24th Sep 2020


How Europe is getting entangled in the big Middle East conflict

  • France is supporting Greece with fregates and fighter jets, while tensions with Turkey are growing. (Photo: Emmanuel Macron/Twitter)

"This is very dangerous. It is not clear which way we shall head," colonel Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, or the father of Turkey, wrote in a letter in the summer of 1914.

Germany had just invaded Belgium and the Ottoman Empire, which had forged an alliance with Germany, found itself a little later involved in a world war.

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Atatürk was right. The First World War led to the end of the 600-year old Ottoman Empire.

Today, Turkey seems to be heading towards war with Europe again. Greece speaks war language, while Turkey says it will not compromise and instead continue its search for oil and gas in Greek-claimed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

This is not just another bilateral dispute between two neighbouring countries. The picture is much bigger.

And if Europe does not pay attention, it will become entangled in the nets of a growing conflict in the Middle East.

In a way, the situation just before World War I was a mirror image of what we see around the Mediterranean today.

By 1914, European powers had united in two enemy alliances: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance, while Great Britain, France, and Russia were part of the Triple Entente. War against one of the countries meant war on the entire alliance.

Today, there are two enemy alliances too.

Some might expect the two camps to be the Sunni versus Shiite Muslim nations. But it is, or course, much more complex than that.

On the one hand, there is the 'revolutionary alliance' of Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brothers, a regional movement, and Iran.

On the other hand, we see the 'status-quo entente' of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

The rivalry between those two "blocs" is, no longer, only playing out in the Middle East, but also, increasingly, in the eastern Mediterranean as well, as the recent strife between Turkey and Greece shows.

This is not about isolated incidents around a specific theme - such as gas or oil extraction - but about a complex conflict of interests in a broad theatre that stretches from Greece and Libya to Iran.

At the same time, we see that some European countries are clearly choosing sides, and that they are tying their wagon to one of the alliances in the Middle East.

France, Greece, and Cyprus support the status-quo entente, while Spain and Malta seem more ready to support the revolutionary alliance, while Italy is jaywalking between the two, depending on the file.

But before we delve deeper into this dangerous European connection, a little more explanation is needed about the Middle East alliances themselves.

Revolution vs. status quo

The origins of the revolutionary alliance go back to 1928, when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded to resist colonialist interference from Europe in the Middle East and for the re-establishment of the Islamic caliphate that had been abolished by Atatürk, a secularist.

They looked, with much sympathy, at the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Arab Spring of 2011 also seemed to bring the Muslim Brothers closer to power across the region.

Qatar supported that trend, while Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the leading example of how to successfully combine Islam and democracy. This brought Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brothers, and Iran into the same camp.

For Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the Arab Spring was a nightmare. The Saudis are terrified of instability in the Middle East, partly for economic reasons, and fear a revolution in their own country.

The same goes for the Emirates. When the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Sisi, deposed the country's first elected (Muslim Brother) president Mohamed Morsi, the status-quo entente was born.

The fact Erdoğan continued to support the Muslim Brothers made Sisi and the Turkish president into sworn enemies.

Israel, for its part, also prefers stability. There had been a peace agreement with Egypt since 1979. It also made peace with the Emirates on 13 August this year. This way, the link between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Emirates and Israel is becoming increasingly clear.

Some would argue that things are more complex than that - just look at the war in Syria, where Iran and Turkey are on opposite sides. But despite the extra complexities, we still see both sides getting closer and getting more hostile toward each other.

Turkey and Egypt are locking horns in Libya, where they each provide military support to opposing sides of the conflict.

Another example is Qatar. When Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017, Turkey immediately sent 3,000 additional soldiers to the peninsula, while Iran opened its airspace to all Qatar Airways flights.

We see the same alliances at work in the current escalation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Europeans taking sides

The difference is that now European countries are also involved in these alliances. In order to facilitate oil exploration, Egypt forged maritime agreements with Greece and Cyprus, as well as Israel, while Turkey reached a rival accord with the official government in Libya.

Both maritime deals are disputed by the other side.

Turkey believes Egypt has no business in the waters around Crete and Cyprus, while Egypt does not want to see Turkish military ships off the coast of its neighbouring country Libya.

As tensions run high between Greece and Turkey, two fellow Nato members, France is asking Nato and the EU for sanctions against Turkey.

Spain, on the other hand, concluded a bilateral trade agreement with Turkey on 27 July and trade talks are also underway with Italy. In Libya, Italy, Malta and Turkey also decided to strengthen their cooperation.

While Middle Eastern countries sided with one of the two European alliances in World War I, European countries are now leaning towards two different camps in the Middle East.

France, Greece, and Cyprus support the status-quo entente, while Spain and Malta are cozying up with the revolutionary alliance' and Italy drifts between the two on a case-by-case basis.

This would be merely unfortunate and slightly problematic if it concerned just words and trade agreements.

But the stakes are much bigger.

A French frigate was targeted by a Turkish naval vessel in July when the latter was protecting a cargo bound for Libya.

A Greek and a Turkish military ship collided on 12 August.

France also sent frigates and fighter jets to Greece, while the Emirates sent two F-16s, and Egypt threatened military action against Turkey in Libya.

Of course, as in 1914, none of these countries wants a Great War. They only want to protect national interests, just as countries did in 1914.

But if European nations break their unity and get caught up in a festering conflict, anything is possible again. "This is very dangerous", Atatürk might have said, "it is not clear which way we shall head."

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