The Mediterranean Sea at the Centre of Dangerous Disputes

Creato: 01 Aprile 2021 Ultima modifica: 17 Aprile 2021
Scritto da Gaetano Fontana Visite: 758

From D-M-D' N°16   [IT][FR]

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In recent months, the Mediterranean area has been at the centre of dangerous regional and international tensions. Libya continues to be divided internally by external forces, in Syria the political and military elites appear increasingly weakened, and both are clearly far from finding peaceful solutions.

puzzle medIn order to clarify the scenario that is emerging in this area, which it is worth reiterating is in full development, it is worth assessing the dynamics of the individual players and the conflicting interests at stake.

On 15 September 2020, the "Peace to Prosperity" peace treaty, strongly desired by Donald Trump to seal his presidential mandate, was formalised. The "Pax Americana", as the Donald called it, which foresaw the normalisation of relations between Israel, the Arab Emirates and Bahrain, could in fact be substantiated by the Israeli annexation of 132 settlements in the West Bank. " The deal of the century" is in perfect continuity with the American foreign policy initiated by Trump in February 2017 with the official meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and continued with the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017 and the recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory in March 2019.

However, former US President Trump's plan underlies a broader strategic project. By strengthening relations with the United States' historic allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the American administration intends to pursue the goal of splitting the Arab front and creating a regional framework that will act as a military shield against the enemies of the United States and its Israeli allies, in a sort of call to the Middle East Strategic Alliance" known as "Arab NATO" in which to include the rich monarchies of the Gulf. This would "close the circle of more than 70 years of strict American alliances in the Middle East, one with the Jewish state and the other with the Saudi royal house, forged by Roosevelt in 1945 even before the end of the Second World War"[i].

The context in which this sort of Arab NATO operates is not limited to the control of the Middle East, but responds to the need for the United States to broaden the perspective to East Africa and the Indo-Pacific quadrant in the expectation of creating a single bloc of states (including the Gulf countries and India) for a shared safeguard against common threats from Iran, Russia and China.

China is the new player on the Middle East scene, in fact Beijing signed a memorandum of understanding with Fayez Serraj in 2017 to join the new Silk Road. The "Belt and Road Initiative", remains a major strategic objective for the Chinese government, the influx of Chinese goods into Europe will depend on this project, and much of Xi Jimping's political success is played out on its realisation. While the land corridor of the Silk Road passes through Iran and Turkey, the maritime corridor sees the Gulf countries at the heart of the project, which has led Beijing to make huge investments in this area in recent years. Moreover, "the economic expansion of the last twenty years has exponentially increased China's dependence on oil and natural gas imports, bringing it to 69.8% and 45.3% of its needs respectively. Thus, from a marginal area of the world, the Middle East has become a central area in Beijing's strategies since 2008. The document that still guides China's policy in the Middle East is China's Arab Policy Paper, dating back to 2016"[ii] .

The fact that the Middle East plays a significant role for China is also shown by the investments that reached $242 billion between 2005 and 2020, and by the trade exchange with the Arab countries that amounted to $317 billion in 2019.

Although Beijing's political interventionism in the Middle East keeps a low profile, it has not prevented it from signing a strategic trade and military partnership agreement with Iran, which would see Beijing invest $400 billion over 25 years. In an article in "The New York Times" of 11 July 2020 by Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers, the "partnership document" indicates how military cooperation between the two countries would be a military foothold for the People's Republic in an area that has always been a strategic priority for the United States. China has already built a series of ports, creating a line from the South China Sea to the Suez Canal, and although commercial in nature, there is no reason why these ports should not have a military function.

Moreover, in 2017, China inaugurated the "strategic support base" in Djibouti, which, although formally created to support anti-piracy and peacekeeping activities, plays a strategic role as an outpost to protect Chinese foreign interests, as envisaged in the "White Paper" in the "China's military strategy" section of 2015. Investments in infrastructure such as the railway line connecting Djibouti with Ethiopia also highlight how these operations are part of both an economic development and strategic security framework.

But Russia is not standing idly by

In the geopolitical arena of the Middle East, Russia has risen to prominence through its intervention in the Syrian conflict of 2011. Beginning as a violent repression by Assad against fringe opponents, this conflict has turned into a civil war and has taken on an international dimension.

In that context, the United States, England, France and Turkey sided with the rebels, while Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supported the Assad regime. Turkey later changed its strategy and joined Russia on the pro-Assad front, also and above all to contain the Kurdish militias, likely allies of the PKK.

The advent of the Arab Spring and the gradual downsizing of the United States favours the growth of local players, shuffling the cards at stake, thus creating the conditions for the remnants of the former Soviet Union to reassume a relevant role, recovering the concept of 'derzhavnost', the 'status of superpower', to be recognised as equal to the other global powers.

