Over the last few months there is a fierce sabre rattling in Eastern Mediterranean’s powder keg.
Fighting for Energy Routes, increased naval presence is gaining speed in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is a growing risk of direct confrontation between the regional states. It is impressive how much actual sabre-rattling is going on among the stakeholders.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
“An incident at sea in which NATO warships end up actually shooting at each other seems an unimaginably bad outcome, but unfortunately isn’t out of the realm of possibility.” – Heiko Mass German Foreign Minister
Developments are accelerating in the maritime boundary dispute between Turkey, Greece and France. Belligerent statements and threats by senior government officials from the three countries, accompanied by multiple military deployments, aeronaval exercises and standoffs, are still far outpacing diplomatic efforts to head off an impending clash between the two -or maybe three- NATO members, endangering the Alliance’s Southern Flank or maybe a bigger flare-up out of proportions.
At the core of the recent crisis between Greece and Turkey lies a dangerous ideological model -not a mere dispute over energy resources. In the West, media outlets are mischaracterizing the true source of disruption in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Turkey recalled its seismic research vessel Oruc Reis to the port of Antalya, this crisis is far from over -and now extends beyond Athens and Ankara. To be sure, Turkey’s Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman ideology is the primary reason the Eastern Mediterranean now looks increasingly more like the South China Sea.
While some assert that the crisis may be slowly de-escalating, one key dynamic all but guarantees a continuation of the tensions. Left unchecked, Turkey’s Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman inspired ideology will enflame regional tensions well into the future. However, before western actors can effectively deal with this phenomenon they must first acknowledge its existence.
Energy sources of Eastern Mediterranean
In the Eastern Mediterranean basin, which has a size of about 1/3 of Saudi Arabia, according to reasonable estimates lie big energy sources. Geographically it is divided into three areas: The first division is the Levantine Basin and includes the EEZs of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the eastern part of the Cyprus EEZ.
In this basin, mainly in the Israeli EEZ, 460 boreholes were drilled and gas deposits containing 1.5 trillion c.m. were found of natural gas and 3 billion barrels of oil. In this area, the US Geological Survey (USGS Technical Report 2010) estimates that there are but 3.5 trillion c.m. of natural gas. Respectively, the Geological Survey of Israel estimates that there are another 8 trillion c.m. of natural gas and 26 billion barrels of crude oil.
The second area includes the Nile Cone, which lies exclusively within the Egyptian EEZ. About 1,900 drillings were made in this area and 1.8 trillion c.m. of natural gas were found without taking into account the “Zohr” deposit which geologically belongs to the third area. The US Geological Survey estimates that there are another 9 trillion c.m. of natural gas in this area.
The third area includes the Mediterranean Ridge. This ridge starts from the gulf of Kyparissia in Greece and ends at the ascent of Eratosthenes, i.e. south of Limassol in Cyprus. It essentially includes 3/4 of the Cypriot EEZ, a very small part of the Egyptian EEZ, where the “Zohr” deposit is located, the entire area south of the Dodecanese and the entire Libyan Sea (southern Crete and the Libyan Sea). The very probable gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean basin, always according to estimates, amount to a total of 48 trillion c.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic is only the tip of an iceberg of sociopolitical and economic challenges the Eastern Mediterranean is currently facing. What makes the Eastern Mediterranean so combustible today is the nexus of a number of complex and volatile issues, including: historic ambitions, conflicting assertions of sovereignty, competition over control of the newly discovered natural gas reserves, pipeline politics, civil wars and political chaos in the littoral states, US retrenchment, Russian naval base expansion in Syria, Turkey’s expansion in Libya, divisions among NATO allies, and waves of migration and refugees. The issues are exhaustive…
The Eastern Mediterranean is becoming ever more perilous as geopolitical fault lines steadily enmesh the region. Even though almost all exploration activities by oil companies are at a standstill due to Covid-19 and the crisis engulfing the industry, it is not stopping escalation of disputes in the region. The news continues to be led mainly by Turkey’s aggressions in the area, be it drilling in Cyprus EEZ, intervention in Libya or the threat of exploration and drilling in the seas between Cyprus and Greece.
The region has evolved into a multi-player security system, as non-western powers have been steadily increasing their presence and influence. Given that it remains a region of critical importance for Europe and the US, it is quite surprising that the very aggressive behavior of a member-state of NATO and a candidate for membership to the EU ,Turkey, against another member-state of both NATO and the EU, Greece, and a member-state of the EU, Cyprus, is being tolerated. The continuation of Turkish gunboat diplomacy will undoubtedly lead to the further destabilization of the region, at the expense of Western interests.
Over the last few weeks, there has been no shortage of analyses pointing to the mounting risks in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the end, most conclude that no party has an interest in going beyond bluster and the show of force for diplomatic leverage and domestic political advantage.
Why should the current tension over competing maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean be any different from past experience? There are good reasons to worry.
First, today’s tensions affect a far wider region with multiple flashpoints and actors. The Cyprus dispute, once a key source of risk in its own right, is now largely a political rather than a security question. Syria and Libya have become emblematic of the new regional geopolitics in which chaos is persistent, and conflict is open-ended. External actors have become bolder in the use of force, directly and via proxies. The roster of potential direct confrontations is long: Turkey with Russia in Syria or Libya; Turkey versus Egypt or the United Arab Emirates; and not least, Turkey with Greece, Cyprus, Israel -or France.
The old constraints and conservatism regarding the use of force by Ankara have waned, fueled by operational successes in Syria and Libya. This has been accompanied by a more explicit doctrine of maritime presence. The underlying claims regarding disputed sea and air space have not changed substantially. But the existence of valuable offshore energy resources and the growing capacity for power projection has changed the equation. In the tense years prior to the late 1990s, the Aegean was the center of gravity in Greek-Turkish friction. Today, the Aegean is back at the center, but the sphere of competition and potential conflict is far wider.
Energy and Geopolitics collide head-on in Eastern Mediterranean
The battle for a global showdown over the entire Mediterranean basin is ongoing. For example, Libya, which is as much Africa’s door as it is the Mediterranean’s, the U.S. military presence in Alexandroupoli vis-a-vis other Chinese harbors in Greece, China and the U.S. in Haifa -being infuriated to the extent to pull Israel’s ear- another harbor in Beirut being wiped off the map, the East Mediterranean which is the region’s heart, and the energy conflicts, which the subject of how profitable it is remains questionable, and many more. (see: REPORT #3: “Energy Wars”).
There is a lot of gas, but activity in the eastern Mediterranean for now is quite modest, compared to the world’s busiest offshore fields, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, the Persian Gulf and offshore Brazil where hundreds of drilling rigs are busy sucking up oil and gas from thousands of wells. In the eastern Mediterranean, only about 50 wells have been dug so far in its ultradeep waters. The drilling is done mostly by semi-submersible rigs with gas now flowing by pipelines to Egypt and Israel.
A collective interest in leveraging Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves increased cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, as well as key energy companies from the U.S., Israel, Italy and France. This grouping has grown to encompass Italy itself, Jordan, and Palestine, culminating in the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Noticeably absent is Turkey -despite its overlapping maritime claims, vast domestic market, and potential as a transit route for regional gas exports. This coalition has received the backing of the United States, whose relationship with Turkey is also strained due to divergences on a growing number of issues.
Recent developments in Libya, together with the ongoing territorial disputes between several Eastern Mediterranean countries, especially the Turkey-Greece-Cyprus disputes over their respective EEZs, hinder exploration and development in the region, particularly in the offshore Levant Basin. If geopolitics is an argument about the future world order, then the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is shaping up to be a cauldron of quarreling visions and interests like no other. The geopolitical interests of the Eastern Mediterranean countries are bound to affect geoeconomic decisions concerning flows and exchanges in traded gas.
The International Energy Agency expects gas markets to be hurt long-term by the pandemic, which has left governments and business poorer. If the development of eastern Mediterranean gas fields began today, it would reach the market in around 10 years from now -which is precisely when the European Union’s climate plan calls for gas use to be cut 20%.
Gas developed by Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt or other regional players may only ever be of value to themselves, rather than to the sizable Asian or European markets. The $8 billion EastMed pipeline, to which Cyprus, Israel, and Greece committed in January, is now probably just a pipe dream. If it happens, it will be because there’s been a geopolitical decision to somehow link Cyprus and Israel to Europe with something physical.
The list of troubled projects goes on; Egypt is struggling to find buyers and has cut production at its Zohr field. Exxonmobil, Italy’s Eni and French Total have suspended drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
On the other hand, on July 20 the American oil giant Chevron Corporation announced its acquisition of Noble Energy, also an American company, which is a partner in the consortium that owns the Leviathan natural gas field, the site of 2/3 of Israel’s natural gas reserves. Great importance likewise lies in the timing of the announcement, which was issued against the background of the growing global doubt in the stability of the energy sector, and in the Israeli context, the declining trust of investors in the economic stability of some of Israel’s energy companies.
The irony is that, given today’s low prices, major oil companies are delaying further drilling. The transition to cleaner energy is continuing apace. Energy companies are becoming ever more selective in their investments. The longer that the eastern Mediterranean’s leaders bicker, the greater the chance that gas riches beneath the seabed will remain there.
Regional co-operation through Trilaterals
In the Eastern Mediterranean, a possible confrontation is under way between countries in the region, for access to gas fields. Conflicting legal claims to the fields are merging with old and new conflicts, and have led to the creation of a new geopolitical front that should cause stakeholders substantial concern.
Given the significant breadth of Turkish claims and its extremely maximalist positions on issues directly related to Greece and Cyprus, they deemed necessary to formulate a comprehensive policy and to utilize the entire foreign policy toolkit: alliances, bilateral diplomatic contacts and the opening of parallel communication channels, exploring prospects for bilateral and/or trilateral economic and other cooperation, while maintaining a strong capacity of deterrence.
