New energy sources and routes are the catalyst for geostrategic developments in the region
- Turkey’s insecurity and provocative actions may prove the fuse for a major conflagration. How the rest stakeholders eye these developments and what their reactions may be…
- The imminent sign of the EastMed pipeline on January 2 in Athens, will speed-up energy and geopolitical developments…
- NATO fearing the loss of Turkey, seems to lose control of its Southern Flank over Russia’s influence.
- Is the Alliance still capable and willing to avoid a confrontation between Greece and Turkey, which may provoke the eruption of the whole region?
- Eastern Mediterranean is possibly the next battleground between U.S.A., Russia and their Allies…
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
The truth is that the structure of NATO is on the verge of cracking. Events during the alliance’s 70th anniversary gathering in London only made the cracks evident to the wider public. In recent years, the organization has been looking for ways to justify its existence. Following the end of the Cold War, NATO’s raison d’etre has been removed. The alliance has been trying to perpetuate it by substituting Russia for the Soviet Union.
NATO leaders met near London for a highly orchestrated summit marking the 70th anniversary of the alliance. And it wouldn’t be a NATO summit in President Trump’s era without interalliance drama: The gathering was designed to show a united front among member states and to press the case for its relevance as the preeminent global security and defence architecture. But it was overshadowed by sharp differences among members on national security, exacerbated by French President Emmanuel Macron declaring that NATO had suffered “brain death,” prompting a rebuke from US President Donald Trump, who at the same time is trying to “reduce US’ contribution to about 16%” of NATO’s direct funding, which is only about $2.5 billion, and which is a pool of money “separate from national defense budgets that NATO recommends should stand at 2% of GDP.”
Tensions with Turkey were also at an all-time high after it began putting into operation Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries despite the objections of nearly all of the Alliance’s members, particularly the United States. Turkish President Recep Erdogan was taking swings at France’s President Macron: “You should get checked whether you’re brain-dead,” and continued, “Kicking Turkey out of NATO or not, how is that up to you? Do you have the authority to make such a decision?” Other alliance diplomats thought that Ankara was “taking eastern Europeans hostage” with an assertive transactionalism over defense of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland from possible invasion by Russia, unless all NATO members denounced the Kurdish YPG in Syria as terrorists. In a sudden reversal, however, after the Trump-Erdogan meeting Turkey was OK with NATO’s Baltic defense plan.
Today, the main security concerns of NATO are Russian belligerency, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and the associated threats of migration and terrorism. With a less cohesive NATO looking to enter the next decade with a sense of purpose amid a myriad of security threats from the Eastern Mediterranean to its borders with war-torn Ukraine, the Alliances’ staunchest erstwhile defender in the EU, Merkel, hopes her warning to her fellow Western allies continues to ring true: “The preservation of NATO is in our fundamental interest, even more so than in the Cold War. For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself -we are reliant on the transatlantic alliance.”
After the two-day summit, two points seem clear: Firstly, NATO is just as much a political alliance as a security one. Aligning and agreeing on the national security interests of its diverse members will require sustained commitment and pragmatic steps over time. Secondly, although Turkey will not concede on its national interests in Syria anytime soon, it may manoeuvre through dialogue, offering balanced solutions through a “common interests” approach. While not without acrimony, NATO has a track record of institutional resilience that could help to defuse the current impasse.
Nevertheless, one of the most urgent issue to be attended is the developments in the Southern Flank of the Alliance, the region of South Eastern Mediterranean, which may prove as the next field of military confrontation between U.S.A. and Russia and their allies as well.
South East Med: The new “Cold War” battleground…
U.S.A. and Russia, respectively the world’s largest and second-largest producers of natural gas, are both poised to play a vital role in brokering, and benefiting, from the coming “Energy Big Game”. The fact that Russia, through Gazprom, steadily increases gas exports to E.U. countries and the Balkans appears to have alarmed the U.S., which is attempting to reverse the status quo and enhance its presence in the European LNG market, putting an end to Moscow’s tactic of using its natural gas exports to exercise economic and political influence in Europe.
U.S. and EU’s efforts in balancing Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and the improvements in China’s relations with the Mediterranean countries via the “Modern Silk Road Project”, put further importance of the region. Easter Mediterranean is getting sucked into the center of an “undeclared war”, as the U.S. and EU conduct more drills with the Gulf States and the Israel-Greece-Cyprus trilateral to balance Russia, China and Iran. In other words, the rivalry to establish dominance in the region is turning into a Cold-War like conflict among the regional stakeholders.
If geopolitics is an argument about the future world order, then the easternmost third of the Mediterranean Sea is shaping up to be a cauldron of quarreling visions and interests like no other. The current situation of Eastern Mediterranean gas development is still fluid, and the instability produced by the war in Syria and the showdown of United States with Iran and Turkey, are adding additional sources of complexity, that can undermine the projects discussed by governments and energy companies. However, the study of the interaction between markets, political and security dynamics offers a starting point for understanding strategies. In particular, the geopolitical interests of the Eastern Mediterranean countries are bound to affect geoeconomic decisions concerning flows and exchanges in traded gas. The stakeholders’ capacities however, to realize their preferred political options and use natural gas as a tool of foreign-policy objectives, are constrained by economic, technical and security concerns.
The recent history of the region has taught us that there are no unilateral, political or military, solutions to stabilise the region. Several ongoing issues threaten the exploration, production, and transit of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the security environment, territorial disputes, and the macroeconomic climate. Recent developments, together with the uncertain future of the wider area (Balkans, Middle East, North Africa), suggest the need for enhanced security. Ongoing territorial disputes between several Eastern Mediterranean countries, especially the Turkey-Greece-Cyprus disputes over their respective EEZs, could hinder exploration and development in the region, particularly in the offshore Levant Basin. Disputes over maritime boundaries jeopardize joint development of potential resources in the area and could limit cooperation over potential export options.
Gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean were only recently discovered and remain largely underexplored, with their total actual size yet to be evaluated. Out of these, five major discoveries stand out: the Tamar and Leviathan fields, discovered in 2009 and 2010; offshore Israel (with an estimated capacity of 282 bcm and 621 bcm of gas respectively); the Aphrodite field, discovered in 2011 off of Cyprus (with 128 bcm); and the 2015 major discovery off the cost of Egypt, the Zohr field, which holds the largest capacity in the Eastern Mediterranean with an estimated of 845 bcm of natural gas. The discoveries have aroused the interest of European countries looking for supply alternatives outside Russia, as well as of the energy companies. As a result, negotiations, predominantly bilateral, have been launched between various countries of the region. Examples include the €12 billion deal for Egypt to buy gas from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields and the tripartite memorandum of understanding between Cyprus, Greece, and Israel to build the EastMed pipeline to Europe.
Nine countries (Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Italy, France and USA), six of them the oldest NATO members, have major to very high stakes in the “Big Game” of South East Mediterranean’s region. The experience of recent years suggests that ensuring peace and stability in the region is first and foremost the responsibility of these regional powers. At the same time, the business interests at stake in the wider area are also significant. More specifically active in the field of Israel’s natural gas production are companies such as: American Noble Energy, Hellenic Energean, the Israeli Delek Group, Isramco Negev 2, Ratio Oil Exploration. The Italian ENI operates in the Egyptian EEZ -exploiting the Zohr gas field. In Cyprus’ EEZ, exploration is being carried out by Noble Energy – Delek Group and Shell joint ventures in Block 12, ΕΝΙ in Block 8, an ENI & Kogas joint venture in Blocks 2,3 and 9, ENI and TOTAL in Blocks 6, 7 and 11, as well as the consortium of ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum in Block.
U.S.A.: In between old friends and new enemies
Important new developments, both geopolitical and practical, led to the renewed focus by Washington on energy developments and security in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is a growing competition between Washington and Moscow over the European gas market. Each side is attempting to prevail over the other and become the absolute leader of the gas market in Europe. Washington was impressed with the progress made in Trilateral Greece-Cyprus-Israel energy development and is eager to participate as a partner where possible. The U.S. has been very supportive aiming to have American gas to Europe as well as other sources of gas to Europe, including East Mediterranean gas. At a strategic level, the proposed EastMed pipeline is an extremely important project that the United States strongly supports. It complements everything that it has been doing with the 3+1 meeting supporting the flourishing Greece-Israel relationship.
The “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019”, will allow the U.S. to fully support this trilateral through energy and defense cooperation initiatives. The bipartisan legislation also seeks to update U.S. strategy in recognition of consequential changes in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the recent discovery of large natural gas fields, and a deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with the United States and its regional partners. It also requires the Administration to submit to Congress a strategy on enhanced security and energy cooperation with countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as reports on malign activities by Russia and other countries in the region. This legislation, that essentially upgrades the geopolitical roles of Greece and Cyprus, is seen in Athens as a reflection of Washington’s renewed interest and growing involvement in the region. Considering the high priority given to the region, the Act also suggests that the trilateral alliance between Greece, Israel and Cyprus could serve as vehicle for the new dynamic in the region.
Nevertheless, although US President Donald Trump signed an appropriations bill that includes the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019”, according to reports, he objected to several articles of the bill, including parts of the EastMed Act and particularly with regards to Congress’ authority over issues of military assistance and participation in international forums. Sources in the US are quotted as saying that mr. Trump’s objections to parts of the act were more about matters of jurisdiction than the actual content. In a last effort, with a seven-page memo to senators, the U.S. State Department argues its case against the so-called Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act, which is making its way through the Senate. The memo reportedly argues that imposing sanctions on Ankara would hurt the U.S.-Turkey trade in defense gear, make Turkey a “pariah” within the NATO alliance, and make it more dependent on buying arms from Moscow. Overall, the document reflects the Trump administration’s accommodative attitude toward Ankara.
A New Maritime Strategy
NATO, back in 2011, released its Alliance Maritime Strategy that tried to synchronize the alliance’s maritime efforts with the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. Clearly, this was a welcome development that revealed the growing importance of maritime strategy in 21st century international politics. Nevertheless, the 2011 Allied Maritime Strategy does not reflect the deep strategic changes that occurred since in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly due to the Syrian War and the extensive Russian involvement there.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union did not challenge America’s naval superiority in the region. Nowadays however, President Putin is using Russia’s permanent naval base in Syria to do just that, as well as establishing an anti-access/air denial exclusion zone covering much of the region. The Eastern Mediterranean is no longer uncontested operating environments for the U.S. military. While the interests of Iran, Turkey and Russia do not fully align, they appear increasingly unified in their anti-American approach to the region.
The U.S. Navy’s current presence in the Mediterranean aims to match the strategic capabilities called for by the NATO Maritime Strategy during a time of instability and violence, as is the current state of affairs given recent turmoil in Libya and Syria, as well as the troubled relationship with Turkey. US and NATO’s strategy should consider the Eastern Mediterranean not as a European subregion, but rather the nexus of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe. Thus, its allotted military force there should reflect the aggregate security-environment demands of these three locales. In this context, the message to its closest allies in NATO couldn’t be clearer: We are making European security a high priority, while still keeping “economy of force” in mind. This is classic “assurance of allies” -a theme emphasized in the U.S. National Security Strategy- at an affordable cost.