Following a formal request by Assad in 2015, Russia took an active part in the conflict, drawing on an old bilateral agreement signed in 1980, in accordance with international law. Putin's diplomatic skill on this occasion meant that the Russian Federation went from being an interventionist to a defender of Syrian rights in the name of the fight against terrorism. By sealing a strong alliance dating back to 1971, when Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad was in power in Syria, the current president not only shows that he is ready to support his allies even without the approval of the American power, but also aims to defend the eleven positions of his naval base in Tartus, while reaffirming his return to the international stage.

For some years now, a thorny issue has been testing Putin's diplomatic skills. The Syrian province of Idlib has become a refuge zone for opposition groups expelled from Syria, as well as a place of concentration for anti-Russian Caucasian guerrillas, and it is from Idlib that remotely piloted vehicles depart for the Russian base in Humaymim. Clearly Putin has no intention of withdrawing from Syria without solving this problem, reaching a cooperation agreement with Erdogan's Turkey for now.

A further demonstration of this peculiar strategic sensitivity Russia is currently giving once again in the Mediterranean, where through Foreign Minister Lavrov it is offering itself as a mediator of thorny differences. Already in Syria, Putin had experimented with a new diplomatic manoeuvre, playing on the structural divergences between Turks, Iranians and Israelis. In the Mediterranean area, where Russian interests are directly affected as exporters of gas, which could see its position downsized after the discovery of large deposits in the Black Sea, Moscow is trying to insert itself between the divergences created between NATO and Turkey, weaving with the latter a strategic geopolitical relationship along the Black Sea-Arabian Sea front.

"Who do I call if I want to talk to Europe?" was the provocative question posed by Henry Kissinger to highlight the lack of a converging foreign policy line on the old continent.

Europe," continued the former US Secretary of State, "has the capacity to become a superpower, but it has neither the organisation nor the idea of becoming one. This is a challenge for the concept of Europe.

This dichotomy corresponds to two different conceptions of international relations, divergences that hinder a common foreign policy project and make sense of Kissinger's provocative question.

The European Union has gone through and partly overcome major challenges in recent years, the management of migrants, an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, the Brexit, but the quantum leap to political reality still seems far away.

When Ursula von der Leyen formed the "Geopolitical Commission" in December 2019, the aim was to provide the European Union with a commission promoting a shared strategy for a foreign policy of international relevance, through also the establishment of the long-awaited " Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space (DG Defis)" as an autonomous structure. However, with the Mediterranean increasingly becoming a powder keg, this commission seems to have been eclipsed.

The first signs of this impotence occurred on the occasion of the American raid for the killing of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, which took place on 3 January 2020, triggering a further escalation of violence in the area, the "Geopolitical Commission" expressed itself publicly only three days after the event, thus leaving room for diplomatic interventions by France, Germany and the United Kingdom (in full Brexit phase).

But this attitude does not come about by chance, it is the child of "a self-representation of the EU as a power of law devoid of any coercive instrument capable of enforcing its purely normative conception of international relations. A misunderstanding that has grown up in the shadow of US military and geo-strategic tutelage, which has been progressively eroded since 1989 and is now in some ways open to discussion"[iii].

Last but not least .

We have left Turkey for last, not because it is a less important player, but precisely because it is playing a leading role in the Middle East, trying to carve out a leading role for itself in its foreign neighbour.

"The Byzantine empire kept in touch with the other great empires of the world: from the Persian to the Chinese, passing through the Kushana empire, the Gupta empire, the kingdom of Gandhara, the tolerant Seljuk empire, the immense peaceful Mongol empire. And given the natural position of the Byzantine state, guarding the two geopolitical orbits of Asia and the Mediterranean, there is no phase of medieval history in which, in order to understand what was happening in Europe, one should not observe what was passing through the two great gates that delimited the boundless territory of Byzantium: the one open to the northeast on Central Asia and above all the one open to the southeast, through Mesopotamia, on the Great Indo-Iranian East". [iv]

Silvia Ronchey's splendid description paints a picture of a Turkish identity rooted in a strong sense of the homeland and of a people who are anything but modest and who feel consecrated on the altar of the Ottoman empire. This helps us understand the spirit with which Recep Erdogan's sultanate fits into the geopolitical chasm that has opened up in the southern Mediterranean, where the decomposition of Libya is taking place.