Israeli, Cypriot and Greek energy ministers created joint task forces to evaluate the feasibility of several options. For exportation, they are considering the EastMed Gas Pipeline to carry gas from the region to European markets and a Cypriot LNG plant near Vassilikos on the southern coast of the island. However, other projects are simultaneously being evaluated by each government according to its own energy-security agenda and national interests.
The first Trilateral Summit between Greece, Israel and Cyprus took place on January 2016 and should be remembered for the leaders’ decision to create a committee for the planning of the EastMed pipeline, for the transportation of natural gas from Israel to Europe. In June 2017, Italy became part of this process and a working group for the supervision of the project was established. The agreement over the relevant text was achieved at the Beersheba Summit of 2018.
From then on, the two next summits (12/2018 and 03/2019) were actively supported by the United States, in accordance to the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019”, which allow the U.S. to fully support a 3+1 partnership shceme, through energy and defense cooperation initiatives.
THE EASTMED PIPELINE
On January 2, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cyprus’ President Nikos Anastasiades signed the agreement for the EastMed pipeline that will transport gas from the Southeastern Mediterranean to Italy and the rest of Europe. Italy is also expected to sign the agreement at a later stage. EastMed pipeline is a huge project. If it is deemed technically feasible and economically viable, it will go ahead. There is also the prospect that East Med gas will be transferred via LNG ships. Depending on the quantities involved, the two transportation paths might prove supplementary. In any case, the message conveyed by this agreement is a loud one and its geopolitical symbolism is clear.
In addition, it will run smack up against a competing Turkish-Russian gas pipeline, TurkStream and against a potential Qatari-Iran-Syria pipeline.
Each country has its own reasons for becoming part of this project, as there are converging views on energy affairs and, among the participating states, common perceptions of threat. Additionally, the creation of the EastMed pipeline is crucial for Europe’s energy security, as it adds to the reduction of dependence on Russian, Arab-Muslim and Iranian hydrocarbons, something that is seen positively by the US and the Western world as a whole (see: REPORT #6 EASTMED: A pipeline of Peace or War? ).
From the geopolitical angle, for Israel, Greece and Cyprus, as well as the U.S. the EastMed 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. The geopolitical/security perspective is crucial. Article 10 of the agreement contains provisions on measures to protect the pipeline. The relevant provisions are considered very important, as such clauses are not included in similar agreements (see: The Day After EastMed Agreement… ).
The second major regional Trilateral is between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Unlike previous trilateral summits, which focused on all the issues of cooperation between the three countries, the 7th Trilateral Summit on October 2019 in Cairo, aimed at forming a strong energy-based alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean. The joint declaration stated that the three countries underlined the importance of making additional efforts to boost security and stability in the region, and strongly called on Turkey to “end its provocative actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean condemning them as “unlawful and unacceptable”.
All the more, Cyprus and the “Aphrodite” consortium signed an exploitation license and a revised production sharing contract, aiming to start natural gas production in 2025. The 25-year exploitation licence is the first of its kind signed with Cypriot EEZ licensees and it’s based on the final development and production plan of the “Aphrodite” field. Shell will be the buyer of Aphrodite’s natural gas. It will be transferred via a subsea pipeline to Egypt’s Idku LNG plant from where it will be liquified and exported to European and international markets.
As a recent development, Greece continued its diplomatic campaign, after the recent deliniation aggreement with Italy and in a surprise move, the Greek Foreign Minister secretly jetted off to Egypt, to sign a maritime treaty between the two countries that partialy delimited an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in an area containing offshore oil and gas reserves, finalizing the strategic alliance with Cairo, upgrading their 8-year long relations.
This development had a really bomb-like effect in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey infuriating, to say the least, President Erdogan and the architects of Turkey’s so-called “Blue Homeland” naval expansion doctrine.
In the wake of this Agreement the Turkish President described it as nonexistent, denounced it as invalid and announced drilling operations in areas overlaping Greece’s continental self, albeit out of the delimited EEZ with Egypt, and also called off exploratory talks with Greece whose commencement on August 28 had been expected.
Joint Aeronautical Exercises
To enhance their co-operation and send the message that they “mean business” Egypt, Greece and Cyprus have been intensively involved in joint exercises, during the last 6 years, in order to enhance the security character of their cooperation. Within the framework of this practice, the large-scale, “MEDOUSA” exercises, for air and naval forces of Greece and Egypt, take place in the wider region of Alexandria, Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean. For the first time on Egypt’s part the Mistral helicopter carrier participated in Greek waters, and actually Greek Chinook CH-47D and Apache AH-1A attack helicopters both landed and operated from it.
The exercise scenarios are gradually being expanded and the participating forces are also increasing both in size and in the variety of the hardware involved.
The breakdown of the participating forces indicate the scale of the exercises. Greece usually participates with 2 frigates and their on-board helicopters, 1 submarine, 8 F-16s, 1 C-130, 1 AWACS aircraft, 1 CHINOOK helicopter, 2 AH-64 attack helicopters and Special Forces personnel. Egyptian forces participate with a MISTRAL class helicopter carrier, 2 frigates, 1 submarine, 2 missile boats, 6 F-16s, 2 RAFALEs, 1 E2-C AWACS aircraft, 1 helicopter and Special Forces personnel. Cyprus participates with an offshore patrol vessel, and Special Forces personnel.
In parallel, the combined military exercises and co-training of Greek and Israeli armed forces have increased over the past five years and include the whole range of exercises (army aviation, Special Forces, air and naval forces). Israeli aircraft also participated in the INIOCHOS multinational exercise at the Air Tactics Centre at Andravida airbase. Dozens of Israeli aircrafts were deployed in long-distance missions, with constant air refuelling, from Israel to the greater airspace of Crete. Israeli F-16I, F-15I and F-35I “Adir” aircrafts flew en masse inside the Greek FIR, south of Crete.
The co-operation has worked mostly for the Israeli Air Force as Greece operates the Russian-made S-300 defense system. Since Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are also equipped with a similar Russian system, training against these missiles has helped IAF to get aquainted with the system and eventually combat Iranian positions in Syria by neutralizing the S-300 system.
Last but not least, Cypriot and Israeli forces have been participating in corresponding large scale bilateral exercises (“Onisilos – Gideon”, “Nikokles – David”, “Jason”) since 2014. The program of tripartite military cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel for 2021, that was signed on September 9, will further enhance the military cooperation between the Armed Forces of the three countries, by joint exercises and operational activities.
It is more than evident that all the above exercises, go beyond the usual level of combined exercises to exchange experiences and strengthen bilateral relations. Their scenarios are extremely complex with a very large number of participating forces and hardware, indicating that all four countries are intensely promoting their military cooperation to a great extent and very frequently, to prepare for combined military action if necessary, but also to send convincing messages to Turkey that threatens to prevent this kind of co-operation.
NATO’s Southern Flank in danger of dissolvement…
A possible confrontation between the three NATO members France, Greece and Turkey continues to trouble the Alliance’s Southern Flank. The triggering momentum for the current rise in tensions was when Turkey dispatched a naval-escorted surveyor ship to contested waters near the Greek island of Kastellorizo, as well as two drilling ships in Cyprus’ EEZ. Greece then put its armed forces on high alert and French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to boost France’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean to counter Turkish aggressiveness.
Turkey’s intentions are a real threat for the integridy of NATO’s Southern Flank, remininscing the old 1974 day’s of its ATTILA invasion in Cyprus and the dissarray it caused back then to the Alliance. A confrontation between the two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, continues to trouble the Alliance’s Southern Flank after 46 years (see: REPORT #5 NATO in Eastern Mediterranean: The Haze of Energy War…).
The main destabilizing factor for NATO’s Southern Flank is Turkey’s independent policy in the Middle East and North Africa. The so-called ultra-nationalist “Blue Homeland” military strategy is clear in its goals. President Erdogan’s military doctrine targets the domination of the Aegean, most of the Mediterranean, and of the Black Sea.
Increasingly assertive, ambitious and authoritarian, Turkey has become the “elephant in the room” for NATO. A more aggressive, nationalist and religious Turkey is increasingly at odds with its Western allies over Libya, Syria, Iraq, Russia and the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean. However, Alliance’s officials also suggest that Turkey is “too big, powerful and strategically important…to allow an open confrontation.” (see: “Will Turkey dare to dissolve NATO’s Southern Flank?”).
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly declared support for Turkish activities in Eastern Mediterranean, as allegedly stopping Russian expansion in this region. Unfortunately, this approach only deepens the division of the Alliance and causes countries such as France or Greece to try to get along with Russia as the only entity that can influence Turkey. For the Kremlin, however, this is an ideal situation, a dissonance in NATO is in itself desirable, especially since it cannot be ruled out that it will end in conflict. However, entering the role of a mediator gives it full opportunity to safeguard it’s own interests.
Nevertheless, despite numerous disagreements, one part of the US establishment likes to persist that Turkey remains one of its main allies in the Middle East. Over the past year, the American unwillingness to lose this partnership relation is evidenced by numerous occasions, either in the withdrawal of the US military from northern Syria in October, or in the relactunce of President Trump’s to impose sanctions over Turkey’s aquisition of the Russian made S-400s.
On June 10, a French frigate on a NATO mission tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya. France says the frigate was harassed by Turkish navy vessels escorting the cargo ship, and accuses Turkey of breaking a U.N. arms embargo. Turkey denies this, and says the frigate was aggressive (see: France, Turkey, NATO & Libya…)
A NATO investigation into the naval standoff between the French and Turkish ships has been rated too sensitive to discuss in public and does not apportion blame, as Paris and Ankara wage a war of words. The issue underlines NATO’s difficulties with Turkey, also at odds with Greece over energy rights and with the alliance’s leader, the United States.
It now seems unlikely that the investigation can resolve the spat. A NATO official confirmed the report had been finished, but declined further comment. “It’s been swept under the carpet,” he said.