Signaling U.S. support to NATO allies now, will likely pay off in the future: It is precisely these allies to whom it is most likely to turn to for assistance down the road. Along with assurance, it also gains credibility and persuasiveness when asking its allies to spend more on defense in NATO forums. This low-cost Mediterranean force pays a triple dividend in that it responds to the strategic challenges faced by three geographical commanders: Central Command, African Command, and European Command. Finally, the Russians see a powerful naval response, and not one necessarily aimed only at them. Most importantly, they will perceive that a security vacuum no longer exists in the Mediterranean.
The threat of U.S.-NATO expulsion from Incirlik Air Base
Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently stated that he was worried that Turkey is “spinning out” of the NATO orbit, perhaps the most strident language the Pentagon chief has used to describe the ongoing rift between the allies since he took the job in July. To make matters worse, in a television interview Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey could bar the United States from using the key Air Force base in Incirlik and the early-warning radar station, as part of NATO’s missile defense, at Kurecik, in response to possible sanctions. It was not the first time Ankara has made such warnings, but with the prospect of US sanctions looming closer, its tone seems to be toughening.
Many observers concerned with Turkish-American relations are expending great effort to identify how the relationship can be put back on track. Inside the executive branch, officials are keenly aware of the cost of a deeper split with Turkey. The stakes include access to several key U.S. and NATO sites. Incirlik Air Base hosts American B-61 nuclear gravity bombs, and is a friendly jumping-off point into the Middle East. When asked about growing concerns about the safety of the nuclear weapons in light of deteriorating US-Turkey ties, former US Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James noted that -hypothetically- if such weapons did require relocation, removing them from Incirlik would be a “complicated operation [that] would require negotiations with the [new host] nation.” Nevertheless, the US should prioritize moving these weapons to a more stable and secure european facility, such as Aviano Air Base in Italy. There is simply no longer a strategic necessity for maintaining a nuclear arsenal in Turkey as the United States has other nuclear forces available for deterring Russia. While Incirlik was important, it is not indispensable for U.S. operations in the Middle East. They have a network of airbases in the region, including one at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, that can more than make up for the loss of Incirlik.
Secondly, Washington should relocate the 39th Air Wing and its various support functions; Cyprus and Greece are excellent alternatives. For the former, the Akrotiri Air Base is already home to the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force and it has runways and facilities akin to Incirlik; moreover, it is still near the Middle Eastern theater but has the added advantage of being located on European soil. Choosing Cyprus would send Turkey a clear message that the US is no longer prepared to tolerate Turkey’s illegal oil exploration and naval harassment within the Cypriot EEZ.
For those concerned that moving assets away from Incirlik might fracture relations between Ankara and Washington, they should recall that the United States have already relocated assets elsewhere and began reducing the number of military family members living at the base early last year. Furthermore, Germany -a major US NATO ally- pulled its forces from Incirlik and relocated them to Jordan because the Turks were similarly imposing flying restrictions on them. Ultimately, leaving Incirlik minimizes the possibility that Turkey’s worsening strain of anti-Americanism will endanger critical US missions in the region. It will further make clear to Ankara that its actions have not only imperiled its diplomatic relationship with Washington, but now also carry real costs. Closing the Kurecik base, however, will straightforward pit Turkey against NATO because this is a NATO base. It is doubtful that Ankara will let matters come to that.
As for Greece, I have explained previously that Athens is positioning itself as NATO’s new southeastern bulwark. This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, and in early October, the two nations signed a new Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement, which outlines the fundamental aspects of the US-Greek security relationship. The United States is planning on expanding the Souda Bay Naval Base that’s used by the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, as well as creating additional basing facilities for helicopters and drones. Notwithstanding any new plans to expand basing options in Greece, it is vital to note that there are already facilities at hand for quickly transferring US aerial assets away from Turkey.
First, there is Greece’s Larissa Air Force Base, which is where US MQ-9 Reaper UAVs temporarily operated from during 2018-19. Second, there are the two nearby smaller bases of Stefanovikeio and Volos; the former houses various US helicopters that are used for training missions, while the latter, as of February, hosts 350 US troops. Finally, the United States is planning to establish a new naval and air force base near Alexandroupoli’s port to supply and secure NATO’s routes towards Central Europe and the Baltics, circumventing Turkey that controls the Bosporus, which under a 1936 agreement means it controls naval access to and from the Black Sea.
Why President Trump backed (again) mr. Erdogan at NATO’s Summit?
Washington’s controvesial actions and the confusion as to its policy toward Ankara, benefit Moscow directly. Pulling American forces out of Syria left the field open for the Turks to invade and for the Russians to increase their influence in the region. Either through carelessness or in accordance with an incomprehensible plan, the United States has contributed toward strengthening Russia and weakening NATO.
There are two dimensions in the relationship between Turkey and the United States: U.S.-Turkey and Erdoğan-Washington. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has said little regarding Turkey’s domestic political situation and offered scant support to defenders of fundamental human rights in Turkey. This is thoroughly in line with mr. Trump’s America First foreign policy, which sees no profit in U.S. involvement in the domestic politics of other nations. The Trump administration has only concerned itself with the domestic socio-political situation of another nation when it sees a clear advantage for what it perceives as U.S. interests. Likewise, when manoeuvered by President Erdogan into choosing between a battlefield ally, the almost entirely Kurdish YPG or a long-standing treaty ally, Turkey, mr. Trump chose the latter over the former. This led to last month’s Turkish military in northern Syria, where it drove the YPG and its affiliates away from the border with Turkey, drawing anger from those in Congress who viewed Trump’s greenlight for the assault, as a betrayal of Kurdish forces that had helped in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State.
As President Trump focuses on keeping his friend mr. Erdogan engaged, effectively blunting U.S. congressional actions directed against Turkey’s president -and letting mr. Erdogan know it-, some foreign policy professionals focus on keeping Turkey within the alliance. They believe that over time the democratic impulses of many Turks might lead to its adoption of the shared values of all member states, thereby enhancing the collective security of all. For many foreign policy and security commentators within the NATO sphere, for all the pain mr. Erdogan brings to relations with the West, Turkey and its people do not deserve to be written off, nor would it be in the West’s interests to do so.
In this context, whether to stroke his ego or in listening to some of his advisors, President Trump is likely to continue protecting President Erdogan from his critics. Even though he couldn’t eventually block the resolution recognising the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, he will probably continue to impress upon Erdogan his ability to shield Turkey from criticism. That is why in an unannounced meeting saw the Turkish President on the sidelines of recent NATO’s Summit. Thus, regardless of many actions contrary to NATO interests undertaken by mr. Erdogan over the last year, we can expect him to continue touting his ability to have the other members of the Alliance treat him, and by extension Turkey, with respect.
On the other hand, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Promoting American National Security and Preventing the Resurgence of ISIS Act” introduced by its chairman, Republican Senator Jim Risch, and ranking member, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, with a bipartisan 18-to-4 vote. The bill requires the White House to implement sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russian S-400s under the 2017 CAATSA and further mandates targeted sanctions in response to Turkish military operations in Syria. It states: “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this act, the president shall impose five or more of the sanctions described in section 235 of [CAATSA] with respect to the government of Turkey.”
The House passed a similar sanctions bill in October by a veto-proof margin of 403-to-16. At the same time, the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 (NDAA), which required months of negotiation, also addresses the S-400 issue. The NDAA includes a “sense of Congress” that Turkey’s S-400 purchase is a significant transaction under CAATSA and says the President should implement sanctions under that Act.
Turkish-American ties are set to remain strained in 2020, when Trump will be preoccupied with his reelection bid and have less time for Turkey. At the same time, the Democratic-led House’s passage of two articles of impeachment on a mostly party-line vote, set the stage for a trial next month in the Republican-controlled Senate, a friendlier terrain for mr. Trump, on whether to convict and remove the Republican President from office.
Eyes in Turkey are on President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and questions are being raised about how impeachment will affect strained US-Turkish ties. The concern is that mr. Trump’s ability to shield Turkey from an increasingly hostile Congress will be diminished as a result of the impeachment process. Many worry that impeachment will adversely affect Turkey’s economic and security interests.
RUSSIA: Multidimensional energy strategy
Russia keeps all doors open; it can shift its policy partially because it’s not embedded in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s far away from home, and that’s what works in its favour, because it can make U-turns pretty easily.
Russian energy policy in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean is currently experiencing an upswing following the dramatic disruptions caused by the so-called Arab Spring. As such, Russian strategy towards the region and collaboration with the regional pro-Moscow regimes is still in the process of recovery. Russian energy companies are rushing to reenter because, while the region experienced mass protests and political spasms in 2011, several hydrocarbon fields were discovered in the region -mainly, the Levantine Basin, shared by Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus and Syria.
It is more than evident that Russia continues to have an interest in avoiding a possible route connecting the Eastern Mediterranean resources with the E.U. market, the major outlet for its pipeline gas. On the other hand, Russia also has an interest in avoiding an Israel-Turkey rapprochement cemented by a long-term pipeline deal, from both a wider geopolitical point of view and an energy perspective. In the first case, as mentioned, this would increase U.S. influence in the region. With regard to the energy dimension, Russia is committed to maintaine a strong presence in the Turkish gas market, on which rests an important outlet to expand Gazprom exports, especially owing to the problem the Russian company is having in the E.U. with the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
On February 2019, representatives from Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority met in Cairo for the First Eastern Mediterranean Forum to discuss concrete and systematic plans to help its members benefit from their natural resources and infrastructure and the possibilitty of construction of the EastMed pipeline. This gas pipeline specifically promises to help undermine Russia’s supply monopoly in Southeastern Europe. Moscow considers both the Forum and the pipeline project “anti-Russian”, particularly since the United States has expressed its strong support.
On the other hand, Russian-Syrian cooperation in the energy sector has continued to expand over the past two years. In February 2018, Russia’s Ministry of Energy signed the “Roadmap of Cooperation in the Energy Sector 2018–2019” with the Syrian Ministry of Oil. The document specifically lays out the gradual implementation of projects in Syria’s Mediterranean shelf. Russian oil and gas companies began exploration activities last July. At the same time, Russia tries to participate in other Mediterranean projects, off the coasts of Lebanon, Egypt and Israel, together with Western companies like Total and ENI.
Compared to the other regional players, Russia may actually be in the best position to kick off oil and gas production in the Eastern Mediterranean. Notably, almost all the governments in this region are beset by deep disputes (Turkey with Cyprus, Israel with Lebanon, etc.) Moreover, Russia currently enjoys a complete monopoly over the Syrian energy sector, and Russian companies are ready to start exploration on the Syrian coastal shelf. A key obstacle may be international sanctions on Syria’s energy-producing sectors, introduced in 2011 and 2012. Nevertheless, Russian experts dismiss these restrictions, trusting that sufficient markets will materialize in Asia.
Moscow’s regional energy strategy is multidimensional. As Russia continues to build up the notion of itself as a regional “powerbroker” and “stakeholder”, it may increasingly pressure local players to accepting that without Moscow’s involvement -as a gas or weapons supplier- gas exploration and exploitation has no future: the only option is to “let Russia in.”
