Nagorno-Karabakh: a new Turkish front against Russia ? – by Pierre Razoux

Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the FMES Institute


By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, President Erdogan opened a new front facing the Kremlin to boast a symbolic success with his population and to force Vladimir Putin to accept a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts.  This strategy is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighbouring Georgia. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran. The relatively even military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other, a fortiori in the very mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. Any confrontation will structurally lead to a war of attrition, leaving time for the Turkish and Russian presidents to negotiate. Forcing his luck, Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be tempted to annex the northern part of Cyprus soon, exchanging his disengagement from the South Caucasus for the silence of the Kremlin.

By encouraging Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in his attempt to reconquer the secessionist province of Nagorno-Karabakh defended by Armenia (launched on September 27, 2020), has President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voluntarily opened a new front against the Kremlin to force Vladimir Putin to find a compromise on the other Syrian, Libyan, Mediterranean and energy fronts? It must be noted that the counteroffensive of Fayez el-Sarraj in Libya, supported by the Turkish President, is trampling on in front of Sirte[1], that the battle of Idlib is not turning to the advantage of pro-Turkish forces in Syria – even if the death-blow of the Syrian regime, supported by Moscow, is slow in coming – and that Turkey has had to back-pedal in the Eastern Mediterranean under triple pressure from the United States, NATO[2] and the Europeans[3]. It was thus time for the Turkish President to create a diversion – or to encourage it – so as to boast of a symbolic success with his population and make it forget the economic difficulties. What could be better for him than to agitate the Armenian scarecrow, the issue most likely to federate all the strata of a Turkish society still hostile to Christian Armenia? This time he favored the indirect approach by targeting Nagorno-Karabakh, through an intermediary proxy, without taking the risk of a direct attack on Armenian territory that would have undoubtedly led to a direct response from Russia.


The Turkish President is undoubtedly taking advantage of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia to strengthen his power on a background of exacerbated nationalism and expansionist ambition, as the press correspondents present on the spot testify[4]. His unabashed tweets go in the same direction, especially when he declares, less than an hour after the outbreak of hostilities : “The Turkish nation supports its Azerbaijani brothers with all its means, as always,” and then when outbids a few days later, saying, “We support our Azerbaijani brothers in their struggle to save their occupied lands and protect their homeland” and “Every unpunished crime (the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh) makes its perpetrator more insatiable; every uncounted crime invites new persecution”.[5]

The presence of a handful of Turkish F-16 fighters pre-positioned in Azerbaijan during the summer of 2020 within the framework of bilateral exercises between Ankara and Baku, then deployed on the air base of Ganja a few days before the launch of the Azerbaijani offensive[6], leaves little doubt about the premeditation of the Turkish President. This henceforth proven presence gives more credibility to the words of the spokesman of the Armenian Ministry of Defense indicating that one of its Su-25 ground attack aircraft had been shot down by a Turkish F-16 the day after the outbreak of hostilities. This may also have been one of the reasons why the Nagorno-Karabakh army fired some venerable SCUD missiles at the town of Ganja near the air base where the Turkish F-16s were apparently based.

The presence of Syrian fighters on the battlefield, close to the Iranian border, constitutes the second tangible element in favor of the premeditation thesis. On October 1, 2020, during the European summit in Brussels, President Emmanuel Macron pointed at Turkey’s responsibility by asserting that 300 Islamist fighters from Syria had transited through the Turkish city of Gazantiep, not far from the Idlib front in Syria[7]. His remarks have not been denied, but reinforced by those of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who was moved by the presence of these fighters near Iranian territory, at the extreme south of the front line[8]. Is this to be seen as an additional message from the Turkish President to his Russian and Iranian counterparts, his two partners in the Astana process[9], in the mode « I have the capacity to cause a nuisance against you two if we do not get along »? His risky gamble illustrates in any case the fact that the Astana Process is not the panacea that Moscow, Tehran and Ankara want to convince us of.

This strategy of the boutefeu is not without risk because the conflict could spread to the secessionist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighboring Georgia, at the risk of leading to a new Russian military intervention in the Caucasus. Above all, it could provoke an escalation of tensions with Iran, if the mortar fire that targeted Iranian territory during the first week of fighting were to intensify. Tehran did not hesitate to utter barely veiled threats in the direction of Baku and Ankara. In a telephone conversation with Ilham Aliyev, President Hassan Rohani stressed “the importance of respecting the territorial integrity of the IRI, as well as the lives of Iranian citizens in the regions bordering Nagorno-Karabakh … The Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate the targeting of its citizens”[10]. The day before, the diplomatic adviser to the Supreme Leader had stated: “We advise our Turkish friends to stop fanning the flames of conflict and to join us in helping to find a negotiated solution”[11]. To give more weight to their words, the Iranians massed infantry, artillery and drones on their border with Azerbaijan. In the very uncertain context which precedes the American presidential election, the Iranian government is nonetheless seeking to calm the situation in the region in order to be able to engage in dialogue with a new American administration, even as Washington envisages closing its embassy in Baghdad after repeated harassment by Shiite militias subservient to Tehran. The Iranian regime is all the more embarrassed because it is strategically close to Armenia[12], even though the latter is Christian Orthodox, and because it distrusts Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, even though this country is predominantly Shiite. It is true that Azerbaijan has never abandoned its ambitions to reforge “Great Azerbaijan” and that the Azeri population is numerous within the Iranian ethnic mosaic. Some Iranians believe that the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh could be only a first step in the agenda of the Aliyev family. All are wary of the instrumentalisation of the ethnic factor, as are many academics[13]. Iran also distrusts the close military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel.

One element seems certain: given the ambient hostility and the weight of history, Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not need to deploy much effort to convince President Aliyev to launch an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, President Aliyev kept telling his people that the time had come to regain the territories lost in 1994. The skirmishes of 2016 and then of July 2020 only served to stir up the determination of the Azerbaijani President, all the more so since he needed a success – even symbolic – to justify his spending on arms (when the price of a barrel of oil was high), to restore his coat of arms and to erase the memory of the war of independence (1988-1994) which resulted in nearly 20,000 Azerbaijani deaths.


Without going back over the historical causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – there is a plethora of articles summarising the positions of the two camps – let us analyse the battlefield, the military balance, what is known about the fighting and the consequences of all this on the probable continuation of operations if the provisional ceasefires that came into force on October 10, 2020 and then on October 18, 2020 were to shatter.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area of rocky highlands to which some deep valleys lead. It is thus a compartmentalised terrain that is very easy to defend, especially since the 1988-1994 war, since the Armenian militias, which physically dominate the gaps through which the assailant could emerge, have entrenched themselves in bunkers scattered along the front line. Most of the population is concentrated around the “capital” Stepanakert, itself protected by a circus of fortified hills. The Latchin corridor that links Nagorno-Karabakh to neighboring Armenia constitutes the zone best defended by the Armenian militias, because it is through this umbilical cord that all military and economic assistance from Armenia transits. Located far behind the front, it has not been the object of Azerbaijani attacks for the time being.

Only the eastern façade of Nagorno-Karabakh, consisting of plains and valleys conquered by Armenian militias at the end of the civil war, is vulnerable to massive attacks by the Azerbaijani army. In fact, it was along this façade that the latter launched its most determined assaults, which enabled it to re-conquer some villages in the northeast (Tartar, Talysh and Madagiz), in the center near Aghdam and Martuni, but above all in the southeast where the Azerbaijanis succeeded in seizing Fuzuli, then pushing their advantage in the direction of Djabrayl. It was in this last sector of the plain near the Iranian border that Syrian fighters were engaged, at the head of a vast mechanised offensive supported by mobile artillery and armed drones.

Map of military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh (September 27- October 12, 2020)

At no time did the town of Stepanakert suffer the threat of direct capture, especially since the Azerbaijani army, consisting mainly of conscripts, has only a limited number of commandos and airborne means to transport them by helicopter. On the other hand, Stepanakert has been the regular target of artillery fire and bombardments intended to weaken the morale of its inhabitants, forcing half of them to take refuge in the western part of the province, or even in Armenia. This is a great classic of recent military history: when the aggressor fails to penetrate the battlefield and threaten his opponent’s center of gravity, and the front becomes largely static, he attacks the population in an attempt to weaken its morale and combativeness. As always, the other side retaliated by targeting the enemy cities, which the Armenian militia did by targeting the large city of Gandja located not far from the front. And as always, the belligerents resorted to propaganda and psychological warfare to spread false news and try to influence the course of the fighting[14]

Despite the reconquest of several border towns and some sectors of the plain by the Azerbaijani army, the front remained largely static, each camp trying to crush the entrenched positions of the other under a deluge of shells. In this war of attrition, the Armenian militias overlooking the battlefield, well equipped with anti-tank missiles, were able to multiply their blows to the goal on Azerbaijani armored vehicles. The latter would have suffered heavy losses.[15] On the other hand, the Armenian artillery and Air Defense missile batteries were strangled by the armed drones of Israeli and Turkish origin equipping the troops in Baku. The Turkish (or Israeli, which would explain the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador stationed in Armenia) advisers did a very effective job in precipitating their Israeli ‘kamikaze’ drones of the Harop type against Armenian targets of high technological value (certain Turkish experts mention the destruction of several batteries of S-200 and S-300 surface-to-air missiles).[16]

For the moment, it does not seem that there has been massive fighting along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Local observers have reported the occasional bombing of crossing points between Armenia and the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan (attached to Azerbaijan), as well as skirmishes north of Lake Sevan. Thus, it is not yet a direct war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even if the latter supplies the militias of Nagorno-Karabakh with arms, munitions, advisors and probably fighters.

In any case, the relatively balanced military balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, illustrated by the table below, would not allow either of the two belligerents to conduct a victorious blitzkrieg against the territory of the other. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is capable of aligning a sufficient ratio of ground forces to break through a very mountainous front, even more compartmentalised than that of Nagorno-Karabakh, so as to threaten its capital. Yerevan is protected by a line of high mountains, but also by the presence of Russian troops deployed within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to which Armenia is linked. Azerbaijan, for its part, is not formally part of any defensive alliance, although it has a partnership with NATO and close military cooperation with Russia, Turkey, Israel and the United States. But Baku, located in an isthmus of the Caspian Sea, is far from the front and easily defensible by a network of rivers and swampy land that can easily be flooded.


Active Armed Forces
45,000 (42 000 within land forces) = 1.6 % of the population [mostly professionnal soldiers] 7 combat brigades 7 asset brigades (mostly artillery)20,000 (40 battalions) = 12 % of the local population      70,000 (57,000 within land forces) + 10,000 Internal Security Forces = 0.8 % of the population [mostly conscripts] 24 combat brigades 6 asset brigades
Active Land Forces :
Reserve : 200,000Reserve : 40,000Reserve : 300,000
Main Land Fighting Equipment
  100 T-72 Tanks 280 other Armoured vehicles (BRM & BMP-1/2) AT-14 Kornet-E Antitank missiles 230 Artillery 16 conventional SRBM (including 4 Iskander-E)    A hundred of Tanks AT-6 Spiral Antitank missiles 200 Artillery A dozen of conventional SRBM (mostly Scuds) + Large quantities of Armenian equipment    440 Tanks (including 100 T-90) 250 other Armoured vehicles 560 Armoured personal carriers AT-15 Khrizantema Antitank missiles 600 Artillery (including 150 LRM) 6 conventional SRBM (4 SS-21 & 2 Israeli LORA)  
Air Force
  17 combat aircraft  (4 Su-30*, 13 Su-25) 27 combat helicopters (12 Mi-8/17 & 15 Mi-24) Une quinzaine de drones israéliens « Krunk »   * 8 other Su-30 should be delivered by Moscow    1 or 2 Su-25 10 combat helicopters (Mi-8 & Mi-24) + Armenian UAVs  35 combat aircraft (15 MiG-29, 2 Su-24, 18 Su-25) 46 combat helicopters (20 Mi-17 & 26 Mi-24) 30 UAVs (20 Israeli: 1 Heron, 4 Aerostar, 10 Hermes 450, 5 Hermes 900  ; 10 Turkish UAVs Bayraktar TB2 + « Kamikazes » Israeli UAVs Harop  
Most effective Air Defence systems (SAMs)
S-300 (+ A2AD Russian Bubble)S-200 (+ SA-18 Manpad)S-300

Sources: Military Balance 2020, IISS, London; SIPRI’s annual Report 2020, Stockholm; CIA World Factbook 2020; Wikipedia: « Armenian & Azerbaijani Armed Forces ».

In terms of combatants, Azerbaijan has at best a military balance of 1.5 to 1 against Armenia, which is very insufficient to break through the front, even if the Azerbaijani army can locally reach a military balance of 3 or 4 to 1, enabling it to conquer some symbolic gains. Even if it has a real advantage in terms of the number of tanks and armor, the latter are of little use in the mountainous zone. Both sides possess a large arsenal of conventional artillery that allows them to harass the opponent and slow down any breakthrough thanks to the saturation fire of their highly mobile multiple rocket launchers.

On the air front, Azerbaijan has the numerical advantage, both in terms of combat aircraft and helicopters and armed UAVs and surveillance. In this respect, the recent delivery of Turkish and Israeli UAVs has given it a real tactical advantage, since it can locate and attack targets that would have been more difficult to engage before. However, Armenia enjoys a triple qualitative advantage: 1) its Su-30 fighter-bombers far superior to the venerable Azerbaijani MiG and Sukhoi; 2) its modernised S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries integrated into the CSTO’s air defense network; 3) the presence of a Russian air group consisting of 18 modernised MiG-29s based in Erebuni.

In the event of a rise to extremes, the two belligerents would be able to rely only on their conventional ballistic missile launchers to attempt to strike the capital or the main opposing cities.

In the end, these factors combine to structurally transform any confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia into a war of attrition condemned to bog down. This observation is not to displease the Turkish President and the master of the Kremlin, who thus know they have the necessary time for possible negotiations that they might be intrested to make last.


The thawing of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict places the Kremlin in a delicate position, especially since it has always considered the South Caucasus as its strategic backyard. On the one hand, Russia is the historical ally of Armenia, which is a founding member of the CSTO (1992). This explains the presence of the 102nd Russian base at Gyumri (Armenia), northwest of Mount Arara. This base was initially intended to protect Yerevan from NATO member Turkey. Since the end of the civil war, it has also been intended to dissuade Baku from invading Armenian territory. In fact, Russian leaders would find it difficult not to intervene militarily if Azerbaijan invaded or directly bombed Armenia. The Russian garrison at Gyumri today comprises 3,300 soldiers (the equivalent of a reinforced mechanised brigade) equipped with 74 modernised T-72 & T-80 tanks, 160 BMP-1/2 armored vehicles, 24 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 12 multiple rocket launchers, 12 Mi-24 combat helicopters, and a battery of Iskander ballistic missiles, all protected by batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles and by the fighter squadron deployed at Erebuni. These substantial means are not likely to fundamentally change the military balance, but their punctual engagement could cause the defeat of an Azerbaijani offensive on a symbolic objective. By interposing themselves between the belligerents, the Russian military can above all question them about their willingness to confront Moscow, thus playing the role of a very precious dissuasive shield to avoid an uncontrollable escalation.

The Kremlin is at the same time annoyed by the liberal line of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian who since 2018 has been pursuing a policy deviating from the pro-Russian line. This former Armenian opposition leader has imprisoned corrupt oligarchs with strong ties to Moscow.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin knows that he can hardly enter into a frontal clash with Azerbaijan if he wants to preserve his energy interests in the Caucasus region. To prolong the conflict in order to show both sides that they need Russia, while at the same time exercising a potential threat to Turkey’s energy supply[17], may be an interesting way out for the Kremlin. But for the Russian president, it is clear that at the end of the game, he will have to be the arbitrator of the conflict. It is no coincidence that Sergueï Lavrov, his illustrious Minister of Foreign Affairs, became personally involved in negotiating a first ceasefire agreement during the night of October 9 to 10, 2020, after two weeks of inconclusive fighting. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows this and is certainly waiting for the right moment to put his commitment to Azerbaijan in the balance.

The annexation of Northern Cyprus as the next step?