While the US affords to accept Turkey’s policy, its NATO ally, France, is increasingly critical. Thus, on June 17, the French Defense Ministry urged NATO to address its “Turkey problem” amid rising tensions over Libya and other issues. The current crisis within NATO and the EU, sparked by Turkish actions is a major concern. A military conflict within the alliance will not only weaken its position with regards to Russia’s power projections, but also puts security in the region at risk.
Turkish President Erdogan’s “disturbing” foreign policy has spurred U.S. officials to intensify preparations to withdraw from Incirlik Air Force base. President Erdogan has threatened American access to the base, which reportedly houses dozens of U.S. nuclear weapons, multiple times since he squashed a failed coup attempt in 2016. Although officialy denied, Washington is not necessarily thinking of one alternative to Incirlik, but a number of rebasing options which are complementary as a contingency plan to Incirlik. A withdrawal would signal a major shift in the balance of trust between the United States and the country that boasts the second-largest military in NATO.
Nevertheless, membership in NATO gives Turkey the opportunity to manipulate the positions of other member countries, since all decisions of the organization are made by consensus. A U.S.-NATO intervention or a concentrated EU move in the case of Turkish action seems unrealistic, and President Erdogan seems to know this based on his recent actions. As long as Europe and NATO keep a low profile without countering Turkish moves, Greece and Cyprus will be the next targets for a Turkish military move with immeasurable results for the region and the Alliance’s Southern Flank.
Should there be a military confrontation between Greece and Turkey, NATO’s Secretary-General may find himself in the awkward position of delivering to his successor the Alliance minus its southeastern flank. Neither can the EU any longer afford to allow various third parties to shape its southern neighborhood without Europe’s active involvement.
The Eastern Mediterranean has become a nexus of flashpoints that draw the European Union and Turkey deeper into an adversarial relationship. Once confined to territorial sovereignty disputes among Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey, the region’s offshore natural gas resources have transformed the Eastern Mediterranean into a strategic region, in which larger geopolitical fault lines involving the EU and the Middle East and North Africa converge.
Turkish quasi-victories in Syria and Libya have been made possible by Washington and Europe’s unwillingness to stand up to President Erdogan, which only feeds his sense of invincibility. Many European countries go along with Turkey’s whims or are willing to tolerate its provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean either because they are worried about the migrant influx, which Erdogan appears to be in control of, or because they have strong economic interests at stake, including arms sales to Turkey: Germany builds submarines for the Turkish Navy, while Turkey’s first aircraft carrier is being built with Spain.
The main reason for what has surely developed into a new European fear is clear: Behind closed doors, major EU representatives agree that Erdogan regime is lesser of two evils. Erdogan’s fall will wreak havoc in Turkey, they maintain, incomparable to what happened to the former Yugoslavia, causing millions of Turks to flee west on to EU soil. So, the Erdogan regime is considered “fine”, as it offers stability, even though the entire country is “an open-air prison.” Thus, “let us remain paralysed” they say, while they continue to appease mr. Erdogan, pretending everything is just fine.
As a result, Turkey feels free to roam the Eastern Mediterranean, signing illegal agreements and sending troops to Libya, threatening to carry out energy exploration within Greece’s EEZ and preventing foreign firms from drilling in Cyprus’ EEZ, which by the way they are european EEZs too, while Brussels remains complacent and is only just starting to mumble about possible sanctions.
Nevertheless, some south european states are understandably concerned about Turkey’s unfolding interests across a large part of the region and its effort to establish footholds along the North African coast. Turkey’s expansionism presages a series of developments that could trigger unrest and changes in Europe.
No one can ignore the looming threat of a fresh migration wave across the Aegean and the purported astonishment of Turkish officials over Greece’s failure to offer a heartfelt welcome to the devastated hordes, that are being forced by Ankara in the direction of the Greek islands. Many are beginning to realize that should Turkey achieve its objectives in Libya, the migration issue will acquire a new dimension, potentially affecting not only European Union countries on its southern coasts this time around, but mainland Europe as well.
Obviously, Germany is keen to preserve the relationship between the EU and Turkey. While the Turkey-GNA accord touched off a new round of diplomatic fireworks between Paris and Ankara, as well as renewed EU declarations of unequivocal support for Greece and Cyprus, Germany fostered a more conciliatory tone towards Turkey at the January 2020 Berlin International Conference on Libya.
Germany attempted to follow through on the Berlin conference by positioning the European Union to set up the mission EUNAVFOR “IRINI”, to monitor the UN arms embargo on Libya. The EU strives to speak the language of power but keeps failing in Libya, where two members, namely Italy and France, are pursuing very different goals. Rome is anxious about migration while Paris cares more about the terrorist threat. But both have an interest in energy sources.
Following Brexit, France is the EU’s greatest military power. President Emmanuel Macron understands the need to meet the Turkish challenge head-on, whereas EU and NATO appear indifferent to the fact that their boundless tolerance of Turkey’s behavior is threatening the Alliance’s cohesion. The French President’s reaction is expressed in a straightforward manner, contrary to Italy’s prevarication and Germany’s apparent reluctance to take a more firm stance.
The EU needs to make a clear decision about re-setting its relationship with Turkey in a balanced manner, linking benefits with obligations and a code of conduct. Such a relationship cannot be exclusively transactional; values, as well as attitudes, remain important. A combination of mr. Macron’s muscle and mrs. Merkel’s mediation could yet prove effective in convincing Turkey that, though its rule-breaking cannot be accepted, its concerns will be listened to. The priority is to create some breathing space for Greece and Turkey to talk.
LIBYA’s ΗΟΤ ΖΟΝΕ: An Energy War at large…
Libya’s proxy war and Turkey’s active involvement shows how the Eastern Mediterranean has turned in a few years from a backwater, on the fringes of Middle East turmoil, to a major hot zone. What makes the new tension in the region so confusing is how old rules and alliances have been blurred. Turkey’s alleged violation of the arms embargo came weeks after its vessels had joined allied navies for a NATO exercise off the Algerian coast. As Libya burns, tensions are also rising over new gas fields in the region.
The U.S. Defence Department reported recently that Turkey has sent between 3,500 and 3,800 mercenaries to fight in Libya over the first three months of the year. The figures are stated in a quarterly report on counterterrorism operations in Africa by the Pentagon’s internal watchdog.
The Pentagon said Turkey has paid and offered citizenship to thousands of mercenaries fighting alongside the Tripoli-based, United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of eastern-based rebel General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which is backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. The U.S. military found no evidence to suggest the mercenaries were affiliated with Islamic State or al-Qaida, despite widespread reports of their links to radical Islamist and jihadist groups, according to the report. The report said the fighters were most likely motivated by financial packages, rather than ideology or politics.
The report only covers until the end of March, two months before the Turkish-backed GNA won a series of significant battlefield victories against Haftar’s forces; forcing them to retreat from Tripoli’s suburbs and from key strongholds at Tarhuna and al-Watiya air base.
The Pentagon said Turkish deployments likely increased ahead of the Tripoli forces’ victories in late May. It cited the U.S. Africa Command as saying that 300 Turkish-supported Syrian rebels landed in Libya in early April. Turkey also deployed an unknown number of Turkish soldiers during the first months of the year, it added.
Libya reveals how Turkey blackmailed the country into energy and mercenary deals
Revelations by Libyan officials to the Associated Press have lifted the lid on more than six months of questions about how Turkey was able to push Tripoli to accept thousands of extremist Syrian mercenaries in exchange for Ankara getting energy rights -leaving Libya with little gains except being saddled with extremists.
Last November, Libya’s embattled Government of the National Accord was under siege in Tripoli by Khalifa Haftar. General Haftar, with a rival government based in Benghazi, appeared to be on the verge of ousting GNA. Suddenly Ankara, which along with Qatar had backed the GNA with limited weapons and financing, swept in to offer a deal: Turkey would get energy rights off the coast which would let it threaten Greece and potentially harm Israel’s interests in an East Mediterranean pipeline, and Ankara would aid Tripoli with Turkish officers and technicians, drones and Syrian rebels.
Turkey could count on support or silence from the European Union, NATO and the United Nations because it was threatening to force hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe in the winter of 2019. The message was clear to the European Union: Either let Turkey seize a swath of the Mediterranean and take over part of Libya and send Syrians there, or the Syrians -some of whom were extremists- will be Europe’s problem. With Germany and other European countries paying Ankara billions to keep Syrians in Turkey, there wasn’t much choice.
Now the Libyan side of the story can be told in more details: We know that since Turkey has escalated the conflict in Libya, which previously was a ramshackle civil war with limited backing from a plethora of foreign powers, the Russians have sent warplanes, and Egypt has threatened to intervene.
In short, Turkey’s involvement has made Libya a much larger conflict with stakes that now link to all of Europe and the Middle East. It has become a testing ground for Turkish drones, Russian air defense and Chinese armed drones, and has brought Egypt, the UAE, Greece and France closer together to complain about Turkey’s role.
The AP reports assert that Turkey sent up to 3,800 mercenaries and some troops to support Libya’s GNA, which is run by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. “They took advantage of our weakness at the time,” the Libyan officials now say. Turkey’s media called the Libyan war a “revolution” like the Arab Spring, fighting against “warlords.”
However, it now turns out that Ankara was pressuring Sarraj for a year for the energy and maritime deal. Turkey was the only country really ready to give support. It now appears that Turkey will milk Libya economically. The AP report says Ankara has given Tripoli a bill of $1.7 billion for money owed to Turkish companies. A role in oil and offshore energy and then military bases will likely come next. Tripoli appears to be concerned that it is becoming another colony of Ankara, similar to the instability Turkey unleashed in northern Syria, where local voices become subservient to its whims, but have little control over their own destiny.
Turkey appears to be determined to increase its military presence in Libya, deploying Syrian militants and jihadists of different nationalities. Recent reports revealed that Ankara is planning to establish permanent bases for its forces in the Arab country. According to the monitoring group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a new batch of Syrian militants and jihadist arrived in Libya in the past months.
