Aphrodite rose gracefully out of the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and its Nereids guided sailors in distress. How did this sea, cradle of so many civilisations, end up as a military flashpoint? This year its eastern shores could become Europe’s equivalent of the South China Sea, bristling with great power tension, or a model for co-operation. I would like to believe the latter but it is going to require a leap of faith in the ability of hard-nosed autocrats to give ground and in terrorist groups to show restraint. That’s a stretch.
Let’s start with the positive. The discovery of large undersea hydrocarbon reserves is giving shape to a new regional constellation: Egypt and Cyprus, Israel and Greece. Since bringing the gas up requires safe waters, Egypt has been conducting joint air exercises with Greece (a Nato member) and with Cyprus. Separately, Cyprus has also been carrying out maritime security exercises with Israel. The prospect of shared prosperity is helping to create a new bloc. There couldn’t be a better time for this. The Syrian endgame is approaching and a priority for Bashar al-Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, is that they are given unchallenged access to the eastern Med. Lebanon, where the strings are being pulled by Iran’s proxy force Hezbollah, is looking wobbly. Hezbollah sees the gas fields as a natural terrorist target: anything that could make Israel richer is regarded as a menace.
Clubbing together, the four main gas beneficiaries can at least manage the risk in a crowded sea. But they have reckoned without the great disrupter, Turkey, which is reaching across the waters to Libya. It has been reviving the old Ottoman idea of the Mavi Vatan, or Blue Motherland, which projects Turkey’s maritime power from the Black Sea to the Aegean. Last year it held a big naval exercise to demonstrate its anger with the gas drilling. And now it has struck a deal with the UN-recognised Tripoli government that creates a symbolic strategic corridor between Dalaman on Turkey’s southwest coast and Derna on Libya’s northeast coast.
The agreement is at best aspirational — Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new ally, Libya’s so-called government of national accord, doesn’t even control that slice of Libyan coastline. But the message was clear: if the Mediterranean is to be partitioned, then Turkey and not its enemies should be the draughtsman.
To this end, Erdogan has pledged military support to the weak Tripoli government. That means a Nato member could be party to the bloodiest Middle Eastern showdown since the Russian and Syrian government bombardment of Aleppo in 2015-16. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, at the head of a formidable army, is heading towards Tripoli, intent on taking the capital.
The 76-year-old rebel commander can count on the support of Russia, which has dispatched a contingent of mercenaries from the battle-hardened Wagner Group. The Wagnerians are already guarding most of the oil installations under Haftar’s control. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have thrown in their lot with Haftar. Even Emmanuel Macron, the French president, seems to believe that only a strongman leader can turn Libya into a functioning state again.
Erdogan and Qatar are pretty much the lone protectors of the Tripoli administration. In the first instance the Turkish leader is likely to deploy ethnic Turkmen Syrian insurgents to fight for Ankara’s cause. There are several hundred of them and their main task will be to neutralise the Russian mercenaries: there is no love lost between the Turkmen and the Russians. Turkey is also testing homemade drones in support of its ground forces. But its most significant role could be in breaking Haftar’s command over the skies.
In some ways this is all a rerun of the early stages of the Syrian war. And it could end in a messy mix of co-operation and combat similar to the stand-off in northern Syria between Moscow and Ankara. Rather than a Nato ally v the Rest of the World apocalypse, we may be witnessing a bargaining process in which Turkey and Russia end up as parts of a duopoly determining the complexion of much of the contested region. The two presidents have been talking several times a month. Next week Putin visits Turkey.
In the meantime, plenty of blood will be spilt. Libya’s break-up will not be reversed by a Haftar victory. Instead, its disintegration into tribal entities will simply be hastened. The only question anyone will ask about Libya’s future will be: who can we trust to control the flow of its precious oil? How can we get a slice of the bounty?
But Erdogan’s ambition is broader than that. He knows that Turkey, once the dominant power in the Middle East, has been marginalised. This is partly down to his own poor judgments. The Turkish leader can, however, salvage his position by shrewd statecraft in Libya. Turkey’s bargaining position with the EU rests on its willingness to shelter some 3.5 million refugees from Syria and north Africa who would otherwise overwhelm Europe. More will soon be following from beleaguered Idlib province in Syria.
If Turkey’s influence in Libya grows, then the next big springboard for mass migration to Europe will be under Erdogan’s control too. That would be a way of recovering geopolitical advantage, the threat to turn on the taps of a new wave of migrants. Another way of using the Mediterranean as political leverage. That’s the cynical lesson of our times: chaos breeds opportunity.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.