The risky game in the Mediterranean: Ankara’s gamble in Libya
Emmanuel Macron expressed the escalation of the political situation in the Mediterranean with the words “Turkey is playing a dangerous game in Libya”. Political disputes – even among “partners” – are part of the everyday business of geopolitics. On the one hand, states try to preserve their interests and sovereignty and, on the other hand, to maximize their own power and thus their sphere of influence. In many cases, foreign policy offensives are accompanied by domestic instability. This is because domestic political instability or unpopularity can be overcome – or at least distracted – by foreign-policy exaggerations, nationalist calls. In doing so, states always make a cost-benefit calculation and try to act fundamentally risk-averse in order not to endanger their own security.
A look at the Mediterranean region and the Caucasus currently shows a completely different picture. Never before in modern history has the situation been so acute and so close to a conflict as it is today. Never before in modern history have confrontations between supposed “NATO allies” developed so openly. To overcome political instability and dock with the nationalists, modern Turkey under Erdogan is playing a high-risk game – approached by neo-Ottomanism and Pan-Turanism. Turkey has rarely acted so offensively and at the same time so isolated as it does today.
Turkey’s dangerous game in the Mediterranean and Libya
One major conflict that has gained in offensiveness, especially in recent years, is the conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. In addition to nationalistic ambitions, there are two rational reasons for Turkey’s expansion in the Mediterranean region. On the one hand, it is a matter of reasserting the sphere of influence in the Mediterranean region and, on the other, it is a matter of energy or resource policy. Since Turkey itself has to import the majority of its energy resources from abroad at a more or less expensive price, it is attempting to drill for oil in Cypriot-Greek waters in violation of international law. In doing so, Turkey is claiming Cypriot and Greek waters, but also individual islands, and in doing so wants to adapt the internationally recognised borders in its own favour.
The power politics in the Mediterranean leads to a further escalation, namely the Turkish-Libyan alliance. This alliance is leading to four major conflicts: Firstly, Turkey bypasses the international community’s arms embargo and officially takes sides militarily. Not only that, Turkey itself intervenes militarily in the conflict and attempts to consolidate its own position in North Africa. The Turkish-Libyan alliance, whereby only parts of Libya are meant here, leads to a further violation of the Cypriot and Greek territorial waters. Turkey is drawing new water borders in order to create a sea corridor between Turkey and Libya. The policy, which is contrary to international law and directed against the sovereignty of other states, is causing concern for two other players: Egypt is considered a regional military power and sees itself pushed back in the Mediterranean, but also, and above all, in North Africa.
A proxy war between Turkey and Egypt in Libya is the consequence.
Ankara’s neo-Ottoman ambitions lead to an open conflict of interests with Turkey. It should be noted that Egypt, which can be described per se as a state with a strong military apparatus, has not only reprimanded Turkey through diplomatic channels but also has not excluded the possibility of military confrontation. In the power game between Egypt and Turkey, Ankara hopes that Egypt is bluffing on this point. Egypt’s military history and current developments show that Egypt would be prepared to use the military – at least indirectly – in an emergency. A proxy war between Turkey and Egypt in Libya is the consequence. Especially since parts of the Libyan forces have already asked Cairo for support, while the other part is sticking with Ankara. Both states are actively supporting each side of the conflict – both politically and militarily. Last but not least, power politics in the Mediterranean is leading to another confrontation with NATO Partner France – a confrontation that should be taken quite seriously by Turkey. As a major European power, France feels threatened by Turkey and is backing Greece. For Macron, driving France out of the Mediterranean and France is absolutely out of the question. Whereas diplomatic warning phrases used to be used in the past, today there are more or less open threats from Paris in the direction of Ankara. France is prepared to give political backing to its historically and traditionally good ally, Greece. The four more or less serious and direct confrontations in the Mediterranean are, from a real-political point of view, a dilemma into which Turkey has maneuvered itself. Turkey has gambled too highly and isolated itself in the region in terms of foreign policy. Erdogan cannot afford an open conflict with Cyprus and Greece, supported by France on the one hand and Egypt on the other.