In the opinion of the observers and journalists who try to decipher him, the Turkish President has only one idea in mind: to ensure his political survival by chaining together a series of foucades and power grabs that will allow him to flatter the nationalist fibre of his population.[18] And what could be stronger and more symbolic than annexing the northern part of Cyprus? It could be a double win for him if Brussels did not react, thereby demonstrating the weakness of a Europe that could explode over this symbolic crisis, a bit like the European democracies were unable to anticipate or face the Sudeten crisis in the 1930s.

Let us imagine the following scenario: at the beginning of November 2020, the outcome of the American presidential election is uncertain and contested by the two parties in contention. Tension is rising and the Pentagon is studying scenarios for the engagement of the federal army on American territory (it is already leaking rumors to that effect). The country, on the brink of civil war, is fracturing a little more. The traditional allies of the United States panic and try to obtain guarantees from the White House and Congress, without success. Taking advantage of the regional vacuum and the tensions following the “presidential” elections of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which they had provoked by provocations aimed at the local population[19], the Turkish authorities annexed the northern part of Cyprus manu-militari, then organised a referendum on self-determination which concluded a few days later with the formal attachment of this territory to Turkey. The Crimea scenario, in short. The annexation did not technically pose any difficulty for Ankara since Turkish troops had been present on the spot since 1974 and controlled all the strategic points. Their apparatus, including naval and air (in the form of drones and helicopters), has been reinforced for a year. It is thus sufficient for Turkish officers to hoist their flag, without even provoking armed conflict with the Republic of (Southern) Cyprus. 

Who will react? The United States will have other, more crucial concerns; perhaps it will take advantage of this to repatriate its Turkish base in Incirlik to Cyprus? The Chinese will be all the more discreet since they may have taken advantage of this strategic vacuum to take pledges of the South China Sea, or even of Taiwan, by forcefully occupying the fortified islands of Quemoy and Matsu, close to their coastline; the British certainly have an imposing military apparatus along the demarcation line, but they know they have several tens of thousands of pensioners – potentially hostages – living in the northern part of Cyprus[20]; the European Union will protest vigorously in unison with France and Greece, but it risks showing its divisions, as at the recent European summit in Brussels when the German Chancellor refused to associate herself with the proposed sanctions against Turkey; only Russia could react vigorously, especially since it has financial and naval interests to defend in Cyprus and is determined to hold the Turkish president high on all other fronts. In this case, the latter could be tempted to exchange his disengagement in the Caucasus for Russian silence in Cyprus, pointing out to Vladimir Putin the precedent of the Crimea. President Macron could then find himself quite alone.

But the worst is never certain. What seems likely, however, is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, blinded by his ego and his court, could make a miscalculation leading to an uncontrollable military escalation. This is what European leaders fear, much more than his ranting. To quote the ancient Roman adage, when Jupiter wants to lose the powerful, he drives them mad, therefore imprudent.

[1] Ahmed Eleiba, « Ankara islosing hand in Libya », Egyptian Center for Security Studies, October 3, 2020. Observation confirmed by several institutional observers contacted by the author.

[2] The Turkish government accepted on October 1, 2020 a mediation mechanism with the Greek government under the aegis of Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO.

[3] Didier Billion, « Pourquoi la Grèce et la Turquie ont finalement opté pour le dialogue », France 24, September 24, 2020.

[4] Gabriel Détrie, Le Point, Octobre 8, 2020 :

[5] President Erdogan’s Twitter account, September 27, October 1 and 2, 2020.

[6] Laurent Lagneau, « L’imagerie satellitaire confirme que des F-16 turcs sont basés en Azerbaïdjan », OPEX 360, Octobre 8, 2020 :

[7] Although he did not specify precisely where these fighters entered Azerbaijan.

[8] At a Council of Ministers meeting; FARS Agency, October 7, 2020.

[9] The Astana Process, set up on May 4, 2017 between Russia, Iran and Turkey, aims at resolving the frictions and enforcing the ceasefire zones in Syria but also the respect of the zones of influence claimed by these three countries.

[10] Agence FARS, October 6, 2020.

[11] Ali Akbar Velayati, Diplomatic Advisor to the Supreme Leader, Kayhan, October 5, 2020.

[12] A fake news campaign (on social networks) denied by Tehran on September 30, 2020 claimed that Iran had allowed Russian arms to transit through its territory to Armenia in the early days of the war; which seems all the more surprising given that Russia has a large military base in Armenia!

[13] Elaheh Koolaee & Fahimeh Khansari Fard, ” The impact of historical narratives on ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia “, International Studies Journal (Téhéran) vol. 17, numéro 1, n° 65, Summer 2020, pp. 137-168.

[14] As evidenced by the emails sent to the community of French researchers and experts (including the author of this article) by the Azerbaijani embassy in France, accusing the Armenian side of systematically violating the ceasefire and specifically targeting civilians.

[15] Sébastien Roblin, « Tanks ablaze as Azerbaijani forces attack Armenian troops in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh »,, September 27, 2020, update October 9, 2020.

[16] EDAM, October 1, 2020 :

[17]Azerbaijan provides 20% of Turkey’s gas supplies and guarantees it substantial revenues thanks to the royalties paid for the transit on its territory of hydrocarbons extracted from Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea ( via Le Guetteur, CDEM Newsletter, No. 2020-13, September 30, 2020).

[18] Delphine Minoui, « la dangereuse surenchère d’Erdogan », Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[19] Such as the reopening of the Greek ghost town of Varosha, which had been a forbidden zone since 1974; confer Alexis Kefalas, “La Turquie avance ses pions dans la partie nord de Chypre”, Le Figaro, October 11, 2020.

[20] Pierre Razoux, « BREXIT will have consequences on the Mediterranean », FMES, February 5, 2020 :

Deciphering the normalisation agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – by Pierre Razoux

Images Pixabay

Click here to read the original (French) version


The provisional agreement of August 13, 2020 to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a risky gamble that is good news for its signatories, for the White House, Europe and China. However, it is not certain that it will be enough to ensure Donald Trump’s re-election. On the other hand, it is bad news for the Palestinians, the Arab world which appears more divided and fragmented than ever, Iran, Turkey and to a lesser extent Russia. If it is formalised in the coming weeks, it will have consequences for the geopolitical balance in the Middle East. This agreement, which increases regional frustrations and feeds ambient nationalism, is not likely to contribute to the democratisation of the region.


On August 13, 2020, a few weeks before the deadlines of October 18 (probable end of the UN embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran ) and November 3 (American presidential elections), the White House surprised the world by announcing the conclusion of a formal agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A diplomatic success that came at the right time for some, a clear provocation and a risky decision for others, this agreement – which does not yet constitute a formal peace treaty – immediately raised many questions .

Risky bet, high payoffs
First of all, it should be remembered that this is a fragile agreement reached under pressure from Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom are desperate in the face of unfavourable polls. This provisional agreement remains subject to the conclusion of a formal agreement between both capitals in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the unexpected can still happen .
By crossing the Rubicon and becoming the third Arab head of state to normalise relations with Israel (after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has taken a real risk on the international stage. There is no doubt that by overtaking other Arab leaders, including the shady Saudi Mohammed Ben Salman, Mohammed Ben Zayed has stirred up frustrations, rekindled jealousies and thrown oil on the fire of an Arab street that is always quick to catch fire. He apparently doesn’t mind being ostracised by some of his peers, as he sees himself as sheltered on the domestic scene and knows that he has powerful support on the international stage. Criticism towards his initiative is all the more acerbic as the UAE seems to have set only three conditions for this normalisation: that Israel ceases any further annexation of Palestinian territories, that it does not reject the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and that its own embassy won’t be located in Jerusalem. The Emirati leader has therefore not imposed any real concession on the Israeli government, contenting himself with maintaining the status quo. This is no doubt a sign that he was aware of the fragility of the UAE on the regional scene, after the collapse of oil prices, the health crisis and its worrying economic consequences, the flight of capital and expatriates, but above all the strong resurgence of Iran to the regional scene, to the point that the UAE had no choice but to resume dialogue with Tehran.
As a result of this standardisation, the UAE is promised significant investment, trade and tourism, transfers of high technology, but above all security and military cooperation, including, most probably, in the sensitive areas of space and arms industries. Israel has undoubtedly obtained guarantees – a right to visit? – with regard to the Emirati civilian nuclear programme, since Abu Dhabi became the first Arab state to launch a (South Korean technology) nuclear power plant in Barakah on August 1, 2020. It is probably no coincidence that Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, was the one to go to Abu Dhabi on August 17 and 18 to negotiate directly the terms of the future peace agreement . At this stage, the agreement provides for the immediate establishment of regular air links, the implementation of consular measures, as well as the reciprocal opening of two embassies, no doubt from the beginning of autumn 2020.
For Israel, the risk is exclusively related to its domestic policy. By agreeing to stop any further annexation of Palestinian territories contrary to what he promised his electoral base, Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself at odds with his ultras. The latter raise the banner of revolt in the Knesset and promise to torpedo the agreement. The tension is such that the current Prime Minister would imagine an umpteenth dissolution of Parliament . The agreement with the UAE is however very symbolic, since it breaks an implicit taboo reinforced by the collapse of the Oslo Agreements and the resurgence of colonisation of the occupied territories. The Israeli leaders hope that this agreement will set an example for other monarchies in the Gulf. The two most credible candidates to date are the small kingdom of Bahrain and the strategic Sultanate of Oman, the official guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. Contrary to what Donald Trump suggests on Twitter, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be convinced to join the agreement, especially since the king and his son do not seem to be on the same line (see below) and that Israel is as wary of the Saudi nuclear programme as of the unpredictable character of the Crown Prince . Within the Israeli security establishment, many believe that Israel has nothing decisive to expect from a partnership with Saudi Arabia, whose present leadership is judged unreliable .
By betting on Abu Dhabi, Israel is obviously strengthening its game against Iran by placing a pawn close to the Strait of Hormuz in order to counter – or threaten – the Iranian game against it, especially in Syria and Lebanon. The goal is obvious: to create a diversion and force Iran to make painful choices, or even to push it into making a mistake, hoping that the Revolutionary Guards will attack the UAE directly. Beyond this game of chess, normalisation with the UAE allows Israel to strengthen its strategic, industrial and technological cooperation ties with authoritarian and technologically advanced states, following the example of its close cooperation with Singapore, so as to further strengthen its image as a Start Up Nation.
For the White House, the deal is looking like a last-chance gamble. After the foreign policy slaps, Donald Trump hopes to show that he is capable of getting a deal that suits him, ten weeks before the presidential election. It is forgetting that international coups d’éclat have never been decisive for the re-election of an American president: Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980 when he could avail himself of the Camp David peace agreement between Israelis and Egyptians (1979); George Bush was not re-elected either in 1992 after having pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. If Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, it was not because he had been the man behind the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (1994), but because he had successfully put the American economy back on track.
Finally, it should be emphasised that this normalisation agreement is very good news for the European Union and the international community since it puts the Israeli-Palestinian issue on hold, spares the two-state solution and avoids provocations that could have led to a third Intifada. Europeans avoid finding themselves in an awkward situation where they would have had to react to further Israeli annexation without breaking trade ties with Israel.
This is finally good news for China for two reasons. On the one hand, this agreement strengthens Beijing’s grip on Tehran, which feels more isolated than ever. On the other hand, it should create opportunities of economic development likely to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East, thus facilitating Chinese investments and the extension towards the Mediterranean area of the new Silk Roads within the framework of the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project. Well aware of the impact of this project, the UAE is investing massively in port infrastructures to position itself as an essential interlocutor for the Chinese with whom it has already developed partnerships in the field of armament, notably in the field of drones.

Those who are weakened or further isolated by the agreement
The biggest losers are obviously the Palestinians, even though the agreement preserves the status quo and the appearance of a two-state solution. Its formalisation without this leading to an outburst of criticism from the Arab world shows that the Palestinian Authority and its supporters are no longer in a position to exercise an effective veto over the foreign policy of other Arab countries, especially those who consider the Iranian threat, supposed or real, to be more decisive than the Palestinian question. In this respect, the Palestinian strategy which made any peace agreement with Israel conditional on a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question now appears to be obsolete. In the end, what has just happened shows that time is no longer on the side of the Palestinians, but against them. One may or may not regret it, but it is a fact that is difficult to deny. Of course, this apparent abandonment of the Palestinian cause is a godsend for the ideological regimes, which will be able to reaffirm their support for the cause with the help of thunderous declarations that the Palestinians are waiting to see the concrete effects on their daily lives. For in these times of very low oil prices and a drop in economic activity linked to the health crisis, Tehran, Ankara and Doha will have a hard time bail out the various rival Palestinian organisations.
The Arab world, especially the Arab League, is greatly weakened by this agreement, which divides and fragments it further, highlighting the contradictory postures and hypocrisy of certain leaders who are incapable of speaking out towards their peoples and neighbours. Within the Arab world, there is no doubt that the Saudi leaders have had a bad time of having been pawned off by their Emirati neighbour, while Riyadh has been at the forefront of negotiations with Israel for thirty years. Formally, the Saudi peace plan (general normalisation in exchange for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the ‘adjusted’ ceasefire lines of June 1967), formulated in 2002 by King Abdullah, is still on the table. In fact, the kings of Arabia, Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques, have always considered that it would be up to one of them to endorse normalisation with Israel. The fact that Emir Mohammed Ben Zayed took King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman by surprise illustrates the divergent postures of the father, very attached to the Palestinian cause, compared to that of his son who is more inclined to compromise with Israel and the United States to make his own agenda triumph.
Kuwait, trapped by its historical support for the Palestinian cause and eager to spare its powerful neighbours (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia), has declared that it would be the last Arab state to normalise its relations with Israel. Qatar, mired in its rhetoric of ideological support for political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, sees itself a little more rejected in the Iranian-Turkish camp.
At first glance, the Israeli-Emirati normalisation should be good news for Egypt, since it strengthens the MBZ-Sissi axis intended to counter the activism of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. But in reality, the Egyptian President has just lost both his status as an Arab interlocutor hitherto privileged by Israel, while finding himself in the front line managing explosive relations with Hamas entrenched in the Gaza Strip. He is no doubt beginning to understand that the Israeli strategy could consist in handing back to Egypt the management of the chaos of Gaza in the event of a de facto partition and the extended annexation of Palestine.
Other losers are the Arab leaders who would like to normalise relations with Israel, if only to capture a large flow of investment, but who know that their people will not tolerate such an opening. This is particularly the case of the King of Morocco, who has long been calling for such a normalisation, but who is aware that such an agreement would risk setting fire to the powder keg, at a time when the political and socio-economic situation in his kingdom, aggravated by the consequences of the health crisis, appears extremely tense and uncertain. Further East, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, entrenched in their ideological certainties and historical positions of denouncing Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause, have criticised the Israeli-Emirati agreement. There is no doubt that business leaders, merchants and those in charge of promising economic sectors are aware that they are missing an opportunity to hold on to the train of economic development, to the great satisfaction of Chinese investors who will be able to increase their hold in these countries.
The other big regional loser is of course Iran, which seems at first sight to be more isolated than ever by this normalisation comming shortly after the resumption of the dialogue between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. The epidermal reactions of the political and military class and the barely veiled threats launched in the UAE bear witness to this. This movement on the regional chessboard comes at the very moment when Iran is facing a resurgence of Israeli attacks in Syria and must manage the disastrous consequences of the explosion of the port of Beirut which occurred on 4 August 2020, thereby questioning the strategy of Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. All this pushes Iran further into the camp of Russia and China. A fortiori at the moment when Tehran has been negotiating since the end of June 2020 with Moscow and Beijing (by putting them in competition) new strategic partnerships combining energy, investments, arms sales and diplomatic support. If the context does not calm down, Tehran will find it very difficult to sell its HOPE project (for HOrmuz PEace) to its Gulf neighbours by convincing them that a regional stability agreement can rest solely on the riparian states. In the meantime, Iranians and Emiratis know that they are interdependent, since Dubai remains very much economically linked to Iran. Warned of what they would risk if they opened the door too wide to the Israelis, the Emiratis are pragmatic and will probably not cross any of the Iranian red lines, especially at a time when they are hosting the 2020-2021 Universal Exhibition on their territory.
Turkey finds itself more than ever torn between its interests and its contradictory postures in a context of strong tensions in the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean, as witnessed by the (voluntary?) collision of a Turkish frigate with a Greek frigate on 13 August 2020. President Erdogan’s very harsh statements bear witness to this. He will have to evaluate the evolution of the balance of power and draw the necessary conclusions.
Russia is not pleased by this agreement in which it was not consulted, especially as it is perceived as an American success that takes Israel a little further away from the Kremlin; it is the paw of Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi who know that their rival Benjamin Netanyahu has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin. But the Russian leaders also know that by doing so, they are strengthening their grip on Iran, which in itself is a valuable counterpart.

