Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Eastern Mediterranean region has been in turmoil. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and the threat of conflict in the region still looms large.
Despite active attempts by the international community to reduce the tensions between opposing forces in Libya, the conflict in this nation continues to have a negative impact on the situation in the region. The warring sides go on fighting owing primarily to the support provided to them by external players. In spite of the UN arms embargo on Libya, Turkey is still supplying weapons to Libyan fighters and sending mercenaries from Syria to Libya, who Turkish servicemen continue training so that they can then battle the Libyan National Army (LNA). On August 18, Nordic Monitor reported that UN rapporteurs had “sent a joint letter in June to the Turkish government seeking further information about its role” and the circumstances surrounding “the recruitment, financing, transportation and deployment of Syrian fighters” to Libya to take part in military operations “in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA)” (headed by Fayez al-Sarraj), and “the role of Turkish private military and security companies”, such as SADAT International Defense Consultancy, “in those operations and the relationship between such companies and the Turkish government”.
Although Ankara’s unrelenting involvement in the Libyan conflict remains a defining factor in it, other external players are starting to play an increasingly active role in the whirlwind of activities in this nation. As a result, the anti-Turkey supporters have banded together and grown in strength. And nowadays, they include Muammar Gaddafi’s followers, who constitute the core of Khalifa Haftar-led LNA, Egyptians, Greeks, Saudis and UAE citizens. Since the incident at sea on June 17 that involved French and Turkish warships near the coast of Libya, France has started playing a more active role in the situation in Libya and with regards to Turkey’s participation in it.
There was yet another flare up in tensions in the Libyan crisis on August 18, when Turkey, Qatar and the GNA signed an accord on tripartite military cooperation. It has been reported that the GNA also agreed to allow Turkey to “set up a military naval base in the city of Misrata” (Libya). A number of observers believe this could lead to a further rise in tensions in the Libyan conflict.
Aside from the ongoing military confrontation in Libya, the region recently suffered yet another blow on August 4, when there was a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in Lebanon. There have also been ongoing protests involving thousands of Lebanese residents in the country, which, at times, have been successful. Protesters have targeted ministries, government agencies, banks and staged “mock executions of the grievances that pushed them” into the street (which include corruption, sectarianism, and the 1975-90 civil war). As a result the Lebanese government resigned on August 10, and the situation in the nation remains uncertain.
Tensions are also on the rise near the resort city of Antalya because of the presence of Turkey’s Oruc Reis research vessel, escorted by warships, and Greek frigates shadowing them in the area. The United States and Germany, in the meantime, have been pushing the two NATO allies to dialogue. Greece’s rocky island of Kastellorizo (located a few kilometers from Turkey’s coast) has been the focus of the tensions because Ankara plans to carry out a drilling survey in the Eastern Mediterranean waters near it. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Levant Basin (of the Eastern Mediterranean region) “contains 122.4 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas”. Turkey and Greece “disagree profoundly over who has rights to key areas of the Eastern Mediterranean”, a factor that has contributed to the current confrontation.
The most recent rise in tensions occurred when Turkey’s Oruc Reis research ship left port to “map out sea territory” (possibly for oil and gas drilling) near the Greek island of Kastellorizo despite warnings from Athens not to proceed with the mission. The act “prompted alarm in the Greek military, and fears of a clash near” the island. On August 13, Greek frigate Limnos and one of Oruc Reis’ Turkish naval escorts, the Kemal Reis, were involved in a mini-collision in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the Greek City Times media outlet, a bundle of cables was left hanging from where the Kemal Reis was hit by the Greek warship, which reportedly meant that “the bow of the Limnos entered 2.5 to 3 meters inside the” Turkish vessel. On August 14, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Ankara would “not hesitate to respond to the slightest harassment of its energy exploration ship in the Eastern Mediterranean”. On August 15, citing Greek defense publication Army Voice, Geopolitics News reported that a Greek military helicopter had spotted a Turkish Type 209 submarine in an area near the Cape of Sounion, “about 50 km southeast of Athens”. “Another Turkish sub was reportedly spotted west of Rhodes by a Greek frigate, and one more in the Karpathos island area”.
During a telephone conversation between Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg and Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on August 19, the former expressed his concerns regarding the “current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean” and stressed that “dialogue and de-escalation” were in the best interest of the region.
On behalf of the European Union, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel recently “reiterated her call on Greece and Turkey to resume direct talks to resolve their long-standing disputes and said Berlin and Paris would enhance their cooperation to facilitate a diplomatic solution”. “We need stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, not tensions. We are aware of the critical situation there. I am confident that if Germany and France join their forces, hopefully, we can find a good solution, which can make cooperation possible,” she added.
In the current climate, the reaction of the United States to the actions taken by its former ally in the region, Ankara, have also been noteworthy. US Senator and democrat Bob Menendez (serving as the Ranking Member (most senior Democrat) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) as well as junior US Senator and member of the Democratic Party Chris Van Hollen wrote a letter (dated August 13) to US Secretary of State. The officials “expressed their grave concern regarding Turkey’s provocative actions in the Mediterranean” and urged Mike Pompeo to “immediately begin to work with the European Union on a coordinated response to Turkey’s increasing provocations and illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean” and to “follow the law and impose sanctions on Turkey”. They also called on “Turkey to remove its ships from Greece’s EEZ and to resolve this matter in accordance with international law”.
In response to such criticism, there have been a number of anti-American articles in Turkish media outlets. For instance, Turkey’s newspaper Sabah expressed concern about USA’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean. The article talked about the latest steps taken by Washington to establish both a naval and air base in Alexandroupolis (an important Greek port city) after Greece had offered the USA an opportunity to establish a military base there. According to the report, “helicopters, military vehicles, ammunition” and US troops had already been transferred to the city. It also pointed out that the proximity of Alexandroupolis to the Turkish border was a sensitive issue for Ankara. After all, the port city is located within the 30-kilometer area form the border and must, therefore, remain demilitarized. Hence, the military base established in that region “could threaten” the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits.
The “black hole” in the Eastern Mediterranean is seemingly sucking an increasing number of not only regional but also external players (including NATO member states) into it. Hence, even a small mistake could lead to an armed conflict. And to prevent this from happening, efforts of the entire international community need to be directed towards resolving the ongoing conflict in accordance with international law, which is a crucial task.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.