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15.06.2020 Author: Valery Kulikov

Could the Jewels of the Mediterranean Unleash a World War?


In recent days, the situation in the Mediterranean region’s eastern section has grown ever more tense. The discovery here of huge natural gas reserves has exacerbated not only simmering regional conflicts, but also the emergence of new ones, which could possibly entangle a number of NATO countries. Regional states such as Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt – even global oil and gas giants – have become embroiled in the struggle over the reserves. No one can dismiss concerns that the result of such confrontation could alter the balance of the global energy market and lead to a realignment of regional alliances.

The Tamar field, Israel’s first huge gas deposit in this region, with reserves of approximately 200 billion cubic meters (cbm), began operations in 2001. Then followed other, much larger reserves, the most significant of which proved to be Israel’s Leviathan field with gas reserves of up to 650 billion cbm, and Egypt’s Zohr field, with 850 billion cbm. In 2011, the Aphrodite field was located, the first, huge gas field on Cyprus’ continental shelf, with reserves estimated at 200 billion cbm. The Aphrodite field became one of many reserves of the Levantine Basin, a promising region for gas extraction, located near the vast European gas market

Syria also plans to begin extraction of gas on its continental shelf. Lebanon too joined the oil and gas race.

Despite countermeasures by Turkish authorities, the Italian oil and gas company, Eni, announced that it would continue drilling in the region near the island of Cyprus. The European Union and US were drawn into the ensuing scandal due to territorial claims by Turkey. The European Commission demanded that Ankara avoid making threats toward EU members. Through active participation, recently, in exploring and profiting from Cyprus’ gas wealth by involving American companies ExxonMobil and Noble Energy, the United States emphasized the need to respect the rights of Cyprus to extract useful natural resources. As a result, since March of 2018, two Exxon vessels started offshore works near Cyprus, along with the US Navy’s 6th Fleet, which includes the USS Iwo Jima’s amphibious assault group.

The December 2019 ratification by Turkey’s parliament of the so-called Memorandum of Understanding with Tripoli, regarding demarcation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean Sea, provoked yet another international scandal. If arrangements between Ankara and Tripoli are put into effect, accomplishing parts of oil and gas projects in the eastern Mediterranean will become problematic, since part of Greece’s exclusive economic zone will be pulled away to Turkey: the agreement directly affects the interests not only of Cyprus, Greece, and other countries of the eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan), but also of France and Italy. This circumstance prompted Macron’s government in February to dispatch to the eastern Mediterranean war frigates together with France’s carrier-based naval attack force, headed by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, with the clear intent by Paris to limit Turkey’s activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

As The Guardian notes, under the geopolitical doctrine “Blue Homeland,” Turkey is striving to strengthen its positions in the Mediterranean region, which includes intervening in regional conflicts. Ankara even went so far as to risk direct involvement in the war in Libya and, as recent events have demonstrated, this “reckless venture” is making itself worthwhile

At the same time, besides the gas and oil deposits themselves, another key part of the eastern Mediterranean conflict is the 2200 kilometer, $7 billion underwater gas pipeline project “EastMed”, which Israel, Greece, and Cyprus agreed to build to transport Israeli gas to Europe. The EastMed pipeline will gain access to Italy along the coastlines of Cyprus and Crete, and also through the exclusive economic zones of Egypt and Libya, bypassing Turkey. Of course, that variant does not sit well with Ankara and, as a result, President Ergodan has been blackmailing Athens: either Greece, Cyprus, and Israel include a section of the pipeline to pass through Turkish waters, or else Turkey will begin explorations in the waters of Greece and Cyprus. Concurrently, Ankara is betting that Brussels will be unable to respond harshly and effectively to Turkey’s provocations. The leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus will discuss the above-mentioned aggressive behavior of Turkey, and formulate solutions, at a separate meeting in June, in Israel, for talks on the EastMed pipeline’s construction.

And for now, relations between Ankara and Athens continue to escalate for the worse. Furthermore, they’re worsening to such a degree that Greece’s Minister of Defense, Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos, stated in a recent TV interview that Greece is prepared for anything, including a military conflict with the Turks, if they continue their provocations. In addition, Greece’s Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sent a letterto the European Union, which described the approaching crisis in relations between Turkey and Europe. With regard to the European Union, it may take Greece’s side, which will lead to an escalation of the conflict between the parties.

Additionally, Cairo views as a threat to its national security Ankara’s ever larger intervention in Libya’s internal affairs, and Turkey’s increasing military assistance to the National Transitional Council (NTC) of Libya. A few days ago, the chairman of Egypt’s parliament, Ali Abdel Aal, declared that Turkey was a direct threat to Arab national security. The severity of tension between Egypt and Turkey increased significantly after the overthrow of Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi, who was supported by the extremist organization “Muslim Brotherhood” (banned in Russia – ed.), in collaboration with Ankara. In light of these circumstances, Cairo has been following with special attention Ankara’s latest activities in transforming the country’s naval forces, in particular, completing construction of a new Turkish, light aircraft carrier, the TCG Anadolu, which will allow Turkey’s armed forces to conduct cross-border military operations, including into neighboring Libya. Observers in Cairo recognize that the aircraft carrier TCG Anadolu will enhance significantly the clout of Turkey’s naval forces, which already contain the MILGELM frigates of domestic production, Type 214 air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines, and a new class of submarines, MILDEN. Production is planned for a second assault ship, the TCG Trakya.

Cairo, therefore, is preparing for a possible armed clash in the region, and for its part, is also taking active steps to modernize its national armed forces, which number 448 thousand personnel, 8 submarines, 2 Mistral-class helicopter carriers, 7 frigates, 7 corvettes, and also 45 missile and torpedo cutters. Given its numbers, equipment, and combat experience, Egypt’s armed forces today constitute one of the strongest armies in the Middle East.

In the plan to modernize its army, Cairo places particular emphasis on developing military partnerships, not only with the US, Germany, and France, but also with Italy, with whom it signed an agreement to deliver to Egypt a huge shipment of the latest weaponry, including aircraft and military vessels. In particular, Egypt should receive from Italy in the nearest future 6 Bergamini-class frigates, 4 of which will be built specially for Egypt, and 2 that will be transferred from Italy’s fleet. In addition to military vessels, Italy is prepared to deliver 24 Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes, as many Airmake M-346 training aircraft, and 20 missile launchers. Additionally, at the Ras El Tin naval base in Alexandria, Egypt launched the ENS Luxor (986), its third Gowind 2500 class corvette that it built domestically in conjunction with France’s Naval Group.

Everything mentioned above attests vividly to the rather volatile situation that is unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean, whose only acceptable instrument for resolution can be the process of negotiations.

Valery Kulikov, political analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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