The SOHR estimates that Turkey has deployed more than 17,000 Syrian militants, including 350 children, in Libya so far. At least 6,000 of them returned to Syria in the recent few months after receiving their full payment. Besides deploying its Syrian proxies, Turkey also transported around 10,000 Jihadists of different nationalities to fight for the GNA in Libya. At least 2,500 of them are Tunisian.
The Sudanese Intelligence released an official report pertaining to links between the Brotherhood and Libya’s GNA, the Bashir government, and other African countries. The report shows that after the fall of Bashir, the GNA reached out to radical Islamists and conscripted them to fight in Libya.
Turkey and other actors backing the GNA are directly facilitating this expanding foreign network of globalized Islamist combatants as they take over local conflicts. The ultimate objective is a return to the “Ottoman Empire” according to Turkey’s “defense line” parameters, or to an Islamic Caliphate according to the terms of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, including al-Qaeda and a newly resurgent ISIS.
The aforementioned U.S. Defence Department report comes as the Libyan conflict has escalated into a proxy war with foreign powers pouring weapons and mercenaries into the country, stressing that Russia has also sent hundreds of mercenaries to back Haftar’s siege of Tripoli. The Wagner Group, a private Kremlin-linked military company, sent snipers and armed drones to Libya last autumn. This year, in response to Turkey’s shipments of battle-hardened Syrians, Wagner increased its deployment of foreign fighters, also including Syrians, with estimates ranging from 800 to 2,500 mercenaries.
Russia denies any direct engagement in Libya, but there are at least 14 MiG-29 fighters in the al-Jufra base, as well as some Sukhoi-24 bombers, and also Pantsir anti-aircraft systems. Allegedly, in the bases still linked to General Haftar, there are also Serbian and Ukrainian mercenaries, connected to the Wagner networks of Russian contractors. They are mainly in the base of Gardabyah, but although denying any direct military interest in Libya, Russia has reportedly deployed its 900 “militants” in Libya in the bases linked to Haftar, as done also by Turkey.
It’s all about oil and gas
When Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was reintegrated in the “community of the good ones” in early 2004, after a curious British legal twisting on the Lockerbie attack of December 1988, a bonanza for oil and gas concessions started. The Italian energy company ENI and BP were among the first to have a big foot in the door. Studying some of those contracts the eloquent question was why companies were ready to accept such terms. The answer was maybe in the then rise in the price of oil and the proximity of Libya to the European market.
In August 2011, as Libya’s rebels and NATO jets began an assault on Tripoli, Gaddafi delivered a speech calling on his supporters to defend the country from foreign invaders: “There is a conspiracy to control Libyan oil and to control Libyan land, to colonize Libya once again.” he said in a message broadcast by a pro-regime television station. Two months later, the dictator was dragged bleeding and confused from a storm drain in his hometown of Sirte, before being killed. Nine years on, after the outbreak of a second civil war, Gaddafi’s proclamation is not far from the truth. As the battle moves to Sirte, gateway to the country’s oil crescent, a potential showdown over control of Libya’s oil wealth is looming.
Interestingly, in September 2011, the very day of the opening ceremony of the Paris conference dubbed “Friends of Libya,” a secret oil deal for the French company Total was published by the French daily “Liberation”. The “good opposition” had promised the French an interesting range of oil concessions. Oil production continuously fell with the rise of the war, attracting sponsors, militias and smugglers from all horizons. The situation in Libya has since been called “somalization”, but it would become even worse, since many more regional powers got involved in Libya than ever was the case in hunger-ridden Somalia.
Over the last nine months, the Libyan National Army (LNA) has held a stranglehold on oil exports. Haftar’s economic strategy has been successful thus far. He seeks to deprive the UN-recognized government of critical funds and make eastern Libya the financial capital. The LNA, however, has struggled militarily as of late, suffering defeat after defeat since June. Now the LNA is looking to negotiate using the oil fields for leverage, effectively keeping the economy hostage. Libyan oil exports have been reduced to around a tenth of their original production.
Washington said that it would sanction Haftar’s foreign backers if they obstruct the return of oil flow. Immediately after, Wagner mercenaries moved into southern oilfields and the coastal al-Sidr terminal. In a dashing move seized the Es Sider oil field and port, and reports indicate it has set up camp to monitor its new asset. While this move benefits mr. Haftar and the LNA, Russia is protecting itself. Securing the oil fields ensures that Russia can push for access no matter who wins the civil war. It should be noted that Es Sider influences the oil production for the US-based Hess Corporation and ConocoPhillips along with one of the largest energy producers in Spain, Repsol. The Es Sider oil field was also one of the main economic pipelines for the Government of National Accord.
Libya’s oil blockade lasts for 9 months now and the war-torn country’s oil output is hovering at just 100,000 b/d instead of the pre-crisis 1.2 million b/d. Without a peaceful solution on the horizon, its expected restart is delayed to fourth-quarter 2020, according to a recent Rystad Energy forecast.
In the most optimistic of scenarios, Libya’s 2020 exit production rate will be 700,000-800,000 b/d. But this estimate itself carries a downside risk: once oil production comes back online, it would take Libya another 3-4 months to ramp up production to the 1 million b/d mark.
The damage is not just limited to the short term. The prolonged blockade has negatively impacted both infrastructure and oil wells, so the eventual production ramp up will demand capex spending to rehabilitate wells and pipelines. For this purpose, Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) estimates that between $500 million and $1 billion is needed just to reach the pre-blockade levels of 1.2 million b/d. (see: Why Libya’s Civil War lingers… in “OP “IRINI”: The Force that watched arms go by incompetent or unwilling to take action… “)
On August 21 the UN-backed government of Libya announced a ceasefire and the east-based rival administration also called for a truce in a move that could pave the way to reopening of Libya’s oil terminals, if the ceasefire holds. However, the first hopes were drowned after the opposition Libyan National Army dismissed the ceasefire proposal as a “deception”, saying that GNA-allied militias were preparing an assault on the strategic coastal city of Sirte. The proposal “represents nothing but throwing dust in eyes and deceiving the local and international public”, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mosmari said.
Nevertheless, General Haftar recently announced lifting the blockade on oil production and its export, hours after the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC), in a statement, objected to “the politicization of the oil sector and its use as a bargaining chip for political gains.” In his speech, however, the general did not refer to the cease-fire initiative that has been underway in the country for about a month.
Libya transformed into air warfare laboratory
Libya has been transformed into a battle lab for air warfare, with involved countries testing their military capabilities against one another. The skies over the North African country have filled with Turkish and Chinese drones, Russian MiG 29s and Sukhoi 24s and Emirati Mirage 2000s reportedly, with Turkish F-16s and Egyptian Rafalles on standby.
Around May 2019 -just one month after Haftar launched an assault to capture Tripoli- Turkey introduced the Bayraktar TB2 drone to support the GNA, attacking Haftar’s forces, knocking out Russian Pantsir air defence systems supporting him and ultimately helping end the operation. Turkey has majored in UAV design and manufacture and likely used Libya in part as a test and adjust battle lab, and its systems are now “combat proven”. Its industry has also developed small, precision-guided munitions for UAVs.
Turkey’s use of the TB2 in Libya had been a gamechanger. Turkey decided it was okay to lose them from time to time, that they were semi-disposable and that novel approach caught their enemy off guard. They used to cost the Turks $1-1.5 million apiece to build, but thanks to economies of scale as production volumes rose, the cost has dropped to below $500,000, excluding the control station.
Compared with the Chinese-made Wing Loon II drone, which the UAE used to bomb Tripoli, TB2’s software and other technical changes has boosted its efficiency and reconnaissance capabilities that allowed them to find the right altitude to avoid the Russian Pantsir systems.
According to various reports, UAE Mirage 2000-9 aircrafts flying out of an Egyptian base had been supporting Haftar periodically since June 2019. Misrata airbase, which has hosted Turkish TB2 drones, was bombed multiple times last year by Emirati drones and jets until the Turks brought in Korkut and MIM-23 Hawk air defense systems. On July 5, fighter jets attacked al-Watiya air base, shortly after GNA-allied forces recaptured it and Turkey had brought in its MIM-23 Hawk air defense missiles there.
Evidence showed the jets took off from Egypt then flew over the Sahara Desert to avoid detection by Turkish frigates off the Libyan coast. Could it have been Egyptian Rafales? They are good but don’t have enough experience for an ultra-precise mission like this. French pilots flying Egyptian Rafales is unlikely in case one was captured, leaving the UAE Mirages as most likely. International defence analysts say that of all the Gulf states, the UAE is the most capable of this kind of mission. They have the combat experience and could do this (see: “Al-Watiyah’s hit exposed Turkey’s limitations…”).
On the other hand, Turkey may be considering basing its F-16s at the now-repaired al-Watiya air base, however deploying U.S.-built fighter jets may rely on the United States permission. Is the U.S. so concerned about Russia’s intervention in Libya it would support the deployment of Turkish F-16s to stop it? Or will it come down on the side of Egypt, which is a U.S. ally too?
Towards a ceasefire solution…
On August 21 the UN-backed government of Libya announced a ceasefire and the east-based rival administration also called for a truce in a move that could pave the way to reopening of Libya’s oil terminals. However, the first hopes were drowned after the opposition Libyan National Army dismissed the ceasefire proposal as a “deception”, saying that GNA-allied militias were preparing an assault on the strategic coastal city of Sirte.
Neverteheless, it seems that Turkey and Russia have moved closer to an agreement on a ceasefire and political process in Libya during their latest meetings in Ankara. In this respect, there was an inter-Libyan dialogue held in the coastal Moroccan city of Bouznika from September 6-10, which brought the rival parties together in the Libyan crisis.
