In the Eastern Mediterranean, the West has retreated. That leaves Turkey and Russia to fill the vacuum.
PARIS — While many American foreign policymakers are focused on China and the South China Sea, some should take a closer look at Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, which could be the next geopolitical flash point for Europe and NATO to confront.
To some extent, a similar dynamic is at play. Just as China makes territorial claims that put it at odds with other Asian nations, Turkey is the increasingly disruptive, rising power in the Eastern Mediterranean — all too eager to make its intentions known in Libya and Syria.
For the West, Turkey’s assertiveness is a complex challenge. For one thing, Turkey, as a NATO member, is part of the very alliance it is disrupting. For another, Russia has also expanded its role in the region, and most of the West is largely hesitant to get involved there.
The situation looks like a perfect illustration of the new world disorder.
The Eastern Mediterranean has not been a quiet place since 2011, when the Arab Spring unseated Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and led President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to unleash a war on his own people. A NATO intervention in Libya to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from crushing a popular uprising failed to make things any better. Libya became a lawless kingdom of rival militias, open to Islamist extremists, where migrants heading to Europe would be kidnapped and ransomed before being put on rickety boats by traffickers.
Traumatized by their failure, as well as the killing of the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, NATO countries have largely stayed away from the region.
Russia, Iran and later Turkey have filled that vacuum in Syria, helping Mr. al-Assad crush the opposition at a tragic human cost. And now, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey are repeating a similar scenario in Libya, where, like a modern czar and sultan on parallel neo-imperial tracks, they have established a de facto condominium.
Today, Libya is divided in two parts. The western part, around the capital, Tripoli, is ruled by a United Nations-backed government, which survived a yearlong offensive by rival forces in May, thanks only to support from Turkey. Turkey provided firepower and brought in thousands of mercenaries from Syria.
The assault on Tripoli was led by Khalifa Hifter, a self-styled field marshal who controls eastern Libya. He is supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt and enjoys assistance from perhaps 1,000 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private army with close links to the Kremlin. Having halted Mr. Hifter’s offensive, Turkey now has a decisive hold on Tripoli.
What will Turkey do with it? The question is of primary concern to the European Union. “What happens in the Eastern Mediterranean is no longer a peripheral issue for Europe,” the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, noted in a recent report.
Turkey’s ever expanding activities in the area have many tentacles: Turkey’s unresolved dispute with Greece over Cyprus is complicated by claims to recently discovered gas fields. That led Turkey to strike a deal last November with Libya for a maritime boundary that created an exclusive economic zone that encroaches upon Greek and Cypriot interests. Turkey’s ruling party also has links with the Muslim Brotherhood, and, of vital importance, Turkey controls a crucial migrant route to Europe.
As always, the European Union is divided. France took the lead but marched ahead alone, not trying to involve Italy, which has historical links and business interests with Libya. Concerned about the spread of jihadist groups in the lands south of Libya, France early on put its bet on Mr. Hifter, who seemed better armed to serve as a bulwark against Islamist terrorism.
Wrong choice. “Hifter committed a grave mistake when he decided to launch an offensive on Tripoli,” a French diplomatic source now reckons. The French could not stop him, the Americans would not try, and the Russians helped him.
France now finds itself isolated when confronting Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. On June 10, off the Libyan coast, a Turkish flotilla encountered a French frigate, the Courbet, under NATO command as part of an operation to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on Libya. The French and Turkish versions of the incident differ: Paris lodged a complaint but a NATO investigation was inconclusive.
When France looked for support in its clash with Turkey at a NATO meeting, it could rally only eight countries to its side out of 30, and neither the United States nor Britain came to the rescue. Yet President Emmanuel Macron has not hesitated to accuse Turkey of “criminal responsibility” in Libya. Among Mr. Macron’s advisers, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia is considered a challenge to NATO — as much so as it is a challenge to all Europeans when Turkey brings Syrian mercenaries into Libya.
Could France be right to sound the alarm about Turkey’s ambitions? Unfortunately, being right alone doesn’t help much. “The mission of France has always been to have a vision that no one shares,” Gérard Araud, a former French ambassador to Washington, has joked. Last November, after NATO didn’t respond when Turkey endangered French forces in Syria, Mr. Macron referred to a “brain death” of the alliance because it had not reacted to a member’s breach of NATO solidarity.
The Trump administration does not claim that France is wrong. It even shares France’s concerns over Libya’s “terrible situation,” as stated by Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser.
“We don’t want Libya to be colonized by Turkey or Russia,” he said in Paris on Bastille Day.
But to Washington, Russia’s presence is much more of a concern than Turkey’s. Mr. Trump does not want to mess with Mr. Erdogan. He is happy to let Mr. Macron play the bad cop. As for France’s European friends, they will most likely quietly wait for Nov. 3.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer.