The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.
The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.
The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.
While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.
Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.
Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.
The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.
Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.
Turkey has “opened the doors” for thousands of Syrian refugees encamped on Turkish soil to now travel freely to Europe. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan claims 18,000 refugees have already crossed Turkish borders into Europe. According to him another 30,000 are expected to cross in the coming days. Violent clashes on the Hellenic-Turkish frontier between Greek police and migrants have occurred and the situation there is expected to deteriorate in the coming days as more Syrian refugees make for Europe.
This move comes just days after 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian air attack in Idlib. In response Turkey has been striking Syrian government targets, urging Russia to remain out of its present conflict with the Syrian government, and attempting to build a strong base of international support for future actions in Syria. This is where the refugee issue comes into play. Turkey claims the European Union has not lived up to the terms of its deal with Turkey which had kept over 3 million Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey and unable to leave for Europe. According to the Turkish government, the EU has not helped Turkey house and feed the refugees, or help to stem the tide of refugees flowing from Syria into Turkey.
Erdogan is attempting to play the refugee card now and exchange it for EU support. In effect, he’s looking for a simple exchange of favors. He will shut off the refugee stream as long as Europe hops on the bandwagon and supports what is expected to be an enlarged Turkish military and political offensive in Syria. In other words, a quid pro quo. Turkey’s move with the refugees has been labeled blackmail by many political analysts and observers. Close, but not entirely accurate. Turkey’s playing of the refugee card is more a textbook example of Realpolitik. This move was based on political and practical considerations, not moral principles or ideology. To dress it down to a layman’s term, Realpolitik can best be summed up as ‘fucking your buddy.’
The proxy war going on in Libya has deepened in recent weeks and the trend shows every sign of continuing in the early days of the new year. The prospect of overt foreign intervention hangs over the conflict now with Turkey preparing to deploy troops and naval vessels to support the internationally-recognized Libyan government. The Turks intend for its navy to help defend Tripoli and the Government of National Accord (GNA) as the forces of Khalifa Haftar continue to pose a threat. Turkish troops on the ground will help train and coordinate GNA forces similar to the manner in which Turkish troops aided anti-Assad rebels in Syria. On the subject of Syria, Turkey will also send Syrian rebels to fight against Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
Turkish President Erdogan appears to be regarding the GNA as a high-value investment worth protecting. Its certainly in Turkey’s best interest to prop up the Libyan government after the lucrative maritime deal signed between the two nations which creates a Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. This move has shaken the region and helped crystallize opposition to Turkey’s intervention.
Libya’s neighbors Tunisia, and Algeria are concerned about the events taking place to their east. The most direct worry is that the fighting will spillover into their territory. Algeria, which has experienced a somewhat volatile political year, and is enduring economic difficulties as a result, is rumored to be considering throwing its support behind the GNA. Tunisia’s intentions are not clear although it has mobilized its military and placed forces on its border with Libya as a precaution.
Turkey’s move towards intervention is bringing about diplomatic backlash. Many nations are cautioning against the dangers of foreign intervention in Libya, although it should be mentioned that most of the nations cautioning about foreign intervention are in fact supporting Khalifa Haftar and his forces. As 2019 comes to a close, Libya seems poised to become a larger proxy war involving a constellation of ideological, political, and economic interests. Some observers have pointed out similarities between Libya in 2019, and Syria in the early days of its civil war. Personally, I think that Libya is nothing more than a shining example of the consequences brought upon the Middle East by Arab Spring. Even nine years later the region continues to feel the effects.
The 2019 NATO Summit kicks off in London on 3 December, 2019. The alliance has a host of important discussion topics to choose from. Turkey’s pending veto of NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic States is likely the most urgent topic at the moment. The existing fears of US detachment from NATO through the remainder of the Trump presidency is another. It is only fair to point out, however, that those fears have thus far been unfounded. The United States has remained firmly committed to the alliance and engaged in it since 20 January, 2017.
Unfortunately, despite the position of the United States, the future of NATO is somewhat uncertain at the moment thanks in large part to its European members. Inside of NATO there is much debate about what direction the alliance needs to go in. The world in 2019 is markedly different from what it was in 1949 when NATO was founded. It was conceived as a defense against a threatening Soviet military force. The USSR is gone now, but the Russian Federation is now struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes and challenge NATO militarily and politically. The Russian threat, which appeared so dangerous in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea has failed to materialize and it might never.
NATO has been seeking a mission beyond the boundaries of Europe for some time now, meeting limited success in Afghanistan, and even Syria. 21st Century missions outside of Europe have tested NATO unity and created bitter infighting among members though. With China’s rise, the Western Pacific could be ready for a NATO mission, but the same potential problems would arise.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing NATO’s future at the moment is the European Union. Once heralded as the logical successor to NATO, the EU has endured a rocky last ten years or so. The unity once championed by its supporters no longer exists. Britain is leaving the EU, and there are firm indications the populations of other European nations want to follow suit. The supra-national body is rudderless right now, suffering from a lack of effective leadership at the top. In the eyes of some European politicians the question is no longer: will the EU implode? The question now is: when?
More importantly, what will be the role for NATO if the EU breaks up? Will it acrimoniously dissolve as its members choose sides, or step in to fill the void?
This week in London, NATO’s leaders need to seriously consider what the future of Europe, and the world will be like in the next decade, and then determine what the alliance’s place in that world will be.