Foreseeable consequences
In the very short term, normalisation between Israel and the UAE is increasing the antagonism between Iran and its Russian and Chinese supporters on the one hand, and Israel, Washington, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on the other, in the particularly delicate context of the lifting (or not) of the embargo on conventional arms, which is theoretically due to take place on October 18, 2020, but also of the American presidential election on November 3.
Everything will then depend on the outcome of these two deadlines. If Donald Trump is re-elected, whether or not he succeeds in extending the arms embargo and imposing new sanctions against Iran, this antagonism is unlikely to settle down. The next step would then be the Iranian presidential election (spring 2021), which will most certainly see the election of a conservative candidate. Paradoxically, the latter could all the more easily engage in discreet negotiations with Washington since, being supported by the hard faction of the regime, no one could reproach him for selling off the interests of the Islamic Republic. Conversely, if Donald Trump were defeated and a new administration emerges that is mindful of putting the United States back at the centre of the diplomatic game, for example by reintegrating the JCPOA in one way or another, everything suggests that this antagonism could gradually settle down, especially if Russia and China succeed in the meantime in obtaining the effective lifting of the embargo on arms sales to Iran. For Tehran’s priority is to modernise its conventional arsenal dating from the Shah which is now totally obsolete (except for drones and missiles). This appeasement could convince several Arab or Muslim states to follow in the footsteps of the UAE by normalising in their turn their relations with Israel, while resuming dialogue with Iran. The current Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, two former pragmatic chiefs of staff, are well aware of this. They know that the future must not be insulted and that all scenarios must be prepared. That is why they have begun a discreet rapprochement with Turkey, but also with certain European leaders, while at the same time courting the American Jewish community which is in favour of the Democratic movement. These two political leaders also know that Benjamin Netanyahu, weakened by legal affairs and strongly contested within the Likud movement, will not last forever. Knowing that it is imprudent to put like him all his eggs in the same American basket, they are conscious that by now having actions in the UAE, they place themselves in a position to discuss discreetly with the Iranians, the Chinese and other Arab delegations when circumstances require it.
In the meantime, Israeli-Emiratist normalisation accentuates the tectonic fault that divides the Middle East into two distinct geopolitical plates. To the North, the one encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar under the leadership of Russia and China. To the South, the one that stretches from Egypt to the UAE via Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the United States. The stability of this southern plate is threatened just as much by the ambitions of Iran, which continues to instrumentalise the Yemeni conflict, as by the fury of the Saudi Crown Prince and the socio-economic imbalances which weaken the Arab states and feed the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as that of Daech. Between these two plates, North and South, the Turkey of President Erdogan is struggling to position itself. Both hope to tip it into their camp.
In the longer term, this normalisation allows Israel and the UAE to gain time in the face of the new global cold war between the United States and China, including in the Middle East. This is no longer an ideological conflict as in the first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but a power struggle between a comfortably established hegemon wavering between its Asian and Middle Eastern interests and its Chinese challenger trying to occupy the space – especially the economic and political space – left vacant in the region. Yet, in Washington as in Beijing, the analyses diverge. Part of the American elite refuses to consider China as an adversary, believing that the only two real enemies of the United States in the Middle East remain Russia and Iran. For its part, part of the Chinese establishment believes that it is too early to challenge Washington in its own backyard, even though it recognises that it is vital to secure energy supplies from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea on a long-term basis. This cacophony is causing turmoil among the United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East, who no longer know to which saint to devote themselves, while at the same time encouraging renewed tensions and rivalries between Russians, Turks, Iranians and Europeans. As Harvey Jaskel points out, Israel and the Gulf monarchies will have to face difficult choices . By normalising their relations, Israel and the UAE are giving guarantees to both parts. On the one hand, they offer a royal gift to Donald Trump in the event that he is re-elected, knowing that this same gift will play into Joe Biden’s hands if he is elected. On the other hand, they favour China’s long-term strategy, without crossing the red lines defined by the White House.

All in all, the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE appears to be good news, even if it increases the frustrations of numerous regional players and contributes to reinforcing the ultranationalist and populist discourse of some of them, at the risk of triggering new neighbourhood conflicts. One thing seems certain, it will not contribute to the democratisation of the North Africa & Middle East zone because the message is clear: in this region, only an autocratic power can take the risk of normalising with Israel

Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean: towards an acceleration of naval frictions with Europe? – by Arnaud Peyronnet

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

The Turkish merchant ship Cirkin, which is used to transit between Turkey and Libya for deliveries of military equipment under the guise of “humanitarian deliveries”, has been escorted by Turkish warships since May in order to avoid inspection. However, on June 10, shortly after a first tense confrontation between this Turkish escort and a Greek ship belonging to the European operation Irini, a Turkish warship carried out “unfriendly actions” (illumination on 3 occasions with a fire control radar) against a French frigate, which was part of a NATO operation, off Libya. This unusual incident, which clearly represents a new escalation in the tensions already identified in this zone, is part of a deeper logic of increasing tension between the EU (and first and foremost France) and Turkey. These frictions are caused in particular by the problem of the Turkish naval presence in the Cypriot EEZ and by the difficulties linked to the monitoring of the arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011 [1].

The Turkish naval stiffening is, for its part, essentially dictated by the profound refoundation of Turkish geopolitical perceptions since President Erdogan came to power, the latter favouring a vast movement of Turkish naval expansionism in the Mediterranean. This movement also seems to be accelerated by the local perception of a possible Western withdrawal from the Middle East, coupled at the same time with a regional irruption of Russian power. These two changes are strategic opportunities of importance for Ankara, which must then take advantage of them to strengthen its geopolitical interests.

In this context, what are these Turkish geopolitical perceptions in the Mediterranean? By what means does Ankara seek to materialise them? Is the weakening of Europe also a Turkish objective?

Rather “expansionist” Turkish geopolitical perceptions in the Mediterranean

Turkey’s regional ambitions first emerged during a speech by President Erdogan in 2011 in which he proclaimed that Turkey should “reside as close as possible to the Suez Canal, the adjacent seas and project itself into the Indian Ocean”. This Turkish policy, centred on the renewal of its influence in the Middle East (Syria, Qatar, Libya, Iraq, the Horn of Africa), could then be described as “pan-Ottoman” while having the essential characteristic of placing particular emphasis on the naval aspect, especially in the Mediterranean. Indeed, Ankara is calling for an extension of Turkey’s geopolitical presence in the maritime areas of the Mediterranean, and even beyond, in accordance with the doctrine of the Blue Motherland (Mavi Vatan), developed by Admiral Cihat Yayci[2]. The aim of this doctrine is to eventually obtain Turkish supremacy in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, through multiple territorial claims around the island of Cyprus and in the Greek islands of the Dodecanese. The search for maritime delimitation agreements with countries willing to “accommodate” Turkish interests is thus particularly highlighted, with this approach being supported upstream by permanent force deployments facilitating the “fait accompli” of Turkey’s “natural” claims. The new Turkish footprint in Libya is integrally linked to such ambitions, thus transforming an entire Mediterranean zone into an “exclusively Turkish continuum” which would also have the advantage of further isolating Cyprus from the European continent…

In order both to implement this geopolitical vision and to prevent its adversaries from disrupting its actions, Turkey has gradually developed a strategy of access denial, both off the coast of Cyprus and now also along the Libyan coast. This strategy can be seen in particular in the deployment of large naval forces (groups of several vessels) in its areas of interest (protection of Turkish drilling activities in the Cypriot EEZ, support for land operations in Libya) and the recurrent reservation of exercise areas on high seas, all of which makes the activities of other navies obviously more complicated in those same regions. In addition, the Turkish Navy also no longer hesitates to deliberately engage in a logic of friction with rival navies, betting that the latter will avoid any armed escalation with their NATO ally …


Increased military frictions, symptoms of a new “Turkish unilateralism”

For several years Turkey has in fact set up a logic of frictions with its rivals, considering for a long time that the latter will never fully assume the balance of power that is being imposed, and therefore allowing the imposition of Turkish ” faits accomplis ” that are difficult to reverse. Frictions involving Turkish units with European vessels have thus multiplied, both in the Aegean Sea and off the coast of Cyprus and now along the Libyan coast. At the same time, the Turkish navy is increasing the number of demonstrations of strength through increasingly regular large-scale exercises.

In the Aegean Sea, episodes of tensions are certainly sporadic but also real, with repeated Turkish incursions into Greek territorial waters. At the beginning of May 2020, the Turkish fighter aircraft nevertheless carried out a demonstration of strength (a “provocative” act according to Greece) over the Greek island of Inousses during a visit there by the Greek Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Greek Armed Forces. This case had a precedent since in March 2019 a visit by the Greek Prime Minister had already been disrupted by Turkish fighters near the island of Agathonissi, situated in the south-eastern Aegean Sea. Ankara’s territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, particularly those relating to the Dodecanese archipelago, obviously explain these frequent and sometimes very serious incidents [3].  Off the coast of Cyprus, Turkey exerts pressure, even interference, on international companies carrying out drillings [4]. Turkey also carries out, under naval protection, its own research activities in the Cypriot EEZ, which Turkey partly considers its own. The Turkish militarisation of Northern Cyprus (deployment of surveillance drones and the future construction of a naval base) could exacerbate this trend, as these new tools would then make it possible to further support the naval assets deployed all around the island. In Libya, the Turkish naval forces began by conducting a “precursor” operation off the Libyan and Tunisian coasts in spring 2019. Then, in November 2019, Turkey concluded a maritime delimitation agreement with the Libyan government of national unity (on the principle of equidistance) de facto excluding Greece, Cyprus and Egypt from negotiations[5]. This agreement was logically coupled with a “military cooperation” component which has resulted in the permanent presence of Turkish naval units off the coast of Libya since the beginning of 2020. These unprecedented and substantial deployments mark Turkey’s direct support for the Libyan Government of National Accord, in addition to the dispatch of pro-Turkish Syrian militiamen and the protection of its deliveries of military equipment (drones, munitions) by sea. Indeed, merchant ships used to transiting between Turkey and Libya are henceforth escorted by Turkish warships in order to avoid any inspection against it, in particular by French and Greek vessels, as we witnessed on June 10.  Finally, the creation of a Turkish naval base in Misrata, Libya, would be envisaged in the long term, as would the dispatch of Turkish combat aircraft, possibly on the al-Watiya base. Turkish investment in Libya would thus become substantial.

In addition to this logic of frictions, the Turkish Navy is conducting more and more regularly demonstrations of strength in the Mediterranean. In March 2019, the Turkish naval forces held the Mavi Vatan 2019 exercise in the Aegean Sea, Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, their largest naval training sequence since the fall of the Soviet Union. This exercise mobilised some 100 units, including almost all first-rank Turkish vessels. This exercise was doubled by a second one (Denizkurdu 2019) on an equivalent scale (more than a hundred ships of all types involved) in May 2019, once again in 3 distinct zones (Black Sea, Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean). In November 2019, the Doğu Akdeniz 2019 exercise brought together some forty vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. More recently, in June 2020, Turkey carried out a new ” demonstration of force ” with the exercise called ” Haute-mer ” which saw the participation of 8 ships and 17 fighter aircraft in the Mediterranean (2000 km raid from Turkey).


A resolute instrumentalisation of NATO in order to weaken Europe ?

With a certain disengagement of the United States from the Middle East scene (to the benefit of its “local allies” to whom American power seems to be willing to subcontract the management of regional crises), Turkey would finally see its ambitions “reinforced” by Washington, which now only thinks in terms of a “power confrontation” with China and Russia. In fact, since 2015 Turkey seems to have taken advantage of the emergence of the “Russian threat” in the Mediterranean to win the favour of the United States and to appear as a reliable and indispensable ally within NATO… The United States has moreover recently and very openly supported the pro-Turkish Libyan camp while deploring the “escalation” represented by the Russian presence in Libya. In this context, the Turkish naval forces have every interest in protecting their actions in Libya through NATO: use of codes and identifiers of the alliance, including during escort missions between Turkey and Libya, refusal of any cooperation between NATO’s Sea Guardian operation and the European operation Irini, opposition to any involvement of NATO in monitoring operations of the embargo off Libya…

Strengthened by this (as a minimum) passive support of the United States and NATO towards Turkey, the European forces then quickly find themselves isolated and even sometimes divided as to the strategy to be adopted, once again confirming Turkey’s policy of fait accompli. Operation Irini thus very often comes down to the Franco-Greek couple alone, in line, however, with the growing strategic partnership between the two countries. However, Europe’s security could also be at stake in Libya, given the possibility of an unprecedented pro-Turkish geographic continuum[6] in the Mediterranean, which would facilitate both the isolation of Cyprus from the European continent and Turkish migration blackmail vis-à-vis the EU (Turkey would then eventually control two of the three main crossing points for migrants to Europe) .


The naval frictions imposed by Turkey in the Mediterranean thus seem to be dictated by a “neo-Ottoman” geopolitical ambition that seeks to turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a “pro-Turkish lake”. With the passive support of the United States and Europe’s reluctance to fully accept the balance of power, Turkey could then seek to pursue this “expansionist” vision in Libya and Cyprus before turning more resolutely to the Dodecanese. Unless there is a major political change in Turkey (or even in the United States) in the coming years, it therefore seems very likely that a lasting balance of power, which is moreover consubstantial with the conception of international relations in the Middle East, will be established between Ankara and the European nations. This deteriorated context could, however, offer a great opportunity for Europe if it wanted to break the Turkish ‘logic’ by taking up precisely this challenge of ‘strength,’ thus undoing once and for all the Gordian knot of European military weakness.

[1] This embargo was extended for another year on June 5, 2020 by a unanimous vote of the United Nations Security Council. It authorises inspections of ships on high seas.

[2] Former Chief of Staff of the Turkish Navy (who was dismissed from his functions on May 18, 2020, apparently for simple domestic political reasons). He is considered to be the founder of this doctrine and the organiser of the Turkish engagement in Libya.

[3] Some of them in 1987 and 1996 also caused serious crises between both countries.

[4] In March 2018, Turkish ships forced an ENI ship to stop drilling in Eastern Cyprus.

[5] An agreement that would allow Turkey to extend the area of its continental shelf by 30%, which would prevent Athens, Nicosia and Cairo from reaching an agreement to delimit their respective maritime zones and would torpedo projects related to the exploitation of these gas reserves.

[6] The last “Turkish” presence in Libya ended in 1911… shortly before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Does the resignation of the Chief of Staff of the Turkish Navy mark a pause in the escalation of tensions between Turks and the West in the eastern Mediterranean? – by Jean Marcou

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article


On May 15, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree dismissing Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı as Chief of Staff of the Navy and assigning him to the General Staff. The man who appeared to be the architect of the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement of last November finally resigned three days later after explaining that he perceived this reassignment as a sanction.

This departure naturally raises questions. As a specialist of Turkey, Jean Marcou, a university professor and holder of the Mediterranean-Middle East Chair at Sciences Po Grenoble, gives us his analysis.


Does this resignation have an impact on Turkish domestic policy?

