Competition in the eastern Mediterranean
The center of gravity of the struggle in the Middle East is moving toward the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. The tension between the U.S., Gulf countries and Iran has been on the Hormuz Strait and its surroundings. When we remember the war in Yemen with this, it can be said that in two of the most significant international waterways through which oil and trade are running, Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, there is congestion.
Iran, with its military deployment and control in Hormuz as well as its support to Houthi militias in Yemen, has the potential to slow down the transfer of oil and gas from the Gulf to Europe and to the Far East. Recent reports informed us that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad promised the transfer of a port along the Mediterranean coast to Iran on his visit to Tehran. If this happens, Iran will have access to the east of the Mediterranean and extend its influence.
It is not hard to see that Saudi Arabia and other countries are looking for alternative ways to transport their oil and gas. It seems that Saudis are planning to transport the oil via pipelines directly to the Red Sea, bypassing Hormuz and Bab al Mandab. Therefore Egypt, Jordan and Sudan become important actors and critical countries for Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi support to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt after the 2013 military coup, widening of the Suez Canal, investments in Sinai, building of great depots and deep ports are proof to that. Also, we can add Saudi and Egyptian search for a solution on the problem of transferring sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia at the entrance of Aqaba Gulf to this. For these reasons, the stability of the Sinai Peninsula has become an issue not only for Gulf countries, but also for Europe.
With the Neom City Project, Saudi leadership wants to make the north of the Red Sea coast a hub and attraction center opening to the West.
The direction and fate of the countries on the other side of the Red Sea, Sudan and Somalia, are important in this regard. The security of international trade is equal to the security of those states. It should not surprise anyone to witness another coup in this part of the world, namely Sudan under these circumstances.
The developments in Libya, the recent offensive of General Khalifa Haftar cannot be held separate from these calculations.
The eastern Mediterranean is becoming one of the major areas of competition not only due to its position for transportation of hydrocarbon products but also as a source of them.
On the one side of this competition are regional powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey, while on the other side global powers like Russia, China and the U.S. The war in Syria shows us that this region is one of the main axes of the international competition. This competition is multi-dimensional and complex.
Russia’s activities to strengthen its military capacity in the region and its search for influence in Libya following the annexation of Crimea as a base of military operations are big challenges for NATO, the U.S. and its allies. The problems within NATO and between Washington and its European allies are strengthening Russia’s hand.
As a coastal state of the region, Turkey’s decisions and moves are important for the fate of this competition. It will not be realistic to expect Turkey to act in the same way it did during the Cold War, jumping on the U.S.’s bandwagon, with limited capacity and impact. Turkey proved itself, with its investments in the national defense industry and in military shipments, as a country not to be pressured but as one to work with.
Western countries can only lead the developments in the region if they bring their goals into line with the realities of the region. The U.S. and other actors should make the strategic reading in the right way and must determine to treat Turkey as a partner or a competitor. Indecisiveness hurts both sides.
Working with the PKK, which Turkey has been fighting against for the past 40 years, and its affiliates is poisoning relations. The propaganda activities of FETÖ, whose leadership Turkey holds responsible for masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, are also destructive for both sides. By manipulations, they are spoiling the possibilities of healthy relations and communication.
Turkey also has obligations to follow to fix relations. Turkish leaders visiting the U.S. have confirmed their commitment to the NATO alliance, having clearly revealed that Turkey has no intention to leave it. This is an important step from the Turkish side. Turkey justifies its purchase of S-400s from Russia, citing the inadequacy of NATO when it needed support, but does not portray it as a challenge to the nature of the alliance.
Secondly, apart from the controversy in Istanbul, the exchange of power in municipalities, including the capital Ankara, has been smooth following the local elections. Despite the hot debate, the controversy over Istanbul is being dealt with the legal process. This can be regarded as Turkey’s commitment to democratic principles.
Before the competition in the eastern Mediterranean gets severe, Turkey and the U.S. have to find rational solutions to their problems.