At the same time during the last month, the interim government of Libya, supported by the army of General Khalifa Haftar, submitted its resignation to Parliament. Almost immediately afterwards, the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj announced too that he intends to step down by the end of October.
The resignation of the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, took most of the stakeholdes by surprise, even though several leaks in the press about a week ago should have prepared them for it. While some view Sarraj’s resignation as a procedural step to pave the way for the next government of national unity, others see it as reflecting the failure of his attempts to prevent his being excluded from the scene, especially when Interior Minister and rival Fathi Bashagha was reinstated in his post.
Most political interpretations of this particular development were almost all unanimous that mr. Sarraj was subjected to strong pressures, related to international arrangements being prepared in several Western capitals, especially in Washington, for a quick settlement in Libya through reshaping the political scene before the coming U.S. elections. Many believe that Sarraj’s resignation was brought about by strong U.S. pressure with the purpose of appeasing international parties disturbed by the agreements he signed with Turkey, especially the maritime border demarcation agreement that angered the Europeans in general and France and Greece in particular.
Sirte, one of Libya’s key oil ports, has been the focus of the ongoing talks between the country’s warring parties for the last few months. Sources familiar with the ongoing talks have said that there is an initial understanding to demilitarize Sirte in order to turn it into a headquarters for a new “national authority” that will succeed the UN-recognized GNA. The sources also claimed that Russia and Turkey had reached a secret agreement to withdraw all foreign fighters supporting the LNA and the GNA from Libya. Moscow and Ankara are allegedly eager to help form a joint LNA-GNA force with tribal fighters from Libya’s three provinces, Cyrenaica, Tripoli and Fezzan.
Delegations from the LNA-backed House of Representatives, HoR, and the GNA are set to start a new round of direct talks in Morocco. The last round saw some progress, according to several sources. Today Libya appears to be closer than ever to a political settlement between the LNA and the GNA. Pressure from Russia, Turkey as well as the U.S. is forcing both sides to compromise.
Interests at Stake…
Eastern Mediterranean gas remains incredibly important for states in the region as they seek to enhance their energy security and drive economic development. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Levant Basin – the waters of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine – contains 122.4 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas. To date, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, and Palestine have discovered gas -which has stimulated cooperation between Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. Turkey, however, disputes the right of the Republic of Cyprus to conduct gas exploration without the involvement of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Nine states (Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, Italy, France and USA), five of them the oldest NATO members, have major to very high stakes in the “Big Game” of Eastern 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.
Gas production would be a veritable boon to cash-poor Cyprus and Lebanon. Egypt and Israel are cooperating in trading and re-exporting gas. Turkey has practised brinkmanship to defend what it believes to be its rights to conduct gas exploration around most of the island of Cyprus, but would similarly benefit from discoveries of its own. Italy’s Eni has the largest stakes in the region, with massive holdings in Egypt and exploration blocks off the Republic of Cyprus and Lebanon. Other Western companies – including BP (United Kingdom), Total (France), Kogas (Korea), ExxonMobil (United States) – have joined Eni in Cyprus, while BP (UK) owns the lone field in Palestine. BP has considerable holdings in Egypt, while Noble Energy (United States )-under Chevron’s group now- and Israeli companies own Israeli fields. Lastly, Russia’s Rosneft and Novatek have stakes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Lebanon respectively (see: REPORT #4 ‘S.E. Europe – S.E. Mediterannean. Multiple Energy Challenges and Complex Geopolitics”).
TURKEY: Like a lorry in downslide without brakes…
“Political Vision 2023,” portrays Turkey as a rising global player, a powerful mediator for peace and stability in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. The Vision’s 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 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 is trying to assert itself across the swath of Iraq, Syria and all the way to Libya, with its eyes set on having power not seen since the Ottoman Empire more than 100 years ago.
Shortly before passing laws that allow Turkey to send troops and proxies to Libya, and before sending the first group of troops to back the Tripoli government, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency published a document, written by foreign policy analyst Mehmet A. Kanc, that amounts to the announcement of an official new geopolitical strategy cum. justification for its interference in the eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Ankara’s plans for the region, as defined in the Andolu document run as follows:
Turkey’s new defense territory covers on the one end the west and south of the Greek island of Crete and the headquarters of the Turkey-Qatar Combined Joint Force Command overlooking the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Somali Turkish Task Force Command in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, on the Indian Ocean coast on the other. Turkey now wants to strengthen its defense line with a new link in Libya.
For anyone looking to interpret Turkey’s moves in that region, this commentariat should be the beacon. Aside from asserting political, military, and economic interests on the basis of Ottoman-era borders, and laying claim to vast maritime territory from Cyprus to Somalia, Ankara is asserting an ideological supremacy that reflects steps it has been taking elsewhere.
Turkey’s claims to eastern Mediterranean and Libya in the manifesto of its naval and geopolitical strategy follow from this “ideological defense line” against the Saudi presence and influence in the Levant and in Africa, where Ankara seeks to displace Riyadh-led Islam with its own religious and humanitarian leadership (see: “The Ottoman Empire Strikes Back?”).
Turkey’s moves is a gradual effort to entrench its demands in the Eastern Mediterranean and to test the resolve of parties with interests in the region. 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.
More than anything, Turkey’s entry into the Libyan conflict, posturing off the coast of Cyprus and the eastern Aegean, are an indication of the lengths to which Ankara is willing to go to prevent the emergence of a new order in the Mediterranean. Turkish escalation is designed to make it unprofitable -politically, diplomatically, and commercially- to attempt to ignore or exclude Turkey’s interests.
If anything, those who observe Turkey today should take it into account, with the perspective of what the duo of Erdogan and Bahceli -backed by some staunchly expansionist radical officers- envision for the country in 2023, its centennial as a republic.
The goal is “Turkey made great again”, with the aspiration to control a key global commerce route that connects the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea; that is Asia with Europe through the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and North Africa. Turkey’s presence in Libya and its large military base in Somalia serve precisely this ambition. Turkey does not just want to control the southern gateways to Europe, but also influence political developments inside Europe; it does that both through the presence of Turkish migrants in countries like Germany, and the exploitation of refugees in threatening to cause a new migrant crisis.
Energy relations with Russia
Energy demand has been one of the main burdens on the Turkish economy, with Ankara paying tens of billions of dollars annually to meet the country’s energy need. Relations between Russia and Turkey, once Moscow’s biggest consumer of natural gas, have been patchy for the past years and are beset by a number of issues, including conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Russia was Turkey’s top gas supplier in March last year but as its sales dropped as much as 72% it now ranks as the fourth-biggest supplier, according to Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Authority. Since prices for Gazprom’s gas are several times higher than for liquefied natural gas (LNG), imports are booming from the United States and through the Transanatolian Pipeline (TANAP) from Azerbaijan.
Energy giant Gazprom is rapidly losing Turkey, once considered one of its most promising and largest markets, from 2008 to 2014 when the demand for gas in the country grew by 30%, due to the company’s high prices. While the price of gas exported by Gazprom to Turkey’s Petroleum Pipeline Corporation (BOTAS) was around $228 per 1,000 cubic meters in the second quarter of the year, spot gas prices in Europe fell below $100 in the same period.
The extension of contracts for 8 bcm of natural gas with Gazprom expires in 2021, while the market situation allows Turkey not to renegotiate them, which could leave the recently built TurkStream gas pipeline half empty.
Turkey is looking to reduce further its reliance on Russian gas, and for the first time in almost two decades, Turkey may not receive gas at all from Russian gas giant Gazprom for at least two weeks.
According to Turkish state-owned BOTAS, the TurkStream pipeline stoped completely on July 27. BOTAS is the purchaser of all gas through the pipeline, which started up this year in January. The pipeline was to remain down for a couple of weeks until mid-August due to repair work on the pipeline. The other gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey, the Blue Stream, was also shuttered in May, and even though it was only supposed to be down for a couple of weeks, the pipeline is still shuttered today. From its part, Gazprom has not commented yet when Blue Stream and TurkStream pipelines are set to be re-launched, as well as whether BOTAS would face fines due to the pipeline’s suspension and lack of offloads by the Turkish company. BOTAS and the Turkish Energy Ministry remain silent too.
In the end, Turkey is taking 70% less gas from Russia compared to this time last year, pushing the gas giant down on the list of Turkey’s main gas suppliers, behind Azerbaijan and Iran. Turkey has also been substituting LNG for the Russian gas, now that LNG prices have fallen. It plans to buy at least 1/3 of its needs this year in the form of LNG to replace the more expensive fuel from Russia, with cargoes coming from the United States, Nigeria, Algeria, Qatar and also Russia.
On August 21 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Fatih drilling vessel discovered the country’s largest energy source in its history -320 billion cubic meters of natural gas in the Black Sea. The discovery is projected to ease the financial burden for a number of years, as President Erdogan said authorities were planning to have the natural gas reserve ready for Turkey in 2023. The discovery is not likely to end Turkey’s dependence on foreign alternatives but he said the reserves found were “only part of much richer resources”, given the fact that Turkey has one of world’s top drilling and seismic operation fleet and also holds operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, despite the triumphant tone of the announcement, the markets have not reacted well. Shares in Turkey’s Tupras refinery and petrochemicals company Petkim have seen a steep fall. Experts say the highly optimistic predictions for the new Sakarya gas field are only preliminary and leave unanswered questions about whether the natural gas can be fully extracted or whether the announcement was geared towards President Erdogan winning back public support.
A three-year deadline for a start-up date appears too ambitious. Such a deadline would require a world-class and near-unprecedented project execution, a difficult feat considering Turkey’s lack of experience in deep-sea gas production.