Consequently, President Putin will mediate between all players in the Greater Middle East, by trying to focus both on investment in Syria’s reconstruction and in the new routes of the oil and gas market in Europe. Though the presence of Russian mercenaries and military personnel in Libya and their assistance to Haftar LNA forces are beyond doubt, at the same time Moscow is hedging its bets by maintaining ties with Tripoli, in particular through contracts that Russian oil and gas companies signed with Libya’s National Oil Corporation in December. Russia’s Tatneft will conduct oil exploration in a contested area in the Ghadames Basin, which borders areas controlled by both the LNA and GNA. This contract reflects Russia’s desire to preserve relations with both warring parties, for the operations here are impossible without security guarantees from both sides. Another company, the Gazprom-affiliated Wintershall, which is based in Germany, will explore oil in the Sirte Basin, which is largely under GNA control. For this operation, the National Oil Corporation and Wintershall agreed to establish a joint venture, al-Sirir Petroleum Operations Company.
The new Maritime Doctrine
Russian President Vladimir Putin, never shy of taking advantage of an opportunity to expand his country’s international influence, became keenly aware of the Mediterranean power vacuum several years ago. Moreover, Russia revised its own Maritime Doctrine in 2015 modifying its strategic center of gravity from a post Cold War land force to a naval one. Helping Assad was never the main goal. It was part of a broader Russian strategy to rebuild its strategic position. Russia apparently is deploying, and intends to continue to deploy, its Νavy in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Back in 2015 the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had stressed that the Mediterranean region is the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interests and that continued fallout from the Arab Spring increased the importance of this region. Shortly thereafter, he showcased a new Russian naval policy by announcing the decision to establish a Navy Department Task Force in the Mediterranean “…on a permanent basis.”
This permanent presence is one more step to the enhancement of Russia’s strategy for political influence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Since July 2018, a 15-strong Mediterranean Task Force was established to be based out of Tartus. Ever since, this force provides, mainly, support and protection to the Assad regime, as well as monitors the southern flank of NATO and its activities in the region, including the Black Sea. The Russians have deployed to Syria highly capable anti-ship cruise missiles. These systems are aimed at denying NATO the ability to operate freely in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as helping to crush all opposition to Assad.
Last but not least, the Russian Anti-access/Area Denial (A2/AD) architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean is centered on a network of layered onshore and offshore disruptive weapon systems. In this regard, Moscow has deployed a three-layer air and missile defense system in Syria by deploying S-400, S-300V, BukM2E (SA-17), Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) batteries to cover long, medium, and short ranges respectively. Furthermore, this formidable air-defense architecture is networked with the Syrian Air Defense Force’s assets, sea-based S-300FM systems embarked on missile cruisers, as well as Krasukha-4 electronic warfare (EW) system deployed in the Hmeimim Airbase. Russian military perceives A2/AD as a component of strategic operations, as opposed to a separate, independent effort. In this context, A2/AD, along with cyber/information warfare, and traditional warfighting components, are postured so that they can be used simultaneously. More importantly, these strategic operations are designed for providing maximum options to the Russian political leadership, while minimizing those of the adversary (for more see: “ENERGY WARS: The security of the Energy Routes in the South East Mediterranean”).
Putin’s “Turkish Gambit”
However, in order for this strategy to succeed, Russia needs also to weaken its major opponents, the United States and NATO, by inflicting as severe blows as possible to the latter’s Southern Flank. The first-ever known NATO member-state to shoot down a Russian military jet, has willingly fallen in line with Vladimir Putin’s “Turkish Gambit,” a strategy designed to drive a deep crack into the NATO alliance.
In the summer of 2015, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan started to show public signs of frustration over Russia’s protection of his Nemesis, Syrian president Bashar Assad. Vladimir Putin responded by setting in motion a clever and effective game of political chess: Putin deployed the ancient Russian military tactic of testing how far he could go, provided Russia’s loss would be minimal. He sent an Su-24 aircraft to fly a controversial route along the Turkish-Syrian border. As he expected, Turkey shot it down, becoming the first ever known NATO country to do such a thing. Even before the cheers had faded away, messrs. Erdogan and Davutoglu realized they were in deep trouble, and a price of some kind was going to have to be paid. Initial diplomatic efforts to mend ties failed. In a move designed to humiliate Ankara even further, Putin sent the more advanced Su-34 to the Turkish border for further airspace violations. Prime Minister Davutoglu, who had pledged to shoot down more Russian planes if they came that way again, did nothing!
Early in 2016 Russia unveiled a long list of economic and trade sanctions on Turkish companies and introduced a visa regime that was too difficult for ordinary Turks to bypass. These sanctions had a significant impact on the Turkish economy, estimated at around $15 billion. Before Russia played its strongest card -its position as Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier- Erdogan buckled. The usually confrontational Presidentr Erdogan showed himself to be a pragmatist when necessary, and sent mr. Putin a written apology for the downed Su-24. It was not sufficient. If Erdogan was to avoid further Russian sanctions, he was going to have to align Turkey’s Syria policy fully with Russia’s.
As a result, the Russian President Vladimir Putin is now on the verge of a major diplomatic victory in his efforts to divide the NATO Alliance. Delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system and Washington’s decision to halt delivery of F-35 jets bound for Turkey in response, may set off a chain of events that could lead to even Turkey’s withdrawal from the NATO alliance. In a sign of the effectiveness of Putin’s “Turkish Gambit”, there is now a wide crack in the NATO:
- Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles, the first by a NATO member, was a direct hit for the Russian arms industry. Turkey has now tested the S-400s, showing that it does not fear US threats of sanctions.
- Turkey opened negotiations with Moscow for a stopgap fighter solution that will address Ankara’s interim requirements. If realized, the fighter jet program would push Turkey even further into Russia’s defense and security orbit and would further widen the crack within NATO, likely prompting campaigns calling for Turkey’s expulsion. In this instance, Turkey has chosen to forgo its traditional procurement priorities, while also risking the future of its Air Force in order to deepen its relationship with Moscow
- Turkish aggression toward Greece and Cyprus may not contribute directly to Russia’s growing influence, but, as long as NATO and the EU fail to rein in Ankara, they help strengthen Russia and Turkey, undermining the collective structures that secured their stability and prosperity for many decades.
For the moment, the Turkish-Russian relationship is not a formal alliance, and at this point it is still weaker than Ankara’s relationship with Washington. Still, dynamics in Syria explain why Turkey is able to paper over its differences with Russia, while ties with the United States are in a far more tenuous state. Ironically, Turkey’s cooperation with Russia came about only because Moscow successfully routed Ankara-backed proxies on the Syrian battlefield. Afterwards, Russia has emerged as Turkey’s most reliable military partner in Syria, enabling Ankara to resume limited combat operations in the border regions that keep pressure on the Kurds without threatening Assad’s rule. Russia benefits from these operations because they heighten U.S.-Turkish tensions. Russia is also Turkey’s best avenue through which to influence an eventual peace settlement, and potentially even a new Syrian constitution, both of which would give Ankara an opportunity to terminate Kurdish ambitions for self-rule in the northeast. Turkey, meanwhile, will likely have to oversee the surrender of opposition militias it has backed as part of any peace deal. This reality has given rise to a symbiotic Russian-Turkish relationship in which each side needs the other to settle the conflict.
Whether or not Turkey is still part of the NATO alliance, it will have established irrevocable defense ties with Russia, with one foot in Brussels and two arms clinging to Moscow. There is no reason, why Russia would choose to distance itself from the West directly. But to spoil the plans of adversaries is a bonus. And this is the case with regards to Turkey, and perhaps Iran. There is no love lost in these historical enemies that have fought each other for strategic reasons, for centuries. Politics, however, make strange bedfellows. Russia has never regarded Turkey as a true ally. Using a carrot-and-stick policy towards it, with a new set of sanctions in the role of a stick, whereas the carrot seems to be the agreements over the rebel-held province of Idlib and the northeast Syrian border region, as well as energy and armaments deals, it supports mr. Erdogan when it suits its interest and is ready to sacrifice him when it does not. The “Turkish Gambit” may or may not end well for mr. Erdogan, but it’s certainly a big success for President Putin. All in all, he is proving a much more masterful puppet-master than his western peers.
TURKEY: Building walls around it and self-trapped
Turkey is trying to assert itself across the swath of Iraq, Syria and now all the way to Libya, with its eyes set on having power not seen since the Ottoman Empire more than 100 years ago. Turkey’s assertion of power over half the Mediterranean Sea has a rippling effect on the entire region, starting with Libya, which has been embroiled in a brutal civil war since 2011.
Turkey wants the economic access and strategic corridor linking its coastline to Libya. This is no small amount of water because it bypasses Cyprus and Greece across 800 km. of open water to an area of Libya controlled by Haftar’s forces. In essence, Turkey swept in to strong-arm Libya’s official government because it is weak and Turkey knows that only this government can sign away areas it doesn’t even control.
These developments are not particularly surprising, as Turkey has for many years expressed in several ways the importance of the Eastern Mediterranean in general, and of Cyprus in particular, to its interests. Back in 2012, the government issued “Political Vision 2023,” which portrays Turkey as a rising global player, a powerful mediator for peace and stability in the Middle East. The Vision statement specifically notes the place of energy in foreign policy, and highlights Turkey’s approach to energy trade as a “common denominator for regional peace.” It is clear that the turkish government openly associates the country’s political and economic stability with its regional energy-related interests. In addition, Turkey has set the ambitious target of becoming an energy hub, not only to generate additional revenue, but also to acquire more geopolitical influence in the region.
Turkey’s Energy Programme
Turkey has already made several new investments to increase LNG capacity, gas storage and pipeline projects like the newly completed Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that is set to offer great advantages to Turkey. Last month’s inauguration of TANAP’s Europe link, in the northwestern Turkish province of Edirne, near the border with Greece, made Turkey an energy corridor. The TANAP project stretches from the Turkish-Georgian border to the Turkish-Greek border. The pipeline will begin carrying gas to the European section of the Southern Gas Corridor, an ambitious initiative of the European Commission for a natural gas supply route from the Caspian and Middle Eastern regions to Europe. It will pass through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) -the European leg of the corridor. With an investment of around $7 billion, a total of 16 bcm of gas will be delivered through the project, out of which TANAP will deliver 6 bcm to Turkey while transferring 10 bcm via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline on the Turkey-Greece border. The delivery capacity of the TANAP is projected to expand to 24-31 bcm over time.
LNG could offer leverage for Turkey’s new gas agreements given that its long-term gas contracts covering a volume of 15 bcm will expire in 2021. Turkey’s annual gas consumption amounts to around 50 bcm, 90% of which is met through imports mainly from Russia via pipeline as well as Azerbaijan and Iran. Turkey also feeds its gas system through LNG imports from Algeria and Qatar. Since the U.S. started exporting domestically produced LNG in February 2016, Turkey has become the second-biggest LNG importer from the U.S. in Europe and Central Asia, after Spain, based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s LNG Monthly report in August 2019. According to Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Authority’s (EMRA) data, Turkey imported 7.14 bcm in the first half of 2019. The country imported 2.94 bcm of LNG from Algeria, 1.27 bcm from Qatar and 884 mcm of LNG from the U.S., greatly surpassing that of the previous year of 191 mcm, marking a 363% increase.