Although it has been little noticed, this downgrading of Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı is an indication which also concerns internal politics and the Turkish political regime itself. Indeed, for the first time, the President of the Republic is in a way dismissing a high-ranking military officer. Admittedly, since 2010-2011, through his strong influence henceforth over the Supreme Military Council – YAŞ – (which provides for appointments and promotions each year during a session traditionally held at the end of July or the beginning of August), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already taken control of the Army and reduced its political influence. However, this domination did not start a rather routinary honorary curriculum at the top of the command, ensuring the succession to the general staff of military personnel, trained before the AKP came to power. On 15 May, he downgraded a leading military officer. Although it is a logical continuation of the cleansing and reforms that took place after the coup of 2016, the event has another dimension, as it shows a kind of normalisation of interventions of the civil power over the military command. It may be added that the measure is quite clever, as it hits a military officer considered to be close to the presidency. Seeming not to lend itself to the accusation of bias, it ultimately increases a little more the executive’s control over military command.


What does this case tell us about the Turkish army itself?

With regard to the Turkish army, this event shows that it is now divided and confronted by rivalries. Rear Admiral Yaycı also alludes to “slander” and even a ” conspiracy ” in his letter of resignation, presented on 18 May and made public. It should be recalled that Cihat Yaycı is considered to be one of the leaders of a tendency, driven by “Eurasian” ideas, and therefore rather anti-Western, which has had free rein in recent months, especially during the campaign of Turkish gas prospecting off the coast of Cyprus or during the maritime and defence agreements with Libya, signed on November 27, 2019. Above all, he is regarded as being at the instigator of the maritime doctrine of the “blue homeland” (Mavi Vatan), a thesis claiming to defend Turkey’s rights in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which the Presidency has not hesitated to endorse in order to justify the latest developments in its foreign policy. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also publicly paid tribute to Rear Admiral Yaycı for his role in Libya, but also for his fight against the Gülenists, considered to be behind the coup d’état of 2016.

However, this over-mediatised and over-politicised military personality exasperates the block of legitimist servicemen who currently lead the Turkish army and who are mainly composed of General Hulusi Akar, Chief of Staff (2015-2018), who became Minister of Defence in 2018, General Yaşar Güler, Chief of Staff (since 2018) and General Ümit Dündar, Commander of the Land Army. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has formed an alliance with these old-style military leaders, who accepted his regime and remained loyal to him in 2016 during the attempted putsch. As such, he still needs them in the current context (of military interventions in Syria and Libya), especially Hulusi Akar. The latter appears to be the key figure in the new relations between the army and the government. After the coup of 2016, the army was placed under the authority of the Minister of Defence, but the latter is none other than a general who was previously this army’s chief of staff.

This is not the first time that Erdoğan sacrifices apparently close military personnel to preserve his relationship with the army’s dominant trend. Already, on December 31, 2018, a disguised downgrading had sidelined General Metin Temel, commander of the 2nd Army, who had led the military operation in Afrin in January-March 2018. Highly popular and media-savvy, Temel took the liberty of publicly taking pro-government political positions.

It should be noted, however, that Generals Güler and Dündar will soon be retiring… In this regard, it will be interesting to observe what the next Supreme Military Council will do at the end of July-early August and to analyse those who will then be promoted to the General Staff.


What is the strategic impact of the event?

Beyond the reasons linked to internal political balances and the relations of political power with the army, the dismissal of Rear Admiral Yaycı opportunely gives the impression that Turkey is seeking a break in the escalation of tensions observed in recent months in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly off the coast of Cyprus. During the last Idlib crisis in Syria in February 2020, Ankara measured to what extent its game of convergence with Russia could be dangerous if it was not counterbalanced by maintaining a credible relationship with the West. Despite the current joint Russian-Turkish patrols and the ceasefire that has been established, the situation there remains fragile. In Libya, of course, Turkey can boast about having saved the government in Tripoli by giving the Russian defence system Pantsir, which equips General Haftar’s forces, a pawn, but this has irritated the Russians and the situation remains uncertain. Russia has often made Turkey pay a heavy price for such misdemeanours. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had several phone conversations with Vladimir Putin in recent weeks and also seeks to maintain dialogue with Russia.

But in this context, rekindling ties with the West, proving that one is a NATO ally that is still in a position to intercept Russian aircraft in the Black Sea – as was the case on May 21 with Bulgarian and Romanian aircraft – remains equally important. The downgrading of Rear-Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who holds the “blue homeland” theory, mainly directed against Greece and Cyprus, may also be a sign in the direction of Europe to calm the tensions caused by Turkish gas exploration campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean. Several times in recent weeks, General Hulusi Akar, Minister of Defence, has expressed his conviction that the dispute with Greece could not lead to armed conflict. Economically, it should not be forgotten that links with the EU are also vital for Ankara. And, in the context of the post-Covid-19 crisis, the country has an interest in looking after its fundamentals with Brussels and pursuing its policy of doing the splits, cultivating a convergence of interests with Russia while preserving the security provided by its membership of the Atlantic Alliance. Another indication to be observed in this respect will be the activation of the Russian S-400 system by Turkey. This activation has been postponed, using the epidemic crisis as a pretext. What will happen next?

The value of war studies and wargaming to decipher strategic dilemmas in the Levant – par Pierre Razoux


While the strategic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis still seem uncertain in the Levant and the fighting continues methodically in the Idlib pocket in Syria, several Israeli experts, commentators and politicians took advantage of the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon[1] (June 2000) to question the relevance of the strategies applied since 1982[2]. Was it necessary to invade Lebanon and stay there? Would it not have been better to favour an air campaign without the presence of ground troops, with the exception of occasional raids by special forces? Was it not preferable to maintain a buffer zone in southern Lebanon?

These debates obviously echo the strategic dilemma that Israel faces today with Iran and Hezbollah, both in Lebanon and in Syria[3]. For some, the frontal approach being inevitable in the long run, the Israeli army must be ready to invade, if necessary, portions of Syrian and Lebanese territories. For others, the air approach, based on regular air and cruise missile strikes, would be sufficient to stem the challenge posed by Iran and Hezbollah. For others however, an indirect approach based on clandestine actions, cyber warfare and economic sanctions should be favoured. Finally, for a minority, the solution to this strategic dilemma will necessarily involve a discreet dialogue with Tehran which will make it possible to reconcile the minimal expectations of all sides, which does not, moreover, prevent the parallel conduct of “kinetic” operations, to use a term which is fashionable among Anglo-Saxon thinkers[4].

Two other dilemmas divide the community of experts examining the short-term evolution of the Levant. The first concerns the outcome of the Battle of Idlib in Syria, which stigmatises all the rivalries between the present and influential players in the Levant. The second concerns the possible outbreak of a third Intifada to unblock the Palestinian file, after the announcement of the probable annexation of the Jordan Valley and new parts of the West Bank.

In the face of these dilemmas, war studies and wargaming are two distinct but complementary academic approaches that provide empirical answers.

What do war studies and recent military history teach us?

War studies, a fashionable term developed by Anglo-Saxon academics[5], are a broader approach of a classical military and battle history – popularised at the end of the twentieth century in France by the Military History Centre of the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier under the auspices of Professor André Martel, then by the Chair of Defence History at the IEP of Aix-en-Provence. Since then, several universities and associations have taken up the torch and are developing teaching and research programmes devoted to polemology. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Institute of Strategic Research of the Military School (IRSEM) strives to federate studies on war, as this discipline is not recognised by the French university nomenclature, unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries. This discipline is nevertheless very useful in deciphering the contemporary conflicts in the Levant.

Let us first look at the military interventions conducted from Palestine, then Israel, towards the north (current paradigm). Since the British breakthrough in Palestine in 1918 against the Ottoman army, the fundamentals remain unchanged. Given the highly compartmentalised topography, there are only three axes of progression from what is the Israeli territory today: the first runs along the coastline to Beirut; the second diverges slightly north-east from the Golan Heights to reach Damascus after having meandered through the basaltic high heights; the third sinks between the first two, along the Beqaa valley, between two mountain ranges, to cut the transversal axis linking Beirut to Damascus. Each time, strategists had to arbitrate between these three axes. In 1941, when the British troops launched an assault on the territories of the Levant managed by Vichy France, they chose to advance in parallel along these three axes; encountering fierce resistance, their progression proved slow and costly, but the disproportion of forces and British air superiority left the French troops, who had no reinforcements, no chance.

During the War of Independence of 1948-49, Haganah, on the defensive on the northern front, was unable to break through the Lebanese and Syrian fronts. In June 1967, during the Six Day War, the Israeli army favoured the Syrian axis, seizing the Golan Heights without too much difficulty. During this war, the Israeli air force gained air superiority and opened the way for infantry and armoured vehicles. It was a remake of the Second World War blitzkrieg. For the price of its passivity, Lebanon had to accept the massive presence of Palestinian feddayin on its soil, starting the vicious circle of a long and deadly civil war that only ended in 1990.

In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Israeli army counterattacked in the direction of Damascus, ignoring Lebanon. This time it was its tanks and commandos that opened the way for the air force by destroying the batteries of ground-to-air missiles that challenged Israeli air superiority. It is a question of piercing what is today called an A2/AD bubble. The lesson for the Israelis is that no ground-to-air defence is invulnerable if one accepts to put a price tag on it by agreeing to a certain level of losses. Despite everything, the Israeli counteroffensive was bogged down by the wear and tear of the combatants, limited logistics and pressure from the Soviets making it very clear to Israel that they would not tolerate a direct threat to the Syrian capital. In fact, Tsahal had to retro-pedal and return the portions of Syrian territory that had been conquered (except for the Golan Heights annexed eight years later).

In 1978, the Israeli army cautiously launched a punitive operation against the PLO entrenched in South Lebanon (like Hezbollah today) along the coastal axis to the Litani River, but had to withdraw under UN pressure.

In June 1982, this same army, considerably modernised, set off in the direction of Beirut, this time along the two parallel axes of the coast and the Beqaa Valley, after having clearly indicated to the Syrian authorities that it did not intend to carry the hostilities into Syria. In fact, the Syrians, the Israelis and the various Lebanese and Palestinian militias were fighting each other only in Lebanon. Once again, the Israeli air force conquered air superiority by playing cleverly with the combination of means, making massive use of UAVs drones (for the first time in the region) and electronic warfare, preventively destroying SAM batteries and curbing the Syrian aircraft after having blinded it. This operational success will not prevent a strategic defeat, similar to what the American armed forces will experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

After three years of presence in Beirut (1982-85), followed by 15 years of occupation of a buffer strip at the Israeli-Lebanese border (1985-2000), the Israeli authorities, exhausted by incessant harassment hostilities and by the deterioration of their image on the international scene, threw in the towel and withdrew from the land of the Cedars, taking in their luggage their suppletives from the South Lebanese Army[6]. Opposite, the Hezbollah fighters claim victory and feel their wings spreading, multiplying the provocations that will lead to the Second Lebanon War.

In the summer of 2006, Tsahal resumes and once again launches an assault on Lebanon, voluntarily abandoning the Syrian front. The Israeli strategists were hesitant about the strategy, the path, the choice of means and the best way to coordinate them. For the first time, Israeli fighters refuse to open fire against the entrenched positions of Hezbollah and the Shiite militia, even if it has to give ground, inflicts heavy losses on Tsahal, while harassing the Israeli population with rockets and ballistic missiles. The Israelis discover at their expense the effectiveness of an asymmetrical war that they have long practised and mastered. Like the Americans against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, but also against Serbia in 1999, air power shows its limits; it cannot win a war on its own, even if it wears out the adversary. At some point, its action must be combined with that of ground troops, involving the crucial decision to engage fighters on the ground.

Since then, Israeli strategists who have launched a discreet war of attrition against Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in Syria have not stopped preparing their revenge. They are wondering how to reconcile both the Lebanese and the Syrian fronts. For the time being, they are content with a mixture of occasional air strikes, clandestine actions, information and cyber warfare, but above all economic warfare. As long as neither of the two belligerents wishes to escalate, this recipe seems to work; but what would happen tomorrow if one or the other, for reasons of prestige, national cohesion or political survival, chose escalation?

Let us now turn to the Idlib pocket in northwest Syria, the second hot spot in the Levant. The intensive fighting there seems to signify the end of the civil war that has been bloodying the country since 2011. In many ways, this conflict is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It started with a rebellion and an attempt to overthrow the regime in place, then became international and ideological through the gradual involvement of regional and global players. Each of them cynically – but pragmatically – pushed their own interests, including economic ones. The forces of each are intertwined in a puzzle that resembles a kaleidoscope rather than a tidy battle. As in Spain, it is the most implacable camp, mobilising the majority of the population and the most militarily supported, that will undoubtedly win in the end.

What’s at stake in the battle of Idlib today? Quite simply, the future of the balance of power in the Levant[7]. As in Spain in the late 1930s, everyone is pushing their own pawns. The Syrian regime wants to reconquer its territory. The rebels and the jihadists, discreetly supported by Ankara, are challenging Bashar el-Assad and pushing their radical Islamist agenda, hoping to resurrect guerrilla warfare in other parts of the territory. The Turkish government sees it as a tool of harm and negotiation to force the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters to make concessions in Syria[8], but also in Iraq (as demonstrated by the Turkish operation ”Eagle Claw”) and in Libya (against Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). For their part, the Iranians are seeking to secure a land corridor towards Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast to more easily supply their Lebanese affiants and to export their hydrocarbons to the Mediterranean by freeing themselves from Hormuz, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal. Maintaining the status quo allows them to justify their military presence in Syria to help Bashar el-Assad, while maintaining a power of harm against Israel, Turkey and especially Russia. The presence of jihadists in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin’s troops does not displease them, as long as it does not threaten their own positions.

For its part, the Kremlin seeks to push back as far as possible the jihadists of all kinds who threaten the Russian bridgehead in Syria rooted between Tartus and Latakia. It also seeks to demonstrate that the Syrian regime cannot win without the decisive support of the Russian army, while at the same time preventing Iran from gaining access to the Mediterranean. For their part, the monarchies of the Gulf are divided. Qatar firmly supports the Turkish position out of empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates has resolved to support Damascus out of hatred of the same Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is torn apart; tempted to support the Syrian rebels, it does not wish to favour Turkish President Erdogan who poses as a herald of the Sunni cause and who remains a fervent advocate of the Islamic republics, a vital threat to the absolute monarchies of the Gulf.

Let us now go down a little further south. The upcoming commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second Intifada (September 2000) raises the spectre of a new insurrection in reaction to the famous “Peace Plan of the Century” conceived by the Trump family. Here again, what do war studies teach us? That while the first Intifada (1987-1993) led to the Oslo Accords (now buried) because violence had remained below a certain threshold, the second Intifada (2000-2005), which had shattered that threshold, only resulted in the mutual weakening of both sides. In each case and given the reality of the balance of power, the Palestinians could not win and the Israelis could not lose. This seems more than ever to be the case today.

What does wargaming teach us?

Let us briefly recall what a wargame is: it is an elaborate form of strategic simulation in the form of an interactive board game that reproduces a crisis situation or armed confrontation past, present or hypothetical. By identifying with a camp, whatever it may be, each side understands what the other is really looking for, thereby contributing to anticipation and foresight[9]. It is a question of learning and reflecting by playing, testing options and strategies with a right to make mistakes since no life is really at stake[10]. The Anglo-Saxons[11], Russians and Israelis have been practicing this discipline for a long time, which has not prevented them from making mistakes in certain operations, because wargaming is neither a crystal ball nor a magic wand. It is a tool designed to stimulate participants’ intellectual agility by forcing them to think like their opponents and rivals, in a context marked by extreme uncertainty and unpredictability. It is therefore a pedagogical tool that contributes to forging leadership by forcing participants to make decisions while prioritising their actions.[12] In France, wargaming did not really emerge in institutional circles until 2014 following a series of strategic surprises[13] (annexation of the Crimea, territorial extension of Daech, Russian and then Turkish interventions in Syria) aggravated in 2016 by the election of an impetuous and unlikely American president.

Since 2017, the wargame FITNA – GLOBAL WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST, conceived by the author of this article, is used by analysts, military, institutional experts and academics to think about the evolution of conflict and power relations in the Middle East[14]. The illustration below provides an overview of the state of forces prevailing today between Israel and its Lebanese and Syrian neighbours.

