The Mediterranean — an on-again, off-again geopolitical hot spot since before the pyramids were built — is emerging anew as a sea of division and instability, with powers including Russia, China, Turkey and Israel jostling aggressively for influence, natural resources and military advantage.
Moscow is eyeing a possible military base along the oil-rich shores of Libya. China is seeking investment deals across the region. Turkey is clashing with NATO partner Greece over drilling rights and militarized islands. Newly discovered offshore natural gas deposits have nations scrambling to stake their claims.
Even the Trump administration on Wednesday partially lifted an arms embargo with Cyprus in what was widely interpreted as a shot across Turkey’s bow.
Analysts generally agree that NATO is failing to ease regional tensions. The U.S., despite multiple interests, lacks leverage in many of the disputes, with President Trump accelerating a U.S. pullback begun under President Obama that opened a power vacuum that others are now scrambling to fill.
While a range of unsavory players are making moves — Iran, Hezbollah and the Islamic State are among those seeking to exploit the situation — many in Europe and Washington are pointing the finger at Turkey for escalating the crisis by threatening to use force to take possession of natural gas finds beneath a string of Mediterranean islands that most in Europe say belongs to Greece.
The two NATO member states are now locked in a dangerous maritime standoff that is shaking the alliance to its core, with mediation attempts by Germany and others in the European Union so far going nowhere while the Trump administration warily monitors the situation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that Mr. Trump has held private discussions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and that the White House is “urging everyone to stand down.”
Mr. Pompeo also sought to downplay the appearance of serious U.S. engagement, asserting that the administration’s decision to lift a 33-year arms embargo on nearby Cyprus — a move that triggered outrage in Turkey — was something U.S. officials had been working on “for an awfully long time.”
The current Turkey-Greece standoff was sparked weeks ago when Ankara sent a research ship accompanied by Turkish warships to search for energy reserves off Greece’s coast. It has since seen the two engage in competing military exercises at sea — exercises that came dangerously close to devolving into an all-out clash in mid-August when a Turkish and a Greek warship collided.
Dangerous as the standoff has become, analysts say it is just the latest in a pattern of incendiary developments unfolding on a fabled body of water in which it is no longer clear who’s in charge.
“The broader story here has to do with this growing U.S. isolationism and disengagement from the region at large,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former opposition member of Turkish parliament now serving as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
“Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are among a slate of actors trying to take advantage of the vacuum created by U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Mr. Erdemir said in an interview this week.
But some U.S. analysts have praised Mr. Trump’s for pulling American troops out of so-called “forever wars,” saying Europe and Middle Eastern powers have far more a duty to act in places such as Libya, Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean where their interests are directly at stake.
But critics say Mr. Trump’s relations with such strongmen leaders as Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin has emboldened them to cross lines that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
“Donald Trump’s apparent affinity with strong, undemocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan created uncertainties for his European allies and opportunities for the new players,” according to Marc Pierini, a former career EU diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.
“The European Union is dealing with a flurry of new actors that have recently emerged in the Mediterranean region,” Mr. Pierini asserted in an analysis recently published by the think tank. “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.”
Mr. Pierini suggested EU indecision toward developments in the greater Middle East since 2010, coupled with the U.S. pullback, essentially set the table for increased Turkish and Russian brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“During the past decade, the European Council 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,” he wrote.
The Libya factor
Russia’s expanding role in North Africa has been a defining aspect of the new normal in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Libya.
Officials from Libya’s U.N.-backed government warned more than a year ago that without more aggressive U.S. involvement, Moscow would expand its operations there with a goal of controlling the war-torn country’s oil reserves and supplanting American and European influence.
Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha told The Washington Times in late 2019 that Russia’s success in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war had emboldened Moscow to meddle in Libya. Moscow’s plan, he said, likely hinged around the expansion of Russia’s naval presence in the region beyond its current base in the Syrian port of Tartus.
But Russia’s deployment of mercenaries to aid rebel Libyan commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar has been matched by Turkey’s open support for the U.N.-backed government which control Tripoli.
Turkish military forces have reportedly trained the militants from jihadi groups that were previously active in Syria and flown them to Tripoli, adding a fresh layer of complexity to the conflict that had already drawn in a range of international players.
Tension grew in July, when Egypt’s parliament approved the possible deployment of Egyptian military forces into neighboring Libya, joining Russia in backing Mr. Haftar’s insurgent forces.
The Trump administration has sought to avoid getting sucked into the vortex in Libya, despite critics who say Washington has missed an opportunity to rally NATO behind a campaign to challenge growing Russian influence inside Libya.
NATO’s ability to affect the crisis in Libya is hampered by a civil war in its own ranks between Greece and Turkey, with many countries expressing anger at recent aggressive Turkish moves.
Greece, which is also a member of the European Union, claims the waters surrounding its islands are part of its continental shelf and has enlisted the support of the 27-nation bloc, which has condemned Turkey’s “illegal activities” and warned of potential sanctions against Ankara.
Turkey disputes Greece’s claims, insisting that Greek islands shouldn’t be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries. Turkey accuses Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of the Eastern Mediterranean’s resources.
Greece and Cyprus have recently been joined by France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates in carrying out naval and aerial war games in the region.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Mr. Erdogan said Sunday that his country of ready to pay the price for its efforts to defend Turkey’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean. He called efforts to restrict Turkey’s claims “an example of modern-day colonialism,” and even accused European powers of using Greece to goad Ankara into a confrontation.
“Even if hostile fronts unite, they cannot stop the rise of Turkey. It’s laughable now to use as bait a country [Greece] — which could not even fight its way out of a paper bag — against a regional and global power like Turkey,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech at his palace in Ankara.
Mr. Erdemir, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that Mr. Erdogan is playing with fire.
“A lot of the current crisis we see today is Turkey’s domestic and political economic mess spilling over into the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Mr. Erdemir. Mr. Erdogan, he argued, is using aggressive foreign policy moves to “divert the Turkish electorate’s attention away from Turkey’s current economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and overall policy mismanagement at home.”
“He’s creating a rally-around-the-flag effect through a kind of belligerent foreign policy because he knows nationalism always sells in Turkey,” Mr. Erdemir said. “Turkey’s intervention in Libya is part of this and Turkey’s brinkmanship with Greece is part of it.”
But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous, he added.
“I think Turkey and Greece have never been so close to real military conflict,” Mr. Erdemir said. “This is a disaster waiting to happen. During this brinkmanship game there could be accidents and that could escalate into a major military confrontation and this is something NATO should not be looking the other way on because this could be a major crisis right at the heart of NATO.”
“Ultimately, we’re talking about two NATO member states on the verge of military conflict with each other.”