LNG trade between Turkey and the U.S. could contribute to achieve a trade volume of $100 billion. The Trump administration is pursuing a policy of increasing U.S. exports, part of which includes LNG that would allow Turkey to avail of price advantages provided. Turkish and the U.S. public and private sector stakeholders plan to meet in early 2020 to discuss LNG trade with the target of reaching a $100 billion trade volume.
Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. diplomat, and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council proposed that Turkish and U.S. LNG producers partner to boost trade. Currently, this is not possible, as the Turkish government does not allow such a partnership. However, Bryza suggested that through a bilateral trade pact with the U.S. that would involve the relaxation of restrictions, such gas-to-power investments would be feasible allowing significant increases in U.S. LNG exports to Turkey.
According to mr. Bryza, these exports to Turkey would generally make commercial sense for Turkey’s domestic consumption but suggested “from a strategic perspective, it might make sense for Ukraine to obtain natural gas via reverse flow in a swap arrangement involving U.S. LNG imported into Turkey.” Bryza broached the subject of reverse flows from Turkey’s so-called “Western Route” pipeline, which carries Russian natural gas via Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria to Turkey.
He has also said that Russia’s Gazprom would stop using this pipeline once the TurkStream pipeline begins operations. He asserted that there is much interest in the possibility of reverse flows from this route, although there is strong opposition from Russia against this reverse flow project that is destined to be beset with legal and political hurdles.
Diplomaticaly isolated: dismantling Davutoglou’s theory…
Turkey -once a paragon of stability and a source of great optimism for many in the West- has become increasingly authoritarian and unreliable. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong-arm leadership has turned a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, into one where Ankara has zero neighbors with which it doesn’t have problems. Turkey also, has severed its longstanding strategic link to Israel that helped form the bedrock of regional stability in the past. It is all a far cry from the late 1990s, when Israel welcomed the Turkish Navy’s ships to Haifa Port. Their arrival for the first Israeli-Turkish joint naval exercise in 1998 was seen as the harbinger of a possible new strategic alliance. The rise of Erdogan and political Islam in Turkey ended all such hopes. He actively works to undermine Israel’s security, supporting radical Islamist groups in Syria, Gaza, Egypt and Libya. Ankara is also moving closer to Moscow and Tehran, while becoming more antagonistic toward Greece in the Aegean Sea and Egypt and Cyprus in the Mediterranean (for more read: “Turkey is willing to set Eastern Mediterranean on fire. Why now and what lies next…”).
Ankara considers the Eastern Mediterranean as a “Mare Nostrum,” it wants to have a plausible say in developments in the Balkans, and lately it has felt the need to expand its influence in the Xinjiang region of Central Asia and in the Middle East and North Africa region too. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a multipolar international system presented Turkey with the momentum to openly express that yearning for a lot more than what the Lausanne Treaty or a place in NATO could offer its status. The only difference that has appeared in turkish revisionism over the last few decades is a qualitative one. In 2001, through his “Strategic Depth” analysis, Ahmet Davutoglu spoke about the need to sharpen Turkey’s soft power in order to ascend the international ladder of power without provoking security dilemmas. Nowadays, Ankara relies on intimidating shows of hard power and an inordinate diplomatic multilateralism that goes far beyond the customary behavior of a NATO member.
President Erdogan wants to prove to his opponents and sceptics that, under his leadership, the new Turkey is the strongest. He has played that role whenever challenged by an internal crisis. He refurbished his public image many times by making up external crises he knew beforehand that he would win. This is how he politically survived internal crises. The problem is that mr. Erdogan’s little game sometimes terribly backfired. The crisis created by the downing of a Russian plane in November 2015 was perhaps his biggest defeat. He was also defeated in his legal struggle with the United States and he seems set to add another setback to his long record by undertaking this misadventure in Libya.
As mr. Erdogan, slides further and further into disfavor with almost the rest of the world, Russia and Iran are there to extend a hand. This new backing has exaggerated the self-appointed Sultan’s “Bonapartism” to the point where he believes himself to be the final arbitrator in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, according to what he sees as his, and Turkey’s, interests, or rather the interests of those Turks that support him. Despite sacking and jailing tens of thousands of high ranking officers, he has been spending lavishly on defence procurement and military adventures, while at the same time, squandering funds for grandiose pharaonic projects.
He has been waging a tit-for-tat war of words and sanctions with the US, and his S-400 buy has fueled this to the extreme. At the same time, he is extorting Cyprus, hurls insults and threatens Greece, and violates greek airspace, and territorial waters. He has let loose all abuse against Israel. He speaks with scorn and abuse against the democratically elected leaders of large and powerful western nations. He actively supports Hamas and Hezbollah and considers notorious terrorist friends. He has stationed troops in Qatar. One wonders if they are there to protect the Emir, or hold him hostage, or both. He has tried to dabble in the failed states of Africa. And he has actively worked against the Gulf Monarchies. In his dreams, he envisions a world where Turks rule over the Holy cities of Islam, restitution of Ottoman glory. This is not just his dream. It is the dream of many parties in Turkey, and was in line with what Gulen, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Abdullah Gulh, mr. Erdogan’s ousted former allies, had said in happier, for Turkey, times.
Ankara eyes Eastern Mediterranean as an area “where [there is a] major incongruence between energy interests and current foreign policy choices.” Within the framework of its new energy (in)security architecture owing to the emerging trilateral partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean, this is especially true for Turkey with an additional dimension: sovereignty claims. It is increasingly anxious over the new trilateral partnerships, which it feels threaten its own efficient exploitation/transmission of the Eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries. In particular, developments in recent years pose the following risks for Turkey: It may find itself outside geopolitical partnerships and other processes in the Eastern Mediterranean, observing -without any possibility of intervening in- the geopolitical and economic upgrade of Cyprus, and it may be sidelined in any energy planning, although the size of the oil and gas deposits and the region’s transformation into an energy hub are still uncertain issues today.
For Ankara, the stakes are very high and the cost so far has been very acceptable. Considering as inconceivable that it might be crowded out in a highly important region, Turkey has proceeded with a significant economic investment, with the purchase of specialized research vessels and drilling equipment, acting outside international law by systematically questioning the right of Cyprus to delimit its EEZ and exploit any hydrocarbon deposits there. Turkey’s foreign ministry iterates often that it will not bow down to threats and step back from its rights in the region, blasting the EU over its plans to sanction Turkey for its unauthorised gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean (for more read: “Turkey vs All in Eastern Mediterranean”).
As the reactions of the United States -which is involved in a wider geopolitical game- and the European Union are carefully balanced and rather lukewarm, Turkey is expected to continue its belligerence activities. Even more, because the turkish President seems to enjoy the protection of his US counterpart, who recently invited him to Washington despite his closest associates’ objections, declaring that he is “a great fan” of the Turkish leader! He rightly feels all-powerful, after his meeting at the White House, and seems unrestrained. Key European leaders deem that the Turkish President is drifting away from the West. The prospect makes them feel extremely uncomfortable because Erdogan’s control of migrant flows could become a political nightmare for European governments.
The North African campaign and the hasty “aggreement”…
Turkey has decided to involve itself in Libya, that has two governments engaged in a civil war. Al-Sarraj’s National Accord government is based in the capital Tripoli and has been recognized by the United Nations. Based in Tobruk in eastern Libya, the government of Khalifa al-Ghawil is backed by France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia -and indirectly by the United States. Turkey together with Qatar has been among al-Sarraj’s key supporters for several months, supplying Tripoli with jihadi mercenaries from Syria, along with Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones and BMC Kirpi armoured vehicles. In exchange, Ankara asked for the agreement on the maritime borders between Libya and Turkey.
Strategically, the landscape on the Libyan front is now more complicated than before, with the latest developments raising serious suspicions that the Turkish movement in cooperation with the Tripoli’s government of Saraj may have accelerated their MoU, in order to prevent imminent developments in Libya, driven by the support that Russian mercenaries have given Khalifa Haftar’s forces in recent months, tightening the noose around Tripoli. According to information Haftar’s forces have now approached dangerously to the capital Tripoli, backed by these mercenary forces -probably hired from Wagner Group. Where such forces are involved, they are considered to serve Moscow’s geostrategic aspirations, while leaving room for formal denial of engagement by Russian diplomacy. Moscow, however, is now deploying also regular troops. In early November, “The New York Times” reported a significant Russian build-up in Libya: “It has introduced advanced Sukhoi jets, coordinated missile strikes, and precision-guided artillery, as well as the snipers – the same playbook that made Moscow a kingmaker in the Syrian civil war.”
Turkey wants to send troops to Libya, to give it a foothold that will be difficult to reduce. The troops are likely part of a larger deal whereby Libya’s Tripoli government gave away sea rights so that it can get diplomatic and military support from Turkey. The goal will be a long-term Turkish role. It has bases in Qatar and Somalia and sought to lease an island in Sudan. Ankara wants a huge swath of the Mediterranean, and having forces in Libya gives it an excuse to patrol back and forth.
Instead of sending its military, however, Turkey could deploy its own private military companies to Libya, first and foremost SADAT. Remarks from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on “the increasing number of Syrian fighters from Idlib seen on the ground” in Libya may suggest that SADAT fighters are already operating in Libya. Turkish private military companies may have even engaged Syrians for Ankara’s foreign ventures. If that is indeed the case, Turkey would be the only party capable of facilitating such a deployment to Libya. Thus, the threat of a direct clash between Russian and Turkish mercenaries, if not their respective militaries, looms in Libya. Eventually the Libyan dossier may enter into Russia and Turkey’s current deals regarding Idlib and northeastern Syria. This is why Russian aid to Haftar can be seen as another way for it to exert pressure on Ankara.
The big question is what is the US policy in Libya. Last April, US President Trump’s had a telephone call with General Haftar surprising many as the US appeared to support him. It makes sense to look at the relationships that Haftar has allegedly maintained – at least – in the past with the CIA. Coinci-dentally, during his many years in the United States, he was allegedly living in Langley, where the CIA headquarters is located. Not that this fact alone proves anything. Russian anti-aircraft systems were allegedly responsible for the downing of an American drone, which has not even been returned to the US forces. Adding to the picture is the bipartisan initiative in the US Congress, which is preparing to impose sanctions on Russian “mercenaries” and “their enablers”! American chaos once again, exploited by Russia. But in the end, the question remains, who does the US support?
Turkey becoming more captive to Russia as Western sanctions loom…
Turkey is struggling through economic “Dire Straits” which the government’s foreign policy could make worse by risking sanctions from the West while making the country extremely reliant on Russia. The new defence deals only deepen this dependence. Despite the ongoing economic worries, Turkey risked further U.S. sanctions by testing its S-400, which were purchased from Russia in defiance of Washington. The missiles are likely to become fully operational next spring, according to the timeline previously discussed by Turkish officials. The head of Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport said this month that negotiations were nearly complete for Turkey to buy a second consignment of the S-400s around the time that the first systems go online. The estimated $4 billion deal to buy more S-400s could also pave the way for Turkey to buy Russian Su-35 fighter jets to fill its need for new-generation aircraft. The United States suspended Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet production programme after it received the S-400s in July and has withheld Ankara’s order for 100 of the jets.