Some 50 test parties replicating a large-scale Israeli air-land offensive towards Lebanon and Syria in an attempt to annihilate Hezbollah and push the Iranian contingents present on the ground northwards, came to the following conclusions:

  • Within a few weeks of a determined air-land offensive backed by intensive bombing, the Israeli army reached the suburbs of Beirut or Damascus (and in only 60 per cent of cases if both Beirut and Damascus are targeted) without major difficulty, albeit with significant losses.
  • Tsahal can only seize one of these two capitals if it chooses to forego the other. In other words, conquering both Beirut and Damascus is almost impossible for it, especially since the Syrian capital rapidly benefits from multiple reinforcements coming from Iran, Russia and the Arab world, supported by a significant number of militias of all kinds, as shown in this second illustration.

  • The seizure of Beirut by the Israeli army usually leads to direct military intervention by Iran, as well as a flurry of UN Security Council resolutions.
  • The assault or siege of Damascus provokes direct military intervention by Russia supported by China and Iran. Under these conditions, the conquest of the Syrian capital by Israel becomes very complicated.
  • As always in recent history, an offensive targeting both Beirut and Damascus (or their southern suburbs) requires progress along three key axes, thereby dividing its forces into three. It is thus extremely difficult for the Israeli army to be sufficiently powerful along these three axes while protecting its rear bases in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee. Israel’s opponents can therefore counter-attack with a certain degree of success in the direction of the weakest axis.
  • If, on the other hand, Israeli strategists limit their ambitions and renounce from the outset the seizure of Beirut and Damascus, they can easily make progress along these three strategic axes to establish a buffer zone large enough (but not too large) to protect Israeli territory from ground attacks and rocket fire from their main adversaries, especially Hezbollah. But this buffer strip does not protect them from ballistic missile launches. It is therefore understandable why the Israeli government is determined to integrate the Iranian ballistic arsenal into the negotiations between the international community and Tehran.
  • If it reaches the suburbs of Beirut and Damascus, the Israeli army does not have the means to remain there permanently as soon as Israel’s adversaries massively engage their militias to harass and exhaust the spearhead units of Tsahal. Quite rapidly, the level of Israeli losses increases and this war of attrition forces the Israeli staff to castle from one front to the other (Syria-Lebanon) and to carry out a gradual withdrawal towards Israel in order to shorten both its defence and logistical lines.
  • The Israeli army manages to maintain itself sustainably in the suburbs of Damascus and Beirut in only 10% of cases, as a result of gross mistakes by the Syrians, Russians and Iranians. On the other hand, it remains in southern Lebanon in two-thirds of cases if it has not simultaneously launched an offensive towards Syria.
  • In the event of an Israeli offensive in Syria, the Syrian army can only survive if it carries out a rapid strategic retreat towards Syria’s centre of gravity (Quseir-Homs-Palmyra-Bir Basin quadrilateral), entrusting the defence of Damascus to the Republican Guard and the 4th Syrian Armoured Division, Russian paratroopers and the Iranian Al-Quds force.
  • In any case, Russia has the means to challenge Israeli air superiority locally, limiting the impact of Israeli air power and forcing Israeli strategists to rapidly exhaust their stock of cruise missiles and other long-range missiles. Similarly, the presence of Russian ground troops acts as a deterrent shield, as Israel is reluctant to directly confront a nuclear-weapon state, which is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
  • In two-thirds of the cases in which Israel invades Lebanon or Syria, the Palestinians take advantage of the dispersal of Israeli forces and the emotion of the international community to trigger a third Intifada, weakening the Israeli strategic position and forcing Tsahal to make crucial choices.
  • If the Israelis choose a strategy of harassment of Hezbollah by refusing a ground offensive and favouring massive recourse to their firepower (aviation, cruise missiles, armed drones, artillery) combined with cybernetic offensives and airborne raids by their elite troops (apparently the top option of the strategy chosen for the moment by Tsahal’s GHQ), they can stand up to Iran and Hezbollah as long as these two actors deploy only a fraction of their forces against Israel. If Hezbollah commits most of its forces to a confrontation with Israel, regardless of which side is responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, and if Iran sends substantial reinforcements to Syria or even Lebanon, this strategy is no longer sufficient to reduce the threat. All the more so as the massive use of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ballistic arsenal generally attracts the Israelis into a massive air-land intervention (see above).

There is no doubt that Tsahal’s GHQ, which has been practicing wargaming for a long time, has drawn its own conclusions from the many simulation sessions it has been conducting for years.

Let us now focus on the ongoing offensives around the Idlib pocket for the control of north-west Syria. The illustration below shows the state of the forces present at the beginning of 2020, before the Covid-19 crisis.

The results of about 40 test games involving more than 200 participants in total lead to the following findings:

  • If Turkey stops supplying the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians will inevitably regain control. Reconquering Idlib takes less than a year (usually six months) once the rebels and jihadists entrenched around Idlib are effectively isolated.
  • While Turkey continues to assist entrenched fighters in the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians regain control in 80 per cent of cases. By counter-attacking, the Turkish army and its local auxiliaries reconquer Idlib in two out of three cases, opening a new cycle of confrontation that prolongs the conflict and brutally increases international tension, with Turks, Russians and Syrians coming face to face. In most cases, the Syrians and Russians eventually reconquer and secure the Idlib pocket sustainably, albeit with heavy losses.
  • As long as the Idlib pocket is active, the Syrians, supported or not by the Russians, do not have the military means to drive the Turkish army out of its bridgeheads in Afrin and Jaraboulous (in Syrian territory).
  • Once the Idlib pocket is reconquered, the Syrians, discreetly supported by the Russians or even the Iranians, regain control over one of these two Turkish bridgeheads in two-thirds of cases; they reconquer the two bridgeheads in only 10% of cases. In other words, the Turkish government has a 90% chance of retaining at least one military hold in Syria, regardless of the course of the fighting. This is certainly what Turkish President Erdogan is aiming at in order to flatter the nationalist ego of his people, occupy his army and stay in power until 2023, when his country will celebrate the centenary of the Turkish Republic born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
  • In eight out of ten cases, Russia is the key player in the conflict and manages to achieve its objectives: saving the Syrian regime, eradicating the Idlib pocket, securing its military bases as well as the Aleppo-Damascus axis while preventing Iran from accessing the Syrian coast.
  • The longer the conflict lasts, the more likely it is that Iran will be able to maintain itself in Syria by improving its positions there.
  • In the end, it is the Syrian regime that has the most difficult job in achieving its objectives of victory to remain independent. It can only win by remaining closely allied with Russia and Iran. If it loses one of its two supporters, it can no longer win, even if it can still avoid defeat by securing the “useful Syria”.
  • Once the battle of Idlib is over, the only way to durably eradicate Daech from Syria (and thus to prevent it from gangrening Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) consists in an agreement between the Syrian regime, the Kremlin, Tehran and Ankara (the Astana process).
  • The big losers in this strategic aggiornamento are the Kurds, who in any case have no means of breaking their enclavement and logistical isolation. For in the absence of a major port, neither Syria, Turkey, Iraq nor Iran, which surround them, will ever allow anyone to supply them on a long-term basis.

Of course, beyond the confrontations mentioned in this article, wargaming can be applied to many other theatres of tension or conflict, be it in the Strait of Hormuz, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula or closer to Libya and the Sahel-Saharan strip. The French armies have understood this, since they are setting up wargaming programmes adapted to their needs.

This is why the FMES Institute ( will, from the start of the academic year in autumn 2020, organize monthly workshops on strategic wargaming for students, academics, industrialists, institutions, the military, elected representatives or journalists who wish to acquire different keys of understanding in order to better decipher the complexity of current conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin. The FMES will also organise, on request, tailor-made wargaming sessions.

Finally, in order to contribute to strategic thinking, the FMES proposes to bring together in a dedicated section articles, studies and research papers from academics and military officers who analyse current or potential conflicts and who question past wars in order to shed new and original light on those of the present.



[1] In June 2000, Ehud Barak, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Israel, ordered the withdrawal of the Tsahal from southern Lebanon occupied since the “Peace in Galilee” operation launched on June 6, 1982. This first Lebanon War demoralised Israeli society and caused 1,220 deaths, and nearly a thousand more to its auxiliaries of the South Lebanese Army.

[2] Efraim Karsh, “Israel’s flight from South Lebanon 20 years on”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1577, May 22, 2020, ; Gershon Hacoen, “Israel’s frustrating experience in South Lebanon”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1581, May 25, 2020, ; Udi Dekel, “Unilateral moves as game changers: 20 years since the withdrawal from Lebanon”, INSS, May 26, 2020, ; Hanan Shai, The 1982 Lebanon “War and its repercussions for Israel’s National Security”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1596, June 4, 2020,

[3] Yaakov Lappin, “Gantz’s challenges and agenda as Israel’s new Defense Minister”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1582, May 26, 2020,

[4] “Ex-Mossad Chiefs discuss the Iranian threats”, Atlantic Council, 2018,

[5] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer, « Le tournant des études sur la guerre en France », RDN n° 800, May 2017, pp. 51-61.

[6] The SLA includes a majority of Lebanese Christians, but also a significant number of Shiite fighters from the villages of southern Lebanon, who today live in Israel.

[7] Pierre Razoux, « Quelle sortie de crise au Levant ? », RDN n° 822, Summer 2019, pp. 71-76.

[8] Notably the preservation of the Turkish army’s bridgeheads at Afrine and Jaraboulous (on Syrian territory), as well as the establishment of a corridor to isolate the Kurdish fighters in Syria from those of the Turkish PKK.

[9] Pierre Razoux, « Le wargaming, outil pédagogique pour une réflexion innovante », Défense n° 198, IHEDN, pp. 36-37.

[10] For a complete overview of wargaming, see the excellent work by Antoine Bourguilleau, Jouer la guerre : histoire du wargame, Passé composé / Ministère des Armées, 2020.

[11] As evidenced by the Wargaming Handbook published in 2017 by the Development, Concepts & Doctrine Centre of the British Ministry of Defence (UK MOD).

[12] Guillaume Levasseur, « De l’utilité du wargaming », Note n° 47 of IRSEM, 2017,

[13] This was evidenced by the debates held at the Ecole Militaire on the occasion of the two Serious Games Forum organised on 9 November 2018 and 27 January 2020 by the Serious Games Network France association ( and sponsored by IRSEM et l’IHEDN.

[14] ; ; the rules and maps in French can be downloaded from the publisher’s website. This wargame expects to simulate today what the iconic Gulf Strike (Victory Games) used to di in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The Makhlouf case, a turning point for the Syrian regime? – by Chloé Berger


Click here to read the original (French) version of this article

An article written by Chloé Berger, Faculty Adviser and Researcher at the NATO DEFENSE COLLEGE

At the end of April, Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, posted two videos in quick succession on Facebook denouncing the “inhumane” pressure of the security apparatus on his employees and himself. In a regime where the media is tightly controlled and the appearances of members of the Assad clan are exceptional and carefully choreographed, these videos showing the son of the Assad clan’s top money-maker officially confessing his key role in financing the regime’s war effort are surprising. Showing Rami Makhlouf first addressing the President in a plaintive and victimising tone, then accusing and threatening the security services and those who run them, these videos have stirred up the Syrian blogosphere. Rumours are circulating in both loyalist and opposition circles about the tensions that are agitating Syrian power at the highest level and raise the question of the future of the economic and financial empire of the Assad clan.


  1. A simple family quarrel?

On 30 April, a first video was posted on the Facebook account of Rami Makhlouf [1], the holder of a tremendous economic empire that has ramifications throughout all Syria’s economic sectors. Nicknamed “Mr. 5%”, he has become over the years the key lock for any entry into the Syrian market. In this video, he publicly asks the President to intercede with the Ministry of Telecommunications, which is claiming more than 170 million dollars in unpaid bills from the State Treasury for the profits made by Syriatel since 2015. Two days later, a second video was put online and this time the victimising tone gave way to accusatory verve. Pointing out the “inhuman” abuses of the security services towards its employees, he warned the President against those who try to take money from the “poor”. Makhlouf refuses to give in to pressure, arguing that he is in reality merely the depositary and guarantor of wealth that is not his own, but destined to Bashar al Assad’s “people”, all those loyalists who have supported the regime during the last ten years of war.

By addressing the people loyal to the regime – the families of martyrs, the shabiha [2], the subordinate officers of the army and the security services and more generally all those who have benefited from the support of the Jama’at al-Bustan [3] – Rami Makhlouf is trying, without really believing it himself, to play the community card against the coterie of the regime’s great businessmen, the vast majority of whom are Sunni and some of whom are close to Asma al Assad, the president’s wife. The state has moreover regained control of the Jama’at al-Bustan [4] in recent months, the main competitor of the Syrian Trust for Development charity network sponsored by the First Lady, thus depriving Makhlouf of one of its main vectors of legitimacy among the “people of the regime”. The Syrian Trust also supervises the associations distributing the aid allocated by the regime in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

Despite Rami Makhlouf’s encouragements to support him on social networks [5], his message was received in a very mixed way among the loyalists and the Alaouite community. The aid distributed within the community by the al-Bustan association was not enough to make people forget Rami Makhlouf’s extravagant lifestyle, even though the Alaouite community has paid a high price for defending the regime. Moreover, the following day, President Assad released a video calling on government officials to find solutions to mitigate rising prices and fight corruption.

The skirmishing of the last few days thus reveals the considerable influence gained by the First Lady within the Palace over the past year [6]. She has thus benefited from the fading of the presence of the “Patriarch”, Mohamad Makhlouf. Severely ill, the latter, the last representative of the generation of “founders” since the death of his sister Anissa in 2016, is no longer able to influence the economic destiny of the regime. Despite her discretion, the wife of Hafez al Assad played a key role in maintaining the cohesion of the Assad/Makhlouf clan in recent years. Between Rami Makhlouf and the First Lady, things are worsening and the president is forced to settle a conflict of interest between members of his own family.


  1. A fight against economic predators

The pressure against Rami Makhlouf has steadily intensified in recent months as the socio-economic situation in the country has deteriorated, causing popular demonstrations to resurface here and there in the provinces controlled by the regime, denouncing the corruption of war profiteers of which Rami Makhlouf is the most prominent symbol. But it is also that Rami Makhlouf’s appetite no longer knows any limits, as the Takamol affair has revealed [7]. The latter allegedly put pressure on the Minister of Commerce to prevent the Takamol company owned by the cousin of the president’s wife from entering the market for electronic cards giving access to subsidised products. Predation and a sense of omnipotence have reached such a level at the head of the Makhlouf’s empire in recent months that he and some of his close associates no longer hesitate to put pressure on ministers and stand up to the security apparatus. The discovery of narcotics in Egypt in the middle of a shipment of dairy products produced by the MilkMan [8] company belonging to him also underlines the links that the largest Syrian fortunes maintain with organised crime.

The Abar Petroleum affair[9] lifted the veil on part of the sums collected by Rami Makhlouf for his sole benefit, betraying the political-economic pact linking the Assad and Makhlouf families, at the heart of the system for more than thirty years. At the end of 2019, the Syrian General Directorate of Customs seized the assets of the Abar Petroleum SAL company linked to Rami Makhlouf and suspected of illegally importing oil into Syria from the port of Baniyas. The Syrian authorities seem ready to seize all of Rami Makhlouf’s assets in Syria; the reins of his economic empire could thus be handed over to his younger brother, Ihab Makhlouf, Vice-President of Syriatel [10]. However, in the context of the new European and American sanctions, in particular the entry into force in June of the Caesar law [11], it will be much more difficult to recover assets placed abroad. By bringing the pressure on him to the public square, Rami Makhlouf certainly hopes to be able to negotiate his exit as Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rifa’at, did in the 1980s. However, he is unlikely to get the same compensation from his cousins after publicly defying them. The other “big cases” in the history of the regime have generally served to distance embarrassing elements from the clan. By bringing the dispute to the public square, Rami Makhlouf certainly hopes to escape the tragic end reserved to Mahmoud al Zorbi, Ghazi Kanaan or Assef Shawkat.


