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.
Amid a high level of tension in the Mediterranean brought on by Turkey’s deal with the Libyan government demarking their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) Greece and Italy signed an agreement establishing an EEZ for the two nations in the Ionian Sea. The agreement was signed today by the Greek and Italian foreign ministers, making official the demarcation of maritime zones which has been pending since 1977. While its fair to say the agreement has been a long time coming, recent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean are responsible for pushing demarcation to the front burner. The agreement will have considerable ramifications for the area but it is, at heart, a hedge against Turkish hegemonic ambitions in the natural resource-rich Eastern Med region.
This may not be the only EEZ agreement Greece signs this month. Athens is in negotiations with multiple neighboring states to reach similar agreements. Again, keeping Turkey in check is the primary motivation fueling these moves. In fact, sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry have hinted that an agreement with Egypt could be signed as early as next week. If Greece and Egypt complete a deal it will be benefit Cairo’s continuing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has received significant funding from Turkey.
It has become possible that the war in Libya has the potential to drag on for an extended period of time with no clear winner. If this comes about it allows Turkey to maintain its foothold in Libya, meaning the EEZ agreement between Ankara and Tripoli will take effect, and be enforced. The rest of the Mediterranean is waking up to this possibility. Italy and Greece are already making moves and now it is a question of who will move next. Israel and Cyprus are also major players in this game. They will be heard from sooner or later.
The warring factions in Libya have agreed to restart ceasefire discussions, according to the United Nations. This news comes after days of intense fighting between the Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord. Over the past six weeks GNA forces, with Turkish support, has driven LNA forces almost entirely out of Tripoli and erased most of the gains Haftar’s forces had made there since the LNA offensive began last April. LNA forces claim to have retaken some ground on Monday.
The reason for both sides so readily agreeing to a ceasefire could be that they need additional time to prepare for the next round of fighting. According to the US military Russia sent fourteen MiG-29 Fulcrum, and Su-24 Fencer warplanes to an LNA-controlled airbase in central Libya last month, minus national markings. The Turks have been transporting a considerable amount of military equipment to the GNA. After a period of dormancy, due in part to the COVID-19 crisis, it appears a major escalation is on the horizon.
If these talks produce results, it will not be the first ceasefire in between the LNA and GNO this year. There have been two already but each was temporary, and the fighting never entirely ended during the ceasefire periods. The UN Mission in Libya has said it hopes the coming round of talks can help produce ‘calm on the ground’ and allow Libya’s health system to deal with a recent outbreak of the coronavirus. Because of the pandemic, and new outbreak in Libya, the coming round of talks will be conducted via video phone.
As COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted in Turkey, a second surge of illegal immigrants is expected to start heading to Greece from Turkey. The information comes from a confidential report authored by the European border protection agency Frontex: “The restrictions on Covid-19 have been gradually lifted in most Aegean provinces, but not yet in Dardanellia, Constantinople and Smyrna. If freedom of movement is restored in these areas, massive movements of migrants towards the Greek-Turkish border can be expected.”
In February and early March tens of thousands of illegal immigrants attempted to cross from Turkey into Greece. The Greek-Turkish border area was under siege and dissolved into near chaos. Turkish troops fired on Greek police, and there were instances of Turkish soldiers actually trying to bring down the border fence. Then the pandemic came and brought a respite to the simmering border. The Turks transported the illegal immigrants back inland to refugee camps.
Now that conditions are starting to improve inside of Turkey, expect Ankara to begin moving the migrants soon. Practically speaking, Turkey cannot afford to keep them around for very long. The Turkish economy is presently on the ropes. The lira is at an all-time low against the dollar, and a number of the country’s largest banking institutions are precariously close to bankruptcy. Then there are Turkey’s foreign adventures to take into account. Syria is quiet for the moment, but as the pandemic withers out, this will not remain so. The same holds true for Libya, another area where Turkey has become heavily invested.
As far as the border situation goes, Greece had been preparing to move 400 additional police officers to the area before the pandemic forced the cancellation. Those plans appear to be back on now.