Meanwhile, the economic ties binding Ankara to Moscow continue to grow tighter. Turkey’s tourism sector is buoyed by the 6 million Russian tourists who flock to the country each year and it exports large amounts of agricultural products to Russia, where Turkish contractors have signed up for construction projects worth billions. These bonds are just as tight from a strategic perspective, since Turkey relies on Russian gas to meet its energy needs, and a Russian company is contracted to build and operate Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) drew attention to the country’s growing financial and energy dependence on Russia in a report it presented to parliament, during discussions on the 2020 budget, stating that this could lead to grave dangers in the years to come. Of particular concern for the CHP was the deal with Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom to build the nuclear plant in Akkuyu, southern Turkey, granting the company a wide range of subsidies including tax, VAT and licencing exemptions. The CHP’s report also says, the agreement states that the nuclear plant and the energy it produces belong to Russia, that Rosatom’s share in it will not fall below 51%, and that Turkey will buy all of the energy it produces. Since the plant is due to go into commission in 2023, these terms will be in force until 2038. In other words, the data presented in the CHP’s report marks out the Akkuyu plant as a $37 billion bung to Russia, paid at an extremely heavy cost to the Turkish economy.
NATO vis-a-vis TURKEY
On April 5, 1946, the battleship USS Missouri anchored in Istanbul. The American ship had sailed from New York on a special mission: to carry back the remains of Turkish ambassador Mehmet Munir Ertegun, a dean of Washington’s diplomatic corps in Washington. The visit of the Missouri would come to be remembered as a turning point, marking the beginning of a new world order, and underscoring the value the United States placed on Turkey. Less than six years later, Turkey had become a member of NATO, and soon after a bilateral treaty gave the United States the right to establish bases and keep military staff on Turkish soil.
Someday soon, July 12 2019, could come to be seen as significant as the visit of the American warship 73 years ago. As the first shipments of the sophisticated Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems arrived in Murted Air Base in Ankara, the sense of a historic shift hangs in the air. Turkey’s insistence on acquiring the batteries from a NATO adversary, defying the basic principles of “interoperability” of the alliance, despite open and unified threats from Washington on severe sanctions, raises inevitably the question of whether Ankara is determined in deorbiting from the alliance for good.
Comparisons between USS Missouri and S-400 are not far-fetched. History is filled with such events. Perceived threats from Joseph Stalin’s Russia pushed Turkey to the West then. Now, in one way or another, it is the other way around.
Nowadays, President Trump’s long admiration for the Turkish president, is not shared by many within NATO. And his explanation for why Turkey bought Russian clearly fell flat with French President Emmanuel Macron in the recent NATO’s Summit in Watford, Englad. Seated next to him, mr. Macron proclaimed, “how is it possible to be a member of the Alliance, to work with our office, to buy our materials, to be integrated, and to buy the S-400 from Russians? Technically, it is not possible.” He added that Turkey had also considered buying the SAMP/T air defense system from the European defense collective MBDA, but punted. “It’s their own decision,” President Macron added, “even having a European option, totally compliant with NATO. So they decided not to be compliant with NATO.”
Turkey -once a paragon of stability and a source of great optimism for many in the West- has become increasingly authoritarian and unreliable. It seems that until the activation of S-400s next April, Turkey will focus on persuading its Western counterparts against sanctions by using its strategic leverage. Erdogan’s government wants to keep the bargaining process going and show its allies that they, too, stand to lose from the standoff. More importantly, it seems to eye a solution on NATO ground, drawing also on Trump’s lenient attitude toward Turkey.
Ankara, however, continues to pursue a policy of distancing itself from the Atlantic alliance. Given that Ankara is distancing itself from NATO and that it has stated its desire to focus on relations with countries to its south and east, does Ankara deserve a seat at the NATO table? Turkey’s distance from the NATO alliance and its rapprochement with Moscow is a worrying issue, the U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper recently remarked: “It is disturbing that Turkey is withdrawing from NATO’s orbit.” On the other hand, turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rightly said that while the United States has criticised Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system, NATO did not raise any objection. In fact, “NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly said all countries had the right to buy the weapon and defence system of their choice,” Cavusoglu said.
Today, the main security concerns of NATO are Russian belligerency, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East and the associated threats of migration and terrorism. If anything, Turkey has contributed to the proliferation of some of these security threats. During the Cold War, Turkey was a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Its western orientation, large military and geostrategic location made Turkey a strategic asset, making it the “spoiled child” of the alliance. Nowadays, Turkey has broken a lot of trust with allies, because its political leadership mistakenly thinks it is to its advantage. NATO’s 70th anniversary summit, offered Turkey an opportunity to use its weight as a member to soften any hard feelings. On the eve of the summit, however, Ankara chose to show how it could paralyze the alliance, which was seeking approval by all 29 members for a military plan to defend Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the event of Russian aggression. Ankara refused initially to approve the plan until NATO recognized Turkey’s Kurdish adversaries in Syria as a terrorist threat, however –under pressure and/or “gifts”– in the end backed and voted the plan.
It is not clear why Turkey dropped its veto threat after having raised the ante as it did. Talking to reporters in London following the summit, Erdogan merely indicated that Secretary General Stoltenberg, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Andrzej Duda had called him to seek Turkey’s support for the alliance’s plan for the Baltics. “I discussed this matter with my friends and we decided to say yes to it,” mr. Erdogan said, adding that he had asked in return that Ankara’s allies not leave Turkey alone in its fight against terrorism. This superficial explanation is unlikely to have mollified his Islamist support base at home, which expected him to carry out the veto threat to demonstrate Turkey’s clout in the alliance.
To make matters worse, in a television interview Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey could bar the United States from using the key Air Force base in Incirlik and the early-warning radar station, as part of NATO’s missile defense, at Kurecik, in response to possible sanctions over Ankara’s purchase of Russian missiles and its military campaign in northeast Syria. It was not the first time Ankara has made such warnings, but with the prospect of US sanctions looming closer, its tone seems to be toughening.
Turkey’s future in NATO
With Turkey appearing more of a hindrance to NATO than an asset, it begs the question what can be done? There is no mechanism or precedent for expelling a NATO member. One possibility is to try to amend the North Atlantic Treaty to allow for the sanctioning or expulsion of a member state. However, this is unlikely to succeed: it would need unanimous support -and Turkey could just veto it. Other NATO members might also resist out of concern that they may one day be sanctioned. Alternatively, NATO might want to bide its time. Perhaps President Erdogan might lose the next election. Meanwhile, some kind of quid pro quo could be worked out.
Many say that the best option for NATO is to show Ankara tough love. Without NATO, Turkey is weak, especially after years of purges within its armed forces. Currently, Turkey has more fighter jets than capable pilots, and with over half of its high-ranking officers having been arrested or forced to retire, Turkey has lost a wealth of knowledge, experience and expertise. Articles 4 and 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty offer Turkey an unprecedented security umbrella. Article 4 calls for member states to “consult” with each other whenever their territory or security is threatened, and Article 5 states that an attack against one is an attack against all.
But NATO’s support for Turkey goes beyond the call of duty. From Turkey’s use of military equipment produced by NATO members, to the deployment of Spain’s Patriot air defense system and the presence of NATO bases in Anatolia, Turkey’s security is all but guaranteed. It is also through NATO that Turkish officers receive training and exchanges of views with some of the world’s most sophisticated militaries, as well intelligence-sharing and the opportunity to participate in NATO missions. Turkey should be informed that continued intransigence could lead to NATO and its member-states to provide only baseline cooperation.
It should also be explained that anything beyond the most limited support could become contingent on Ankara upholding other articles of the North Atlantic Treaty, such as Article 1, which stipulates that before NATO members resort to force they should first seek “peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered,” and Article 2, which calls for members to strengthen “their free institutions” by “promoting conditions of stability and well-being.” Turkey needs to be reminded of the benefits of its NATO membership and the consequences of losing goodwill. It is in Ankara’s interests to seek common cause with the world’s most successful military alliance – or else Turkey risks becoming just another satellite of an ever-assertive Russia.
Analysts generally agree that expulsion is unlikely, given Turkey’s crucial geopolitical advantages, particularly its border with Syria, where Russia has a significant presence and growing influence. Expelling Turkey from the western alliance would be a drastic step that would delight its adversaries. Russia, in particular, has long sought to break up NATO and to draw Turkey into its orbit. Even if NATO officials were able to find a way to punish Turkey, it could backfire and further heighten tensions. Despite its tactical alliance with Russia in Syria, Turkey continues to host NATO military bases and controls the Bosporus straits that Moscow needs to deploy the bulk of its naval forces in the Mediterranean. It’s a delicate dance that both sides are trying to learn as they go.
On top of its showdown with Washington over the Russian S-400 defense system and concerns over a serious incident in the Aegean Sea, due to Turkey’s excessive activity that could lead to a violent collision with Greece, or a new provocation against Israel, Turkey has been continuously undermining the delicate equilibrium in the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to prevent all this from undermining regional peace and security, NATO should further support the trilateral alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean between Athens, Jerusalem and Nicosia and Athens, Cairo and Nicosia, enabling them to function as elements of smart deterrence against turkish revisionism.
President Erdogan’s quest for crisis with NATO also reflects the ideological position that conflicts rather than consensus serve to his interest domestically and to some extent internationally. But he would not jeopardise Turkey’s membership, at least for now, because ending it could push him into uncharted waters.
Perhaps a policy of “containment” of Turkey in some of NATO’s most sensitive activities may prove more effective. This may have already begun. Several reports say NATO has begun freezing Turkish officials out of key military meetings and committees due to increasing security concerns related to the S-400s. However, such piecemeal punishments are making little impact in the long run. The issues with Turkey aren’t simply military issues, or S-400 issues; they go much deeper than that -to the heart of its political system. Keeping military hardware out of the country, or freezing Turkish officials out of key NATO bodies won’t change that.
The only obvious way for Turkey to abandon its provocative attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean is for it to make a conscious decision regarding its future: to be a part of the Western world or trapped in mr. Erdogan’s boastful orientalism. If the West wants Turkey to choose the first -and to be frank this would be the best for its own geostrategic interests- it is vital that Ankara starts sensing that it is not going to be excused for everything by its allies and is not going to be offered unconditional diplomatic congeniality in perpetuity. A red line must be drawn by NATO and it has to be visible both to Ankara and other regional stakeholders too.