  1. Rami Makhlouf, a threat to Russian interests?

The passing of the Caesar law, the military situation in Idlib and the COVID-19 crisis [12] have created an unprecedented emergency for the regime. The Syrian State is bled dry and desperate for funds. From autumn 2019, the launch of an anti-corruption campaign with a large media support allows the Syrian authorities to “fine” the richest businessmen in the country [13] in an attempt to appease the growing popular discontent. The collapse of the Syrian Pound dramatically reduced wages and galloping inflation tripled or quadrupled the price of essential goods. But the worsening Syrian economic situation, the crisis in the banking sector in Lebanon and international sanctions are also weighing on the profits of the economic elites and their ability to bail out the regime’s treasury.

The regime’s stubbornness towards Turkey undermines Russian efforts towards a political settlement supported by the West and the Gulf monarchies. The Kremlin wants to get rid of the Syrian problem, whose military cost has become prohibitive, as soon as possible so that it can devote itself to other matters. The Kremlin’s barely veiled frustration [14] permeates the Russian media, which are denouncing the weakness of the Syrian President and are questioning his ability to reform the country [15]. The corruption of ‘war profiteers’, supporters of the status quo, undermines Russian hopes, especially those of the heads of the paramilitary companies present in Syria [16] who hope to reap the economic benefits of reconstruction.

Heavily constrained by the collapse of the price of hydrocarbons and the consequences of COVID-19, the Russian oligarchs seem to be getting impatient and are asking for guarantees. However, Rami Makhlouf, who owns most of the country’s economy, has become an obstacle to the establishment of Russian investors in Syria. Tehran for its part, to which Maher al-Assad is reputedly close, has already obtained access to a certain number of resources, in addition to the economic influence guaranteed to him by Lebanese businessmen close to Hezbollah who have already acquired licences for the import of raw materials necessary for the reconstruction of destroyed houses. The ousting of Rami Makhlouf could allow a re-composition, at least partial, of the economic elite in Syria with the rise of new entrepreneurs benefiting from the support of Russian oligarchs. While some believe that the fall of Rami Makhlouf is only a matter of time, for the moment he retains control of a large part of his empire. The coming weeks will determine the conditions under which Rami Makhlouf’s departure will be negotiated. For the latter, leaving Syria will not be easy.

To conclude, the fall of Rami Makhlouf, which seems to be confirmed by the resignation at the beginning of the week of the head of the MTN company[17], would break the last lock on the implementation of a transition that the Kremlin is urgently calling for. However, the Kremlin will find it difficult to come to terms with the Iranian politico-military presence in Syria, which is viewed very negatively by the Gulf monarchies and Israel. At the very least, Tehran will seek to remain in the shadows in order to preserve opportunities in certain critical economic sectors such as raw materials (oil, gas, phosphates) or infrastructures (telecommunications, air transport). The Iranian regime considers them to be just compensation for the considerable financial and military support [18] it has given to the Syrian regime. However, these sectors are also coveted by businessmen close to the Kremlin.

The COVID-19 crisis caused a postponement of the Syrian parliamentary elections and pushed back the presidential elections to an unknown date. The weeks to come will therefore test the will of the Syrian authorities to undertake the reforms expected by the Russians [19]. If necessary, the Kremlin could be tempted to seek alternative solutions. However, replacing Bashar al Assad in the current context proves remarkably difficult, if not impossible. Who today has sufficient political support on the Syrian political scene (in Syria or abroad) to guarantee the Russians the repayment of the Syrian debt, estimated at more than 3 billion dollars? Meanwhile, time is running out while the regime’s financial resources continue to dwindle drastically.

In Damascus, some would like to be able to obtain a political settlement before the American elections, fearing the arrival in power of a leader closer to the policies of Barack Obama. The economic prospects promised by Syrian reconstruction are stirring up covetousness and as we move closer to a political compromise, it will become increasingly difficult for Damascus to reconcile the contradictory interests of its main allies; all the more so as other influential players in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates or China, intend to preside over Syria’s economic future.


[1] For an analysis of the best parts of the two videos posted by Rami Makhlouf on his Facebook account (video in Arabic, url :, read Caroline Hayek, « Rami Makhlouf réitère ses attaques contre les services de sécurité », L’Orient le Jour, 03/05/2020, url :

[2] The shabiha are paramilitary groups ultra-loyalist to President Assad. Gathered in the People’s Committees (Lijan Sha’bieh) formed from the first demonstrations in spring 2011 to participate in the repression of demonstrations, intimidate opponents and lead the regime’s propaganda, the shabiha became from 2012 onwards real paramilitary movements such as the National Defence Forces (Qowat al Difa’ al Watani). Integrated into the Syrian Armed Forces, the NDF, mostly recruited from among the Alaouites and Christians from the coast, represent between 50,000 and 60,000 men and serves as an operational reserve. The Ba’th Party and its satellite parties (SSNP, PFLP-GC, etc.) and some Syrian businessmen (including Rami Makhlouf) have also formed militias which serve as territorial defence. Read Aron Lund, « Who are the Pro-Assad Militias ? », Diwan, Carnegie Middle-East, March 2, 2015,url:

[3] On the US sanctions list since 2017, the al-Bustan Association is a charity that is supposed to finance humanitarian aid programs for war victims and displaced persons, but in reality it finances the salaries of the shabiha as well as the aid given to the families of the martyrs. Linked to the Air branch of the Security Services, it also serves as a screen for financing paramilitary forces (Liwa Dir al Watan – Homeland Shield ; Fahud Homs – Leopards of Homs). Read “Assassination attempt targets the head of “al-Bustan Association” which belongs to Rami Makhlouf near the Syrian Border with the Occupied Golan”, SOHR, 27/09/2019, url:

[4] On the takeover of the Al-Bustan Association by the Syrian authorities in the context of the seizure of some of Rami Makhlouf’s assets by order of the Syrian President in the autumn of 2019, read Trent Schoenborn, « The Syrian Regime Turns On Its Patrons: Rami Makhlouf’s Fall From Grace », International Review, 11/11/2019, url :

[5] Several directors and deputy directors of the Syriatel company, the jewel of Rami Makhlouf’s economic empire, have been reprimanded by the security apparatus for having pressured their employees to post their support for Rami Makhlouf on social networks.

[6] Firas Tlass, the son of the former Minister of Defense of Hafez al Assad, gave RT in Arabic a remarkable interview on the tensions within the Assad/Makhlouf clan, unveiling the system of commissions and shareholdings on which Mohamad Makhlouf built the family’s economic empire. Largely charged against the First Lady, all links to the interview have been removed from the Net. Read « Il y a parlé de la corruption de la famille Makhlouf  … RT efface l’interview avec Firas Tlass », Enab Baladi (in Arabic), 11/05/2020, url :

[7] On the Takamol case that gave Rami Makhlouf an advantage over a relative of Asma al-Assad, read Adnan Abdelrazak, « Rami Makhlouf and His Father Respond ‘With Two Scandals’ to Asmaa al-Assad », The Syrian Observer, 21/04/2020, url :

[8] Read ”Are Assad and Haftar mutually benefiting from the drug illicit trade?”, TRTWorld, 06/05/2020, url:

[9] Read Albin Skazola, “Rami Makhlouf Asset Freeze Points to Oil Smuggling Role”, Levant Networks, 26/12/2019,

[10] Syriatel, the country’s leading mobile telecommunications company, is overwhelmingly owned by Rami Makhlouf. A part of the capital belongs to the State and allows the monitoring of calls, especially to foreign countries. On the Makhlouf’s economic empire, read the report « Assad Henchmen’s Russian Refuge », Global Witness, 11/11/2019, url :

[11] The Caesar Law, named after the former Syrian Military Intelligence officer who fled the country with more than 50,000 photographs of arrested persons, promulgates additional sanctions and travel restrictions against anyone supporting the regime. Read Press Statement Michael R. Pompeo, « Passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019”, US Department of State, 20/12/2019, url:

[12] On the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis in Syria, read Murad Abdul Jalil, ”Syrian economy resumes activity… Poverty and bankruptcy outweigh coronavirus”, Enab Baladi, 10/05/2020, url:

[13] Read Paul Halabi, “Ces Huit hommes d’affaires qui se partagent le gâteau syrien », L’Orient le jour, 04/10/2019, url :

[14] Read Henri Meyer et Ilya Akhripov, “Putin Has a Syria ‘Headache’ and the Kremlin’s Blaming Assad”, Bloomberg, 28/04/2020, url:;

[15] The main charge against President Assad was led by Yevgeny Pregozhin, known for his links with the Wagner group, which would have enabled the Russian companies Mercury and Velada to obtain two oil contracts in December 2019. Read Amr Salahi, “Is Assad now a liability? The mysterious Russian media campaign against Syria’s dictator”, The New Arab, 01/05/2020, url:

[16] Read the forthcoming article from Abdel Naser al Ayiad, « Où est le Colonel russe Zourin », al-Jisr (in Arabic).

[17] MTN is the other mobile phone company present on the Syrian market. Rami Makhlouf also holds a share of its capital.

[18] According to Akbar Velayati, who is close to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Tehran reportedly has provided financial, economic and military support worth $8 billion a year to the Syrian regime since the beginning of the war, not counting the men who have fallen in Syria. At the same time, Russia’s military commitment since 2015 (logistical support and support from the Russian air force) is estimated at between $2.5 and $4.5 billion. Read Sinan Hatahet, « Russia and Iran. Economic Influence in Syria”, Chatham House Research Paper, 8 mars 2019, url:

[19] In the transitional scenario supported by Moscow, the election of a new Chamber should allow for the constitution of a Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution and determining the stages of the political transition. In this context, Bashar al-Assad, as President of the Republic, would accompany the process until the next presidential elections.


Covid in the Mediterranean: an accelerator of ruptures

Research team of the FMES institute

Click here to read the original (French) version of this article


It’s still too early to tell if the Covid-19 crisis is going to change the world. However, we can be assured that it will accelerate the changes already underway. Indeed, it acts as a catalyst which, because it highlights the differences between societies and between States, because it highlights dysfunctions and because it worsens imbalances and tensions, provokes points of inflection and ruptures.

The Mediterranean, which concentrates most of the challenges of globalisation, is, as it is often the case, an excellent laboratory of historical acceleration. Due to its particular situation, the Mediterranean brings together very diverse civilisational areas on which the impact of the pandemic, as well as its perception and consequences, remain very different. To update the summer 2019 issue of the RDN magazine devoted to the strategic Mediterranean[1], the FMES research team analyses the impact of the Covid crisis at this stage around this area in order to assess its strategic consequences for the security of France and Europe.


Global panorama: a single virus, different answers

Even if the measures to combat this virus are more or less identical in all countries (collective quarantine and social distancing), the reality of their application differs significantly. An analysis of responses to a common crisis gives a true picture of societies and their differences. The foreseeable consequences of this crisis, whether social or economic, will exacerbate the divergences and inequalities already at work in this region of frictions between two worlds. People’s perception of these differences is also a key point that will influence future representations, which will be a determining factor in the resulting frustrations and tensions.


Europe: transparency, heterogeneity and Latin states’ fragility

The first characteristic of the European continent has been, in accordance with its culture, to apply total transparency with regard to its sometimes critical health situation, which has placed it at a delicate stage in the global competition of narratives that has arisen over the pandemic.

While all States have set up quarantines, of varying degrees of magnitude, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, these measures have proved insufficient in the Mediterranean countries. The imperfect state of preparedness of health systems has proved to be an aggravating factor. The assessment of the pandemic’s management is therefore rather negative, especially in the Latin countries where the economic impact is likely to be considerable. The more or less strict containment measures have a strong impact on economic life and have imposed unprecedented public spending measures. This is particularly the case in France, Italy and Spain, which have been highly confined even though their public indebtedness exceeded 100%.

The crisis has thus exacerbated the divide that was already noticeable during the 2010 eurozone crisis, highlighting the cultural, political and economic differences between the countries of northern and southern Europe[2].

If the measures taken by the European Union have been deemed insufficient, weakening an image already tarnished by the management of the 2015 migration crisis and the Brexit, they are nevertheless consistent with the functioning of the EU health policy, which falls within the internal competence of the member states. Nevertheless, the European Union has taken a series of financial support measures since mid-March (purchase of government securities amounting to €750 billion), supplemented by a package of financial measures decided by the Eurogroup on April 9, 2020 amounting to €540 billion[3]; it has announced that it will invest more than €138 million in research on Covid-19, targeting vaccine, treatment and diagnostic projects through the “Horizon 2020” programme. While the economic recovery support plan and the loan pooling project (Coronabonds) are not the subject of agreements, it is difficult to deny the crucial role of the EU in its favourite sector, namely economic aid.

Thus, despite the imperfection and lack of unity in the responses of the countries on the northern shore, they could rely on functional health systems. The latter guaranteed them the availability of skills as well as operational means to provide an initial series of precautionary measures designed to make the influx of patients into their health systems bearable. The worst, i.e. the collapse of hospital systems, has been avoided and, even if emergency measures remain necessary, the EU can focus on finding therapeutic solutions (vaccines, treatment, etc.) and managing the post-Covid economic and social crisis, which will be significant, especially for the most affected European countries.

The situation is quite different on the other two shores of the Mediterranean.


Authoritarianism and economic revival outweigh health protection in the South and East

From the Maghreb to the Levant, with the exception of Israel, which applies the same type of health policy as European countries and to a lesser extent Turkey, which is close to it, data on Covid-19 seems incomplete or dissimulated. Situations of economic, social or security crisis largely explain this lack of reliable information. Authoritarian governments (or fragile governments such as Tunisia), are aware that they will indeed be judged rather on the absence of unrest than on the number of deaths. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify the broad outlines of the policies for managing this crisis, the main aim of which is to avoid the total collapse of the systems in place by maintaining, as far as possible, economic activity.

The first parameter common to the countries on the southern shore concerns a lower vulnerability to the pandemic, which is antithetical to the northern shore: a younger less fragile population despite a less efficient health organisation.

The second point to be stressed remains the mimetismof reactions. Governments have all taken more or less strict containment measures (for instance, in Egypt restaurants or cafés can remain open; in Turkey containment measures only apply to weekends and numerous countries tolerate their informal sector). These measures enable, it should be noted, increased social control (the Algerian Hirak has thus been suspended) and strengthen the lead weight effect sought by many leaders.

The more traditional social organization, centered around the family unit, is conducive to the mutual aid and community support that is essential to manage this health and economic crisis. It is certainly a shock absorber.

Finally, it is likely that the economic crisis that is now beginning will have a greater impact than the health crisis in the countries of the southern shore. The weakness of local economic activity combined with the global recession, the decline of tourism and the collapse of oil prices has created a situation that is particularly difficult to handle for governments subject to perennial social and political tensions, especially in Algeria which is highly dependent on oil and natural gas incomes.

Lastly, in a region shaped by chronic anti-Western postures the psychological impact of the closure of the borders with the North could, by removing the valve represented by the access to the diaspora, to the economy and to health care in Europe, reinforce the latent resentment towards the former colonial powers.

The level of tensions created by these frustrations will reinforce the impact of federating anti-Western or Islamist statements on the populations of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, unless Europe measures the extent of what is at stakes and considers the strengthening of ties with its southern shore as a priority.


A reinforced security challenge

The Covid-19, as much by the reactions it arouses as by its sanitary impacts, is a major factor of security destabilisation in an area that was already one of the most crisis-prone regions in the world.

The first security impact is linked to the consequences of the pandemic in the societies of the countries on the southern shore, already weakened by a malaise linked to economic difficulties, political blockages and societal destabilisation accelerated by Internet access. The tightening of security hide behind the the pandemic lockdown, the economic crisis caused by the Covid and the blocking of borders on the northern shore will reinforce internal tensions which will, as is customary, be channelled towards anti-European and anti-French resentment.

There is a different kind of impact, linked to the protective measures implemented by the armed forces engaged in this theatre, which have led to the punctual repatriation of military assets, starting with warships (even though France has maintained a permanent presence in the Eastern Mediterranean). This operational withdrawal, which is linked to the difficulty our societies have in accepting losses considered unjustified, is shared by Russia, which also seems to have reduced the activity of its forces deployed in the Mediterranean and Syria. Meanwhile, China, which is less present in the Mediterranean, does not seem to be making such operational withdrawals, as evidenced by the military activity it is deploying in the China Sea or near its Djibouti base.

