Symmetrical, and asymmetrical, conflicts and proxy wars in the eastern Mediterranean present clear and present dangers to the countries in that region. By extension, those cold and hot wars — compounded by refugee migrations — also present enormous challenges to the U.S., the European Union, NATO and the West.
To clarify the geography: The contiguous Mediterranean states include Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Cyprus, the Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the Greek island of Crete. Two of these countries are members of NATO, Greece and Turkey. In different ways, each of these states is allied with other states and powers, including the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.
To further complicate calculations, some of the states are in both mutual and competing alliances, depending upon the theater of conflict. For example, Russia is in alliance with the Assad regime in Syria, home to Russia’s strategic naval and, now, air bases on the Syrian coast. This alliance places Russia at odds with America and NATO in Syria, as well as with Turkey — though they are currently cooperating in the designated buffer zone in Syria.
It was from this hot conflict in Syria that the term “de-confliction” was born in 2015. At that time, all parties, including Kurdish militia units, had the common objective of destroying the ISIS caliphate, which had spread from northern Syria across northern Iraq. De-confliction referred to adhering to military protocols designed to preclude NATO and Russian air missions from inadvertently engaging in the crowded air space above the battle areas.
The protocols notwithstanding, Turkey, a NATO country, shot down a Russian fighter jet that had momentarily crossed into its sovereign air space in 2015, causing a brief diplomatic hiatus between the two countries, soon resolved due to vital trade necessities between the two.
De-confliction challenges have now spread west to oil-rich Libya, where a civil war is being waged between the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli in the west and rebel forces in eastern Libya, led by Gen. Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. Here, there is disagreement within NATO, with the French supporting the rebel forces, not the GNA. Russia in principle supports the U.N.-recognized government, while actually sending advisory troops and supplies to the rebel forces under Haftar. The rebel forces are also supported by the Saudis, the Gulf States and the Egyptians.
So, where do the Turks come into this dispute? Having long had major investments in Libya, Turkey was a reluctant NATO ally in the overthrow of a fellow Sunni ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, in 2011. Turkey is hugely dependent on Russia for oil and gas, and has gone forward against America’s and NATO’s wishes, recently purchasing and operationalizing the S-400 Russian anti-missile/anti-aircraft defense platform, with technology that could compromise the new U.S./NATO F-35 stealth fighter jet.
In Libya, hoping to avoid the risk of confrontation with Russia, Turkey seeks to organize a power-sharing agreement with Russia similar to arrangements they have in northern Syria, where they are also on opposite sides of the fight. Both countries are satisfied to reduce America’s influence in the equation.
In Libya, the U.S. has competing national interests — one strategic, countering growing Russian influence on the Med by half-heartedly supporting the U.N.-backed regime in Tripoli; and one more tactical, supporting the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi government in Egypt in its joint fight with Israel against militant Palestinian forces in Gaza. Turkey has been supportive of these militants (Hamas), adding yet another thorn in Turkey-NATO relations.
The de-confliction metrics are not only in the air and on land, but have now extended to the sea and the hydro-carbon deposits in the sea beds of the contiguous states. Conflict in recent years has arisen along the continental shelves surrounding the island of Cyprus, an EU member state since 2005. Its continental shelf meets with Turkey’s, Israel’s and Egypt’s. Cyprus has signed various agreements regarding these shelves with Israel and Egypt, subsequently signing offshore drilling contracts with Exxon, ENI (Italy) and Total (France), with exploration now underway since 2017.
Recognized only by its patron country, Turkey, the Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey have taken issue with Cyprus’ shelf claims and its right to enter into drilling contracts without the Republic’s agreement. In 2017-18, Turkey dispatched two drilling ships, protected by naval vessels, to the waters off both the west and east ends of the island.
Cyprus and its patron state, Greece, have lodged complaints against Turkey at the U.N. and with the EU. The EU is threatening hundreds of millions of dollars in fines against Turkey, which it claims has violated the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas regarding the rules governing exclusive economic zones over which a state has special rights regarding exploration and use of marine resources.
The area of de-confliction grew yet again last month when Turkey signed an agreement with the GNA in Tripoli stating that their respective continental shelves overlap. The agreement has since been approved by the parliaments of both countries. The political kinetics unleashed by such a claim have the Greeks now in an even greater uproar, as the map lines of the Turkey-Libya shelf claim cut across the shelf surrounding the Greek island of Crete.
Adding insult to injury, the Turkish Parliament, under the control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, approved a proposal to send troops and arms to the embattled government in Tripoli, if requested, in an emergency session on Jan. 2. The main opposition party in Turkey immediately decried such a military arrangement with Tripoli. The Egyptian foreign ministry responded by declaring that any Turkish involvement on the ground in Libya would be deemed a threat to Egypt’s national security.
America’s Sixth Fleet is now sailing in increasingly troubled waters in the eastern Med. Kaleidoscopically complicated de-confliction challenges face America and its allies.
Meanwhile, the West’s continued preoccupation with conflict in the Middle East accrues to the benefit of China as it invests in its growing influence via the Belt Road Initiative, its ambitious economic development program to connect Asia with Africa and Europe, via land and sea.