MAVI VATAN: “Mare Nostrum”
The coining of the term “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) ultimately represents more than an act of political branding. Within the framework of Turkey’s new energy (in)security architecture owing to the emerging trilateral partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean, which it feels threaten its own efficient exploitation/transmission of the gas discoveries, Ankara is increasingly anxious. As a result, it is clear that Turkey has adopted the strategy developed by arch-nationalist army officers. As a first step, this new doctrine envisages the domination of the Aegean Sea, of most of the Mediterranean and of the Black Sea. To this end, Turkey has invested in expanding both the size and sophistication of its navy, as well as it drillships and exploratory vessels. This highlights the extent to which Turkey has strengthened its military under the ruling AKP, which has been in power since 2002.
What the “Mavi Vatan” turn means for the future of Turkey’s participation in NATO, or Ankara’s relationship with its Western partners, is far from clear. There are, however, two real dangers ahead: The first is a possible confrontation with Greece which, like Turkey, has been a member of NATO since 1952. The “Mavi Vatan” doctrine makes it clear that Ankara does not recognize the Lausane Treaty’s arrangements over the Aegean. Turkey claims many Greek islands and Greece’s EEZ. There have been threats about drilling for gas near the Greek island of Crete and Kastelorizo. Flushed with confidence after his victories in Syria and Libya, President Erdogan has remained steadfast in spite of threats of sanctions and increased diplomatic isolation. It is possible that he may well decide this is a good time to challenge Greece, especially as such an exploit would play well at home.
The second danger lies in Libya: arguably the most striking demonstration of “Mavi Vatan” worldview can be seen in Turkey’s evolving policy towards it. Turkey has its own ties to Libya, and economic and geopolitical interests that go beyond this regional competition (see:Will Turkey dare to dissolve NATO’s Southern Flank?). Turkey has two goals on Libyan soil: firstly, stopping the Egyptian, Emirates and Saudi operations against Turkey’s economic and oil expansion in the Mediterranean. The other Turkish policy line is that of perceiving a threat of the strategic partnership between Israel, Greece and Cyprus -to which at least it reacts- with the US and probable EU support which, if any, would probably bring obstacles to the Turkish expansion in the Mediterranean.
Turkey is seeking to reap the rewards from its intervention in Libya to bolster its faltering economy, as its backing of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in the country’s civil war, puts Ankara on top of the list to bid for multibillion dollar contracts. Turkish businesses say they are looking forward to playing a key role in the rebuilding of the oil-rich North African country. Turkish officials have made trips to Tripoli to meet GNA officials to discuss cooperation in areas such as construction and energy. There is going to be a big business opportunity of around $50 billion.
Consequently, Turkish economy will get a significant boost once the security situation improves in Libya and Turkish firms can start working there. “Al-Arabiya Net” reported recently that the Governor of the Libyan Central Bank, Al-Siddiq Al-Kabir, has deposited $8 billion in Turkey’s Central Bank for about four years without interest, to help stabilise the Turkish lira. Moreover, Turkish officials have made several trips to Libya in recent months to discuss energy cooperation and investments, as well as security issues.
How Turkey got Libya through “crisis of the month” strategy:
The more invasions, the more Ankara is the go-to country for all conflicts in the Middle East. This has been accomplished through Ankara’s carefully executed policy of stoking a new crisis each month to get what it wants. Crisis-a-month is how Ankara is able to get the US, EU, NATO, Russia and Iran to all value Turkey more than they seem to want to work with other countries in the Middle East. Turkey accomplishes all this by heating up different conflicts each month and then demanding concessions. Ankara sells itself as the key to every conflict in the Middle East by first invading and then claiming it can solve the conflict. Libya is the jewel in the crown. The aggressive survey of Oruc Reis in Eastern Aegean is of paramount importance too.
Turkey uses these crises to pressure Europe, Egypt and Greece for concessions and also to work with Russia and USA at the same time. Ankara has also shown that the Arab states, despite their complaints about its continued escalation, are largely unable to stop Turkey and will continue to be distracted by the numerous crises that it heats up every month.
A short while ago, the President of the Presidency Council of the Libyan Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj announced his intention to step down from his post at the end of next October. This decission was not welcomed by President Erdogan. His obvious annoyance piqued the curiosity of political observers, who attributed that anger to either the political dimension of Sarraj’s decision or its economic significance. It is common secret that for Turkey President Sarraj’s power to sign economic agreements, was very important. Some observers suspect the existence of economic understandings, most likely, between Sarraj and Ankara that have not been implemented yet and they do not exclude the possibility that they could be related to the ports, especially the port of Misrata.
Moreover, Turkish officials have already confirmed that there were talks with the Libyan authorities about starting oil and gas exploration operations in onshore and offshore fields, in addition to talks about other energy-related fields such as electricity production.
In the event of Sarraj stepping down before Ankara could secure guarantees for the implementation of its future projects, Turkey will be forced to start all over again with the next government.
Al-Watiya’s airstrikes uncovered Ankara’s inefficiencies…
This bombardment was of operational importance because it was a major blow to the Turkish Armed Forces. The attack on al-Watiya can be seen as a test to gauge the capabilities of the Turkish air defense system in Libya. The system failed the test, which indicates that the area south of Tripoli is not under full aerial control of Turkey, and that the air space dominance over the region is contested. The biggest disaster for Ankara, however, was on the political level. For the first time Turkey got paid back in the same currency it’s using, sending Ankara the message that from now on it will receive such retorts. And this message was received not only by Ankara, but also by all the rest stakeholders in the region. It is no coincidence that President Erdogan did everything he could to downplay the incident. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was probably hastened, precisely to cover up the event communication-wise and to balance the political blow from al-Watiya (see: “Al-Watiyah’s hit exposed Turkey’s limitations…”).
Despite this setback, however, Turkey seems determined to press-on to attempt to occupy Sirte and al-Jufra. In this endeavor it can only count on Qatar. Russia recognizes Ankara’s important role in western Libya, but opposes turning all of Libya into a Turkish protectorate. In essence, the Kremlin is seeking a compromise on its conflicting interests with Turkey in Libya, as has happened in Syria. This is because for Presidetn Putin the “big picture” is far more important; that is, to achieve a deeper chasm in NATO’s Southern Flank by enstranging Turkey all the more to the West. That is why he took down his Orthodox banner on the issue of Hagia Sophia, speaking of an “internal affair of Turkey.” The Moscow Patriarchate was left to let fly barbs against President Erdogan (see: REPORT #5 NATO in Eastern Mediterranean: The Haze of Energy War…).
In the mind of Recep Tayip Erdogan
Domestic economic and political considerations are certainly at play in President Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy, with public disquiet over Turkey’s struggling economy brewing and the strength of the political opposition building, while COVID-19 reaps unknown numbers of lives. His regime needs constant action to hide what is happening really inside the country, and it is very happy to see discussions about the victorious Turkish army running around the world, as a distraction.
Turkey’s economy on the verge of collapse
Inescapable as death and taxes, with the arrival of autumn Turkey has plunged into its cyclical currency crisis. This time, however, the epilogue could be different from that of 2018 and especially last year, when it was the billions of Beijing -headed by an old swap miraculously went to the collection with Swiss punctuality- to save the Ankara Central Bank from the bleeding of its foreign reserves in an attempt to defend the lira from speculative attacks.
Today, in fact, not only the country is in far worse financial conditions than those of the recent past but, above all, Covid-19 has brought the tourism sector to its knees, one of the few that can guarantee tax revenues. In short, the strong risk is that Turkey will fall into a state of absolute instability.
Inflation and external vulnerabilities remain high in Turkey, made worse by currency weakness, while the economy is expected to contract this year. Concerns among investors about policy direction and transparency have resulted in further depletion of the central bank’s foreign currency reserves this year, increased dollarisation of the economy and a weaker lira.
To make matters worse, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Turkey’s debt rating to “B2”, warning of rising geopolitical risks as factor for the new rating, as well as the foreign currency long-term deposit ratings of 12 banks, the long-term counterparty risk ratings (CRR) and the long-term counterparty risk assessments (CRA) of six banks, and the long-term senior unsecured rating of one bank by one notch and the long-term foreign currency CRR of three banks by two notches. The credit rating to “B2” from “B1” puts Turkey on par with Egypt, Jamaica and Rwanda.
Fitch ratings agency following suit, downgraded also the outlook on Turkey’s Long-Term Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) to negative from stable and affirmed the IDRs at “BB-“.
The revision of the outlook was mainly due to Turkey’s depletion of foreign exchange reserves, weak monetary policy credibility, negative real interest rates, and a sizeable current account deficit partly fuelled by a strong credit stimulus -which have exacerbated external financing risks, Fitch said.
Turkish economic activity has slowed sharply after investors pulled out of the country on fears that the economy was overheating.
President Erdogan is the master of creating crisis, using the weaknesses in his antagonists, duping rivals, employing divide and rule policies. It seems that mr. Erdogan saw the 4th anniversary of the attempted coup as a symbol for launching a series of acts that aim to cement his power. Above all, his equation is simple: in order to survive politically, he has to constantly raise the stakes in a daredevil gamble. He may or he may not, however, the Turkish President is focusing on headline-grabbing issues, in an attempt to captivate the minds of his electoral base. The only thing likely to erode that base of support would be a large number of Turkish personnel killed in his overseas adventures.
The move to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, against all odds, signals plans for a snap election. Turkey’s strongman U-turn from his last year’s opposite stance, points to uncertainety, to say the least, ahead of the next general elections scheduled for 2023. Polls increasingly show Turkey’s new political parties founded by former Erdogan allies, eating away at the support his ruling AKP had.
President Erdogan’s declaration is meant to serve as a national boost at a time when Turkey is in an extremely precarious political and fiscal position. Turkey has waded into the Syrian quagmire, it has the Kurdish problem to contend with, it is conducting risky adventures in Libya, and it is stirring unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean. In Erdogan’s view, turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is a Turkish victory and a source of national pride during a time of great turmoil.
To Erdogan, Hagia Sophia is evidence of Turkish Muslim hegemony over the Muslim world. Its transformation into a mosque emphatically declares that position. Is the timing of this move with the anniversary of the aborted July 2016 coup accidental?
