Shifting Geopolitics: New Power Struggles in the Mediterranean

Written by | Friday, August 7th, 2020

This year, as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Declaration and the launching of the EuroMediterranean Partnership, the European Union is dealing with a flurry of new actors that have recently emerged in the Mediterranean region. China, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have taken major steps, directly and through proxies, to advance their interests in the eastern Mediterranean Basin and on its shores. Indeed, the European Union and its members most concerned – Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy and Malta – remain strongly engaged, as are the United States and NATO from a security standpoint. But, clearly, new power struggles are playing out in the region. They are, simultaneously, economic, military and ideological.

The emergence of these new actors in the Mediterranean region has resulted in new economic, military, and ideological power struggles. Amidst this perilous and volatile backdrop, the European Union should strategically assess political trends and evaluate the costs of inaction. Irrespective of their own objectives, these new actors have benefitted from three different “policy vacuums.” The longest lasting one is the “EU vacuum,” created – paradoxically enough – by the ambitious Lisbon Treaty, which resulted in the creation nearly a decade ago of the position of EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and its bureaucracy, the European External Action Service. The difficult inception period and the modest achievements of the first two “HRVPs” resulted in a clear political reality: EU foreign policy making is now done at the European Council that was unable to reach a clear consensus on the EU’s policy in Syria, Libya or Turkey. In practical terms, this inability cleared the way for Russia and Turkey to act decisively in Syria from 2015 onward, and in Libya more recently.

The US’ disengagement from the region, which started under the Obama Presidency and accelerated under Trump’s current term of office, created a new, more fundamental vacuum and another type of “vacuum” appeared in early 2020: the Covid-19 pandemic captured the energies of most Western governments and, in a way, partly froze their actions in the Mediterranean region. This period of uncertainty was not lost on Ankara and Moscow, as both acted resolutely on the foreign policy front, while Western capitals gave priority to limiting the pandemic’s effects on their population. Russia’s “Crimea methodology” has distinct features: it starts with a unilateral move, hitherto considered improbable by third parties; it then creates facts on the ground, primarily with a rapid and substantial military deployment, swiftly solidified with the creation of permanent infrastructures and administrative institutions; it then waits for sanctions, be them EU or UN, and prepares to weather the political storm; it bets on the absence of military retaliation. Overall, putting in place a swift fait accompli and managing moderate retaliatory measures has proven to be a successful methodology for Moscow in Crimea. It was to become a useful precedent in the Mediterranean area.

Ongoing Russian and Turkish operations in Syria and Libya offer interesting lessons. Looking back at Russia’s operations in Syria since September 2015 at the “invitation” of Damascus, one can see three major benefits for Russia: a) it rescued the Assad regime from the brink of disaster and kept a military client alive; b) it created the first ever Russian air force base in the Middle East (Hmeimim, which is an extension of the Latakia civilian airport), while reinforcing its pre-existing naval resupply station in Tartus, c) it performed a lasting operational demonstration of Russian military gear (cruise missiles, aircraft of various types) and tactical methods to both adversaries and potential future clients. The same goes for the Libya operation in support of Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who to this date still controls the largest proportion of territory. Russia’s military operations unfolded in parallel with steady developments in its involvement in the region’s energy sector, as described in an earlier article. Private military corporations such as the Wagner Group are on the ground, as well as Russian air force assets deployed from Hmeimim in Syria.

The more recent Turkish operation in Libya follows the same logic it has earlier used in Syria, although at this point in time Ankara’s military footprint is much lighter than in northern Syria for obvious physical reasons. In addition, Turkey’s recent major achievements in military technologies, especially the use of light armed drones in combat operations, have constituted a decisive factor in both the Idlib province of Syria and around Tripoli in Libya. In addition, light armed drones have already been deployed in Northern Cyprus, while Turkish gas exploration and drilling vessels are routinely escorted by the Turkish navy. The air superiority in these specific situations might be boosted further in 2021 by new military assets capable of being operational in the entire eastern Mediterranean region and will constitute new “force projection multipliers” compared to the current situation, sparing Ankara from sending boots on the ground or putting air force Turkey is now putting modern warfare at the service of its foreign policy objectives, without consideration for pre-existing legal frameworks or traditional alliances pilots in harm’s way, and therefore lessening the potential political cost of military operations.

In the medium term, Turkey will reinforce even further its military presence in the Mediterranean, with the operationalization of six new submarines in the next six years, new frigates and short-range missiles. Without entering into considerations such as sustainability or over-reach, the political meaning is abundantly clear: Turkey is now putting modern warfare at the service of its foreign policy objectives, without consideration for pre-existing legal frameworks or traditional alliances. Yet, in both Syria and Libya, Ankara and Moscow have not seen eye-to-eye and have even witnessed serious trouble.

