In the past few months, the Eastern Mediterranean has become the target of Turkey’s new ambitions. This country is leading a foreign policy that seems quite clear to many observers. Indeed, Ankara is asserting its national interests whatever the means it has to use. The former empire does not refrain to resort to its armies when diplomacy is not sufficient and, so far, it has won. On one hand, Turkey has impeached the Kurds to reach their hope of creating their own state. On the other hand, it is taking advantage of the Libyan crisis by establishing its presence deeper. Hence, Turkey is getting more and more embarrassing for the West as it is spreading its influence in the region, from Erbil to Tripoli. Therefore, this article will try to explain Erdogan’s strategy in the area by examining its policy in Libya and its attitude against Greece, Cyprus and France in Eastern Mediterranean.
Libya: a zone of chaos
To clearly perceive the situation on the ground, we must go back to 2011. This year saw the death of colonel Muammar Gaddafi who was running the country for more than forty years. After a revolution broke out against him, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) decided to intervene to prevent a massacre that the Libyan leader could have ordered, leading to his fall and death. The Western democracies were delighted this operation succeed and hoped Libya was on its way to democracy and stability. Nevertheless, the country dived into civil war, becoming a new platform for jihadists and smugglers. In 2020, the context remains unsolved and both Russia and Turkey are trying to take advantage of the situation.
The country is divided into three parts :
The west is controlled by the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj and based in Tripoli. This entity is pretty close to the Muslim Brothers and mainly backed by Turkey, then by Qatar, Germany and Italy. The GNA is also recognized by the United Nations since 2016.
The east is under the command of self-appointed marshal Khalifa Haftar, who has been defending the elected Parliament of Tobruk, which was moved to Benghazi in 2019, and presided by Aguila Saleh. Haftar is the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is supported by Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). France is ambiguous on this topic : Paris is still in contact with Tripoli but some French missiles have been found out on the former Haftar base of Gharian.
The south is in the hands of Toubou and Tuareg militias, which are split between both sides.
At the end of Gaddafi’s era, Libya’s political structures were destroyed. In order to build a new system, the National Transitional Council (NTC) led the country towards reconstruction. The NTC was founded during the revolution and directed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, associated with Mahmoud Jibril’s government. However, its authority was undermined by the revolutionary brigades, often comprised of jihadists. Those militias set up military councils in the mains cities of Libya, as Tripoli, Misrata or Zintan, establishing their own hierarchy. Nevertheless, in June 2012, the first free elections were hold and, in August, the NTC gave the power to the National General Congress (NGC), based in Tripoli.
In 2013, the army was purged. Indeed, many pro-Gaddafi elements were still active as soldiers, but some anti-Gaddafi were too. One of the generals, Khalifa Haftar, who participated in the uprising against Gaddafi, was thus fired with the consent of the new Prime minister Ali Zeidane, constituting a wide fracture between politicians and military. Haftar then began fighting the radical Islamist groups as well as the NGC.
The turning point burst the next year. In June 2014, the NGC organised a ballot to appoint a new assembly. In August, the House of Representatives was elected but the NGC rejected the results. To prevent the threats that it could be victim of, the new parliament fled in the eastern city of Tobruk and chose Aguila Saleh as president. Therefore, Libya found itself in a steep path with two legislative chambers. Following the democratic process, the United Nations gave their recognition to the Tobruk parliament. Nonetheless, in order to conciliate both parties, the UN and its emissary, the German Martin Kobler, managed to get them to sign an agreement known as the Skhirat deal. Signed on 17th December 2016 in Morocco, this agreement planned to build a new executive power, led by Fayez al-Sarraj as Prime minister, and a legislative body represented by the House of Tobruk. The NGC of Tripoli was to become a Council of State. The al-Sarraj government took the name of Government of National Accord but was unable to agree with its opponent. Furthermore, the UN decided to recognize the al-Sarraj government whereas it supported Haftar for two years. The two leaders met twice in 2017, the first time in Abu Dhabi, the second in Paris, but nothing came out of those reunions. Hence, Haftar chose to use arms once again. In April 2019, the marshal launched an offensive on Tripoli that failed after more than one year of fighting. The LNA was pushed back by the GNA, thanks to Turkey, that began getting more and more involved in the conflict.
