Ankara, Turkey – The emergence of new geopolitical actors in West Asia and Mediterranean region has resulted in new challenging economic, military, and strategic power struggles. In the midst of this dangerous and volatile background, the European Union should strategically assess political trends and evaluate the costs of backing, siding and provoking Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration for solely the sake of EU membership solidarity.
The European Union is dealing with a commotion of new geopolitical actors that have recently emerged in West Asia and 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 West Asia and 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 geopolitical power struggles are playing out in the region. Conceptually they are, simultaneously, economic, military and strategic in nature.
Irrespective of their own objectives, these new geopolitical actors have benefitted from three different foreign policy vacuums. The longest lasting one is the EU vacuum, EU foreign policy making is done at the European Council, where essentially the Heads of State and Government from the largest countries –two (France and Germany) set the agenda. Typically, during the past decade, the European Council was unable to reach a clear consensus on the EU’s policy in Syria, Libya , Azerbaijan 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 and Azerbaijan more recently.
The United States’ disengagement from the region, created a new, more fundamental vacuum: the US was no longer to be the security guarantor in the West East and Mediterranean as demonstrated by its uncertain path in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan during the past few years. In addition, this created uncertainties for its European allies and opportunities for the new geopolitical players.
Another type of vacuum appeared in early 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic captured the energies of US and EU governments and, in a way, partly froze their actions in West Asia and Mediterranean region. This period of uncertainty was not lost on Turkey and Russia, as both acted resolutely on the foreign policy front, while US and EU capitals gave priority to limiting the pandemic’s effects on their population.
Looking at Russia’s military operations in Syria since September 2015, at the four distinct operations of the Turkish military in northern Syria (Jarabulus, Afrin, Ras al Ain-Tell Abiad, Idlib), or at the simultaneous and competing Russian and Turkish operations in Libya in 2019-2020 and Nagorno – Karabakh in Azerbaijan in 2020 one can see a Crimea methodology at work. In February-March 2014, Russia swiftly occupied and annexed Crimea, expelling Ukrainian forces, creating new institutions, and even building a bridge over the Straits of Kerch in order to create a physical continuity between the Federation of Russia and its new annexed member.
The 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 Russia in Crimea. It was to become a useful precedent in West Asia and Mediterranean area.
Ongoing Russian and Turkish operations in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan offer interesting lessons in West Asia and Mediterranean regions. Looking back at Russia’s operations in Syria since September 2015 at the invitation of Syria, one can see three major benefits for Russia: a) it rescued the Syrian regime from the brink of disaster and kept a military client alive; b) it created the first ever Russian air force base in West 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 putschist – warloard -Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who to this date still controls the largest proportion of territory in Libya. Russia’s military operations unfolded in parallel with steady developments in its involvement in the region’s energy sector, private military corporations such as the Wagner Group are on the ground, as well as Russian air force assets deployed from Hmeimim in Syria and Russia had deployed MiG-29 and Su-24 aircraft to Al Jufra Airfield in Libya and that the aircraft were expected to support Wagner Group mercenaries. The aircraft touched down in Syria and were repainted to obscure their Russian ties before ultimately landing in Libya.
Concerning Turkey’s operations in Syria, it is fair to say that, although they took place without serious legal justifications, they have provided Turkey with what mattered most, i.e. pushing back Syrian Kurdish terrorists (YPG) united with PKK terrorist organization from the border with Turkey, and creating an almost continuous safe zone controlled by its forces. In addition, in three of the four areas, Turkey is putting in place the elements of a permanent presence, such as public service infrastructures (dispensaries, post offices, schools) while making the Turkish Lira the de facto currency in the local economy. Bigger plans are ready for a massive reconstruction effort in at least three of the areas. However, a permanent Turkish presence would be at odds with Russia’s declared objective to return the entire Syrian territory to the country’s political leadership.
The more recent Turkish operation in Libya follows the same logic, although at this point in time Turkey’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 and Nagorno – Karabakh in Azerbaijan. 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.
On 27 September 2020, occupying Armenia attacked Azerbaijan in Nagorno – Karabakh region to expand its occupation across Azerbaijani territory in Caucasus region. The Armenia – Azerbaijan War ended with a Russian – brokered ceasefire signed on 09 November 2020. Turkey openly supported Azerbiajan in defiance of Russia, US, EU and France. Thus, Turkey has expanded its geopolitical influence in Caucasus of West Asia region.
The air superiority in these specific situations might be boosted further in 2021 by the entry into service of a) the Bayraktar Akinci high-altitude long-endurance armed drone carrying much heavier weapons and usable far away from the homeland, and b) the light aircraft carrier Anadolu (for rotary wing aircraft only at this stage). Both assets are capable of being operational in the entire Eastern Mediterranean region and will constitute new force projection multipliers compared to the current situation, sparing Turkey from sending boots on the ground or putting air force 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, Libya and Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia have not seen eye-to-eye and have even witnessed serious trouble in Syria. In Idlib province, Russia is impatient to see Syrian opposition forces eliminated by Turkey, while in Libya the Sirte-Al Jufra line in the sand has become the limit set by Russia (as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) to the progression of Turkish backed Libyan Army forces eastward.
