Vitaly Naumkin

What Does the Future Hold for the Middle East?

Turbulent developments have swept across the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade, where old conflicts have become linked with new ones. Influential foreign forces have also come into the picture to compete with regional rivals, further fueling tensions. The discovery of gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has only heightened these tensions.

Despite all attempts to put an end to the cycle of violence, armed conflicts in the region have become the norm. Tensions between regional powers have become so great that debates are being held on whether a military conflict may erupt between NATO members Greece and Turkey. Discussions have also revolved on the possibility of NATO allies imposing sanctions against Ankara (although it seems unlikely to ever happen).

Russia’s role in all of this emerged on the diplomatic, security and economic levels, and significantly when it comes to energy. Moscow has been strongly promoting its approach of “friendship with everyone” and has been increasingly offering its services as mediator among rival regional players. It is enough to mention the major drills the Russian navy held in the Mediterranean on September 1 to 8. They were the first in the region in Russia’s modern history and included the participation of 28 ships, two submarines and 34 jets.

Moscow is concerned about the signing of a defense cooperation agreement between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias. The deal will call for the expansion of the American base on the island of Crete and three new ones will be built. Russian military analysts believe that Greece, by resorting to the Americans in its dispute with Turkey, will inadvertently become a pawn in the game against Moscow and will gain nothing from the United States once Washington resolves its problems with Turkey.

When speaking of mediation, I would like to point to the latest visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Cyprus, which boosted cooperation between the two countries. The minister presented Moscow’s services in resolving the Cypriot-Turkish dispute should they agree to it. The growing trust between Moscow and Ankara and the gradual cooperation between them may make such a proposal viable. Moreover, reports have shown that Moscow has played a role in improving relations between Turkey and Egypt.

Lavrov said that the increased Russian-Turkish cooperation will not have any impact on the dialogue with Nicosia. He stressed that relations between Russia and Cyprus can now be described as friendly and full of trust. Cyprus, for its part, expressed its great appreciation over the visit and granted Lavrov its highest honor. A handful of skeptics believe Russia will never defend Cyprus at the expense of ties with Turkey, which Moscow views as a more valuable asset.

Turkey, on its end and despite pressure from various sides, has no intention of abandoning its plans to develop the eastern Mediterranean region despite disputes with Greece and Cyprus. It will continue to drill wells and will be prepared to take decisive steps to “defend its rights,” as it claims. At the same time, it is taking reconciliatory steps. Many Russian analysts were surprised with the Turkish opposition’s negative response to Turkey’s decision to withdraw the seismic research vessel Oruc Reis from the disputed area after it had sailed to it on August 10 with an entourage of warships.

Russian analysts have questioned the seriousness of such a “reconciliatory” move by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dismissing it as a tactical gesture, (especially since the vessel was docked in Antalya for resupplies) aimed at not just Greece, but the whole European Union ahead of its September 24 – 25 summit.

At any rate, is there anything wrong with Turkey seeking to ease tensions especially in wake of serious discussions among the EU about the possibility of imposing sanctions on Ankara? Erdogan’s maneuver is an important step for everyone to ease the dangerous tensions that are putting relations between members at risk. These tensions have caused deep concern, significantly in wake of tank exercises the Greek military had staged near the border with Turkey. American tanks were involved in the drill.

On the other hand, the opposition has criticized Erdogan for his saber-rattling and lack of dialogue with regional countries. They have also slammed him for making unjustified concessions to the Greeks. However, the modest positive reactions from the EU and Greece to the Oruc Reis’ withdrawal from the disputed zone reveal that Erdogan’s moves are reaching their goal.

In an attempt to push the EU to take firm measures against Erdogan and force him to make concessions, Cyprus obstructed, days before Lavrov’s visit, the EU’s attempt to impose sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and several of his senior officials. It demanded that Europe first impose sanctions on Turkey. Despite such moves, the majority of analysts believe that the chances of Europe slapping sanctions on Turkey are slim. Alongside Greece and Cyprus, France remains Erdogan’s fiercest opponent in Europe. President Emmanuel Macron had declared that Turkey was no longer a partner of the EU in the Mediterranean and has demanded clarifications from Erdogan over his intentions in the area before contacts between them can be held. Germany, meanwhile, is the supporter of the “soft approach” towards Ankara because it is home to a large and influential Turkish diaspora.

The gas diplomacy is an important approach for Russia in the region. It is a significant factor in the complicated Russian-Turkish interaction in Libya. Russia and Turkey are interested in easing the contradictions between them by attempting to reach a cessation of hostilities in Libya. We can expect Moscow and Ankara to take more confidence-building steps in the near future by making serious moves to normalize the situation in Libya. Indeed, some reports have said that they were already working to achieve this.

Here, the experience of cooperation between them in Syria comes in handy. They have deployed joint patrols in Syria that are very useful for them, and should their efforts yield fruit, then they may bolster their positions in Libya. One Turkish politician told me that Turkey was better off at this point dealing with one major global power: Russia. Russia, he explained, has vast experience in getting itself out of difficult positions and of achieving constructive cooperation despite differences. Ankara is better off working with a country that it enjoys common interests with, than working with a few where these interests deeply clash.