The East Med region, currently fully on the front pages of the international media due to the ongoing offshore gas discoveries in Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, is undergoing radical change.
The formerly tranquil but instable region, partly caused by the Turkish-Cypriot-Greek conflict, has become a major hotspot. Potential military confrontations are looming on the horizon. European and NATO interest is however still largely linked to a possible energy bonanza, which is expected to hit the shores of the Northern Rim of the Mediterranean. Strategists in Brussels, where the EU and NATO are headquartered, seem to have developed a blind spot for the need to set up a new regional framework to guarantee stability and security.
Even at the 1st EU-Arab League Forum in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, this week, supranational issues have been addressed, but the East Med was only really mentioned in the context of illegal migration and refugees. No indication for a more constructive pro-active security discussion has been given.
Instability and possible third party intervention will for sure prevent the East Mediterranean offshore gas dream. Offshore gas-pipeline schemes and LNG export projects will not be realistic in light of the growing confrontational policies of the regional actors.
At the same time, an increased role for NATO, or a militarized European defense force, is not an option. The world’s largest military alliance is constrained by growing internal divisions. As long as several NATO partners are involved in an already decades old internal military conflict, Brussels can only watch things to unfold. The continuing conflict between two NATO members (Greece, Turkey), the British military base on Cyprus (not NATO), and the destabilizing militarization of the region due to the Syrian supra-regional war developments, Turkish military power projections, Russian military resurgence and the slow but steady power projection of Chinese strategy, however make a quick and effect security strategy necessary for the region.
To make the picture even worse, Iran’s still growing influence in Syria, while supporting proxy-forces such as Hezbollah and Hamas, has increased threats to the region to unexpected heights. The current mix of global and regional powers, intra- and interregional rivalry or conflict, combined with proxy militias and non-state actors, necessitates a rethink of the security framework of the main players involved in the current energy conundrum.
The possible coordination of East Mediterranean gas production and exports, as proposed by the Quartet, Cyprus-Greece-Israel and Egypt, necessitates a regional approach. Without finding a common ground to work on, investors and operators, even when vast reserves are discovered, will stay wary to become fully involved. Regional security is the main stumble block at present, as long as the Quartet is not expressing its full commitment to a military alliance, based on the same principles as NATO, but focusing on a regional issues. The latter doesn’t have to block existing military or security arrangements, as defined by NATO or bilateral deals (US-Israel/Egypt) or Cyprus- UK.
As stated on 27 February, a major Turkish navy exercise in the East Mediterranean was started. Ankara indicated that it is “the biggest military exercise in the history of the Republic of Turkey”, openly intending to show its military prowess to Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The latter three are part of the Quartet that is currently exploring and operating in the East Med, with full-fledged plans to set up an energy platform. East Med military moves of Turkey are not new to the region, but this time they coincide with the expected announcement by US oil major ExxonMobil and Cyprus of the latest findings from oil and gas exploration drills in the area. The Turkish naval maneuvers, called “Blue Homeland 2019”, entails the full engagement of frigates, corvettes and fighter jets in the Aegean, Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The total exercise is expected to be ongoing until March 8. Turkish military sources stated to the press that the exercise in the East Med entails a flotilla of 5 frigates, two submarines, two naval vessels, a passenger ship, a support ship, four new types of coastguard vessels and three ships carrying SATs, SAS (navy commandos). Overall the exercise is expected to have around 103 vessels in all seas.
The participation of this vast Turkish naval force in waters that are already heating up severely the coming days only increases the potential risks. Most analysts are already expecting that a stark reaction will come from Ankara, and the Erdogan government, if commercial offshore discoveries are announced by ExxonMobil.
To up the ante even further, Turkey will be dispatching its own offshore drill ship to an area very close to the Cypriot Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), which is still being contested by Turkey, based on its military role and power over the occupied Turkish part of the island. Possible clashes are expected, as the Turkish navy has shown its willingness to use navy vessels (gunboats) to confront and block European and American offshore drilling operations. Last year, Italian oil major ENI was forced to stop offshore Cyprus operations due to Ankara’s behavior. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have openly reiterated that the offshore hydrocarbon reserves are part of Turkish (Cypriot) strategy, and will be defended. Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu the last days stated to the press that “nothing can be done in that region without us. Nothing can be done in the Mediterranean without Turkey; we will not allow it.” Ankara, and its Turkish Cypriot supporters, are still disputing Nicosia’s maritime jurisdiction in seas riven with competing claims over boundaries. The latter conflict, which is also fueled by historical Greek-Turkish enmities, could slowly also involve Israel and Egypt. The latter two, which are not pro-Turkish at present, will be fully involved when a major discovery is made. Commercial reserves offshore Cyprus most probably will have to be transported via Egyptian or Israeli pipeline systems to reach the market.
The coming months the Quartet participants need to readjust their strategies and speed up cooperation efforts. The ongoing deliberations are currently fully focused on where and how the possible commercial gas reserves are going to be produced, and transported from. Without denying the importance of these issues, Nicosia, Athens, Cairo and Tel-Aviv, will need not to forget that investors and operators are not going to be investing into a multibillion project without security guarantees. The need for a regional (Quartet-based) security alliance, not only on paper but with military power is urgent. The latter option should not be based on European, NATO or US-support, as this will limit the overall effectivity. Looking at decades of bi- and multilateral security arrangements in the region with regional and global powers, no real success story can be shown. Due to the involvement of Turkey, Russia and several Arab (Iranian) players, NATO and the EU are not able to support. Turkey’s strategic position for NATO and the EU puts a major obstacle on the table. The involvement of Russia and Iran in the East Med also blocks an EU-NATO or even US military coalition option. The Quartet will have to do this on their own merits, based on a growing interdependency, as economics, security and investments are linked to the development of offshore resources, available to all.
Potential threats to these offshore gas reserves, and its necessary multibillion infrastructure, cannot at present fully be met by the respective armed and navy forces of these countries. Russian and Turkish navy power projections are still at higher levels than the combined navies of Egypt, Israel and Cyprus/Greece. Still, cooperation and full military security arrangements, including C4I and other options, could increase the costs for a potential adversary to unsustainable levels. At present, the Greek-Cypriot navy is not able to confront Russia or Turkey on its own (when looking at the force ratios). If combining Greek, Egyptian and Israeli forces, the ratio’s however start to turn more positive. The latter is also applicable when looking at potential threats on the Egyptian-Israeli fronts. Offshore capabilities of these two Southern Mediterranean Rim countries are vast, and continue to be strengthened. Still, taking on offshore state or non-state actors, threatening their hydrocarbon projects, is still not fully available. For the Quartet, setting up a new (maritime) security alliance is a necessity. The East Med gas future depends for a large part on a more pro-active security partnership going beyond European or Arab borders. It will have to include Greece, Cyprus, but with a basis in Israel and Egypt. Historically, the links have been there before, as Alexander the Great put them all together, maybe it is now time to get a new alliance in place.