The Erdogan’s tactic
On 17th August 2020, Ankara and Tripoli have signed an agreement formalising the presence of Turkish troops and the training of pro-Turks Libyan forces by Turkish military advisers. That deal also allows the Turkish navy to enter the harbours of Tripoli, Misrata and Al-Quds, and the Turkish land forces to occupy al-Watiya base. Meanwhile, President Erdogan is still carrying jihadists combatants from Syria to Libya. Indeed, since December 2019, the French and Italian intelligence services have reported that around 5000 Islamists or jihadists fighters have been moved to Libya. Ankara has opened various training camps in the north of Aleppo before sending fighters on the ground, using airline companies belonging to the former military advisor of Tripoli, Abdelhakim Belhaj. Belhaj is well-known to be an Islamist, close to the Muslim Brothers and travelling to Turkey frequently. Those mercenaries are coming from jihadist factions such as Hayat Tahrir al-Cham, which is registered by the United States (US) as a terrorist group. Their training is supervised by SADAT International Defense Consultancy, a company conceived by Adnan Tanriverdi, a former general of the Turkish special forces, close to Erdogan and working with the Turkish intelligence.
On the other side, marshal Haftar can count on the Wagner company, a Russian mercenaries’ provider that have sent between 800 and 1200 men to serve that proxy war. It is assisted by Ruskie System Bezopasnosti, another Russian firm destined to demine oil facilities and ensure maintenance of aerial material. The UAE also bring their contribution. They have signed a 529-million dollars contract with Reflex Responses, a business ran by the former leader of Blackwater, to provide 800 soldiers from all over the world, especially trained to pilot aircrafts and manage aeronautic maintenance. They also pay the bill to Sudanese soldiers that have notably been used conquering the strategic area of Sirte, where the main oil terminals are located. Therefore, despite his defeat trying to take the capital, marshal Haftar has plenty of resources and controls around 65% to 70% of the territory. Hence, Alexandre del Valle, a French geopolitical specialist, considers absurd the probability to see Haftar down yet. According to him, Tripoli and Benghazi are on equal terms. “Since June, both sides have been preparing for the determinant control of Sirte”, Del Valle says. He adds, “From this point of view, the idea that Khalifa Haftar would be “finished” since his relative defeat last spring, that he will be soon defeated by the Turkish forces and their affiliated militias, and that he would have been “dropped” by his Egyptians, Russians and Emiratis allies does not correspond to the reality on the ground”. The Haftar side is thus reacting to the pressure exerted by Turkey since 2019. Indeed, Erdogan has intensified his support to take control of the Eastern Mediterranean and its precious deposits.
Tensions in Eastern Mediterranean
For a few years, Turkey has become more and more embarrassing for the West. Its aggressiveness does not only concern Libya. It is a wider but single issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is willing to increase Turkey’s power and defend, or even extend, its sphere of influence in Eastern Mediterranean. Its role in Libya should enable Erdogan to entrench his domination over the area. The Libyan oil and the perspective of gas field in the sea explain why Turkey is so willing to resort to its military strength. On 27th November 2019, Ankara and Tripoli entered into an agreement that would give 40% of the Eastern Mediterranean to the Turks, at the expenses of Greece and Cyprus. Indeed, Turkey neither accepted the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that delimited the maritime boundaries between Greece and Turkey, nor signed the 1982 Montego bay Convention on the law of the sea. Therefore, Erdogan is free to act as he wants, without fearing confrontation with Greece, Cyprus and France on the gas field issue, offshore from Greek coasts.