What happened between May and June 2020 between the Tunisian port of Gabès and the Libyan port of Misurata, even if it was only a minor incident, provides an opportunity to measure the importance Turkey attaches to this geographical area. On 19-24 May, after leaving the territorial waters of its country of origin, the Turkish merchant ship Çirkin, escorted by three Turkish military ships, reached Misurata with its automatic tracking system switched off so as not to be located, in order to unload war material and set sail again, despite the fact that the convoy had been spotted to the south of Crete by a French military vessel and had refused to be checked. This was repeated on 7 and 10 June, in this case the Greek frigate Spetsai was unable to carry out checks due to the presence of Turkish military vessels. Both French and Greek vessels operate in the area on behalf of the Atlantic Alliance in compliance with the arms embargo on Libya, and in both cases they failed to intervene after registering an openly hostile attitude on the part of the Turks, in order to avoid an armed confrontation. At an emergency NATO defence meeting following the incident, the United States and Great Britain sided with Turkey.

Let us understand what drives Turkey in these troubled waters.

"'Mavi Vatan', Blue Homeland. The term was coined in 2006 by Admiral Gurdeniz, and indicates Turkey's strategic interests in the internal territorial waters and in the exclusive territorial zone (EEZ), projecting the future of the homeland into the sea, and which in perspective will go beyond the Erdogan presidency. The Turkish project envisages that from Cyprus to Kastellorizo warships will accompany the exploration of offshore energy resources, calling into question the areas of maritime sovereignty in the Mediterranean, where large companies such as Total, Eni and Exxon drill. Of course, the stakes do not leave local players such as Egypt, Israel or Cyprus indifferent, making the confrontation even more bitter.

Turkey on the Libyan front.

Since the fall of Marshal Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011, Libya has experienced an endless series of armed clashes and administrative chaos, and after about ten years has found itself in a perpetual civil war, which sees Libya itself essentially divided into two fronts: on the one hand Tripoli, which is the seat of the GNA, acronym for Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Serraj and recognised by the international community to control Tripolitania, on the other hand Cyrenaica controlled by the LNA the Libyan National Army of General Haftar, supported by the Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.

In this context in late 2019, under the pressure of the pressing crisis al Serraj and Turkish President Erdogan signed the Memorandum of Understanding. "It provided for a twofold exchange: first, Libya's acceptance of an exploitable maritime area in terms of natural resources, under the so-called exclusive economic zones (Eez). The other part of the agreement sanctioned immediate military intervention by Turkey should the GNA request it. Which in fact happened[v].

Ankara is aware that it is playing an important game in this quadrant; the development of the 'blue homeland' in the Sultan's plans will support the new Turkey's hegemonic and leadership plans, projecting it beyond its traditional boundaries of influence, helping it to overcome its regional isolation, thus suggesting that the Turkish presence in Libya is not a one-off.

This state of affairs is a reflection of evolving strategic competitions. The US strategy explicated in 2017 in the "National Secutity Strategy of the United State of America", highlighted how US priorities became the containment of the Russian-Chinese axis, disengaging the Middle East front, thus leaving room for manoeuvre to regional powers.

The civil wars in Syria and Libya have accentuated the competition between regional powers, turning this area into a theatre of strong instability perceived by Turkey as a threat, accentuated by the fact that this basin could become the third largest in terms of world gas reserves.

It is not easy to see how far Turkey intends to go, not least because the sultan's desire to become an imperial power is countered by a lack of resources available to achieve it, given the economic and financial crisis afflicting the country, even if, apart from Russia, no other superior rivals are perceived at these latitudes.

Ankara's plans probably include the European axis to advance in the Adriatic Balkans, and even more likely, the realization of the Blue Homeland mentioned above, which opens a maritime strategy that touches on interests ranging from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, touching on territories that are also important for Italian trade and security. It is easy to see how Italy could play an important role in this context, at least from a geographical point of view, given that foreign policy has now been relegated to a matter for others.

A very delicate game is being played in the Mediterranean, which is also involving several countries militarily, both for the appropriation of rich hydrocarbon deposits, and to defend the geopolitical space of each. Relations between Paris and Ankara are at an all-time low, as are those between Greece and Turkey. All this makes what was once the mare nostrum a veritable powder keg, and the great manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean are only just beginning, and none of the protagonists seems willing to leave the field to the other. As was to be expected, this epoch-making crisis, aggravated by the Covid 19 pandemic, is highlighting all the critical aspects of the capitalist system in the era of permanent imperialist war, and any spark can be the right one to trigger the "Thucydides Trap".

[i]      Alberto Negri: Sheikh Trump's peace, il manifesto 16 August 2020.

[ii]     See Corrado Cok's Geopolitical Therapies published in Babilon on 20 October 2020.

[iii]   Europe who?" by Fabrizio Maronta in Limes January 2020.

[iv]    Silvia Ronchey in the introductory essay to "The Byzantine Buddha" by Jean Francois Boissonade.

[v]          Federica Fasini Fasanotti, Libya's geopolitical balance. In "Mediterraneo allargato" September 2020 edited by the Institute for International Policy Studies.