GREECE: Pillar of stability and security in S.E. Mediterranean
Greece has significant energy potential prospects in its ultra-deep waters, South of Crete and in the Ionian Sea, while also diversifying its own sources of supply. As a member of two Trilaterals with Cyprus, Israel, Egypt plus the U.S., as well as the recently formed East Med Gas Forum (EMGF), Greece believes that natural gas plays a strategic role in the low-carbon energy transition of its economy. The Greek government supports the liberalisation and strengthening of the Greek natural gas market, aiming to connect it with the markets of the Balkans, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
At the same time, Greece lives in a complicated neighborhood. Athens, who has had an openly hostile relationship with fellow NATO member Turkey, is inching towards a point-of-no-return with the Turks’ increasingly authoritarian President Erdogan’s over his actions in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, which include having his Navy regularly violating its national waters and disrupting Cyprus’ attempts to explore it’s own offshore natural gas reserves, as well as Ankara’s refusal to adhere to an agreement with a European Union to help stem the tide of migrants that have, again, begun flowing across its borders after several years of relative calm. Greece’s already difficult neighbour is becoming even more unpredictable, if not downright unhinged. Turkey no longer seems bound by rational thinking and balance of power considerations.
Tensions have been soaring between Turkey, Greece, Israel, Cyprus and Egypt over hydrocarbon reserves in the waters off the divided island of Cyprus. The latest episode of Turkey and Libya’s internationally recognised government Agreement/MoU on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea, is a move that could complicate Turkey’ disputes over energy exploration with other countries in the region. Athens was prompted to turn to NATO and the E.U. for support, the explicit condemnation of the MoU and the creation of a framework for sanctions. At the same time, it sent two letters with its legal arguments against the MoU, one to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the other to the UN Security Council, raising the issues of regional peace and security. In parallel, before his visit to Athens, Aguila Saleh, Libya’s parliament speaker in the country’s rival power base in Tobruk, sent a letter to mr. Guterres denouncing the Tripoli government that signed the pact with Turkey as an “illegal entity.” Mr. Saleh rejected the notion that the two states share common maritime boundaries, stressing that the state of Libya is not bound by the treaty.
As an aftermath, the European Council’s statement unequivocally reaffirmed its solidarity to Athens and Nicosia, regarding Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean, and condemned the Ankara-Tripoli maritime border deal, which “…infringes upon the sovereign rights of third States, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third States.”
Nevertheless, in defiance of Greece’s vehement objections and the condemnations of the European Union over Turkey’s Accord with Libya, turkish President Erdogan counterattacked stating that the deal means that both countries can carry out joint energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. He also said Turkey will buy another drillship for its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, he described Greece’s expulsion of the Libyan ambassador over the deal as an “international scandal,” warning that Athens will “pay the price for its actions internationally.” Moreover, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez announced that Ankara will soon conduct seismic research within sea zones included in the Accord. He reportedly told the Turkish Parliament that the agreement with Libya has become the “law of the land” after being ratified by lawmakers earlier this month and that his ministry is working on delineating blocks where seismic surveys will be carried out “immediately after New Year’s. Have no doubt that we will do what must be done,” he said.
What are Turkey’s true intentions
Signing such an agreement is a strategic move for Turkey, as it gives it the superficial legitimacy it so lacks in order to move in on the region. It could create a wall that would prevent Greece from developing its sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean EEZ. It would confirm what Ankara has been arguing for years: that the islands are not entitled to a continental shelf under law. And last but not least, it would shift the point of contention from the Kastellorizo continental shelf to that of Crete. In all likelihood Turkey is doing this, as well as through its aggressive actions in carrying out exploration and drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ, in order to establish a position of strength from which eventually to enter into negotiations. But also as a reaction to the growing cooperation among almost all the other countries bordering the Eastern Mediterranean.
As far as Greece is concerned, Turkey is in the process of detecting Athens’ determination and the consequences of a possible seismographic research or drilling attempted on the Greek EEZ of the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, it is trying to obtain some semblance of legitimacy that it lacks, so it can intervene in the region. The bad thing is that, although unlawful, once signed, such an agreement can only be overturned by a withdrawal of Libya, or by recourse to an international tribunal. Turkey excludes the latter. If delimitation is finally made, however illegal it may be, Greece will always be faced with it.
The US has reasons to be annoyed by Turkish neo-imperialism, to the detriment of all countries in the region, even against other allied NATO members, such as Greece. US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt stated recently that an analysis by American experts of the controversial MoU between Ankara and the Tripoli-based Libyan government presents “very different” legal conclusions to those presented by Turkey. He said that US legal judgement and also the UNCLOS legal analysis concludes that inhabited islands, as a matter of customary international law, are entitled to the same treatment as continental territory. He also called Ankara to “approach these kinds of issues not through unilateral declarations that overlook the perspectives of the other affected states, in this case Egypt and Greece, but rather through dialogue.”
However, the equation also needs to include an unpredictable Washington under President Trump. The US has recommended that Greece does not militarize the crisis with Turkey at its own initiative -and, in any case, not without informing Washington beforehand. That said, Athens cannot be certain about how the US would react to a crisis between Greece and Turkey. President Erdogan obviously exploits Donald Trump’s generally passive attitude towards all kinds of interlocutors. Although last October U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Athens to sign the new Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) and the continuation to a higher lever of the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue, Athens cannot hide its disaffection and disappointment over US President Donald Trump’s affection, on public display, for Turkish strongman Erdogan and over NATO’s provocatively neutral -purportedly, at least- stance on the Greek-Turkish dispute.
Adding the European Union’s slowness to translate its words of condemnation into action, over Germany’s voluntary marginalization and its decision to turn a blind eye to Ankara’s growing provocations, Greece reacts rather calmly. Greece hopes to clarify U.S. general posture as well as to reaffirm its full support, in the iminent visit of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Washington, on January 7, amid a rather hot climate in the Aegean and South Eastern Mediterranean.
Searching for an effective containment strategy…
As Ankara doubles down on its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of Greece and Cyprus, Athens is seeking to strike a delicate balance between avoiding a further escalation with Turkey and safeguarding its national interests. The Greek government appears to be easing the rhetoric toward Turkey in order to avoid setting the mood for conflict -which according to Athens is not on the cards- and creating a feeling of panic. It seems reasonable, given that polarized language helps perpetuate, and often escalate, tension while at the same time putting off investors. It’s all fine, as long as this strategy does not lead to complacency, as long as real problems are not swept under the carpet, and as long as it does not interrupt international efforts by Greek diplomacy to create a network for condemning and discouraging turkish provocations, to the extent that this is of course feasible. After all, there are no real alternatives for Greece to rely on.
But can Greek reactions be limited to purely rhetorical condemnations and the characterization of turkish actions as “provocative” and be regarded as satisfactory? In light of recent developments it is now time for a parallel two-fold strategy: First, Greece must finally present a map depicting its own rights and claims. These claims must become a national position. A position which will first secure european and international diplomatic support in order to preempt possible military aggression from Turkey. A position which will, at the right moment, be put on the table during credible talks amid international backing and guarantees and with possible subsidiary recourse to the International Court of Justice, or other international tribunals on technical sub-issues. The map should depict the rights which have been adopted by most states around the world, including the Greek EEZ of course, which will be progressively delimited with each of its neighbors on the basis of the median line, giving every Greek island or islet full effect.
Until yesterday, Greece was in most cases a step behind Turkey, which maintains the initiative. It became painfully evident in recent past, that the failure to submit coordinates determining the boundaries of the Greek Exclusive Economic Zone in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea did not result in a more self-restrained Turkey, but instead a more uncontrolled one. Now Athens is obliged to submit its coordinates in order to protect the minimum, i.e. to determine the areas that deems to be part of the Greek continental shelf. Greece needs to adopt a strategy that will force Turkey into accepting (a) a peaceful settlement (b) on the basis of international law -most probably before the International Court- and c) the delimitation of maritime zones in which it exercises its sovereign rights in the Aegean and now also in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, Greece must also enhance its deterrence capacity further. Doing so would render the cost of a military attack bigger than the gain for Turkey. This is the only “language” Turkey understands ultimately and may be convinced to reach an honorary compromise with Greece.
CYPRUS: Too rich in gas, too weak to defend it
Since 2003, the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) established a strong legal framework through maritime demarcation agreements with its neighboring states. Subsequently in the delineated marine areas south of the island, research areas were identified. It did not include maritime areas that are either adjacent to the Occupied Territories, or on side opposite Turkey. Major oil companies undertook to explore and exploit these Plots. Alongside legality, financial interests were created. Thus, Cyprus took the initiative of the moves and substantially challenged Turkey’s hegemonic position.
Turkey is trying to restore this upset in its hegemonic position by using power. Since 2013 it has spent nearly $1 billion to acquire a fleet of seismic research and drilling vessels. As of May 2019, when the Fatih drill ship appeared west of Cyprus, things were developing rapidly. Ankara has dispatched drilling and exploration ships escorted by turkish military vessels to Cypriot waters four times this year, sparking protests from Cyprus, Greece, the European Union and the United States. Ankara, against all protests of the major stakeholders, is now planning to deploy a fifth exploration convoy.
The goals of Ankara in Cyprus’ EEZ
Turkey has three strategic goals for Cyprus: a) the freezing of research by the Republic of Cyprus, b) the co-management of the deposits south of the island, c) the transportation of regional hydrocarbons, including those of the Israeli EEZ, through a pipeline to Turkey.
In order to achieve these goals, Ankara is trying to find hydrocarbons in demarcated areas south of Cyprus. Up to date has failed to make a significant discovery of oil and gas. Even if it does so in the future, difficult but not unlikely, prospects for turning the finds into a profitable venture are not necessarily upbeat. Turkish companies do not have the technology to extract hydrocarbons from a deep underwater in sufficient volumes. So far, all its efforts had no results at all.
Turkey’s increased aggression is part of a, not so, new maritime doctrine called “Blue Homeland” that lays out Turkish dominion over 460,000 square kilometres in the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas. In support of this doctrine, Turkey has allocated greater funding to its Navy and, earlier this year, carried out its largest ever naval exercises. President Erdogan summed up the Turkish position in a recent speech at a naval command center in Istanbul: “We will not allow moves aimed at usurping the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural resources to the exclusion of our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.” (for more see also: “Turkish “Blue Motherland – Mavi Vatan” exercise raises tension in Aegean and S.E. Mediterranean”).
ROC possesses no Navy, and hence is militarily helpless in the face of Turkey’s actions. It is seeking to respond through diplomacy. The European Union has criticized Turkey’s moves, and threatened sanctions. Rather than rely on European promises, however, Cyprus is developing its relations with local powers similarly concerned at Turkey’s transformation into an aggressive and irredentist power. Since 2010, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt have held six tripartite summits and have signed declarations pledging to increase cooperation, support energy independence and security, and defend against destabilization. The issue of gas discoveries underlies the growing ties among the three.
The “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Partnership Act 2019” in addition to promoting energy cooperation between Greece, the ROC and Israel, provides for $3 million of military financing assistance for Greece and $2 million each to Greece and the ROC for military training assistance, as well as establish a “United States-Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center” to facilitate energy cooperation between the US, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. Considering the high priority given to the region, the “East Med Act” also suggests that the trilateral alliances plus the enhanced interest of the United States could serve as vehicle for the new dynamic in the region.