On 10th August 2020, the Turkish President sent the seismic ship Oruç Reis looking for gas field, two kilometres away from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, thus entering the Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In order to protect the researches, Erdogan joined some warships to the mission, which was also a way to demonstrate its determination. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron sent two warships and two warplanes to challenge Turkish pretentions. In June already, a Turkish ship aimed at a French frigate under NATO command. Actually, the relationship between Macron and Erdogan has been deteriorating for years. In August 2018, French President talked about the Turkish policy as a “pan-Islamic project regularly presented as anti-European”. Erdogan is well-known for being a Muslim Brother supporter, using the European Turkish diaspora as an arm of proselytism. The next year, Macron described NATO as brain-dead, reacting to the Alliance’s silent following the Turkish offensive launched against the Kurds in northern Syria, in October 2019. Indeed, Ankara has been fighting PYD, the Democratic Union Party, a PKK’s Syrian branch (Kurdistan Workers Party), supported by France in the war against ISIS. Therefore, interests are strictly opposed between Paris and Ankara, the blackmail attempt concerning migrants adding another litigation.
The tensions increased when military exercises were ordered by the two main protagonists. Greece and Turkey practiced live-fire training off the coasts of Crete, Cyprus and southern Turkey. For instance, Athens simulated dogfights over the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, providing for any possibility. Indeed, a Greek and Turkish frigate collided in August, causing no casualties but material damages. Nonetheless, it is not the first time Turkey and Greece are wrangling. In 1996, war could have broken out after a Greek pilot shooting down a Turkish aircraft. In 1987, a crisis emerged when Ankara sent a drill ship looking for oil field in disputed waters, a true feeling of déjà-vu. However, the main subject of rivalry concerns Cyprus, divided since 1974 between Greeks and Turks.
The Cyprus issue
Due to its proximity to the Hellenic world, the island was early populated by Greeks. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Ottomans settled down progressively in order to secure the area, notably defending harbours against privateers and conquering new territories in the vicinity. Nevertheless, the pressure from Russia towards the south and the power of the British empire forced Constantinople to cede Cyprus to London in 1878.
The end of World War I and the 1920 Sèvres Treaty that dismantled the Ottoman empire warned the new nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal to protect Turkey’s safety. Indeed, he was aware that Cyprus was the only maritime way to supply the country if war was to break out again. Therefore, the Turkish policy from 1955 aimed at avoiding a Greek corridor off Turkey’s southern and western coasts by taking control of the island. The first alert came in 1950 when a referendum revealed the popularity of merging Cyprus and Greece, a project known as Enosis (“merger” in Greek). In 1955, the first terror attacks were perpetrated by the EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters), a Greek Cypriot anti-communist and paramilitary group, forcing London to host a conference to bring peace back. Turkey promoted the sharing of the island, proposing its plan in 1957: it will receive the north part of the 35th parallel while the south will remain under Greek administration. However, the Turk Cypriots were mostly settled in the south, which implied a great population displacement to the north and the risk of a humanitarian crisis. This solution was therefore rejected.
To get what it wanted, Turkey began employing more radical means. From 1957, it supported the Turkish Resistance Organisation(TMT), a movement advocating for separatism. In 1958, the TMT started transferring the first Turkish community members to the north, causing confrontations with Greeks. For the UK, the situation was so confused that it declared Cyprus’ independence in 1960. The proclamation didn’t solve the problem and new clashes appeared in 1963 and 1964. This last year, the Turkish Security Council planned a military operation, meant to support the appearing Turkish enclaves, that was quickly cancelled after Lyndon Johnson and Nikita Khrushchev put Ankara under pressure. Nonetheless, Turkey kept providing them with logistic assistance, waiting for a pretext to intervene. In 1974, Cypriot President Makarios, considered too close to the communists and too slow to accomplish Enosis, was overthrown by a coup organised by the EOKA and supported by Greek colonels’ junta, the same that took power in Athens in 1967. The signal was given and Ankara sent its army to occupy the north, an occupation that has lasted since then.