All the more, in order to gain more time, “good news” like the one from the gas discovery in the Black Sea come in handy. The announcement continues the diversionary strategy. But there is still a lot of time until 2023. Maybe more than mr. Erdogan is still on diversions.
The fact of the matter is, the foreign policy he has helped shape will offer more problems than solutions in tackling the current world, as well as Turkey’s, disorder. He has been squandering Turkey’s almost 70-year-long accumulation of diplomatic capital, including its strategic alliances, international prestige and its progress in long-term geopolitical aspirations. President Erdogan calls it “forward defence” -fitting the policy line his partner Bachcheli has been advocating all along- and coins another key expression: “Military first”. The trio of traditional Turkish military might, its recent technological advancements (drones, airlift capabilities, professionalised army, its modernised fleet) and effective use of Islamist fighters in the form of mercenaries or as proxies, proved a formidable force in overturning the balance of forces on the ground. Turkish victories in Syria and Libya, however, have been made possible mainly by Washington and Europe’s unwillingness to stand up to mr. Erdogan, which only feeds his sense of invincibility.
Turkish supplies of weapons and military equipment to Libya in violation of the UN-imposed arms supply embargo include of BMC Kirpi II, BMC Vuran and ACV-15 armoured vehicles, T-155 Firtina self-propelled howitzers, Oerlikon 35 mm towed anti-aircraft guns, KORKUT self-propelled air-defense gun systems, MIM-23 Hawk low to medium altitude ground-to-air missile systems, AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel radars, and 9K11 Malyutka anti-tank guided missiles. These weapons are supplied to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord or directly used by Turkey forces to support it in its battle against the Libyan National Army.
Nevertheless, the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system has been proved the most ineffective arms procurement in Turkey’s defence history. The move has deprived Turkey of the 5th generation F-35, while the $2.5 billion S-400 systems are kept in deep-freeze. Even if and when S-400s are activated, they will only function at a very small percentage of their capacity because they can’t be connected to the electronic surveillance network in Turkey.
On the other hand, there are now reports that Greece is in negotiation with the United States to purchase F-35 jets, along with others that say the UAE is inching closer to a similar agreement. Greece is in also talks with France to purchase the Rafale aircraft. With these procurements, the military balance in the Aegean will most probably tilt in Greece’s favour, especially at a time when Turkey is deprived of the F35.
CHINA offers Erdogan a lifeline for his politico-economic troubles
China and Turkey have signed 10 bilateral agreements, including on health and nuclear energy, since 2016, according to the Turkish parliament’s official website. Furthermore, Peking intends to invest $6 billion in Turkey by 2021, doubling its investment made between 2016 and 2019.
The strategic partnership between China and Turkey give Turkish President Erdogan a lifeline for his political and economic woes. Strengthening Sino-Turkish relations appears to benefit both sides. China has found a highly strategic foothold in Turkey: a NATO member with a large market for energy, infrastructure, defence technology and telecommunications at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.
For Turkey and President Erdogan, China provides desperately needed resources to fund high-profile megaprojects and maintain the veneer of development despite the crippling economic reality underneath.
The pundits said cash flows from China, Turkey’s second-largest import partner after Russia, have become critical for Erdogan’s government and has “strengthened the president’s hand at crucial moments”.
Chinese cash helps mr. Erdogan to avoid seeking help from Western-dominated institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, which would require him to commit to reforms and other measures that could undermine his unfettered control over the country’s economy.
Aside from economic cooperation, China and Turkey have deepened bilateral military and security ties, including in intelligence and cyberwarfare. The participation of Chinese military officers in Turkey’s “Ephesus” military exercise in 2018 and the Turkish-made “Bora” ballistic missile are products of bilateral defence cooperation.
President Erdogan knows that Westerners are now obsessed with “China in Africa”. He therefore thinks they will keep quiet while Turkey takes the big piece of Africa not yet fully colonized by China. In this respect, he understands Washington’s foreign policy priorities and shift of focus toward Asia. He is leveraging the transformation of its military industry as it looks both westward and eastward in the hope of benefiting from the rise of other powers -particularly Russia and China- and regional players like Iran.
Commenting on the recent Israeli-UAE Agreement President Erdogan made clear he sees this move as part of further effort in forming a front against Ankara. This is felt particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has been locked in disputes with Greece and Cyprus over access to energy resources. Both Israel and the UAE have expressed opposition against Ankara’s claims. However, not a word has been uttered to explain how a country that has had diplomatic relations with Israel for 71 years, could logically protest another country’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Turkey’s poor relationship with the UAE is well known. They support opposing sides in the Libyan conflict and compete in a wider ideological struggle over political Islam’s spread in the Middle East. Additionaly, four Emirati F-16 jets landed recently in Crete for joint drills with Greece, coming on the heels of Turkish naval exercises in the Aegean, while Israel has also stated its solidarity with Greece and moved to deepen their military ties. One Israeli official said that the Greeks are viewed as a natural strategic partner to develop ties to in the Mediterranean because of Turkish aggressiveness.
While Turkey’s current policies are associated with a single individual, it is questionable whether or not a political change in Turkey would lead to radical changes in the country’s orientation. The West would do well to face that reality, rather than rely on wishful thinking about a post-Erdogan era. Turkey believes its regional empowerment, despite the political and economic cost, gives it more room to bargain with its partners. As the reactions of the United States and the European Union are carefully balanced and rather lukewarm, President Erdogan is expected to continue his belligerence activities. Even more, because the Turkish President enjoys the “protection” of his US counterpart, declaring that he is “a great fan” of the Turkish leader! While the personal chemistry between the two Presidents, while relevant, is often overstated, mr. Erdogan rightly feels all-powerful and seems unrestrained.
Moreover, his only stand in Washington, the U.S. President Donald Trump, when utters a sentence in private telephone conversations, it is perceived by mr. Erdogan as if the entire U.S. establishment agreed to say it.
Like in a horse race, President Erdogan has invested all his assets on President Trump to win the elections. Did he convince Bacheli too in this matter? It is not yet certain, but he is now dependent on Bacheli inside and Trump outside. The only problem is to win this high-stake gamble. If mr. Trump loses, his whole world will be turned upside down; that’s for sure. He knows this that too. Therefore, Turkey’s election date is clear: November 3rd, 2020. It will be American voters who, not only will choose the next president of their country, but also shape the future of Turkey and its people.
The confrontation with Greece
The maritime agreement between Egypt and Greece had a really bomb-like effect in Ankara and elsewhere in Turkey and has made the architects of Turkey’s so-called “Blue Homeland” naval expansion doctrine outraged, to say the least. “What are Greece and Egypt doing there?” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wondered, describing the agreement as “nonexistent.” He denounced it also as invalid and announced drilling operations in areas outlined in the Turkey-Libya accord, which Greece said was nullified by its deal with Egypt. He also called off exploratory talks with Greece whose commencement on August 28 had been expected and
Moreover, the Greek-Egyptian maritime deal came as a shock in Ankara because only the week before it had stepped back from surveying the seabed in a disputed area between the Turkish coastal city of Antalya and the Greek island of Kastellorizo, known as Meis in Turkey, to allow time for diplomacy with Greece following German intervention.
Hawks in Ankara were incensed that the mission of the Oruc Reis had been suspended in favor of exploratory talks with Greece. Retired Adm. Cem Gurdeniz -credited as the brains behind the Blue Homeland concept- had argued that the suspension was a blunder. “Greece fooled us. It turns out they were negotiating with Egypt while blinding us with fairy tales about talks,” he said.
President Erdogan, however, seems to have been aching all-along to end the pause as continued exploration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean is part of his regional strategy of expanding de facto control by Turkey of the region’s maritime resources. The Oruc Reis returned to action with two accompanying ships, under the escort of naval vessels flottila, amid a tense atmosphere in Ankara, marked by a prevailing conviction that Turkey should press ahead with controlled escalation in the contested zones to demonstrate strength and resolve.
Greece immediately put its armed forces on high alert, with the Greek fleet monitoring the Turkish surveyor route, in and out of Greece’s and Cyprus’ EEZ. Concerns that the standoff between Greek and Turkish fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean could lead to an accident were confirmed, albeit not in a dramatic way, when two frigates collided. According to reports, there was a collision between the “Limnos” frigate and the Turkish vessel “Kemal Reis”, apparently due to a mistake by the latter’s skipper. The Turkish frigate was damaged, in contrast to the Greek one, which participated in a Greek-French joint exercise in the region the day after.
Diplomacy, stick and carrot…
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts are in full swing to de-escalate tensions sparked by Turkey’s presence in the area, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel having contacts with both Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Erdogan, as well as the US State Department’s Secretary Mike Pompeo, meeting with his Greek and Turkish counterparts.
The escalating row has prompted Germany try to mediate a solution and NATO to host consultations aimed at preventing the two alliance members from accidentally going to war -as they almost did over Imia islands in 1996.
Turkey is looking for an exit strategy for this situation, which is unproductive. With President Erdogan opening more fronts than he can manage in Libya, Syria, and against the Kurds in northern Iraq, and lately against Greece, he is in danger of overextending the military and economic resources that are available to him, as he aggressively pursues irredentist, neo-Ottoman policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. Nevertheless, he is unwilling to appear weak to his religious and nationalistic electoral base during a crisis.
Turkey’s inner geopolitical fears…
Ankara realises that it will be extremely dangerous to proceed with open warfare against Greece, an EU/NATO member state, as it will immediately trigger the secession of the Kurdish territories in south-east Turkey.
The Diyarbakir region would likely unite with the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and Syria; leading to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state that would have access to the sea, huge oil resources, and an undisputed pro-American and pro-Israel orientation. The new state, together with the State of Israel, would be a stabilising factor in the Middle East and, according to intelligence sources, a new Kurdish government is standing by in the area, close to an American facility. The establishment of an independent Kurdish state, which may well replace Turkey in the NATO alliance, may signify a further major reduction of Turkey’s territory.