At the same time, US Congress approved the lifting of the 1987 arms embargo against Cyprus. The measure was voted through as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. This move is seen as a reflection of Washington’s renewed interest and growing involvement in the region and the upgrade of the geopolitical roles of Greece and Cyprus.
Russia is likely to be more in favour of today’s status quo and against any significant movement toward a resolution on the island. If and when there is a reunified Cyprus, it will propably join NATO. Thus Moscow, a long-standing partner of the Greek Cypriots, is presumably supportive of Turkey’s aggressive posture.
Is the Εastern Mediterranean set to explode?
Ankara is pitting itself against several regional states through its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and its offer to become more involved in Libya’s conflict. France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the Gulf states, Russia, the United States, Britain, Israel and even Qatar, which has a licensed company operating in the Cypriot EEZ, and the wider region as well, all have plans that conflict with Turkey’s goals in areas across the Eastern Mediterranean.
The waters of the Eastern Mediterranean really started to simmer when, on 8 February 2018, the Italian company ENI and the French company Total announced a breakthrough gas discovery at the Calypso block off the Cypriot coast, estimated to be comparable as size to the giant Zohr field. Just three days later, the Italian Eni drill ship Saipem 12000 was stopped by Turkish military vessels on its way to a gas drill position in the Block 3 of Cyprus’s EEZ. The incident gave rise to an intense exchange of mutual accusations and diplomatic declarations; old and new tensions surfaced around the Calypso discovery and triggered a plethora of geopolitical and economic warnings about a new resource war on Europe’s doorstep, amid a complex web of geopolitical competition and conflicts around the Eastern Mediterranean. The escalation around Cyprus’ EEZ is of a purely geopolitical nature. Turkey is asserting its role as the dominant power in the area and also making a point to the trilateral alliances between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. Ankara also is building up leverage in case Cypriot reunification talks, which collapsed in July 2017, are resumed.
Nowadays, we live a logical paradox where Turkey, a NATO member, is threatening other NATO members i.e. Italy, Greece and France, not mentioning the worsening of relations with the US. Concerns are fueled by a series of reciprocal warnings, mostly between Turkey and Greece, and by clashing declarations at the highest political level. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Greece, Cyprus, and foreign companies that, by continuing the gas drilling off the coast of Cyprus, they are violating Turkey’s sovereignty. He went on to announce that “[Turkish] warships, air force and other security units are following developments in the region closely with the authority to make any kind of intervention if necessary.”
From then on, during the second half of 2019, Turkey launched its drilling and surveyor ships with escort of warships, (see also: “Turkey’s “Energy Invasion”) to drill for gas in Cyprus’ EEZ. If the timing of the launch was controversial, the event itself was hardly a surprise. The launch was in following with the country’s “National Energy and Mining Policy”, announced in April 2017, which focused on the mobilization of domestic resources and greater diversification.
Crisis has been simmering for a long time and NATO officials are concerned about Turkey’s aggression, as well as its rather peculiar, if not illegal, deal with Libya that would favorably redefine Turkey’s maritime borders. Nevertheless, in defiance of Greece’s vehement objections, the threat of sanctions of the European Union and the objections, as well as the imminent sanctions of the United States, the latest messages from Turkey suggest that there is more to come. President Erdogan and other turkish officials say this deal ends what they call the violation of sovereign rights by Greece and Cyprus and strengthen Turkey’s legal case, while Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said more deals would follow, meaning that Ankara’s game in the Eastern Mediterranean has just started.
The Republic of Cyprus (ROC) has learnt the hard way and now it’s using its strategic location to upgrade its regional deals, while stitching its energy wealth into the bilateral and/or trilateral ties it seeks to enhance with its neighbours, EU partners and Washington. Outgunned and outnumbered by occupying force Turkey, Nicosia has to get smart, not only through its regional alliances such as the upgraded military cooperation with France and Israel, but it must be clever in the way it defends itself. Lacking sufficient naval capacity of its own, the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) has been attempting to develop a level of effective deterrence by drawing Western naval powers to its side -such as the United States, France and Italy. Untill yesterday, these efforts have been hampered by the fact that it is not a member of NATO while Turkey is. Securing political declarations from the EU and key EU-member states -along with legal actions such as the issuing of international arrest warrants for crew members of the drill-ships and companies cooperating with Turkish Petroleum- is ultimately aiming to create a diplomatic context for these NATO and E.U. members to deepen their respective military commitments to the Republic of Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots backed by Athens are looking to their fellow European Union members for support against Ankara. Last week, Italian and French warships held a joint exercise off Cyprus in cooperation with Nicosia.
Greece plays an important mediating role in this process. Although a NATO member, having bitter memories from the Alliance’s lack of support during the 1974 turkish invasion of the island, Greece is committed to ROC’s defense in case of an attack by Turkey, as formalized in the 1993 Greece-ROC joint proclamation of the “Single Area Defense Doctrine”, which after the 1996 Imia hot embroilment, was defunct for many years and now there are deliberations to reenact and upgrade it. The Greek Army also maintains a reinforced regiment of Greek Cyprus’ Force (ELDYK) on the island, which operates in support of the Cypriot National Guard. Still, their combined forces pale in comparison to the upwards of 40,000 military personnel that Turkey maintains in the TRNC. Greece and ROC, hope to counter this disadvantage through their participation in the two significant trilateral relationships: The Greece-ROC-Egypt and the Greece-ROC-Israel.
It is Greece’s participation that makes these trilateral relationships meaningful, as Athens, apart from the numerous NATO exercises, conducts significant joint military exercises with both Cairo and Jerusalem. For example, the annual “Iniohos” joint Air Force exercises hosted by Greece that took place in April included the United States, Italy, Cyprus, Israel and the UAE. The “Medusa” joint aeronaval exercises between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, has also shown the increasing defense cooperation in the South Eastern Mediterranean, aiming to contain turkish aggression. At this juncture of significant developments in the region’s geopolitical landscape, caution is the key-word. Greece and Cyprus have so far played their cards well, but they should try not get ahead of themselves. The messages coming from the United States and Israel, as well as Egypt are strong and positive.
To counter Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish ambivalence, the United States of America is strengthening its involvement in the region’s energy development. There has also been a take-off in the 3+1 trilateral together with Greece, Cyprus and Israel covering both security and energy issues. In a show of support, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Israeli, Greek and Cypriot leaders in March to discuss regional energy development and joint security initiatives.
In this context, the Pentagon wants to increase its presence at the Rota naval base in Spain in a bid to reinforce its role as the biggest US naval base in Southern Europe. The Spanish-American naval base Rota hosts US Navy and Marine Corps personnel, as well as four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, while remaining under the command of a Spanish rear admiral. The US Department of Defence plans to add two more Arleigh Burke class destroyers to the already deployed four with an aim to have a complete squadron, as well as to replace the ships there with more modern versions that will be equipped with Romeo Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk helicopters.
Souda Bay naval nase in Greece is also especially valuable for NATO and U.S. security interests, and its expansion together with other installations in Greece, under the recently inked US-Greece MNDA and Strategic Dialogue, may decrease their reliance on the Incirlik base in volatile Turkey.
Under President’s Trump administration, however, the United States is still a wild card. Though it has a stake in the crisis, not least because of ExxonMobil and Noble’s involvement, it strugles to keep a low profile. Relations with Turkey are already strained as it is, because of the S-400 dispute and Syria. Last but not least, the recent impeachment of the President is certain that will affect the actions and reactions of US foreign policy. Yet in case of escalation the United States could easily be drawn in. In 2018, when tensions ran high, the U.S. navy escorted ExxonMobil’s drill ships in Cyprus’ EEZ.
Israel apart from its 3rd election rally in less than a year that has increased political instability, maintain as its primary concern in the region the U.S.-Iran confrontation and the possibility of esacallation of hostilities with Iran based militias in Syria. In the energy game was the first country of the region to make major gas discoveries, and also the first mover in the economic and political race for its monetization, in terms of new export routes and infrastructure projects. Tel-Aviv is considering the EastMed Gas Pipeline to carry gas from Israel and Cyprus to European markets through Greece, and a joint Israeli-Cypriot LNG plant near Vassilikos on the southern coast of the island. Nevertheless, the efforts to reach an agreement with R.O.K., over the terms of developing the “Aphrodite” gas field, seem to have stuck with the israeli side to demand a settlement before the recent deal of transfering its narural gas to Egypt, begins.
For Israel, the U.S. and Cyprus, as well as Greece, the EastMed pipeline does not represent a simple gas supply pipeline, but a comprehensive strategic plan involving capital and other means, as well as the creation of security conditions in the region. The strong ties between Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicosia go well beyond the promotion of open communication links in the field of energy. You see that in their increasing joint military exercises.
Israel also wants to export natural gas to Egypt, but could also do it via Turkey or Greece and Cyprus? Israel and Egypt have more shared interests in security in Sinai and Gaza, and other interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. The pro-Erdogan newspaper “Daily Sabah” has recently pushed the notion that Israel and Turkey could resume cooperation, but the current political issues keep Turkey and Israel far apart. The paper reported that Israel’s official radio station “KAN” claimed that Turkey said it was ready to negotiate with Tel Aviv on transferring israeli natural gas to Europe. The report also suggested that israeli officials welcomed too the idea of initiating negotiations.
On the contrary, the recent incident of interception of an israeli research ship in Cypriot waters by turkish Navy ships, together with reports that Israeli Air Force answered with F-16s “Sufa” low-flying over the drill ship Yavuz, can only rise the already much strained tensions between the two countries.
The EastMed pipeline sets regional geopolitics in motion…
Although international analysts were puzzled why Israel was trying to keep a low profile, Turkey’s intransigence and increasing aggresiveness forced Tel-Aviv to take the initiative, setting geopolitical issues of the South Eastern Mediterranean in motion. Cyprus’ government spokesman said last week that in a telephone conversation with ROC’s President Nicos Anastasiades, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recommended that his country, Cyprus and Greece immediately sign an agreement to get work started on the EastMed pipeline. Immediately after he had a telephone conversation with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis about the recent security developments in the region.
Diplomatic efforts are underway to reach an intergovernmental agreement on the EastMed pipeline, and according to the communication by Maximos Mansion, on January 2, 2020 Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, alongside the President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will sign a Transnational Agreement on the EastMed pipeline. The Greek government works hard to achieve this deadline, in order for the Greek Prime Minister to have the signed deal with him during his meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, on January 7.
Cyprus, Greece and Israel already signed an agreement on the 1,900 klm (1,180-mile) pipeline earlier this year in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As now planned, the pipeline will run across the South Eastern Mediterranean, from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves, to the Greek island of Crete and the Greek mainland, and to Italy. The deal will be finalized with Italy’s signature at a subsequent date, Greek PM’s office said. In May 2019, though, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had expressed opposition to the Poseidon project, the last section of the pipeline connecting Greece with Italy. The EastMed pipeline is expected to satisfy about 10% of the European Union’s natural gas needs decreasing energy dependence on Russia. The E.U. has contributed to the cost of technical studies for the project (for more see: “ENERGY WARS: The Security of the Energy Routes in the South East Mediterranean”).
