When dealing with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the European Union has often confronted multiple challenges: authoritarianism, terrorism, popular revolutions, prolonged civil wars, and human trafficking, but now Europe is facing major game changers across its Southern Neighborhood. Old-time foes like Russia and Iran have a much stronger footprint in the region; Turkey is partly turning its back to NATO and playing the Russian card; and the United States has become an unpredictable ally.
Since September 2015, Russia has distinctly reinforced its military, energy, and political involvement in the Middle East, generally in an anti-Western direction. Russia has set up in Latakia its first ever air base in the Middle East. Similarly, Russia’s Tartus naval station was reinforced in northern Syria, allowing for a regular “sea bridge” with its naval bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Moscow’s rapprochement in the military fields with a number of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is coupled with concerted efforts to develop much closer relations with all countries in the region.
Similarly, Iran – through a policy sometimes called the “axis of resistance” – has developed its Mediterranean ambitions and reinforced its military involvement in Lebanon and Syria in a clearly anti-Western and anti-Israeli posture. Tehran has long supplied the Lebanese militia Hezbollah with missiles of various types and, more recently, with drones. Traditionally, deliveries were made by air or sea via Syria, prompting raids by the Israeli military. Now, Iran has set up small manufacturing facilities in Syria, compelling Israel to change its response pattern.
For its part, Turkey – a member of NATO member since 1952 and one of its top three conventional forces – has started a broad military and political rapprochement with Russia. Driven toward autocracy by the shifting winds of domestic politics and by fear of losing its sixteen-year uninterrupted electoral dominance, the AKP leadership has broken away from the democratic principles inherent to the country’s NATO membership and EU accession request.
Beyond domestic politics, and from a Western standpoint, this “New Turkey” has introduced four major game changers of its own: First, a massive financial scheme to help Iran bypass US sanctions. Second, three military interventions in Syria – in close coordination with Russia and at odds with the US and European policy of defeating ISIL. Third, Ankara’s participation in the Astana peace process, an alliance of diverging agendas together with Moscow and Tehran to try to “solve” the Syrian war. And finally, Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 missile systems.
Finally, the United States has become an unpredictable actor. The discrepancies between the president, his national security team, and the diplomatic establishment have now become a permanent feature of US foreign policy. Questions of trust in and predictability from Washington now routinely arise in European foreign ministries, especially given the foreseen lighter military footprint of the US in the Middle East. This in turn raises the question of the EU’s Southern Neighborhood policy. Will there be such a policy? Will the EU stop being a hapless observer? Will Europe leave Israel to set the terms of a new military equilibrium in the Levant?
Even if they came in small installments, these changes in postures and policies in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and Washington DC constitute major game changers in the Middle East. They should sound alarms in EU capitals, as they will directly impact the Union’s own security and energy policies, and Europe’s relationship with the MENA region.
‚Four Game Changers in Europe’s South‘ – Analysis by Marc Pierini – Carnegie Europe.