Ghosts of all-out war hovering over the Mediterranean

“Put simply, Erdoğan is growing into a key player amid the geopolitical changes in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, as Turkey is acquiring regional superpower status,” wrote Angelos Stangos in the Greek Kathimerini newspaper referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Worse,” Stangos added, “that is all creating the impression that, in the eyes of the West — the United States and the European Union (perhaps for different reasons) — Greece belongs to the Middle East and not Europe.”

This observation underlines a remarkable weakness in the set-up of the January 19 Berlin Conference on the Libyan conflict. In a monumental error, the German government declined to invite Tunisia, which borders Libya and has a massive stake in seeing the conflict resolved, and Greece, which is a key player in the quagmire developing in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Libya’s crisis has been compounded by an agreement between Ankara and the UN-backed Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli, which has Erdoğan’s fingerprints all over it. The international community’s inability to understand Erdoğan’s intentions hangs over the gathering in Berlin, eroding hopes for a solution to the conflict.

Germany’s diplomatic move is clouded by a simple fact: By inviting the Turkish side, the European Union, in general terms, is welcoming a fait accompli signed by Ankara, by its sending jihadist mercenaries onto Libyan soil.

This has emboldened Erdoğan, who raised the stakes by declaring that Turkish troops would be sent to Libya. Once this is done — and Erdoğan is a man of his word — the European Union would lose more influence in Libya, with the threat of jihadism rising, and Erdogan may feel much more comfortable making new demands, gaining more political territory.

Some may argue that Erdoğan’s manoeuvre will not work in Libya, that it is one step too far for the international community to tolerate. There is likely some truth to that. How Turkey will be able to send troops to a distant country across the Mediterranean is a big question. Whether or not the large-scale opposition to the move at home will bring new momentum against him is another one.

However, these questions may be hiding Erdoğan’s long-term strategy: The Turkish leader calculates that, as long as his divisive policies within the European Union are successful, general confusion in Berlin, Rome and London continues, the broken chain of decision making in Washington remains unrepaired and international “legalistic” support for the Tripoli-based government persists, he will be given enough time to put a foothold in Libya, making Turkey’s military presence there permanent.

This will give him a bargaining chip in the country and, ultimately, see him emerge as the leader who forges control of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, maintaining the “balance of terror,” to use a Cold War term, in North Africa.

Stangos hits on the core of the dilemma facing the European Union — especially France, Italy and Greece in its southern flank.

First, for Erdoğan, the agenda is to expand on a blend of Islamism and radical nationalism beyond Turkey’s borders. Second, what Germany represses in its collective unconscious is that Turkey’s foreign policy is nearly entirely militarised and it is no longer interested in diplomatic tactics.

As noted by Unal Cevikozn, a former diplomat and an MP with Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party: “Turkey, with its weakening attention on diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflicts, also loses its soft power capacity. It would not be unfair to suggest that this new approach of Turkey in the region is perceived like ‘gunboat diplomacy’.”

Any hope that Ankara will make a U-turn and give up on its deal with Tripoli without serious concessions from the European Union or accept to sit at the table with Cyprus on East Med energy talks is nothing but a pipe dream.

What Athens faces deep anxiety about is how determined Ankara is to escalate the conflict in the Aegean and Eastern Med to its breaking point. The Greek Defence Ministry’s general staff said Turkish military aircraft violated Greece’s airspace 4,811 times in 2019, the largest number in one calendar year since 1987. Turkish Navy warships have increasingly violated Greece’s national waters as well. The number of violations increased from 133 in 2010 to 299 in 2015 to a staggering 2,032 in 2019.

The crisis encompassing the Eastern Med and Libya reveals an unsettling fact: There is a deadly game being played. Irrational adventurism is seeing jihadists deployed to a conflict zone and a mighty power, Turkey, is seeking to trigger a military confrontation with Greece.

The choice will be whether or not the world acts together to deter militaristic expansion. Perhaps it is time for US and EU warships to intensely patrol the hot waters of the Mediterranean.