Uncertain of US intentions, four allies exercise their naval muscle
This month, France and Cyprus for the first time joined Israel and Greece in a combined naval exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean and Cretan Sea. French participation was notable in that it marked yet another step in its growing naval cooperation with Israel. It was only in 2018 that, for the first time in 60 years, the two navies participated in a joint exercise. Indeed, the Israeli Navy conducted the first part of that drill off French waters. Israel last had operated in French waters nearly a half-century earlier, when it “liberated” four gunboats that it had acquired from France but whose sale Charles de Gaulle had embargoed after the 1967 Six-Day War.
This month’s exercise, entitled “Noble Dina,” took place off Cyprus and involved not only counterterrorism, search and rescue and anti-submarine drills, but also a simulated sea battle. As the Israeli military spokesman confirmed, the focus was “not only on surface exercises, but also multi-threat exercise of air and underwater and surface threats.” The Greek naval spokesman likewise described the exercise as addressing “challenges and threats” in the region.
There is no mistaking which country is the source of those “challenges and threats.” Each of the four states involved in the exercise has clashed with Turkey in the recent past. In the case of Israel, Greece and Cyprus, friction with Ankara is a result of competing claims to gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. The tense relations between France and Turkey — their two fleets nearly came to blows this year — is far greater in scope. It involves a tense rivalry over regional influence. French President Emmanuel Macron seeks to restore his country’s influence in the Middle East; in so doing, he has pitted French ambitions in direct conflict with Turkey, which harbors identical goals for itself. The four-country naval exercise is, therefore, another manifestation of the increasingly volatile environment in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Noble Dina did not include American naval forces. It is true that the Sixth Fleet trains with units from all four countries. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the exercise reflected the reservation that each state harbors over America’s willingness to remain as actively involved in Middle Eastern affairs as it has in the past, particularly if that would involve offering support in the event of a clash with Turkey.
Each of the four countries has its own reasons for hedging against Washington’s potential lack of support. Greece and Cyprus recall that Washington did little to prevent Turkish occupation of Cyprus in 1974, even though 10 years earlier, former President Lyndon Johnson had threatened Turkey that if it landed troops on Cyprus, the U.S. would not intervene in a Soviet invasion of Turkey.
Israelis fear that growing hostility from the Democratic Party’s base would hinder any attempt by the Biden administration to involve itself in an Israeli military confrontation with Turkey. Indeed, as the recent Reagan Institute Annual Defense Survey indicates, no less than 30 percent of those polled do not see Israel as an ally, and 16 percent actually consider it to be an enemy. That White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has demurred from calling Israel an important ally only reinforces the credibility both of the Reagan Institute poll and Jerusalem’s concerns about American reliability.
Finally, France recognizes that although Washington considers it a close ally, the Biden White House shares the desire of its predecessors in the Obama and Trump administrations to avoid any additional military involvement in the Middle East. Indeed, France is seeking to fill the growing power vacuum that America is creating in the region. It is, therefore, quite likely that in the event of an even more serious naval confrontation between France and Turkey than that which took place last summer, the United States would choose to remain on the sidelines.
Whether the U.S. can actually downgrade its involvement in the region, however, is an entirely different matter. Previous administrations have tried and failed to do so. Nevertheless, Washington clearly is increasingly preoccupied with China and, secondarily, with Russia. And it is for that reason that the countries that participated in Noble Dina are taking no chances that this time may well be different, and that the United States will have only a marginal role to play in the new balance of power that is beginning to emerge in the Middle East.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.