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20 July, 2024
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Interview with Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council


What is the benefit for Greece and Cyprus from the East Med Act?

Ever since Joe Biden declared that Cyprus was a “strategic partner” of the United States, people have been trying to identify substance behind those words. There has been a similar search of what “best relations ever” between the U.S. and Greece means.

The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act starts to provide such substance. It finds ways to institutionalize energy cooperation, step up security assistance from the U.S., and to counter Turkey’s belligerence in the region – belligerence that threatens not only Greece and Cyprus, but several other players in the region and the very notion of a stable Eastern Mediterranean.

Most importantly, the East Med Act signals a shift in US policy in the region. As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute has pointed out, the US has long relied on two pillars – Israel and Turkey – in the region. The Act puts the exclamation point on policy developments that swap Turkey out with Greece and to some extent Cyprus.

In Cyprus there was a sense that it was just about the arms embargo.

Ending the Cyprus Arms Embargo was certainly part of the East Med Act but this is an act with multiple sections.

It requires reports from the Departments of State, Defense and Energy – including reports on violations of Greek airspace and Cyprus’ EEZ. It contains provisions on blocking F35 and other weapons sales to Turkey –a provision that make Greece and Cyprus and the region safer. It commits millions to deepening security partnership. It formalizes energy cooperation.

Anybody who reduces the Act to just the arms embargo clearly didn’t read the Act. And those who dismiss the other provisions have either questionable judgement or motivations. In light of Turkey’s present provocations in Cyprus’ EEZ, would people rather that there is not a formal mechanism for reporting these violations to Congress on a consistent basis? As Cyprus takes on a greater security role, would people rather not have the Cypriot National Guard have access to and funds for American military training programs? With a new energy industry on the verge of being born on Cyprus, would people rather not have an Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center which could provide technical advice and share best practices?

Even the issue of ending the Cyprus Arms Embargo only advanced this far because it was considered in light of a greater Eastern Mediterranean policy shift. This was not the first attempt that a move against the embargo was made. There have been requests for national security waivers, there have been letters to the State Department, there was an End the Cyprus Arms Embargo Act in the last Congress. But there was never a situation that got this far – with lifting the arms embargo passing both the Senate and the House through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

How is security in the Eastern Mediterranean improved with this legislation?

Above all else, it puts a spotlight over Turkey’s provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Aegean. For too long, Turkey believed that Washington tolerated this behavior. Under the Act, Ankara will now be facing “naming and shaming” when they continue such behavior.

The Act also provides for multiple mechanisms for cooperation – from the energy to Greek and Cypriot participation in International Military Educational Training programs – between the democracies of the region and the United States. This will strengthen the rule of law in the region, which only improves security and stability.

Do you see a possibility for a new security mechanism in the East Med? Who are the possible participants?

The Eastern Mediterranean is coming together in a way that no one would have expected just a decade ago. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – with Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinians already participating, France expressing interest in, and the US potentially working as per the East Med Act – shows the way a new security mechanism can come together for the region.

Some people in Cyprus described it as an effort to enter Cyprus into the Partnership for Peace program...

The Act expresses support for the Republic of Cyprus’ expressed goal of joining the Partnership for Peace program, but that is a result of the government having declared the goal years ago. That expression of support was Congress’ way to tell Turkey that Congress rejects Turkey’s veto over Cyprus’ place in the Western security structure. But the Act’s purpose isn’t to promote some already existing international organization, but to strengthen the ongoing efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

How did this idea form and received traction in Congress?

This the culmination of a lot of work by the community and philhellenes over Congress for years. There are parts of this legislation that are based on letters that Senator Menendez sent to the Obama and then Trump Administrations. Other parts are based on the policy priorities laid out by Congressmen Deutch and Bilirakis in the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance caucus. And yet others are based on previous legislation drafted by Congressman Cicilline. Finally, previous pro-Israel legislation that our allies at the AJC worked on was incorporated and adopted to apply to the greater region.

Step by step, this all came together over years.

Is there any interrelation with S-400/F-35 issue?

Yes there is. That controversy proved that Turkey is an unreliable US ally, and a danger to key US interests, allies and partners in the region and beyond.

What was the role of HALC and other community organizations?

Together with our partners at the American Jewish Committee, we promoted and advocated for every step that led up to the East Med Act. In 2013, we helped launch the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance Caucus. We backed two successful amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act dealing with the Cyprus arms embargo, and then the End the Cyprus Arms Embargo Act that was introduced in the last Congress. We worked with both the Senate and the House on letters to the White House and State Department supporting Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone and calling attention to Turkey’s provocations in the region.

In most of these efforts, we also worked with PSEKA, the Cyprus Federation, the Coordinated Effort of Hellenes and the American Hellenic Council.

There was also the anti-F35, #NoJetsForTurkey campaign that HALC conducted with the Armenian National Committee and In Defense of Christians, also with the support of the AJC.

FM Christodoulides was criticized for having participated in the formation of this law. Is it true?

This is not only not true it is an irresponsible allegation that dishonors the efforts of the Greek American diaspora and members of Congress. People can look up the precursors to this legislation – they go all the way back to 2012, before this government was even elected the first time.

Foreign Minister Christodoulides has done his job and improved the standing of Cyprus in Washington, D.C. He has established good relationships with American political and thought leaders. He has convinced plenty of people that Cyprus is not merely a “problem” but can be part of a “solution” to a range of regional challenges.

His efforts have certainly made it both easier for us to work on this legislation, and for Cyprus to count on more friends rallying to its side in this legislation and on other issues.

There has been criticism that Cyprus was unfairly singled out by setting terms on lifting the embargo, to take action to stop Russian military vessels from docking in Cyprus. Is Cyprus being singled out?

This is another case of people speaking in an ill-informed or intentionally deceiving manner. I’ve heard some criticize the Act for closing all Russian accounts, barring Russian tourists, requiring the purchase of certain types of weapons and the disposal of weapons the Cypriot National Guard already has. The Act does no such thing.

When it comes to the question of Russian military vessels – and it is important to note that this is a Congressionally led effort – Russia is one issue that unites Congress. CAATSA actually passed over President Trump’s objection and threat of veto (and he didn’t veto because it was clear they had the votes to override his veto). It is the Russian angle that has restricted him from making the deal he so desperately wants to make with Erdogan.

And at a time where Congress, State and Defense are pushing every particular player they can (Greece, Turkey, India, etc) to pull back from security and other relations with the Russians, at a time where the Senate is advancing legislation to sanction other NATO allies for participating in Nordstream 2 with the Russians, the surprise here is not over the condition on the embargo but over the “surprise” in Cyprus that the US wants to force the issue.

If the Russian port calls are truly humanitarian in nature, there is a waiver built into this provision of the Act.

Finally, when do you expect the EAST MED ACT to pass from both chambers in Congress?

The provisions on lifting the Cyprus Arms Embargo and imposing restrictions on F35s to Turkey have passed through both the Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA is being prepared to be passed in final form and sent to President Trump for signing. That means that these two parts of the East Med Act might actually become law by this Fall.

After that, the rest of the East Med Act has to pass the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and then both the full Senate and full House before being sent to President Trump for signing. The timeline for all of this depends on what happens with the NDAA.

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