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Eastern Mediterranean: A zone of contention within NATO?
What was left undone in 2004 haunts Europe now in 2020? At the beginning of 2000s amidst all the euphoria of relations between the EU and Turkey, there was also one last attempt to break the stalemate in Cyprus and reunite the Turkish and Greek parts of the island. As Cyprus moved towards becoming an EU member, a United Nations-led reunification plan for the island was put to a referendum. While the Annan Plan was accepted by 65% of the electorate in the Turkish part of the island, it received the support of just 24% of Greek Cypriots.
As the European Commission already guaranteed that the Republic of Cyprus was going to accede to the EU regardless of the result of the referendum, the referendum result did not change the status quo and the EU membership of the island excluded the Turkish section in the North. As Turkey’s EU membership hopes dwindled amidst its deteriorating respect for human rights and authoritarian turn, as well as the economic and migration crises, the divisions in Cyprus has become entrenched.
The current tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over the gas fields around the island of Cyprus, and contending claims over maritime zones, is the culmination of various bilateral and multilateral tensions in the region. What is noteworthy is that similar to the 1970s, Cyprus is once again prone to embroil NATO allies into adversarial relationships with clashing regional claims of authority going well beyond the island itself. This time, however, the island is also setting the stage for a rivalry between Turkey and France.
Hence, an unfinished European political project that would have included the two parts of Cyprus, as well as a peace project between Turkey and Greece in the early 2000s, has now hit the main pillars of the Western alliance, that has also included Turkey since 1950s.
Why now and why France and Turkey?
A relationship already poor, amidst the French opposition to Turkey’s accession to the EU and the clash between the staunch secularism of France and political Islam in Turkey, bilateral relations have deteriorated even further between Paris and Ankara since the Turkish military offensive against the Kurdish forces in Syria in 2019. The Turkish military's move into Syria, according to the French President Emmanuel Macron, showed that NATO was brain dead due to its lack of cooperation and coordination among its members. The Turkish side was also forthcoming as President Erdogan toed Trump’s line that France did not contribute enough to the NATO alliance.
In this row of words, however, the French position that Turkey's incursion into Syria is exposing the NATO alliance to a clash with Russia and the Turkish position that it is not receiving support from its allies for its gatekeeper role for the EU, given its geographic position did not receive due attention.
However, what turned bilateral relations from bad to worse for Turkey and France was a crisis in Libya. France has considered North Africa under its sphere of influence given their commitment to fighting against jihadist terror in Saharan Africa as well as the region being a gateway to French-speaking Africa. Yet, Libya is liminal geography, the last Ottoman land in Africa, an ex-Italian colony near Southern Europe, Crete, and Malta, and with an immediate border between the Francophonie, and Egypt. Libya has seen repeated political crises since its dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by the NATO-backed rebel forces in 2011. After a brief hesitance, Turkey-backed the western intervention with Libya.
Although the successors of Gaddafi aimed to build a democratic government in Libya, Libya fell into civil war due to disagreement between Libyan governments. The country since then saw a war between the rival factions of General Haftar, who control Eastern Libya and the UN-recognised Tripoli government. The former represents a secularist position in the Libyan conflict, while the latter is attracted to political Islam whose main proponent has been the AKP government in Turkey. However, these two rival governments control is limited to the coastline due to Libya’s immense and complex geography extending south into the Sahel.
The Turkish feeling of exclusion from the Eastern Mediterranean and interest in Libya almost coincided. While Turkey’s friends in the region turned to its foes given its bilateral conflicts with Syria, Israel, and Egypt due to the way the Turkish government embraced political Islam, the EU has also become an actor in the region thanks to the Republic of Cyprus becoming an EU member.
Yet, what culminated in the crisis was a partnership among Israel, Cyprus and Egypt, including Greece, towards exploiting the hydrocarbon gas resources around the island of Cyprus that excluded Turkey and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. While Turkey’s exclusion from this partnership is self-inflicted considering its contentious foreign policy, the division on the island and non-recognition of the ownership rights of the Turkish Cypriots over natural resources embittered Turkey even further.
In this picture, the Tripoli government remained Turkey’s sole ally in the region making the AKP government rush a parliamentary bill to send Turkish troops to Libya, despite domestic and international opposition, in early 2020. Immediately after the Turkish involvement, the Tripoli government won major battles against the forces of General Haftar contending its authority and by Spring 2020 with Turkish help, it consolidated its control over territory giving Turkey extensive sway over North Africa.
What now appears as a “successful” involvement of Turkey in Libya may have caught its European allies off-guard. Control over Libya not only means access to oil and gas reserves but also a major wedge into the maritime zones between Eastern and Western Mediterranean connecting Cyprus and Greece into the rest of Europe. The Turkish and the Tripoli-based Libyan government already signed delimitation of maritime jurisdictions agreement to expand the Turkish water rights in the Mediterranean Sea.
Why is Turkish action receiving a major French reaction?
The major failure of Macron government in domestic politics at the face of gilets jaune demonstrations, failed pension and economic reform plans, the handling of COVID-19 pandemic as well as Macron’s party La République en marche! reduced support in French regions after the local election in 2020 showed the ideological weakness and failure of Macron’s pragmatism to face major challenges in French politics. To centralise French politics under his authority, Macron sacked his popular Prime Minister Eduard Phillipe in June 2020. Like his predecessor, François Hollande’s intervention in Mali to accrue support and to deflect attention from domestic political failures, Macron now aims at enhancing French control in North Africa. Hence, the French government aims to protect its interests in the oil industry in Libya and fight against jihadism in the Sahel region.
Moreover, France considers political Islam in Turkey a fundamental affront to the West and its staunch secularism. That is how, the French involvement in the region reaches out to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, both of which back the rival Haftar militias in Libya. Both France and Egypt furthermore allege Turkey for bringing Syrian jihadist rebels to fight in Libya and Turkey’s involvement in the region has received much attention in French media over the summer with a series of articles in Le Monde.
The rivalry between France and Turkey in the region already saw military frictions in June when President Macron warned the Turkish Government against sending military assistance to Tripoli government.
In response to the naval tensions, France withdrew its naval forces from the NATO military exercise and criticized Turkey for challenging its allies. In return, the Turkish government alleged France was siding with Russia in the Libyan conflict against its UN-recognised government based in Tripoli.
The most recent culmination of this ongoing rivalry has become the French decision to send naval forces into the Eastern Mediterranean to express its solidarity with its European partners, Greece and Cyprus and to challenge the Turkish announcement of Navtex for seismic research in the Eastern Mediterranean between Rhodes and Cyprus.
In response, President Erdogan warned both French and Greek governments by stating that Turkey will not tolerate any incursions into its Navtex. While the Turkish-Greek tensions over the Mediterranean Sea eased after the German meddling into the dispute, the French involvement into their fractious bilateral relationship is prone to turn the tension into collusion. For that matter, the situation with the perennial economic crisis in Turkey and the political crisis and the economic downturn ensuing the lockdown in Spring 2020 in France makes them seek foreign foes. They turn against each other, further enfeebling an alliance fraught with ideological and regional rivalries. In this respect, a missed chance of reunifying Cyprus in 2004 and entrenching Turkey into the EU is now affecting the main pillars of western alliance bringing together its two major partners into an open military conflict in East Mediterranean.
Umut Korkut is a Professor in International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. The research for this piece is facilitated by the DEMOS: Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe.
Tarik Basbugoglu is a PhD Candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University. His PhD subject is : What are the Impacts of Syrian Civil War on Bilateral Relations between Turkey and the US? Image credit: Hellenic National Defence General Staff.