Cyprus has thus been strategic to Turkey for centuries. After the 1974 coup, controlling its northern part allowed Ankara to watch Greece’s actions, particularly its potential pretentions to extend its EEZ, and deploy military influence in the area. Today, energy matters added new challenges making the region unstable.
The hydrocarbons matter
Since the end of the twentieth century, oil companies have been looking for hydrocarbons in Eastern Mediterranean. From 2000, many discovers happened, exciting the interests. Israel was the main beneficiary of those explorations, estimated at 950 billion cubic metres (bcm) ramified on three deposits called Mari-B (30 bcm in 2000), Tamar (300 bcm in 2009) and Leviathan (620 bcm in 2010). From 2009 and the Israelian military operation against Gaza, Turkey began to change its mind regarding the Israelian alliance that was ongoing at the time. Moreover, in May 2010, a few days before revealing the Leviathan field, the Israelian navy attacked a humanitarian flotilla that was attempting to break Gaza blockade, killing nine Turks. The refusal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to officially apologize led to the suspension of diplomatic relations. Tel-Aviv seized the opportunity to get closer to Cyprus and Greece, in order to find a new diplomatic and energetic partnership. In 2011, Cyprus revealed discovering Aphrodite deposit for an estimated 200 bcm amount, consolidating Israel in its new alliance. As a consequence, the three countries agreed to build a new pipeline called Eastmed, aimed at delivering gas to Europe. In 2018, Cyprus declared having identified a new deposit called Calypso for a 226 bcm quantity. A few days later, Turkey stopped a drill ship belonging to ENI company to reach the bloc 3, one of those compartments that delineate the most favourable area in gas. The same year, Egypt and Cyprus entered into a gas agreement. In 2015 indeed, Cairo detected Zohr gas field, assessed at 849 bcm, the most consequent of all in the region. Therefore, will Egypt join the project ?
Anyway, the Eastmed pipeline would be a great defeat for Erdogan. This is why he signed the November 2019 agreement with Tripoli. This deal permits him to slow its construction by sailing in waters that do not belong to Ankara while annoying Greece and Cyprus. The Turkish president wants to keep its strategical position in energy supply, especially if the pipe is supposed to cross Cyprus, where half of the territory is dominated by its military. Nevertheless, an agreement was adopted between Greece, Cyprus and Israel on 2nd January 2020 in Athens. Acknowledged by the European Union (UE) and the US, the deal was denounced by Erdogan, the Turkish President claiming that the plan was doomed to failure. Ankara’s aggressiveness since August is thus a new attempt to avoid Turkey being excluded from the banquet. The tensions have been strong for the last few weeks but France, Greece and Cyprus were not backed by their allies.
What reactions to Turkey’s actions ?
The sensitive point concerns NATO. Turkey, France and Greece are all members of the Atlantic Alliance. Hence, NATO was embarrassed by the crisis given that Ankara is an essential ally. Turkey’s geography, located between Europe and the Middle East, is strategic to NATO to keep a presence in its southern flank. NATO is thus ready to accept any provocations from Turkey as long as it remains in the Alliance. For instance, it never condemned the Turkish operation launched against the Kurds in October 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaking of Turkey’s “legitimate safety concerns”. Therefore, Ankara’s last manoeuvres have received no warning from NATO. Moreover, NATO revealed its powerlessness as it is neither made to solve internal conflicts nor regional problematics. On 3rd September 2020, Stoltenberg declared : “As long as we have so many ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, we believe that there is a need to have technical talks on how to develop enhanced mechanisms for deconfliction.” […] “No agreement has been reached yet, but the talks have started”. The next day, Greece and Turkey were still quarrelling. Athens requested for the withdrawal of all Turkish vessels before starting talks, while Ankara accused its neighbour of refusing dialogue. Anyway, Turkey will remain in the Alliance as there is no exclusion procedure foreseen by the treaty.
