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The Struggle for the Mediterranean: New Twists in the Coronavirus Crisis

Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, NESA Alumnus and Vice President, Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS)

On 29 March 2020 a French navy frigate, the Provence, patrolling the Mediterranean as part of Operation Naval Guard, intercepted a Turkish freighter on its way to Tripoli, Libya, and forced it to change course. The French had reasons to suspect it of carrying illicit weapons to Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) forces and militias, thus breaking the understandings reached during the Berlin summit on 19 January; similar activities have previously been detected by the French navy aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. These rising tensions in the Mediterranean are a direct result of  the commitments given by President Macron during his visit to Athens on 29 January, ten days after the Berlin summit, to stand up to Turkish breaches and provocations.

It is too early to tell what this may lead to. France and Turkey are both important NATO allies, and their confrontation is a threat to the already fraying alliance. Still, tensions are bound to persist or even rise unless the Turkish leadership finds a way to back out of its bid to determine the outcome of the Libyan civil war, and thus obtain a dominant position in the Eastern Mediterranean. President Erdogan, while facing an alarming rise in the number of Corona cases at home (and still smarting form his political setback last summer in Istanbul) is playing violent chess on three boards all at once – in Idlib, in Libya, and along the Greek border – and his risk-prone strategies have now given rise to a surprising combination of counter-forces.

At the root of all this lie the two agreements signed during the visit in Ankara, in late November 2019, of the Prime Minister of the “Government of National Accord” in Tripoli, Fa’iz Sarraj. One dealt with the extention of direct military aid by Turkey to the GNA forces (mainly the Misratawi militia and various Islamist groups), in their effort to fight off the offensive launched ealier this year by “Fieldmarshal” Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (despite the names, there is no accord over the GNA’s legitimacy, and the LNA is not really “national” either). Some Turkish military elements, as well as some of their Syrian Islamist allies, have already been spotted in Tripolitania even before the agreement; now this was enshrined in a bilateral document, and the prospect of intervention was soon given a formal mandate by the AKP-domiated Turkish parliament.

Even more significant was the second agreement, the full details of which are yet to be disclosed (the EU officially demanded such disclosure, but has so far been rebufffed). We do know that it deals with the delineation of Turkish and Libyan Exclusive Economic Zones in the Mediterranean, and does so in a manner that asserts a common border between them – essentially, a bid to throw a diagonal claim across the Eastern Mediterranean (no specific maps have been provided, and all attempts in the media to draw them are speculative in nature). The strategic implications of this claim are immense – and quite deliberate: this is Erdogan’s masterstroke against the emerging regional cooperation of the EMGF countries – Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – whose vision of energetic cooperation came to be seen in Ankara as a conspiracy to exclude Turkey.

If implemented, the Turkish-Libyan Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) pact (which basically treats the island of Crete, a sovereign part of Greece, as if it is not there, or at least, as if it has no EEZ attached to it) would bar Israel, Egypt and Cyprus from building the underwater infrastructure – a gas pipeline from Levithan, Aphrodite and Zohr (the three countries main gas fields), or a powerline from gas-powered plants in Cyprus – that could bring their energy products to the European markets. It would also deny Greece the benefits of being the first terminus of such projects. Given the historical pattern of Turkish tensions with Greece and obviously Cyprus, as well as the vicious ideological hostility that marks Erdogan’s attitudes towards Israel (in support of Hamas) and Sisi’s Egypt (in anger over Mursi’s overthrow), the bid to control the Mediterranean should come as no surprise.

Thus, the Libyan civil war – which to some extent, has already been a proxy war between Turkey and Egypt for some time – took a dramatic turn, and became a battle for the future of the region as a whole. In this fight, several partners who do not often join forces have now teamed up to offer direct or indirect support for Haftar’s offensive – or to deny resources to his enemies. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates generally take an aggressive stand against the Muslim Brotherhood (which plays a major role in Sarraj’s cabinet), and against Erdogan’s systemic efforts to support it across the region. Putin’s Russia looks upon the MB as a terrorist organization, seeks closer relations with Egypt, and looks upon the Libyan crisis as another opportunity to play an active role in regional affairs – and moreover, Russian forces have now been embroiled in a direct and violent confrontation with the Turkish presence in northern Syria. France frowns upon Turkey’s ambitions in the Mediterranean, and worries about the implications of Islamist subversion in North Africa as a whole. Greece and Israel, while not directly involved, obviously have a clear preference for an outcome in Libya which would render the November EEZ Pact between Erdogan and Sarraj null and void. Greece is also facing a direct Turkish bid to push refugees over into European territory, while Israel has been able to contain Turkish support for Hamas in Gaza and active subversion over the Holy Places in Jerusalem.

Will this makeshift alliance be enough to overturn the impact of the Ankara-Tripoli “diagonal” axis? Much depends on the position of the U.S., which more than once in recent years proved willing and able to send a firm (not to say blunt and brutal, as in “Don’t be a fool”) message to Erdogan. On the Eastern Mediterranean situation, the Adminstration has given unambiguous backing to the EMGF partners; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended one of the trilateral Greek-Cypriot-Israeli summits, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry attended the second summit of EMGF energy ministers in Cairo in July 2019. It is thus to be expected that a clear American message to Erdogan, on both the EEZ question and on his policy towards Greece on refugees, would have a positive effect. At the very same time, legitimate Turkish concerns – in the face of the Syrian-Russian-Iranian push on Idlib, as well as in the context of any help necessary to combat the COVID-19 outbreak – should also be attended to. It is not too late to bring a wayward ally back into the fold, if Erdogan is willing to  back down where his present policies pose a risk to regional stability.

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