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, in Blue Homeland 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 legal rights and interests.
In Syria, Turkey has consistently fought the Syrian regime, while in Libya it supports the Government of National Accord, opposed by Arab proxy states (of Israel, US and EU) Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Seen from Turkey, the four military operations in Syria, in Libya and Azerbaijan have appeared as national successes, while the challenge of the maritime boundaries is framed within the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine policy. Some analysts go as far as saying that Turkey has now acquired a veto power in the Eastern Mediterranean and that unilateral moves antagonizing US, EU and Russia are a new geopolitical normal. A more general argument is that the underlying shifts in the global order (US retrenchment, EU ineffectiveness) have worked in Turkey’s favor and may be there for the long run.
Seen from a non-Turkish perspective, some of these arguments could be entertained. The American retrenchment from the West Asia and Mediterranean region is a reality, if only because the entire US political establishment is busy with devising a China policy. More generally, today’s world is certainly less US and EU centric than a decade ago, and some geopolitical rebalancing is evidently at play. Turkey is undoubtedly a coherent regional power in West Asia and Mediterranean region. It produced a consistent geopolitical framework with the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine policy.
Russia has entered into a defense deal with Turkey in the wake of the 15 July 2016 coup and sold S400 anti-missile systems, currently stored on the Murted (Akinci) air force base near Ankara. If put in service, the S400 systems will undermine NATO’s European missile defense architecture. By contrast, Turkey’s actions in Libya run directly against Russia’s interests, let alone US and EU ones. Seen from US and EU capitals, there is a distinct loss of trust resulting from Turkey’s independent strategic autonomy postures, which coexist with a continued participation in NATO activities, while acting in coordination or not with Russia. This makes Turkey a vastly more challenging partner for NATO, the EU and the US than it ever was. The European Union and the United States are therefore not only facing new geopolitical aesthetic in West Asia and Mediterranean region, but also players which have chosen, albeit in very different styles, to place recondition above dialogue in an already tense environment. While this is no surprise coming from Russia, Turkey’s independent strategic autonomy behavior has been a shock to US and EU. Such a policy recondition is probably going to remain a permanent feature in the Mediterranean region.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are part of the new proxy 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. Egypt, for its part, has a higher stake due to its long border with Libya and its gas fields in the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates acting as proxies of Israel, US and EU entertain tense relations with Turkey. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has become a major economic player in West Asia and Mediterranean region, 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. Undoubtedly, there are many lessons to be drawn by the European Union about the current state of affairs in West Asia and 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, in Libya and in Azerbaijan, is often mentioned. It is true that both countries have grown accustomed to manage a turbulent relationship, where the number of shared interests equals that of antagonistic positions. This cycle of military divergences and political summits illustrates the ambiguity of their relationship but, in practical terms, it also creates a constant stream of political developments in the region. In turn, for the EU and the US, this situation creates more unpredictability.
From a military standpoint, the European Union needs to factor in the mounting military presence of Russia and Turkey on land, in the air, at sea and under the sea. Russia’s presence is now permanent through the Hmeimim air base and the Tartus naval station in Syria, while Turkey is trying to replicate the same strategy by acquiring similar rights in the Al Watiya air force base and Misrata port respectively. Russia is most probably also interested in permanent air and naval facilities in central or eastern Libya. In addition, the “export” by Russia and Turkey of militias from Syria to Libya in defense of their respective allies constitutes a dangerous novelty that establishes non-state military actors in the immediate vicinity of EU territory. To add to the complexity of this new set up, Turkey’s naval and air forces are instructed to serve bipolar political choices in both Syria, Libya and at sea in Mediterranean. The end result is a recondition for NATO’s and the EU’s policies.
This choice is similar to Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 missiles. NATO is confronted with new ambiguities in the region and the security architecture of the European continent is now permanently affected from within. Greece had purchased Russian S300 missiles in 1997. It would be further affected if both Russia and Turkey were to establish permanent air and naval facilities on Libyan soil. Such permanent independent behavior can easily be interpreted as the sign of a newly acquired strategic autonomy, which is currently politically and financially attainable for Turkey. But it illustrates, in the eyes of EU and US, including those in good terms with Turkey, the predictable and constructive nature of Turkey’s policies in the Mediterranean.
Consequently, from an economic standpoint, the European Union 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. From a political and strategic standpoint, the European Union is currently facing a vastly different situation in the Mediterranean Basin than only a decade ago. Beyond the political uncertainties, the EU needs to carry out a strategic assessment of current trends and, more importantly, an evaluation of the political cost of no action. Despite the contrary of Turkey in Western Asia and Mediterranean region, the US and EU duo cannot get results with their political interventions that violate Turkey’s vital strategic rights and interests.