In parallel, Turkey has been pressing ahead with two major initiatives in the eastern Mediterranean, using the same unilateral methodology: a) gas exploration and drilling around Cyprus, mostly in contested waters, b) a treaty with Libya redefining maritime boundaries at the expense of Greece and Cyprus and “allowing” future gas exploration around Rhodes and Crete, among other areas. This massive challenge to the pre-existing legal order in the eastern Mediterranean remains to be addressed by the parties concerned, and there is currently no clear path toward such a process. Meanwhile, unilateral action has created facts on the ground and Turkey has created its own legal and physical reality consistent with its interests. It is betting – like Russia in Crimea – on the absence of massive reactions from the EU or the UN. Ideology and struggle for influence in the Muslim world are not absent from Turkey’s actions.

Seen from Turkey, the four military operations in Syria and the one in Libya have appeared as national successes, while the challenge of the maritime boundaries is framed within the “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) doctrine. Some analysts go as far as saying that Turkey has now acquired a “veto power” in the eastern Mediterranean and that unilateral moves antagonizing both Western powers and Russia are “a new normal.” A more general argument is that the underlying shifts in the global order – US retrenchment, EU ineffectiveness – have worked in Turkey’s favour and may be there for the long run. Yet, Turkey is still far from being a coherent regional power, as it didn’t, for example, produce a consistent geopolitical framework, other than vague references to Ottoman times and to the “Mavi Vatan” doctrine.

From a EU standpoint, Turkey is a “disruptive player.” This can be observed a) in the fight against ISIL in northeastern Syria (pushing back the US and Western special forces, although being a member of the anti-ISIL coalition), b) on land (launching a paramilitary operation against the Greek border, although both are NATO members) and c) at sea (the Turkish navy acting in a hostile way with the French navy and triggering a NATO enquiry, although being part of the embargo decision on arms delivery to any party in Libya). Disruption itself is the policy. In parallel, Russia has entered into a defence deal with Turkey in the wake of the July 2016 coup and sold S400 anti-missile systems, currently stored on the Murted (Akinci) air force base near Ankara. Seen from EU capitals, there is a distinct loss of trust resulting from Turkey’s adverse postures, which coexist with a continued participation in NATO activities. The EU and the US are therefore not only facing new players in the Mediterranean and Middle East region, but also players which have chosen, albeit in very different styles, to place disruption above dialogue in an already tense environment.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are part of the new actors in the Mediterranean, albeit in a secondary role, in the sense that they are not autonomous actors. Yet, all three have a considerable stake in the stabilization of Libya and therefore in the resuscitation of a ceasefire, followed by a peace process. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has become a major economic player in the Mediterranean, especially through its interest in ports, such as Piraeus in Greece and others. On the political front, China generally sides with Russia at the UN Security Council. Hence, there are undoubtedly many lessons to be drawn by the EU about the current state of affairs in the Mediterranean Basin. In giving consideration to the new situation, it appears necessary that the current situation be viewed as more than a passing phenomenon.

Seen from a European standpoint, it could be tempting to emphasize the absence of consistency or the lack of strong alliances in the current policy moves. The absence of a solid convergence of interests between Russia and Turkey, be it in Syria or in Libya, is often mentioned. It is true that both countries have grown accustomed to manage a turbulent and ambiguous relationship, which, however also creates a constant stream of political developments in the region. In turn, for the EU and the US, this situation creates more unpredictability. A similar, albeit perhaps temporary, situation is the total unpredictability of the Trump Administration, as illustrated by the abrupt (although not yet complete) withdrawal of special forces from northeastern Syria, a vastly complicating factor for those European forces engaged in the anti-ISIL coalition. This being said, the trend toward a retrenchment of the US from the Middle East is likely to survive a Trump Presidency.

From a military standpoint, the EU needs to factor in the mounting military presence of Russia and Turkey on land, in the air, at sea and under the sea. In addition, the “export” by Russia and Turkey of militias from Syria to Libya in defence of their respective allies constitutes a dangerous novelty that establishes non-state military actors (to be clear: terrorist groups) in the immediate vicinity of EU territory and next to a fragile partner country, Tunisia. The end result is a disruption for NATO’s and the EU’s policies. Such permanent disruptive behaviour can hardly be interpreted as the sign of a newly acquired “strategic autonomy,” which is currently politically and financially unattainable for Turkey. But it illustrates, in the eyes of European government, including those in good terms with Ankara, the unpredictable and perilous nature of Turkey’s policies in the Mediterranean. From an economic standpoint, the EU also has to take into account its trade and investment interests in the region, its energy interests in Libya and in the offshore gas fields of Egypt, Cyprus and Lebanon, as well as the persistent migration issues in the eastern and central parts of the Mediterranean Basin.

‘New Power Struggles in the Mediterranean’ – Article by Marc Pierini – Carnegie Europe.

The Article can be downloaded here

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