro-Israel voices in the US to try to win concessions for Ankara from Washington.
Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt share security interests in the Eastern Med, and the countries work closely with France and the US Navy. Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain also work with the US Navy as part of Central Command. In addition, the UAE has engaged in a lot of outreach to Cyprus.
Overall this means there are a lot of issues that connect Israel, Cyprus, Greece and other countries. There is also a lot at stake in Israel-Turkey ties. The US decision will be important for the Eastern Mediterranean, but it is also possible Ankara could try to escalate tensions with Greece or Cyprus over this issue this fall.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.