Overall military activity is thus reduced in the Mediterranean, with a positive effect in Idlib where fighting has stopped, even if, conversely, fighting has resumed in Libya around Tripoli. The reduction in the size of the Western armed forces has other negative consequences when they participate in stabilisation operations (Sahel) or the preservation of international law (immigration, sovereignty).

The pandemic therefore favours the most resilient entities, those with the least to lose and who are able to benefit from the temporary withdrawal of powers. Turkey or the Syrian regime could thus take advantage of the situation to impose a fait accompli (drilling in the Cypriot EEZ for Erdogan, reduction of the Idlib pocket for Bashar). Terrorist groups and mafia organisations, for their part, can more easily develop their actions and trafficking (destabilisation, armaments, drugs, migrants).

We are thus entering a period in which traditional powers are retreating, societies are under stress, and the spoilers, who have less to lose, are unrestrained. It is important that this phase be as short as possible.


Geopolitical consequences

Thus, it must be noted that European countries have occasionally withdrawn, petrified by the management of the pandemic. It is not only a question of the civilian and military ships that have returned to their home ports, but also of the massive repatriation of expatriates and the reduction of cooperation. The Brussels authorities have indicated their willingness to increase aid to African countries, but have remained cautious with regard to the countries on the southern shore, from Morocco to Egypt.

This drawdown leaves the field open to global actors greedy for influence and propaganda, starting with China, which appears, for the time being, to be the main beneficiary of this crisis even though it is at its origin. Using an uninhibited softpower and a resolutely aggressive diplomacy[4], the Chinese authorities have scored points all around the Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria) by delivering batches of sanitary equipment, even if some seem to be of poor quality, by affirming their unfailing support to the regimes in place and by openly denigrating the posture of European countries[5]. But it is in a second stage that China intends to prevail when these weakened countries, threatened by excessive debt, will be in search of liquidity and investments to revive their atonic economy, without having to carry out the painful reforms imposed by the traditional institutional donors. However, Beijing’s battle is not won, as China’s attitude is also generating criticism and frustration at the very heart of the regimes it intends to help. The very lively debates in Iran, a country increasingly dependent on China, between the municipality of Tehran and the Ministry of Health on one hand and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the other are the best example of this[6]. It is not unlikely that voices critical of Chinese opportunism will be heard in both Europe and North Africa. Moreover, it is not certain that the Middle Kingdom will not experience some internal setbacks that could limit its ambitions.[7]

Like China, Russia has also taken advantage of the pandemic to provide over-mediated health assistance to several Mediterranean countries (notably Italy). It has left its airlines open, allowing many Europeans to be repatriated, while holding its positions firmly. The subliminal message is clear: you can count on Moscow. A second implicit message, which lost its force after Russia was hit harder: thanks to its authoritarian regime, the Kremlin has managed to contain the pandemic while freeing up resources to assist you. These messages are intended both to reassure autocratic regimes and to divide European countries. It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will be able to continue the effort in the long term, given the difficulties it is facing in Russia.[8]

Turkey appears as the third beneficiary of this crisis, which is taking advantage of the withdrawal of the Western navies to maintain a naval presence around Cyprus in order to support its offshore energy claims inside the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, facing the Aegean Sea in order to impress Greece and the European Union which are threatened by migratory waves from Turkey, and close to the Libyan coast in order to support an advanced base enabling Turkish leadership to spread the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in the direction of the Maghreb and the Sahel.[9]

For their part, the United States are torn between their desire to reduce their involvement in the region in reaction to their over-involvement in the 2000s on the one hand, and the growing weight of Asian challenges on the other hand. As a matter of fact, their strategic lines of communication are of key importance in this area to continue to weigh on the world oil market and to counter Russia and China. It is therefore likely that Donald Trump or Joseph Biden will continue to be involved, more strongly than we think, in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

More worrying for the long term, the reactions of all sides underline the questioning of multilateralism (largely demonetised WHO, silent UN Security Council) and the lack of credibility of the European Union. They exacerbate the logic of the balance of power as well as the Sino-American rivalry.

But Covid-19 could also bring some good news.

The relocation of part of the value chain close to Europe is an opportunity to initiate a strengthened industrial partnership with the North African States, which could replace hydrocarbons, tourism and diasporas, areas that maintain complex psychological relations with the former colonising countries.

With a touch of optimism, there is reason to believe that once the stocks of ammunition have been exhausted, the effects of the pandemic will dry up rival camps in Libya, forcing them to agree on a negotiated way out of the conflict. Most of their sponsors seem to be ready for this. It remains to convince Turkey on one side, the United Arab Emirates on the other, which for the moment is maintaining its armament flow.

To conclude this geopolitical overview, it is possible that this pandemic will help facilitating the resumption of dialogue between the three most influential regional players in the Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have all strengthened their regional position and need to revive their economies after the triple punishment of the pandemic, the halt in economic activity and the collapse of oil prices. This is particularly true for Iran and Israel, which have an interest in easing tensions in the Levant so that they can serenely export their hydrocarbons (offshores for Israel) to the countries of the Mediterranean area, because they both know they have the military means to stop the flow of hydrocarbons from the other.


Consequences and proposals for France and the European Union

All these developments require France and the European Union not to sacrifice the geopolitical stakes of their southern shore to the health and economic emergency. The boomerang would return quickly and violently: terrorism, migration, destabilisation …

Therefore, a crucial question arises: on whom can we rely to stabilise a Mediterranean basin that has been greatly weakened by the pandemic?

On the riparian states? This would be the answer of common sense, but they are embroiled in their counterproductive rivalries. If nothing is done to mitigate them, Covid-19 will have fragmented the Mediterranean area even further.

What about China? This would make sense, because unlike the United States and Russia, China, like the European Union, has an objective interest in rapidly easing tensions around the Mediterranean area, even if for different reasons. Beijing needs to take advantage of the current floating situation to rapidly pursue its economic and geopolitical expansion towards the Atlantic Ocean. For Xi Jinping’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project is part of a global strategy. Conversely, Moscow and Washington have an interest in maintaining a certain level of tension in North Africa and the Middle East to justify their role as protector, arms supplier and diplomatic sponsor. But by playing the Chinese card, the European Union would be playing with an impressive competitor, adept at predation, and would give Beijing a considerable trending advantage in its arm wrestling with the White House, which Washington would make Brussels pay dearly for.

Russia then? After all, Europe and Russia share many common strategic interests in the Mediterranean, including holding back China and Iran, making Turkey listen to reason and stabilising Syria and Libya. But the Kremlin is today trapped in its vindictive spiral and is highly divisive : many do not want a rapprochement with an autocratic power accused of carrying computer viruses and fake news.

Should we then finally rely on the United States? This option, desired by those whom China and Russia frighten, remains inaudible in the era of Donald Trump. It can only be resurrected after the result of the November 2020 presidential election, if the New York real estate magnate were to slip away and his successor were to open up to a truly balanced cooperation. The geopolitical landscape should therefore become clearer next autumn, since many signals are converging by that time.

In the meantime, Paris and Brussels would benefit from reviving initiatives for naval cooperation between European navies in order to reinvest as soon as possible the central and eastern Mediterranean, so as to show all local and global players that this is a vital maritime area for Europe. Above all, they must strengthen the process of European integration, because this crisis will have proved that, at the end of the day, Europe can only count on itself and that it has a duty to project the image of a credible and responsible player.

France and the European Union must also tackle the field of perceptions that have been poisoning relations between the two shores for decades. The battle of the narrative related to the management of the pandemic and its consequences is an illustration and an opportunity. Active, preventive and straightforward communication is essential to counter the biased and propagandistic discourse of autocratic regimes that seek to discredit European states, France in the lead, and use them as scapegoats to camouflage their own shortcomings and structural weaknesses. This implies countering each fake news by demonstrating its inanity and the interest of those who propagate it. It also means forging an alternative narrative based on common sense and the crossed interests of the northern, eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. Universities, think tanks as well as politicians concerned with the future of the Mediterranean have a role to play in this area.

Two Mediterranean states are in a weak position and deserve the support of Europeans because of their strategic positioning: Cyprus, the eastern tip of the European Union in the Mediterranean, which is facing Turkey; Tunisia, the most open Maghreb state towards Europe, target of the Muslim Brotherhood who wants to promote an assertive political Islam.

A better understanding of the Arab-Muslim world is essential. This is why it seems essential to strengthen cooperation with the Moroccan, Egyptian and Lebanese intelligence services, i.e., those who best understand the strategies of infiltration of the Islamist movement around the Mediterranean, as Professor Pierre Vermeren suggests in an notable interview on the Diploweb website.[10]

Without appearing alarmist or wishing that such scenarios would occur, it would be prudent to anticipate the consequences of the resurgence of massive demonstrations in Algeria and Egypt, since these two countries, very much threatened by Covid-19, although they defend themselves against it, could very soon demonstrate their socio-economic and political fragility.

It is undoubtedly vis-à-vis Turkey that France and the European Union must act as a matter of priority. They must discreetly but firmly inform President Erdogan of the economic, political and diplomatic retaliatory measures that the European Union would take if he crossed the red lines of European interests; Washington, Moscow and Beijing, for their part, have not hesitated to draw their own red lines for him, demonstrating in practice the harmful consequences of crossing them. The aim is not to make him lose face, but to make him understand that the European Union does not intend to be the useful idiot of history, to paraphrase Lenin, and that it knows how to wield the stick as well as the carrot when its vital interests are at stake. Finally, at the sub-state level, multilateral dialogue between the regions of southern Europe and their counterparts on the eastern and southern shores should be stepped up, by invigorating academic exchanges and meetings between think tanks. This is why the FMES institute stands ready to assess the consequences of this crisis with all those of its partners who would like to do so.



[1]Special Issue of the RDN “The Mediterranean Laboratory of Globalization” Summer 2019.

[2] Maxime Lefebvre Thucyblog 33.

[3]SURE instrument proposed by the Commission to finance short-time working measures; European Investment Bank loans, guaranteed by the States, to companies; credit line from the European Stability Mechanism, created in 2012, to help States to meet expenditure linked to the coronavirus crisis. Maxime Lefebvre Thucyblog 33

[4] « La Chine aurait fait pression sur l’UE pour édulcorer un rapport sur la désinformation relative au covid-19 », Reuters, April 24, 2020.

[5]Benoît Delmas, « Maghreb : le hold-up sanitaire chinois », Le Point, April 5, 2020.

[6]Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner, « Frappée par la pandémie, l’Iran ménage la Chine »,La Croix, April 7, 2020.

[7]Minxin Pei, “Competition the Coronavirus and the weakness of Xi Jinping”, Foreign Affairs May/june 2020.

[8]Emil Avdaliani, « Coronavirus is hitting Russia on more than the economy », BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Perspective Paper n° 1534, April 17, 2020.

[9]Irina Tsukerman, « Turkey is building a geopolitical alliance between Sunni and Shiite Islamists », BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Perspectives Paper n° 1528, April 14, 2020.

[10]Pierre Vermeren, « Quelle est l’histoire secrète des liaisons franco-arabes ? » – Entretien avec Pierre Verluise, Diploweb, April 19, 2020.

Cyprus, a complex of maritime disputes

By Admiral (ret’d) Pascal Ausseur

Director of the FMES Institute.


Click here to read the original (French) version of this article


Taking an interest in maritime events means taking an interest in events on land: what happens at sea is in fact directly linked to the situation on land and maritime disputes or even tensions are part of a given geopolitical and geo-economic situation. When we look at Cyprus, we are, in this respect, in a textbook case.

We are accustomed to describing the Mediterranean as the laboratory of globalization, a form of concentration that allows us to grasp the issues that determine the world and that could help us identify approaches that can be generalized to respond to them. But when we look at the Eastern Mediterranean, we are faced with a form of “concentrate of concentrate”.

Thus, speaking of the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, around Cyprus, is in a way describing the new world, as the stakes, developments and scenarios at work illustrate the major trends of our time.


The Eastern Mediterranean is a “small” geopolitical cauldron

It has always been sensitive: this region has, in history, always been complex and often tense. A triple interface zone between the West, the East and Africa, it has brought cultural and material enrichment to the countries that compose it, but also tensions and rivalries which, as in the rest of the Mediterranean, only diminish in the course of history when a tutelary power assures its hold (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, British, Americans).

It is also a privileged – vulnerable – transit route for world maritime traffic (25% of supplies) and in particular for European and French traffic (70%). The Suez Canal is such an obvious choice that it is only mentioned when it could be cut.

The last 20 years have seen a complete upheaval in the global geopolitical situation and thus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

At the beginning of the 2000s, at the turn of the century, we were in a rather peaceful phase under the tutelage of the United States, winners of the Cold War and promoters of the system which became known as “liberal market democracy” and which seemed set to expand. In the Eastern Mediterranean, only two nodes of tension remained.

The first one was (and unfortunately remains) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been ongoing since 1948. Indeed, in Arab perception and representation, Israel is identified with a form of European colony, a Western outpost in the East and an intruder in a perpetual state of siege, like the Crusader kingdoms of the 12th and 13th centuries. This conflict, which has spread to Lebanon since 1975, is enmeshed in endless tensions that the regional (primarily Egypt) and global (especially the United States) powers are trying to control as much as possible. This does not prevent regular outbreaks of violence or war.

In 2000 the Oslo process establishing mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, already weakened by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was not yet totally neutralised by the second intifada launched in September of the same year.

The second point of tension was related to Greek-Turkish rivalries, distant heirs to the emancipation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and the reorganizations that followed the Second World War.

In the early 2000s, these tensions focused on the delimitation of maritime and air space in the Aegean Sea and the status of Cyprus. The island had been independent since 1960 and was based on a community organisation dividing roles between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, according to the practice of the former British guardianship power. In 1974, while the colonels in power in Greece were considering the island’s incorporation, Turkey intervened militarily on the pretext of protecting the interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Operation Attila resulted in the occupation by the Turkish army of 38% of the island, the separation of the two communities and stabilisation guaranteed by a UN force. Turkey then no longer recognised the government of Cyprus, but is on the other hand the only state to recognise the government of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) since 1983.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the situation was rather calm: reunification seemed possible since all the problems were considered to be solved by the generalised convergence towards the Western model, which was materialised by the announced accession of these countries to the EU. The rejection in 2004 by the Greek Cypriots of the Annan reunification plan that preceded Cyprus’s accession to the EU shattered this project, making Turkey’s EU accession process and thus relations with this country even more complex.

Since then, this separation has turned into a real frozen conflict and has generated a de facto partition: Northern Cyprus is now de facto annexed by Turkey and reunification seems impossible.

Today we live in a different strategic environment that has changed the geopolitical environment of the Eastern Mediterranean. Two ruptures have changed the situation, one global, the other regional.

The first rupture is linked to the end – faster than expected – of the unipolarity of the world at the end of the Cold War. The catastrophic management by the United States of its victory is the cause. In place of the rather subtle approach of George Bush senior, which aimed at establishing a “new world order” based on law, multilateralism and the self-restriction of what had become the sole superpower, his successors and above all his son have substituted a policy marked by incoherence and brutality. Carried away by the hubris of a society that thought it was at the dawn of an American century, the United States failed to manage its hyperpower and plunged the region into chaos and the world into a rejection of a West perceived as partial and dysfunctional.

Two decades later, no one any longer believes in the “end of history” as described by Francis Fukuyama, in the global convergence towards a Western model, in the impartiality of the institutions founded after the Second World War and even in the principles of compromise and rejection of war that underlie them. It is a paradox that this questioned global governance is made even more necessary by the interpenetration of global issues (economy, environment, demography, health, security, etc.).

