Turkey's Mediterranean's Gambit Will Leave It Further Isolated

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspects a military honour guard before addressing his supporters in Bursa, Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspects a military honour guard before addressing his supporters in Bursa, Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The last time Turkish military power reached out across the Mediterranean Sea was in the 16th century. On Nov. 27, 2019, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), announced they had reached agreement on two memorandums of understanding. The agreements, one dealing with security and military cooperation and a second on dealing with “Restrictions of Maritime Jurisdictions,” represent, for the first time since the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Turkey's attempt to reassert its political and military influence over a broad area of the Mediterranean Sea.

Over the course of the 15th and the first half of the 16th centuries the Ottoman Empire emerged as a major naval power in the Mediterranean. For roughly a century and a half, Ottoman naval forces did not once suffer a significant defeat at the hands of Christian Europe's navies. Indeed, it was widely believed across Europe that Ottoman naval forces were invincible.

In 1565, Suleiman the Magnificent dispatched a Turkish armada comprised of some 28,000 men, 6,000 elite Janissaries and 6,000 cavalry soldiers to lay siege to Malta. In addition, there were an additional 20,000 men from the Barbary pirates along the North African coast.

The island, having been given as a headquarters to the Knights of St John by Charles V in 1532, was defended by a contingent of 500 knights, 2,000 Spanish soldiers and a 3,000-strong force of Maltese militia. For Suleiman, Malta was little more than “a nest of vipers”, a base from which the Knights preyed on Ottoman shipping.

Outnumbered 10 to 1, the Knights withstood a siege that lasted more than three months, and which included, at one point, a multi-day bombardment that saw Ottoman artillery fire more than 130,000 cannonballs against the towns of Senglea and Birgu. The ferocity of that artillery bombardment was not surpassed until the artillery barrages on the Western Front during WW I. Only with the arrival of fresh troops from Sicily was the siege finally broken. Their heroic defense would inexorably tie the Knights of St. John to the tiny Mediterranean island and earn them a place in history and legend.

Suleiman had intended the siege of Malta as the first step in an ambitious plan to seize the island of Sicily and march up the Italian peninsula to take Rome. Suleiman's defeat tarnished the myth of Ottoman naval invincibility, but did not end it.

That would come six years later. In 1571, after protracted negotiations, Pope Pius V organized the Holy League -- an alliance of Spain, Venice, the Papacy -- and a collection of smaller states which sought a decisive showdown to break Ottoman naval power once and for all. The combined Holy League fleet represented some 75% of European naval power.

In command of the fleet was the 25-year-old Don Juan. He was an illegitimate child of Charles V, half-brother of Philip II. He had little military experience and none at naval command. His claim to fame was that he was the best dancer in Philip's court, and it was said that none of the Queen's ladies in waiting could resist his charm.

If ever there was a formula for a naval disaster, this was it. At Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras on Greece's Ionian coast, the two fleets met. The battle witnessed the first naval broadside against an opposing fleet. Surprisingly, the Holy League won a decisive victory. Ottoman naval power in the Mediterranean would continue, principally in the raiding activities of the Barbary pirates, but the Ottomans would never again threaten a sea-borne invasion in the broader Mediterranean.

In recent years, some Turkish officials have cited Ottoman history to reassert Turkish rights across a broad area of the Mediterranean. This policy is part of a broader Turkish strategy that has stoked nationalist sentiments in Turkey by promoting a revival of Ottoman practices and traditions. One aspect of that policy, termed the “Blue Homeland,” involved the assertion of Turkish claims over an area of roughly 462,000 square kilometers (178,000 square miles). It encompasses a broad region—roughly 50% of the Aegean Sea from the eastern tip of Crete to the Anatolian mainland and a significant portion of the eastern Mediterranean. The region includes the Dodecanese Islands and several of Greece's easternmost Aegean islands.

Turkish President Erdogan has stopped short of endorsing the “Blue Homeland,” although he has often claimed that the Dodecanese Islands should be returned to Turkey. On August 31, during a visit to Turkey's National Defense University in Istanbul, Erdogan conspicuously posed in front of a map depicting the “Blue Homeland” as Turkish territory. Blue Homeland was also the code name for a series of military drills between February 27 and March 8, 2019, conducted by Turkey in the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean.

