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The 70th NATO Summit and the Looming Crisis around Turkey

Evdoxia Lymperi on the rifts in the 70-year-old North Atlantic Alliance caused by growing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Evdoxia Lymperi on the rifts in the 70-year-old North Atlantic Alliance caused by growing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Eastern Mediterranean is turning hot once again and NATO leaders missed the opportunity to address it in its recent Summit in London. 

With Turkey’s new provocative challenge of maritime boundaries in a memorandum of understanding with Libya, the tensions are only going to increase in the already hot area of the Eastern Mediterranean and the divisions in the North Atlantic alliance are going to deepen.

Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives’ vote after 32 years to lift the arms sales embargo in Cyprus may have many interpretations but underlines the seriousness of the situation in the region.

The Deep Divisions in NATO  

“One for all and all for one,” Boris Johnson said of NATO in his closing speech as the host of the 70th NATO Summit in London. But did his optimistic tone and the heroic references reflect the truth? Hardly. 

The leaders of the 29 NATO member states – soon to grow with the arrival of North Macedonia – agreed once again a declaration of “solidarity, unity and cohesion”. Nevertheless, there are deep divisions in the North Atlantic alliance that will disrupt the geopolitical balance. This became visible on the first day of the summit when Donald Trump said he will push for contribution increases from other countries.

Then, Trump clashed on camera with French President Emmanuel Macron, asking him if he would like “some nice [IS] fighters. You can take everyone you want”. Macron replied that, if the leaders won’t talk about Turkey “fighting against those who fought with us shoulder to shoulder against [IS]… then we’re not serious”.

Turkey was the biggest issue of all, especially since it had just bought the Russian S-400 missiles and its President, Tayyip Erdogan, insisted on labelling the YPG (ethnic Kurds in Syria) a terrorist group.

What is at Stake?

Turkey is the fourth strongest military power in NATO and the ninth largest in the world. It also holds the eastern borders of the alliance adjacent to Russia. Crucially, in terms of the geopolitical balance, it shares borders with the countries in conflict such as Syria and Iraq but also with Iran, which is seen as a major threat to the Western alliance. 

The fact that Turkey receives the majority of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East only increases its importance for the alliance and the EU. Most importantly, it is perceived as the strongest frontier against Russian expansionism. NATO and the EU want to keep Turkey as happy as possible. This gives Erdogan an advantage, not only in Syria, but against its neighbours Greece and Cyprus.

The Turkish President appears to be using this advantage in the form of an aggressive expansionism. Firstly, by attacking the Kurds in north-east Syria, who are the allies of the West against ISIS and killing civilians according to the UN. He has also been violating international laws by ramping up drilling operations in the Mediterranean Sea in territories claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

With a so-called “memorandum” with Libya, Turkey is provoking Egypt and Israel too. An insider told Byline Times that the “deep state of Turkey” is trying to claim dominance in the area’s energy market. 

Splits in Europe

Turkey’s aggressive behaviour outraged Macron at the summit who spoke out against both Trump and Erdogan, calling NATO “brain dead”. This caused the Turkish President to call Macron’s understanding of NATO “sick and shallow”. 

Macron led the move to reject Erdogan’s demands to extend the list of terrorist groups to include the YPG. Back in April, Macron hosted representatives of Syrian Kurds Arabs to reassure them of French support. Macron also attacked the Turkish President for allying with Russia: “How is it possible to be a member of the alliance, to work with others, to buy our materials and to be integrated and buy the S-400 from Russia? Technically, it is not possible.”

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, Macron wants France to become the leading European country. He won’t leave Erdogan to play alone in the Middle East and there are also French interests in the area. That makes Macron a great ally of both Greece and Cyprus.

While Erdogan’s demand for the YPG to be declared a terror group failed at the summit, the Turkish President did leave with a bilateral trade deal with the US worth $100 billion and an agreement for “regional security challenges and energy security,” as a White House spokesman described it. 

Germany kept relatively quiet as the single most important trade partner for Turkey. Angela Merkel’s German administration, combined with the new European Commission President and former German Defence Minister Ursula von der Meyer, won’t let Macron build up his ambitions in the EU.

But Germany won’t stand back and watch the tensions in the EU borders rise either. In the recent meeting of Foreign Affairs ministers of the EU, Mrs von der Meyer condemned the Turkish actions in the Mediterranean and expressed full support for Greece. They were joined by France, Italy and the Netherlands. 

Maintaining Fragility

In its 70th anniversary meeting, all 29 NATO leaders preferred to sustain the fragile alliance which keeps them united, to avoid difficult decisions on crucial issues between the member states.

But, as Erdogan plays a dangerous game of taking advantage of Turkey’s geopolitical position, it won’t come as a surprise that Macron’s France finds fertile soil to grow his own dream for a strong European Army – one that could halt the provocations of Turkey better than NATO does.

Rest assured, the divisions are there and deepening.

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