Over the last two months, the contagion of Covid-19 and the ensuing scramble by governments to forge domestic public policy, in response to the pandemic has dominated public and private discourse. However, the dominant policy approach of “lockdowns” and “social distancing” has effectively halted the global economy, precipitating the collapse of the global energy market, and eliminating any false sense of stability, by accelerating the geopolitical game. This development is exceedingly evident in the Eastern Mediterranean, which for the last decade has been a flashpoint of the global refugee crisis, economic turmoil, political instability, civil war, and proxy competition among regional suitors.
It appears that the latest events, have shifted the geopolitical advantage to regional suitors that are net importers of energy, rather than the decades-long advantage enjoyed by energy exporters. Although, this might be temporary, as the global market will reengage and energy exporters will certainly rebound, it is also what makes this moment especially dangerous. There is a momentary tactical advantage for a state like Turkey to fulfill its ambitious and audacious agenda in the region from Syria to Libya.
Petros Vamvakas, Associate Professor of Political Science, Εmmanuel College Boston
Amid this crisis, Eastern Mediterranean states have been forced to also turn their attention to combat the domestic public health crisis, exposing each state’s fragility and limitations in balancing geopolitical ambitions and domestic concerns. Saudi Arabia’s very questionable strategy of initiating an oil price war with Russia, which has had devastating effects for Saudi Arabia domestically and regionally, can easily be assessed as such. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have, over the last decade, actively supported regional proxies such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya, in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” have now been forced to retreat to meet domestic concerns and demands. Consequently, this tactical withdrawal has shifted the balance in terms of strategic advantage in all three theaters of conflict. This has allowed Iran to make gains in Yemen and has fortified Russia and Turkey’s positions as beneficiaries in Syria. Although Iran has also suffered heavily from the coronavirus, the collapsing energy demand for will not necessarily have the same devastating effects. Ironically, the embargo already in place and the connections to the Asian markets will somewhat shield a terrible economy. Nonetheless, Iran will struggle to maintain its involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as will also face new challenges in the Gulf, and the United States. At the other end, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, will all benefit from the coronavirus containment paradigm and from the collapsing energy market. Lebanon was and is in the midst of an economic crisis and was facing the difficult dilemma between the harsh policies of the IMF and the support from Iran through Hezbollah. This period has allowed for a reprieve, as the line of states seeking IMF assistance is growing exponentially by the day. For Jordan, an importer of energy, lowered energy costs are significant enough to offset declining tourism income. It is a rare occasion where, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel would be in the same camp, but Israel will also gain from collapsing energy market and the spreading of the contagion, as it has created the requisite fear for the two leading political parties to agree to form a coalition government, so as to avoid an unprecedented fourth election in less than a year, while the pandemic and the energy crisis were perceived as overall security concern.
In North Africa, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya will be effected in varying degrees by the changing landscape brought on by the pandemic and energy market collapse. Tunisia, the most successful survivor of the 2010 Arab Spring, after months of political uncertainty has formed a weak coalition government. Unfortunately the Fahkfakh government is lacking the political will and power to successful maneuver the tough economic times ahead, as the energy and pandemic crises will present tough dilemmas for country that depends on tourism, agriculture and energy. The country is certain to head to that long line of states seeking IMF assistance in the near future. Egypt, which has been a major beneficiary of the Saudi and Emirati largesse over the last few years, especially as the Sisi administration has championed a more secular governmental option, over than that of the Muslim Brotherhood, may soon see the end of such assistance in the wake of the energy market collapse. The situation in Egypt is further complicated by its ongoing dispute with Ethiopia and Sudan over the damming of Nile River by Ethiopia. This is a situation, which appeared to be headed for certain confrontation, but over the last couple of weeks has been sidelined as covid-19 has dominated the government’s attention. The country with the most at stake is Libya, as it could experience a Yemen-like peace dividend from the departure of the UAE/Saudi Arabia, as Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) receives most of its support from the Gulf states. The current Government of National Accord (GNA), offensive against Haftar is primarily backed by Turkey, and stands to gain by playing a leading role in the post-conflict Libya. Turkey in Libya as Iran in Yemen has a great deal to gain and the retreat by the Gulf States provides an unique moment.
