Tensions are rising dramatically in the Eastern Mediterranean against the backdrop of a number of major developments, foremost among which are the discoveries of massive underwater natural gas fields that are changing the regional energy map.
The discoveries have sparked intense competition over these resources and galvanised action to demarcate maritime borders. They have also whetted some countries’ appetite for plundering what rightfully belongs to others.
Another important development is the resurgence of the rivalry between world powers in international waters. This comes on top of bitter and protracted conflicts in Syria and Libya where state collapse or frailty has generated a vast space for foreign interventions on the part of regional powers that are working to assert their control beyond their borders. The Turkish regime offers a flagrant example of an emergent hegemonic ambition that is jeopardising the security and stability of the region.
Ankara has just renewed its pledge to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) with weapons, troops and police. In so doing, it has further notched up tensions in the Mediterranean only days after Turkish President Erdogan signed a military agreement and a maritime border memorandum of understanding with Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the GNA. The maritime border agreement, described by the EU as illegal, is a flagrant breach of international law.
The recent meetings between senior official from Tripoli and Ankara sponsored by Doha present a picture of coordination between these three parties bent on escalating the conflict in Libya, regardless of the amount of lip service they pay to “peace and stability” in the Mediterranean or elsewhere. Not only has the Erdogan regime practically boasted of violating the UN embargo on arms transfers to Libya, it is strongly suspected of being instrumental to the transfer of Islamic State group (IS) fighters to Libya since the defeats of IS in Syria and Iraq. IS elements make up a significant component of the militias that are fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA). Instead of working together with others to combat terrorism and terrorist groups in the Middle East, which is an important part of combating illegal migration to Europe, Ankara has opted to serve as an agent for the spread of instability and violence in an extremely turbulent environment.
Egypt has stressed on numerous occasions that will not stand by idly in the face of destructive interventions that pose a direct threat to Egyptian strategic interests in the Mediterranean. Egyptian Armed Forces have just staged a powerful set of drills in response to the provocative actions of Turkish forces. According to military analysts, the manoeuvres, which engaged a Mistral helicopter carrier, submarines and frigates, are intended to signal to Turkey that the Egyptian navy is serious and prepared for combat. The Egyptian Armed Forces command has announced that professional combat-related activities have been carried out in order to assert control over Egyptian economic zones in the Mediterranean and to safeguard crucial underwater targets.
As President Al-Sisi said in the opening session of the World Youth Forum this week, “we have to be resolute in the face of countries that sponsor terrorism, regardless of political and economic interests.” He added: “Terrorism is a satanic industry and a cover for the ends that certain countries seek to attain.”
The international community has failed to act to restrain the ambitions of parties that are inserting themselves into conflicts in the Arab region with the purpose of promoting their narrow interests. Their actions will court needless confrontations and aggravate many grave problems such as illegal migration and terrorism by enabling terrorists to attain targets that had previously been out of their reach — notably the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.