When dealing with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the European Union has often confronted multiple challenges: authoritarianism, terrorism, popular revolutions, prolonged civil wars, and human trafficking.
But now Europe is facing major game changers across its Southern Neighborhood. Old-time foes like Russia and Iran have a much stronger footprint in the region; Turkey is partly turning its back to NATO and playing the Russian card; and the United States has become an unpredictable ally. At issue is whether EU leaders will muster the courage and cohesion to confront this new geopolitical landscape or if they will remain hapless. Either way, the consequences are immense.
Since September 2015, Russia has distinctly reinforced its military, energy, and political involvement in the Middle East, generally in an anti-Western direction.
Russia has set up in Latakia its first ever air base in the Middle East. Nothing short of a sovereign base, it is protected by S-300 and S-400 missile systems manned by Russian personnel, and it is able to support the Assad regime. This facility will most probably remain operational for years to come with ambitions going far beyond Syrian territory. Similarly, Russia’s Tartus naval station was reinforced in northern Syria, allowing for a regular “sea bridge” with its naval bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.
Russian military sales have also been struck with Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—countries that had previously given priority to purchases from Western countries. The Belfer Center went as far as commenting that “Russia is taking over the Middle East, one country at a time.”
Less spectacular, but perhaps more long-term oriented, is Russia’s energy strategy in the Middle East. The sector has witnessed rapid progress in many countries, with Russian investments in exploration, production, and transit in Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. One of the most spectacular pieces of infrastructure is the Turk Stream pipeline, destined to supply Russian gas to both Turkey and Southeast Europe across the Black Sea, effectively rendering attempts to diversify the EU’s gas supply lines from the Caspian Sea or Central Asia much less attractive. The European Energy Security Strategy is directly impacted.
Moscow’s rapprochement in the military and energy fields with a number of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries is coupled with concerted efforts to develop much closer relations with all countries in the region.
These systematic efforts have made Russia a more powerful actor in the Middle East, sometimes close to confrontation with Western powers over, for instance, Syria; in other cases directly countering European countries’ lead (including gas exploration off Egypt and Lebanon); or confronting U.S. dominance in military sales (such as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia). In short, this is about a game changer: by vastly expanding its diplomatic outreach and by setting up permanent military bases in the region (like the United States, United Kingdom, and France have done), Russia has altered several strategic parameters in the Middle East region to its advantage.
Similarly, Iran—through a policy sometimes called the “axis of resistance”—has developed its Mediterranean ambitions and reinforced its military involvement in Lebanon and Syria in a clearly anti-Western and anti-Israeli posture. Tehran has long supplied the Lebanese militia Hezbollah with missiles of various types and, more recently, with drones. Traditionally, deliveries were made by air or sea via Syria, prompting raids by the Israeli military. Now, Iran has set up small manufacturing facilities in Syria, compelling Israel to change its response pattern.
Although small in absolute terms, these facilities—together with a permanent presence in Syria of Iranian ground forces equipped with medium-range missiles covering the entire Israeli territory—represent a substantial game changer in the military security architecture in the Middle East. They create the conditions of a more effective threat to Israel and of a permanent land corridor from Iran to Southern Lebanon via Iraq and Syria, especially once Western forces vacate the Levant. Shia empowerment is a guiding principle, and it serves the objective of reaching the Mediterranean shores.
For its part, Turkey—a member of NATO member since 1952 and one of its top three conventional forces—has started a broad military and political rapprochement with Russia.
Driven toward autocracy by the shifting winds of domestic politics and by fear of losing its sixteen-year uninterrupted electoral dominance, the AKP leadership has broken away from the democratic principles inherent to the country’s NATO membership and EU accession request. An alliance with the nationalist party MHP has driven the AKP leadership toward the cancellation of peace efforts with the Kurdish (or PKK) insurgency and renewed tensions with the Republic of Cyprus.
Beyond domestic politics, and from a Western standpoint, this “New Turkey” has introduced four major game changers of its own: First, a massive financial scheme to help Iran bypass U.S. sanctions. Second, three military interventions in Syria—in close coordination with Russia and at odds with the U.S. and European policy of defeating ISIL. Third, Ankara’s participation in the Astana peace process, an alliance of diverging agendas together with Moscow and Tehran to try to “solve” the Syrian war. And finally, Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 missile systems.
By far, the procurement—and possible deployment by the end of 2019—of Russian S-400 missile systems, manned by Russian personnel embedded in the Turkish air force architecture, would be in complete contradiction to Turkey’s commitments within NATO. Even more importantly, it would put at risk the U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighters being deployed as the standard multirole aircraft in American, Belgian, British, Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Israeli, Italian, Norwegian, and Turkish air forces, among others.
While being portrayed by Ankara as a decision harmless to NATO, the S-400 deployment would drastically shatter the sixty-seven-year participation of Turkey in the North Atlantic Alliance. It would inevitably put into question the use of the İncirlik air base by the United States (including the dozens of prepositioned U.S. nuclear warheads) and would lead to serious questions about the future force projection strategy of Turkey when its light aircraft carrier enters in service in 2021.
This would also have major consequences on the way in which European Union governments deal with Turkey as an actor in the MENA region.
Finally, the United States has become an unpredictable actor in the Middle East under the Trump presidency. The discrepancies between the president, his national security team, and the diplomatic establishment have now become a permanent feature of U.S. foreign policy, and translate into a lack of consultations with allies—including when troops are involved in joint operations, as in Syria. Questions of trust in and predictability from Washington now routinely arise in European foreign ministries, especially given the foreseen lighter military footprint of the U.S. in the Middle East. This is turn raises the question of the EU’s Southern Neighborhood policy. Will there be such a policy? Will the EU stop being a hapless observer? Will Europe leave Israel to set the terms of a new military equilibrium in the Levant?
Even if they came in small installments, these changes in postures and policies in Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and Washington D.C. constitute major game changers in the Middle East. They should sound alarms in EU capitals, as they will directly impact the union’s own security and energy policies, and Europe’s relationship with the MENA region.