The major undercurrent to the Eastern Mediterranean over the last decade has been the withdrawal or the ineptness of the United States and the European powers to play the role that they had played in the region in the past decades and centuries. The current pandemic has further illustrated the reluctance of the EU to meet challenges collective, as the constituent states of the Union have taken the same narrow nationalist approach that they taken on the issues of migration and refugees and the financial crisis of 2009. Italy and Malta, have completely closed their borders and ears to the refugee situation, and in Italy the devastating effects of the pandemic have not yet been fully realized. However, what is absolutely certain is that despite the humanitarian and economic catastrophe, the chronic questions of European Union solidarity and cohesion remain and have been amplified. This is the third crisis in a decade where the EU north and EU south have not been able to strike a common policy approach, counting the economic and immigration crises since 2009.
As we move around the Eastern Mediterranean, it is clear that the situation of each state will be different and challenging and that new regional equilibrium might be upon us. The situation with the greatest potential for conflict might be the battle for a new equilibrium in the region centers around Turkey and its steadily unfolding ambitious regional agenda. The sudden geopolitical advantage in the Eastern Mediterranean as the diminishing presence of Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, coupled with the absence of the EU and the US has removed as all of its adversaries and competitors for regional dominance. The modus vivendi established with Russia in Syria, and the active participation in Libya with limited pushback, have emboldened the Erdogan government on two fronts, its foreign policy ambitions in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean and solidifying a nationalist populism domestically, possibly shielding the government from the imminent economic collapse. The tenuous economic situation domestically and foreign policy aspirations, which appear to be within reach, make Turkey the most dangerous state in the region and a confrontation with Greece very probable. Perception and misperception of power and the sudden shift in power coefficient are classic recipes for conflict and war. The collapsing energy markets allow Turkey to seek the advantages of a geopolitical landscape comprised of week or retreating actors while it itself benefits as a net importer of energy. Over the last two decades Turkish ambitions have been frustrated by domestic, regional, and global conditions, which did not align, as successive administrations since the days of Turgut Ozal, inspired by recent memories of empire, have toyed with aspirations of PanTurkism or Pan Ottomanism. At this time, it seems that the level of ambition might be met by a perception feasibility, which would lead to a disaster in the region.
In the last few weeks, as the Turkish government has struggled to deal with the coronavirus and the collapsing lira, effectively and with transparency. Concurrently, there has been an increased in nationalist rhetoric on issues from the refugees, to Libya and off shore drilling in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. As the Exxon/Mobil and Total drill ships are departing the region, and as it is price prohibitive to undertake any further exploration at this time, Turkey is seizing the opportunity by creating precedents and establishing de facto sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, dismissing Cypriot and Greek claims. The dismissive approach by the Greek and Cypriot governments at this time will prove to be detrimental in the future. The die has been cast. In a matter of a few months Turkey has been able to establish a zone in Northern Syria, now with the acceptance and acquiescence of Russia, as signified by common patrols in the area. Turkey has also successfully entrenched its presence in Libya, effectively participating in a successful offensive against Haftar since April 4, and has moved into the Eastern Mediterranean, without any challenge by Greece and Cyprus, as the French and American interests are leaving the area.
The phrase of the day seems to be the return to normalcy, after the passing of the pandemic, I’m afraid that without a challenge to Turkish steady expansionism the return to post-Covid-19 Eastern Mediterranean, might be with Turkey as the dominant regional power, especially if a regional Turkish dominance might not threatened United States long-term interests in the area, but rather stabilize the region.
* Petros Vamvakas, Associate Professor of Political Science; Department of Political Science and International Studies, Εmmanuel College Boston