The successors of G. Bush junior, taking note, each in his own style, of the blow to American credibility as a stabilizing hegemon, have begun an at least partial disengagement from its world leadership, leaving the place to Russia and soon to China, as well as to the middle powers that are exploiting the margins of maneuver left by this new “power vacuum”. In the Middle East these countries are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

The second rupture for this area is a consequence of the latter. It is linked to the progressive strategic emancipation of Turkey vis-à-vis the West organised by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This posture is based on a doctrine that is both neo-Ottoman and Islamist and aims to place Turkey in a position of regional pivot in the new post-bipolar (i.e. post-Cold War) world. The Arab revolutions of 2011 have given it an acceleration: Turkey, with the financial contribution of Qatar, has supported Muslim brothers in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, armed Misrata’s militias in Libya and opposition forces in Syria (including Daesh) and has become involved in European Muslim communities. However, the results have not lived up to the hoped-for expectations, especially in Egypt where the counter-revolution and the seizure of power by Marshal Al-Sissi, supported by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have affirmed a strong regional counter-power.

This region is thus bathed in a new world, marked by major geopolitical reconfigurations, mainly linked to the loss of American pre-eminence and a disruptive Turkish policy.

In this very destructured framework, each state seeks to achieve its own objectives, without being hindered by alliances, blocked by the rule of law or inhibited in the use of force. The balance of power has now been consolidated along two main axes: on the one hand, Turkey and Qatar (Muslim Brotherhood) associated with Russia and Iran (anti-Western), and on the other hand Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt (Anti-Brotherhood) associated with the United States and Israel (Anti-Iran).


Can the oil windfall alleviate the situation?

The new technological advances allowing deep offshore drilling give this region the opportunity to benefit from exceptional energy and financial resources which, although they do not seem capable of upsetting world balances (1% of global potential), are sufficient to modify regional balances. Will this possibility favour the “appeasement by trade” so dear to Montesquieu and encourage these States to come to an agreement to take advantage of it?

The windfall is important: world gas consumption has been growing for 30 years and benefits from a more affordable production cost than petroleum while emitting less CO2. The East Mediterranean gas field is currently estimated at 3,500 billion m³, equivalent to Norwegian reserves, and could benefit Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus and Turkey.

Besides the energy autonomy that this resource would bring to the neighbouring countries, the export customer is obvious: the European Union is a major consumer and wants to diversify its supply, which is currently 40% dependent on Russia. Finally, the concentration of fields allows synergies and leverage effects in terms of exploitation and export.

In a way, the pacifying effect has already been felt: the major companies in the extractive industries need and demand security that is both physical and economic, ensuring them a return on major investments. Numerous agreements have thus come into being: Egypt and Israel for the export of Israeli gas to its southern neighbour, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Israel for the construction of the EastMed pipeline, and above all the creation of an East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) made up of Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Greece. Most of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) have been the subject of agreements, with the exception of the one between Lebanon and Israel and of course those concerning Turkey (Syria being a special case given the civil war).

On this last point, the opposite effect is observed. While Turkey objectively has an interest in being included in the regional agreements (it is already a gas hub between Russia, the Caucasus and Europe via TANAP and Turkish stream, and its very deteriorated economic situation would justify an agreement for the sharing of gas resources), Erdogan has integrated this issue into his regional geopolitics, made up of power relations, exacerbated nationalism, pawn taking and the uninhibited use of force. It is difficult at this stage to discern whether this policy is aimed at outright predation or at putting oneself in a position of strength to better negotiate economic sharing.


The law of the sea is only useful when one agrees to respect it.

After trade, the second most important tool for the regulation of force is the law. But, like any international law, the law of the sea requires states to adhere to it in order to recognise and apply it. In this area, the goodwill of states is essential and if the 1982 Montego Bay Convention has not been signed by Turkey, Israel and Syria, this would not prevent them from applying it.

Cyprus declared (unilaterally, like France in 1976) its EEZ in 2004, completed in 2014. Agreements have been concluded with Egypt in 2003, with Lebanon in 2007 (although they have not yet been ratified by Lebanon) and then with Israel in 2010. On May 7, 2019, Cyprus has submitted a map to the UN showing the delimitation of its EEZ for the northern and north-western part of the island, without having negotiated with Turkey but taking into account the existence of a continental shelf claimed by the latter in the west of the island.

In addition, it has granted authorisations for prospection within this EEZ, but avoiding two disputed areas: off the TRNC and on the continental shelf.

Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus and therefore considers this EEZ to be illegitimate. It has not signed the Law of the Sea Convention but claims for its part an EEZ which commits the continental shelf to the Cypriot prospection zones.

On a more political level and detached from the Law of the Sea, Turkey considers that the authorisations for prospection granted by the Republic of Cyprus have been granted without taking into account the rights of the Turkish Cypriots in the TRNC and are therefore illegal and that it is its responsibility to ensure the defence of their interests. It therefore supports the TRNC’s demand for an extensive EEZ extending as far as the south of the island.

As a first step, Turkey wished to exert pressure on Cyprus by freezing all gas activities, in line with the jurisprudence that such activities can only take place after agreement between the parties.

After 2018, in reaction to the first Cypriot prospections, and in conjunction with a stronger assurance in the Syrian conflict (Battle of Afrin), Erdogan ordered its Navy to disturb or even obstruct the work carried out by the French company Total and the Italian company ENI in Southern Cyprus. Then, gradually, the Turkish prospection and drilling boats have, under good military guard and accompanied by martial speeches, begun their activities, first on the continental shelf in May 2019, then in the EEZ of the TRNC in June and finally in the middle of the Cypriot EEZ in October.

More recently, on November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime delimitation agreement, in exchange for a security and military cooperation agreement signed on the same day. This agreement provides for the two countries to share their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the reserves they contain, particularly in terms of hydrocarbons. The EEZs in question largely overlap with that of Greece, especially off the coast of Crete. On December 13, 2019, the European Union declared that the agreement violates the rights of third countries.

France’s protests, US warnings and EU sanctions have had no impact on a policy that favours geopolitical objectives that stray from the multilateral framework.

Turkey has the advantage in the balance of power: it is stronger than Cyprus, closer than France and more determined than the other actors. However, it is necessary not to give in to intimidation and fait accompli while identifying a path of de-escalation. This could be achieved through a combination of diplomatic (necessarily including Russia), military (to preserve our freedom of action) and economic (to ensure sufficient Turkish fallout) action.


Conclusion: an illustration of the new world

We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The United States is no longer the sole master of the game and Russia is establishing itself as a judge of peace in the Middle East. For the time being, Russia is discreet on this subject, preserving its relationship with all the players (Gazprom and Rosneft are partners on all sides). However, the status quo is rather favourable to her.

Turkey is emancipating itself and no longer even pretends to play the game of multilateralism and the law of the sea, which it perceives as tools of an outdated Western domination.

The UN and the EU are showing their powerlessness to regulate these conflicts.

The United States seems to be satisfied with this new deregulated and multipolar world. It allows them to weigh in without restriction when they wish, without having to “carry” a system that is too heavy and that they feel is outdated. Secretary of State Pompeo is saying the same thing when he underlines the uselessness of international law in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “there will never be a legal solution to the conflict and the arguments about who is right or wrong under international law will not bring peace”.

Only Europe wishes to maintain the strength of multilateralism and international law. But today it is powerless, petrified by the world that is coming and without a conceptual tool to articulate the establishment of a power politics that is not to be intimidated and the promotion of a renewed multilateralism and international law that would be accepted by a world that is sustainably de-Westernised.

BREXIT will have consequences in the Mediterranean

Pierre Razoux, research director at the IRSEM (Strategic Research Institute of the French “École Militaire”), associated with the FMES institute, is the author of numerous works including “Which strategy(ies) for France in the Mediterranean?” (FMES institute, September 2019). Together with Pascal Ausseur, he co-directed the special issue of the Revue Défense Nationale devoted to the “Strategic Mediterranean, a laboratory of globalization” (summer 2019).

[Click here to read the article in French]


There is no point in hiding the fact that BREXIT, effective since 1 February 2020, will have harmful consequences in the Mediterranean. The three northern, Levantine and southern shores will be impacted, but probably not in the same way. It is advisable to prepare for this by anticipating the most predictable consequences so as to limit their negative impacts when they will arise. This will require dialogue, common sense, openness, but also firmness when necessary. The Research and Strategic Thinking Centres spread around the Mediterranean basin will have their role to play, starting with the FMES institute, which is in the front line from its outpost in Toulon.


The status of Gibraltar

A British Overseas Territory since 1704, the Rock of Gibraltar – ancient Hercules’ columns guarding the exit from the Mediterranean in antiquity – has been continuously claimed by Spain, to which it is physically attached. Since its accession to the European Union in 1986, the Spanish crown has been asking Brussels to support its request to recover this British enclave, considering it to be a colonial slag that no longer exists. Until now, the European authorities had always refused to take part in this dispute between two Member States, believing that the issue could only be resolved by the interested parties themselves. At the last consultation in October 2016, 96% of Gibraltar residents voted in favour of retaining the British Crown. During a courtesy visit the following summer (2017), King Philip VI of Spain confirmed the Spanish claims, but stressed that they would have to be met through diplomatic channels.

Now that the UK has left the EU, Spain is likely to come back to the fray and ask Brussels to support its position, putting the EU at odds between its principles of favouring member states and the many commercial interests that bind it to Britain. A fortiori if the Spanish government needs a unifying dossier to strengthen the sense of national unity and if trade negotiations between Brussels and London are lagging behind. In this hypothesis, there is no doubt that Madrid and London will ask the main European states to take sides, thereby increasing the risks of division within an already fragile EU. But France, for instance, needs to maintain excellent relations with both Madrid and London.

This issue could weaken Spain, which is in the grip of strong centrifugal tensions (Catalonia, Basque Country), especially as border workers who have hitherto been free to cross the boundaries of the Rock to work on either side could be stopped at the border crossing, as Gibraltar is no longer part of EU territory.

Digging up the Gibraltar dossier could have a knock-on effect on the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on Moroccan territory, themselves the sequelae of the Spanish colonial presence in Morocco, in a context of strong nationalist tensions affecting the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean basin. Tensions are strong enough between the Maghreb countries to add new ones.


Division and centrifugal forces

According to the most recent opinion polls in Scotland and Ireland, supported by demographic and religious changes in the local populations, it is possible – if not probable – that in the medium term we may see the peaceful unification of Ireland and the independence of Scotland (which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU) in the event of a deterioration of the British economy in a post-BREXIT context. This development could be accelerated in the event of a deterioration in the image of the Crown and a polarisation of British political life.

Such a development could only stimulate the desire for independence of Catalonia in Spain, of Corsica in France, of Sardinia in Italy, of Kabylia in Algeria, of minorities of the Western Balkans, or even of the self-proclaimed republic of Northern Cyprus.

There is also no doubt that future British governments will not miss any opportunity to divide the EU in order to create opportunities for economic and political rebound in the Mediterranean. Malta, an old British stronghold (including through language and culture), could suffer from this strategy in the sense that London could easily take advantage of the Maltese authorities’ perception of loneliness in the face of the EU’s delicate management of the migrant crisis to revive Commonwealth ties and further fragment Brussels’ Mediterranean policy.

On the southern shore, the United Kingdom could be tempted to stir up local rivalries, inter-European frictions and misunderstandings between the two shores of the Mediterranean basin to improve the positions of its energy and armaments industries. In this respect, the recent progress made by British Petroleum in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean (south of Cyprus) and even towards the Palestinian Authority with a perspective of future exploration of offshore gas fields off the Gaza Strip should be underlined. Playing on divisions would be all the easier for the British government as the Europeans show their divisions or lack of consensus on the most striking issues of the moment, whether it be their relations with Iran, Turkey, Israel and the so-called “White House Peace Plan of the Century to settle the Palestinian issue”, Egypt, Libya of course, but also Tunisia and Algeria.

Renewed tensions in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean

However, it is in and around Cyprus that the evolution of the British post-BREXIT posture could have the most significant effects. Protectorate, then British colony from 1878 to 1960, the British armed forces have maintained a large garrison (currently 3 500 soldiers) on the island since Cyprus’s independence, at the two bases of Akrotiri (near Limassol) and Dhekelia (near Larnaca). This British contingent has been contributing since 1964 to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP[1]) through Operation Tosca. Since 1971, Cyprus has been the British military stronghold turned towards the Middle East; it is from there that the British air forces involved in all the post-Cold War external operations departed, including towards Libya (2011), Iraq and the Levant (2014) in the framework of the operation against the Islamic State (Daech), and towards Syria during Operation Hamilton (14 April 2018) targeting chemical weapon production sites of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Today, the Royal Air Force is deploying its 903rd Expeditionary Unit at the Akrotiri base, consisting of a dozen FGR4 Typhoon bomber-fighters, air-refueling tankers, an AWACS and electronic warfare aircraft; if necessary, it has declared its intention to deploy 5th generation F-35 fighter-bomber, which Turkey will not receive given its current favourable stance towards Russia, but above all because its relative mistrust of NATO. This posture, together with the occasional presence of a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer in the eastern Mediterranean, will undeniably help to stabilise Cyprus and dissuade Turkey from pushing its pawns further into the area. But what would happen if the British Ministry of Defence were to be forced to make drastic budget cuts if the Crown’s level of ambition were to be reduced, forcing it to reduce its military presence on the spot, or even to close its bases [2]? Or conversely, if the British government adopted a more favourable stance towards Turkey, as it used to do for twenty-five years in order to weaken EU cohesion?

Given the new Mediterranean ambitions claimed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (unilateral extension of the maritime economic zone under Turkish sovereignty towards Libya, demand for the withdrawal of military contingents stationed on the neighbouring Greek islands, recurrent violations of Greek territorial waters, shipments of arms and fighters to Libya), it is urgent for the EU to take a stand to contain the destabilising actions of the Turkish government. This is what Emmanuel Macron did on 29 January 2020 when he strongly denounced the provocations of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and announced the forthcoming conclusion of a strategic partnership with Greece and Cyprus, both members of the EU. In this increasingly tense context and after the line thrown by the President of the French Republic, London will have to take a stand.


British disengagement or more aggressive stance ?

Once the euphoria of the divorce is over and the sense of regained freedom has vanished, the British will have to face the shrinking of their market space and the attempts by the United States and China to dismember them economically and strategically. A fortiori if Her Majesty’s kingdom has meanwhile lost Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if Russia, like other ill-intentioned actors, has gone on a rampage through smear campaigns, propaganda and manipulation of public opinion to delegitimize the British political class and monarchy. For what ultimately makes the United Kingdom attractive to its partners as well as to its European neighbours is its liberal dimension in all fields: economic, political, societal and religious; the Muslim Brotherhood, which has massively invested in the City has understood this well. To isolate Britain, nothing is better than a brutal rise of populism and isolationism. The first signals are clearly perceptible, even against the Crown. Already, Americans and Chinese are well positioned to take control over key sectors of the economy, be it energy (including nuclear energy for China), communications infrastructure, defence industry, 5G and high technology.

Weakened and struggling to preserve their rank, the British will return to what they have been for centuries, a people of conquering sailors and privateers scouring the seas and oceans to win markets by any means possible, without the slightest prevention for their former European partners. The European rules that have hitherto limited the most questionable practices are no longer enforceable against them. As for the international regulatory bodies (UN, WTO, IMF…), they are increasingly weakened by the whims of Donald Trump, Chinese ambitions and the provocations of autocrats who seem to have the wind in their sails.

The problem for Europeans is that whatever the evolution of the British posture, its consequences are likely to be unfavourable to them: either the United Kingdom will weaken economically and strategically, and London will reduce its military presence and investment in development aid, thus reducing its stabilising presence in the Mediterranean; or it will become stronger and risks wanting to counter the stabilising actions of Europeans in order to win new markets and increase its own influence.

It is therefore crucial to maintain a close, frank and constructive dialogue with the United Kingdom – for the time being still united – in order to clearly express our expectations, our offers, but also the retaliatory measures that we might be led to take, which implies that the European Union and its most influential members in the Mediterranean should consult each other rapidly first, before discussing them with their partners on the southern and Levantine shores. This could be the priority agenda for a future Euro-Mediterranean summit.

It is equally crucial for the EU states bordering the Mediterranean basin to increase their defence effort, particularly in the aeromaritime field, in order to contribute more effectively, with or without the British, to securing the maritime axis linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and the straits of Bab el-Mandeb. The latter is more than ever a vital outpost for the defence of the Mediterranean.