The agreement with the GNA divides a broad strip of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, running roughly from Derna to the Egyptian border in eastern Libya, across to the southwest corner of Anatolia from Marmaris to Antalya between Libya and Turkey. The region cuts across Greece's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as set out in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Greece is a signatory to the Convention, Turkey is not. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently suggested that pursuant to the agreement Turkey might obtain oil concessions offshore Libya. He also indicated that Turkey would assist in Libyan reconstruction and that it might ask for a military base in eastern Libya.

In addition, Ankara and Tripoli signed an agreement calling for “expanded security and military” cooperation. The accord also calls for the deployment of a Turkish quick reaction force if requested by the GNA in Tripoli to support Libyan police and military forces.

Ankara has been a longstanding supporter of the GNA, providing financing and armaments, including advanced drones. The deployment of Turkish military forces to eastern Libya would be a significant escalation of Turkish support.

Turkey's expanded role in Libya and its claims on the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean have two significant, immediate consequences.

First, it potentially disrupts plans by Greece, Cyprus and Israel to construct the EastMed Gas Pipeline. The pipeline would link offshore fields in Israel and Cyprus with interconnector terminals in Italy, then link to Europe's gas distribution network. To date, discoveries in the Tamar and Leviathan fields in Israel and the Aphrodite and Calypso fields in Cyprus have been estimated at over 40 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves.

Ankara's attempt to be part of the EastMed project were rebuffed. As, too, was Turkey's effort to join the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, an intergovernmental body consisting of Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, the Palestinian Territories, Greece and Jordan designed to forge common positions on the exploitation of the regions gas fields.

According to a recent study by Wood Mackenzie, the eastern Mediterranean's hydrocarbon resources could amount to as much as 4.4 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas and another 1.7 billion barrels of petroleum. More important, the natural gas discoveries, to date, could be part of a broad geologic formation that extends well into the central Mediterranean region.

Ankara has already conducted exploratory drilling in areas claimed by Cyprus as part of its EEZ and has threatened to also drill in areas claimed by Greece. It has also indicated that it will intervene to prevent the building of the EastMed pipeline. Ankara's plans to block the development of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, unless it can participate, could significantly delay their further development.

The second immediate consequence of Turkey's expanded relationship with the GNA is a further potential escalation in Libya's six-year-long civil war.

Over the last several years, two competing centers of government have emerged in Libya. The Tripoli based GNA has the support of the UN, and has been recognized by many countries as the legitimate government of Libya.

The Benghazi based government of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA) has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. The Obama Administration had officially supported the GNA, as has the EU, but the Trump Administration has been signaling lately that it might switch sides and throw its support behind Haftar. The field marshal is a former Libyan army officer who fell out with Ghaddafi. He lived in the U.S. for many years and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Notwithstanding their official support for the GNA, U.S., British and French air forces have, in the past, intervened to assist Haftar's troops in clashes with jihadist groups in Libya.

In addition, various jihadist groups have on occasion emerged in Libya, most notably al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The latter were subject to U.S. air strikes and, according to unconfirmed rumors, operations by U.S. Special Forces. These groups no longer control any of the main cities, but retain an ongoing presence. In addition, there is a secessionist movement in the southern desert of the country by Tuareg nomads.

In April 2019, Haftar launched what he declared was the decisive battle for control of Libya. The LNA made significant progress, but it has been unable to take Tripoli or its airport. The GNA still controls a broad coastal strip from the Tunisian border to Sirte. This zone includes Libya's two largest cities, Tripoli and Misrata, both of which remain hotbeds of anti-Haftar support.

The LNA has received financial and military supplies from Egypt, Russia and the Emirates. In addition, according to several Western intelligence sources, Russian mercenaries belonging to the Wagner group have deployed in Libya. Their strength has been estimated at between 200 and as much as 900 soldiers.

The intervention of Turkish troops into the Libyan civil war would represent a dramatic escalation of the conflict and would prolong it.

Ankara's Foreign policy in the Mediterranean region is increasingly revisionist. Turkish President Erdogan's reference to Ottoman history to justify expanded Turkish claims and stoke nationalist sentiments has only generated hostility among Turkey's neighbors, served to further isolate Turkey and further strained its relationship with the European Union and the U.S.

Turkey's new agreement with the Libyan GNA will further draw Turkey into the Libyan civil war, but provide it little leverage against its opponents. Its attempts to unilaterally extend its claims in the eastern Mediterranean will leave it further frozen out of the region's hydrocarbon projects. That's a pity, because Ankara could have a valuable and constructive role to play in the development of the Mediterranean's offshore natural gas deposits. As long as Turkish policy is shaped by Erdogan's neo-Ottoman ambitions, such an outcome is unlikely.

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