One could say that Greece is looking for anti-Turkish alliances in the Mediterranean.
In addition, relations between Israel and Turkey have cooled down again. It should be noted that Greece and Cyprus have excellent trilateral relations with Egypt on the one side and with Israel on the other. One could say that Greece is looking for anti-Turkish alliances in the Mediterranean. Although Israel is trying to stabilize relations with Turkic-speaking countries – partly because of the traditionally rather difficult relations with Arab states – two areas of conflict have developed here: Ankara is increasingly supporting the Palestinian side and is helping individual groups, such as Hamas. The Israelites do not like that. In return, Israel bypasses Turkey via Greece and Cyprus in the EastMed gas pipeline issue. This in turn does not please Turkey. One could also say that the once more stable Israeli-Turkish relations are at a low point. Although Israel would probably refrain from an open confrontation, it can be assumed that a Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian alliance would be more beneficial to Israel than Turkish expansion in the region.
The clash of interests in the Caucasus: Turkey, Iran and Russia
In addition to the Mediterranean, another region has become a trouble spot: the Caucasus. The frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia around Nagorno-Karabakh has been reignited, this time not in Nagorno-Karabakh but on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Russia, which traditionally maintains a reserved and mediating role in this conflict – despite its alliance status (towards Armenia) – wants to keep its influence in the Caucasus. The frozen conflict and the dependence of both states on Russia plays into the hands of the Kremlin in a certain way. In other words, the Kremlin wants to maintain the status quo. However, the Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave enclosed between Armenia and Iran, are indicative of the escalation of the conflict. Although Turkey is regarded as a clear ally of Azerbaijan, there have hardly been any such overt and large-scale military exercises in the Caucasus, in which Turkey has participated. While the status quo of the frozen conflict is beneficial to the Kremlin, Moscow cannot allow the war to be decided militarily for the Azerbaijani-Turkish side, and certainly not for Turkish influence in the Caucasus. A similar position is taken by Iran, which traditionally maintains difficult relations with Turkey and close relations with Armenia.
The Russian weapons systems and the demonstration of its political independence in general by the maneuvering between Moscow and Washington may put Ankara under pressure.
Relations between Turkey and Russia, which can basically be described as very pragmatic, could cool down again. On the one hand because of the Turkish presence in the Caucasus and on the other hand in Syria. However, it should be mentioned here that both countries have been able to intensify their relations in recent years despite conflicts of interest. For example, Russia is building a nuclear power plant in Turkey and is also selling modern weapon systems to Turkey. The confrontation between Ankara and Damascus is a further obstacle between the two states, but Russia and Turkey manage to keep this conflict of interest to a minimum, at least in the short term.
Ankara’s risky path between Moscow and Washington could backfire
The Russian weapons systems and the demonstration of its political independence in general by the maneuvering between Moscow and Washington may put Ankara under pressure. The United States are known to impose sanctions as a means of exerting pressure on individual countries. This happened not least after an incident in Turkey in which an American pastor was involved. The latest developments, such as the rapprochement with Russia, but especially the purchase of weapons from Russia, are displeasing to the Americans. The Americans have excluded Turkey from the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II program because Turkey had purchased modern S-400 air defence systems from Russia. Renewed and, above all, tougher American sanctions could result in a disaster for the already weakened Turkish economy.
The complexity of the individual alliances, coalitions and interests shows how complex, independent of each other, but at the same time interconnected the conflicts are. Either way, it can be said that Turkey risks further isolating itself in the region in the long term. Turkey is unable to cope with confrontations on that level. The old man on the Bosporus is not the once rising Ottoman Empire, but an authoritarian country with ethnic and economic problems. However, Ankara is also in a dilemma. How do you manage to row back from the conflict without losing face? Do they want to row back at all, or is Turkey continuing to play high stakes in a high-risk game? Although large-scale military conflicts are rather unlikely, in the long term the formation of an anti-Turkish alliance – with possible involvement of Israel – by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France is quite realistic.