By Ramzy Baroud
NATO is an alliance in name alone. The brewing conflict over territorial waters in the Eastern Mediterranean indicates that the military union of mostly Western countries is faltering.
The current Turkish-Greek tensions are only one facet of a much larger conflict also involving Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European nations. Notably absent from the list are the US and Russia, despite the latter, in particular, standing to gain or lose much economic leverage depending on the outcome of the conflict.
Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots, and Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed in January by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cyprus’ Nicos Anastasiades. The agreement envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that, once finalized, is projected to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic, but also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will lessen Europe’s reliance on Russian supplies, which pass through two pipelines, Nord Stream and TurkStream, the latter going through Turkey.
Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom supplies Europe with an estimated 40 percent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Moscow significant economic and political leverage. Some European countries, especially France, have labored to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently underway in Libya is tantamount to a colonial expedition aimed at balancing out their over-reliance on Russian supplies of gas and other energy. Fully aware of France and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in the military showdown between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the forces in the east that are loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
While the conflict in Libya has been ongoing for years, the EastMed pipeline plan has added fuel to the fire. It has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement, worried Russia, and empowered Israel, which may now cement its economic integration with the European continent.
Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya last year signed a maritime boundary treaty that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold maneuver allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s northeast coast. This claimed exclusive economic zone is unacceptable in Europe because it clashes with the ambitious EastMed project and fundamentally alters the geopolitics — largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO — of this region.
However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO has been on the rise almost constantly. Its members have fought major wars in the name of defending one another and also to protect “the West” from the “Soviet menace.” NATO remained strong and relatively unified, even after the Soviet Union was dismantled and the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1991. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity despite its raison d’etre — defeating the Soviets — no longer being a factor because Washington wished to maintain its military hegemony, especially in the Middle East.
While the Gulf War of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, the Iraq War of 2003 was its undoing. The US adopted an “exit strategy” from Iraq that foresaw a gradual American retreat from the Middle East and a simultaneous “pivot to Asia” in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific.
The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering term, “leading from behind,” to describe the role of the US in Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, Washington was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker members, including Italy, France and the UK. While former US President Barack Obama insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outweighed its usefulness for Washington.
France, meanwhile, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it uses to keep the EU intact. It is this French faith in European and Western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. It is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises, including the flaring Eastern Mediterranean conflict.
Last December, Emmanuel Macron stood up to US President Donald Trump at the NATO summit in London. Previously, Trump had chastised NATO over its reliance on America and threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if fellow members did not start contributing their fair share.
It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries like Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya and Turkey lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany apparently taking over the leadership of NATO as the US remains almost completely absent.
It is hard to imagine the reinvention of NATO, at least as an organization that caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behavior, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts. In 2018, Macron made what at the time seemed a baffling suggestion: A “true, European army.” However, considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army after all.