The EU response was not really different. Except for France, the EU shone by its inaction. How explain it ? Since July, Germany ensures rotating presidency of the EU. In Berlin, the blackmail used by Erdogan regarding migrants frightened German leaders. Moreover, Germany shelters the most significative Turkish diaspora in Europe, giving Erdogan an opportunity of manipulation. Both arguments explain Germany’s caution, that favours a discreet diplomatic solution. Indeed, Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the “efforts led by Germany for political mediation towards de-escalation”.
In this way, will EU dare to sanction Turkey ? To reach this objective, sanctions require unanimity of the 27. Nonetheless, many obstacles have to be overcome. Firstly, Germany does not seem agreeing such decision. Secondly, Cyprus is blocking talks on Belarus’ sanctions as long as no guarantee is given about sanctioning Turkey too. Thirdly, the spokesman of Turkey’s ruling party, Omer Celik, warned the EU on the migratory issue : “I don’t expect things to come to the point of sanctions. The EU should not expect cooperation on refugees after that time”.
With those elements, can real decisions be taken against Ankara ? Furthermore, the EU may face contradiction. Indeed, if Belarus is sanctioned, so has to be Turkey, on behalf of coherence. However, if Turkey is spared, it will contradict the Ukrainian crisis. When Crimea returned to Russia after Vladimir Putin sending troops in the peninsula, the UE condemned it and expressed clearly its indignation before sanctioning Moscow by economics measures, on behalf of international law. Anyway, this would not be the first EU’s foreign policy paradox. When Cyprus became an EU member state in 2004, Turkish army was occupying the island for thirty years. And yet, Turkey has been applying to enter EU since 1987 whereas no sanctions have ever been taken against Ankara since then.
Hence, the EU is split into two : the side of strength, the French one, and the side of gentleness, the German one. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to consider those options as rivals. The use of military does not mean that negotiations are useless, but it shows that EU member-states may respond to any offense to one of them. If Erdogan understands force, the EU has to act like a geopolitical power. But can it ? The answer seems obvious. As long as the EU is not a State, divergences will continue to appear on international affairs. France should thus take the lead of the EU on foreign policy and continue to have recourse to force when it is necessary. Emmanuel Macron seems accepting this role. He gathered the Med7 composed of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus in Ajaccio on 10th September 2020 to discuss Eastern Mediterranean matters.
On 13th September, Ankara called back the Oruc Reis, suggesting that de-escalation may be on the way. If Athens acknowledged the decision, speaking of a positive step, Ankara specified that it was only about maintenance and that the ship will carry out round trips. For Pascal Boniface, director of the Strategic and International Relations Institute, the Orus Reis return may be explained by the French reaction, tough and efficient. For him, the official Turkish explanation about maintenance was only to save face.
Negotiations are ongoing. They may be hard due to Turkey’s recent attitude. To prevent any future Crisis, Greece announced that it will buy 18 Rafale aircrafts to France. This statement delighted French officials, as long as Athens is financially able to honour the deal. However, Emmanuel Macron may be quite alone in this battle, since no other main country stood alongside Paris. Germany fears Erdogan’s blackmail, the UK has to manage the Brexit, Russia has stood still so far, and the US are more interested in the presidential election, even though they indirectly supported Greece and Cyprus. Indeed, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Nicosia on 12th September after Washington announced lifting for one year the arms embargo on Cyprus that lasted for more than thirty years. Moreover, Pompeo left the island without meeting the Turk Cypriots, causing the anger of Ankara. Tensions in Eastern Mediterranean will probably last some time. The European Council on 24th and 25th September will decide on whether to sanction Turkey or not. No matter the outcome, Turkey won’t stop soon bothering EU’s interests. In this way, the EU, and France particularly, have to be ready for the next Erdogan’s move.
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