The iminent Transnational Agreement for the EastMed pipeline is an immediate answer to Turkey’s provocations and aggressive challenges, sending a message of ditermination of the three states, that they will not tolerate Ankara’s provocations anymore, as well as their will to boost regional security and stability, in light of their growing partnership and military cooperation as well. Nevertheless, whatever the geopolitical intensions and geostratigical plans, EastMed pipeline’s potential future LNG exports to Europe, from new greenfield liquefaction plants -onshore or offshore- will be challenged commercially. The geopolitical/security perspective is crucial, but at the end of the day it is up to the market to define if the project is viable.
In addition, it is not certain that all the regional stakeholders eye EastMed positively. Egypt, for example, is a questionmark. The EastMed “energy corridor”, after all, includes the EastMed gas pipeline but also potential LNG exports from the region. That is, egyptian gas too. Egypt sees itself as an Eastern Mediterranean power. It is at the centre of natural gas wealth in the region, with foreign companies exploring its territorial waters discovering additional reserves. LNG from Egypt’s existing liquefaction plant at Idku is already been exported to Europe based on existing contracts, and exports from the second at Damietta may follow early next year.
Cairo, trying to put the natural gas market of the region in order, through alliances with other producers and consumers, plans to become an energy hub. It seeks to collect natural gas extracted from other regional countries, process it and export it to Europe, a process that would greatly change Egypt’s strategic importance. Although it will not accept Ankara setting the rules, having its own ambition to become the bigest energy hub of South Eastern Mediterranean, it is rather uncertain whether Egypt is ready to cede this role to Israel and/or Greece. The convening of a quadripartite summit between Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and France, which is expected to be held on the 4th or 5th of January in Cairo, immediately after the sign of the EastMed Agreement in Athens, is expected to set a new context for the relations and partnerships among the regional stakeholders.
France, home to energy major Total, which is conducting natural gas operations off the coast of Cyprus in partnership with the italian ENI, supports the Republic of Cyprus. Perhaps more actively than any other stakeholder and/or ally. France’s involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean has taken Ankara aback. Speaking to the press, mr. Erdogan has many times questioned “When did France have the right to speak on the Eastern Mediterranean? What is France doing there?”
Back in January, the French frigate FS Aconit conducted three days of interoperability exercises with ROC naval vessels. Four days after Turkey’s announcement in May, that it would send a second drill-ship to Cypriot waters, France signed an agreement with the ROC to service its warships at Cyprus’s Mari naval base, where a new docking area is being constructed to accommodate them. Adding to the increasing air and naval activity around the shores of Cyprus, French President Emmanuel Macron has threatened Turkey, many times, with EU sanctions if it did not stop its illegal drilling activities.
Italy, also has agreed with Cyprus on drilling rights, together with France, in the waters that Turkey aims to control, and retains significant interests vested in the whole region. Although it has tasted Turkey’s intrasigence and bullying, seems to be the more reluctant stakeholder to react to Ankara’s aggressive posture. Over the past, although it has sent one or two warships in Cyprus’ EEZ, it failed to convince anybody, Turkey especially, about its determination to take more active measures against its aggresiveness. The recent Turkey-Libya deal is sure to upset Italy, whose partially state-owned oil and gas firm ENI has interests in Libya, where also backs the GNA. The Italians have much more leverage in the Libyan context than the Turks do, so Rome might use its influence with the GNA to reshape the deal. Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio stated recently “Italy is ready to work to find a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis.”
Egypt, perhaps the most important adversary of Turkey in the region, sees itself as an Eastern Mediterranean power and will not accept Ankara setting the rules. It is at the centre of natural gas wealth in the region, with foreign companies exploring its territorial waters discovering additional reserves. Cairo, trying to put the natural gas market in the region in order, through alliances with other producers and consumers, plans to become an energy hub. It seeks to collect natural gas extracted from other regional countries, process it and export it to Europe, a process that would greatly change Egypt’s strategic importance. This explains Egypt’s military buildup in the Mediterranean. Cairo has spent billions of dollars to modernise its navy, with purchases of helicopter carriers, advanced corvettes, submarines and speedboats. The “Medusa” joint military exercises is a strong manifestation of the Greek-Cyprus-Egypt trilateral’s growing military presence in the region, in order to boost its security and stability, in light of their growing partnership and military cooperation. Clearly the rivalry between Egypt and Turkey helped make Egypt’s participation stronger, at the same time however, it also gets a lot out of the diplomatic and military relationship with Greece and Cyprus.
Cairo, on the other hand, has economic and defense relations with Moscow too, much to U.S.’ dismay. Egypt and Russia have been stepping up military cooperation in recent years. The Egyptian-Russian joint naval drill “Friendship Bridge 2019” was conducted on December 11. It is deemed one of the biggest within the northern fleet of the Mediterranean Operations Theater. The Egyptian military projected preparedness for protecting Egypt’s economic interests in the Mediterranean and for possible emergencies in the region. A number of naval units, frigates, rocket launchers, auxiliary supply ships and divisions of the special navy forces from both sides took part in the drill. The military activities included the launch of a submarine anti-ship Harpoon missile with a range of more than 130 kilometers (81 miles).
In late November, Egyptian and Russian Air Defense Forces concluded also training activities for the joint exercise “Arrow of Friendship – 1”. Egyptian and Russian elements from different air defense units participated in the training activities. Troops from both countries conducted numerous joint tactical training activities after raising the combat readiness level.
Cairo reacted to Ankara’s developing aggression, showing its anger at the destabilising role of Turkey and its interference in its affairs and those of other countries in the region. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has called for “decisive” and “collective” action against countries supporting “terrorism” in an apparent reference to Turkey and Qatar, backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation that is outlawed in Egypt. Tensions with Turkey have been escalating ever since Ankara offered the Muslim Brotherhood leadership refuge in Turkey.
Moreover, Egypt is concerned by Turkey’s attempts to meddle in Libya after Ankara sought out an agreement between the two countries at sea and has hinted it may send troops to Tripoli. Libya has been a security problem for Egypt ever since the North African state fell into lawlessness following the downfall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011. The disintegration of the Libyan state means that Egypt must guard its 1,200km border with Libya alone. However, terrorist groups in Libya have been able to smuggle large amounts of arms and explosives into Egypt in recent years. More active turkish military involvement in Libya would make things worse. As a late development, Cairo has approved sending Russian-made tanks to Haftar’s forces. Egypt will “temporarily” deploy the tanks in a bid to avoid the UN anti-armament resolution, according to reports. Following the conclusion of the battle and the achievement of Haftar’s goals, he is set to return them to Egypt.
We have already presented that frictions in NATO’s Southern Flank serve Russian interests. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak has said Russia could help Turks develop offshore gas and oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. Though Moscow is ready to cooperate with Ankara’s regional rivals -the state-owned Rosneft has a contract in Egypt’s Zohr field- and supports general’s Haftar forces in Libya, it would do its best to reap commercial and geopolitical dividends. Thus, Moscow is supportive of Turkey’s aggressive posture. Without moving a finger the Kremlin is accruing all kinds of political and geostrategic benefits.
The period between the end of December and early January is critical…
For months it has been clear that sooner or later Ankara would proceed with actions aiming to ensure that it has a place on the energy map of the Southern Mediterranean. Turkey’s moves is a gradual effort to entrench its demands in the region and to test the resolve of parties with interests in the region and especially Cyprus’ EEZ, such as the United States, Israel, Egypt, Greece, France and Italy. In its effort to find alternative energy sources for its internal consumption, as well as for the realization of its strategic aims to become a significant peripheral stakeholder, Turkey strives to subverse the current status in the region with high risk actions and statements. Libya too, is now part of the Turkish foreign policy strategy to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Pro-government media in Turkey and Libya are preparing public opinion for the possibility of greater Turkish involvement in the conflict.
To the extent that Ankara perceives its NATO allies intensifying their efforts at containment, Turkey will increase its resistance to that containment, laying stakes to protect its interests, as with its drill-ships and the Libya MoU/Defense Pact. In turn, these actions will provoke a further hardening of the containment, creating a dangerous cycle of escalation that could permanently alter Turkey’s relationship with NATO and provoke a major crisis. Even in Washington, EastMed experts do not have a clear idea of how things will evolve. President Erdogan struggles to destabilize the region in an effort to win time, being squeezed between the United States and Russia more than ever before. The more pressure he feels on a political and geopolitical level, the more unpredictable, or even dangerous the situation will become.
It remains to be seen how far Turkey will push its attempts to disrupt the process of gas exploration in the East Mediterranean. At present, Ankara’s efforts are limited to the Cypriot context. Turkey’s deployment of drones to Northern Cyprus is a tactical move with strategic implications and an important message to all stakeholders that Turkey is serious. The drones are intended to protect Turkish research ships searching for hydrocarbons in contested waters of the Mediterranean Island.
The future direction of events is likely to depend on the extent of turkish growing insecurity as well as international pressure. There are concerns that Turkey will make a fresh move in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to stay ahead of any development either in Libya, or sanctions from Washington. Nicosia fears that, in a bid to heighten tensions, Ankara might send a drillship to the island’s south, to Block 1 which has yet to be licensed, a move that would likely create practical problems for Cyprus’ energy program.
Officials in Athens are also trying to establish exactly when and where Ankara will choose to escalate tension in the region, by sending an exploration vessel to an area of Greek interests. Information that has emerged in recent weeks and the operations schedule of Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) suggests that Ankara has begun treating the area stretching from the coast of Cyprus to the south of Crete as a unified operational area for the Turkish Navy and TPAO. Athens officials are on the alert at the prospect that Turkey will send its Barbaros research vessel to an area designated in the Turkey-Libya accord after it leaves an area off the southern coast of Cyprus on December 21.
The concern is that Ankara could test Greece’s resolve by sending the vessel to a maritime block inside the Libyan EEZ as claimed in the recent pact. This would create a precedent within the zone, which Greece says for the most part lies within Crete’s continental shelf. Whether TPAO, with the aid of the Turkish Navy, tries to conduct energy exploration further North -particularly in the area from Kasos and Karpathos to Rhodes and Kastellorizo- it would be evidence of Ankara wanting to escalate tension in the direction of militarizing the crisis.
Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Italy will sign the EastMed pipeline deal on January 2, with Italy following. Greek government works hard to achieve this deadline, in order for the Greek Prime Minister to have the signed deal with him during his meeting with President Donald Trump, on January 7. Turkey’s President is reportedely infuriated with this development, judging from his recent uttelrly polarized declarations. One can only wonder whether he will try to preempt future actions and decissions of the Greece-Israel-Cyprus trilateral, as well as the United States, with a more daring and aggressive high risk move in the next weeks, which may evolve to an uncontrolable crisis.
The only thing that could stop mr. Erdogan is the real threat of force, or even war, from countries threatened by the Libyan MoU, such as Greece and Cyprus supported by France, Egypt, and Italy. Greece has experience from the precedence of the “Sismik” crisis, back in 1987, which brought her, again, to the brink of war with Turkey. Only then would Erdogan abandon the “edge of the abyss” approach in favour of a more pragmatic one. The end of December or early January is expected to be a critical period…