Although it seems like a far-fetched idea, certain quarters are eying the possibility of internationalizing Eastern Thrace, the small geographically European region of Turkey, including the area of Kadikoy -on Istanbul’s Asia side- in order to place the Bosporus Strait, the only access to the Black Sea, under the direct control of the navigating powers.
Turkey by sending its Oruc Reis vessel -which actually was not conducting full exploratory activities in the Greek continental shelf as it was accompanied by 10 Turkish warships- was more of a “declaration” of Turkey’s claims. After the two opposing fleets having spent two months at sea, in conditions that were as close to a real war as physically possible and under international pressure, Turkey’s research ship returned to waters near the southern province of Antalya.
Ankara’s decision not to renew a NAVTEX for the activities of the Oruc Reis to conduct activities within a 6-12 nautical mile range from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, literally at the 11th hour before the expiration of the previous one, was reportedly the result of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts.
It is clear that President Erdogan has come under an immense amount of pressure. The recent downgrade of Turkey’s economy credit rating has been attributed to geopolitical risks and the messages being sent to Ankara were strict. President Erdogan’s decision to retire the Oruc Reis was reportedly taken after Berlin conveyed that it would be difficult for the European Council not to issue a tough response.
An exit strategy might be on the table for Turkey so long as the backchannels for dialogue remain open. In reality, mr. Erdogan does not want, especially at this stage, to burn bridges with Europe during the German presidency. However, under the pressing circumstances and unexpected developments mr. Erdogan is possible to make the wrong estimations and make fatal for him and Turkey decissions.
ISRAEL: Will the EastMed pipeline put Jerusalem into direct conflict with Turkey?
Even by the most conservative estimates, the discovery of sizeable natural gas reservoirs will make Israel self-sufficient in energy for at least the next 40 years. In the process, the small country has gone from being an importer to an exporter of natural gas. As Israel’s minister of energy, Yuval Steinitz, has noted, Israel’s transformation into a net exporter of gas will increase annual state revenue by $100m-$150m over the next 30 years.
In January 2020, Israel began exporting natural gas to Jordan and Egypt from its newly operational Leviathan offshore field. For Israelis, this was an important milestone. It has boosted their hopes that the exploitation of natural gas reserves off the Mediterranean coast will have a transformative effect on their country. They anticipate that it will help Israel’s economy and strengthen its regional standing.
There are, however, technical and financial obstacles to ramping up exports -especially exports to the lucrative European market. Israel has looked at a variety of options, ranging from pipelines to liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants. At present, its only option is to use Egypt’s LNG export facilities at Idku and Damietta. But their capacity remains limited. Israel had previously contemplated building a pipeline to Europe through Turkey. However, the severe deterioration in bilateral relations with the Turkish government has blocked that path for now -despite some small signs of detente.
Over the past few years, Israeli officials have, therefore, put forward an ambitious proposal to build what would be the world’s deepest and longest pipeline across the Eastern Mediterranean, allowing Israel to export its gas to Europe via Cyprus, Greece, and Italy. In 2013 the European Commission designated EastMed pipeline as a Project of Common Interest (P.C.I.) and subsequently financed feasibility studies with a view to reducing European dependency on Russian gas supplies. But it is not just about energy exports. Israel has sought to translate its newfound gas fields into regional influence.
Recently, the Israeli cabinet approved the EastMed pipeline deal to move gas offshore via Cyprus to Greece and Europe. The 1,900-kilometer (1,181 miles) link will connect gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean basin to European markets. The $8 billion project, many years in the discussion, was boosted in January by an agreement signed in Athens between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts.
Turkey has already expressed its firm opposition to the project, and its dispatch of a drilling ship to Cypriot waters and its agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord, regarding the demarcation of economic waters, should be seen as part of Ankara’s response to the Trilateral alliance between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus in the natural gas sector (see: REPORT #6 EASTMED: A pipeline of Peace or War?)
The well kept “secret” of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline
The normalization of ties with two Gulf countries will enable the reuse of Israel’s Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline as a conduit of oil that further deprives Turkey of its role as an energy hub.
The infrastructure was completed in 1968 with the support of Israel and the pro-western Shah of Iran. However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 cut of the oil supplies from Iran that traversed the country. The strategic value of Israel as an essential linchpin of Western energy security diminished overnight. In 2003, however, adjustments to the pipeline enabled reverse flow to allow the oil to run both ways. The former Soviet states Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan willingly made use of the pipeline for their oil to travel from the Black Sea area to Asia.
Nowadays, the anti-Turkish coalition of France, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE, and Israel is pushing for the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline to play a bigger role, which will benefit the energy security of customers and the strategic goals of Israel. The re-purposing of the pipeline to carry oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe would further diminish Turkey’s role as energy route.
The pipeline’s owner, Europe Asia Pipeline Co. (EAPC), expects to capture somewhere between 12% and 17% of the oil trade transiting through the Suez. However, it affects Egypt’s ability to generate income as a significant share of the state’s coffers comes from transit fees. According to a confidential Israeli government source, “…while better relations with the UAE and the other Gulf States are important, our peace with Egypt is absolutely essential for maintaining regional stability. Without it, the security position of the country will devolve significantly. Therefore, we should coordinate with the Egyptians rather than attempt to harm their position unilaterally.”
Until now EAPC has operated the pipeline in relative secrecy due to two reasons: First, certain Arab customers would like to keep their commercial deals secret due to Israel’s reputation in the Islamic world. Second, Iran provided some of the funds to construct the pipeline before the Islamic Revolution in the sixties. Making public the companies’ operations and earnings could strengthen Tehran’s case in international arbitration cases. In 2015 a Swiss court ordered Israel to pay Iran compensation worth $1.1 billion.
Despite the challenges, political backing from the Israeli government, the conducive strategic environment, and already available infrastructure will likely lead to increased use of the pipeline.
With clear obstacles to substantially ramping up exports in the near term, natural gas will not bring Israel the sort of wealth and energy clout of gas exporters such as Qatar. As such, its most noticeable outcome may be geopolitical convergence between Eastern Mediterranean states that share energy and geopolitical interests. As it attempts to position itself at the centre of this new grouping, Israel will undoubtedly continue to draw important benefits from its gas industry, even if this may not be the regional game-changer that some in Israel hope for.
CHEVRON materializes US interest in the region
On July 20, the American oil giant Chevron Corporation announced its acquisition of Noble Energy, also an American company, which is a partner in the consortium that owns the Leviathan natural gas field, the site of 2/3 of Israel’s natural gas reserves, and retains also holdings in the Tamar gas field. The official announcement of the acquisition states that Chevron was acquiring profitable assets in Israeli waters and strengthening its status in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. The involvement of a large US corporation like Chevron will raise Israel’s standing in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which also includes Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy.
Great importance likewise lies in the timing of the announcement, which was issued against the background of the growing global doubt in the stability of the energy sector, and in the Israeli context, the declining trust of investors in the economic stability of some of Israel’s energy companies. The entry into the region of an economic giant such as Chevron also conveys an important economic message, beyond the safety net with which it provides the natural gas sector in Israel. Indirectly, it constitutes additional recognition of the economic stability of the Israeli economy and its prevailing legal and administrative norms.
Without a doubt, the move brings the American presence in the energy sector of the Eastern Mediterranean to a new level, which until recently was limited to the relatively minor involvement of energy giant ExxonMobil in Cyprus and Noble Energy in Israel. American companies discovered the potential in the region only after European companies carried out successful drilling in Egypt’s economic waters.
The entry of large American corporations into the eastern zone of the Mediterranean Sea may also have a restraining impact on the intentions of other actors, international and regional alike, regarding its political and economic future. Russia has a long-time presence in the Middle East, which it might consider expanding in light of the tendency of US administrations since the Obama presidency, to reduce the American presence in the region. Russia’s desire to expand its activity in the exploration for natural gas is well known, beyond its partnership in the consortium that acquired a concession in one of the regions explored in Lebanon’s EEZ. Turkey too, which in recent years has pursued an aggressive policy in the region, will need to take into consideration the presence and interests of two huge American corporations, Chevron and Exxon, which can be expected to exert pressure on Washington to “calm” mr. Erdogan. Like other large American corporations, Chevron and Exxon also invest millions of dollars in lobbying Congress and the US administration.
The significance of the Trilateral co-operation
Israel’s interest in energy cooperation is clear: co-operation among the three countries in the energy sector creates possibilities for expanding it to additional countries in the region. After the opening conference of EMGF’s framework, representatives of the member countries met again in July 2019. At the same time, a major joint project to establish a shared electrical grid connecting Israel, Cyprus, Crete, and Greece the EuroAsia Interconnector is progressing, and cooperative efforts in renewable energy are underway.
In the security sphere, there is extensive cooperation between the three countries. This cooperation serves Israel’s interests in a number of dimensions:
One is the formulation of a joint response to naval threats against freedom of the seas and maritime commerce, ports, and marine energy facilities. This cooperation, under American sponsorship, is especially important because of the expanded Russian presence in the Mediterranean; hostile measures against Israel, Cyprus, and Greece by Turkey; and the dispute between Israel and Lebanon on the maritime border between them.
The second is the creation of strategic depth in a military conflict. This consists mainly of possible use by Israel of airports and seaports in Greece and Cyprus in wartime and the placing of emergency warehouses outside the range of the long range missiles possessed by the Shiite axis.
The third is joint military training and exercises, in some cases with the participation of forces from other countries, the US and other European states as well. Israeli-Greek military relations also have deepened recently.
The fourth dimension concerns agreements between the three countries on internal security and anti-terrorism warfare, which are useful to Israel in both preventing terrorism -for example, exposing Hezbollah operatives in Cyprus- and in joint action in combating crime.
As the ties grow stronger, a regional geopolitical bloc is emerging, which can aid Israel in the political arena. Greece and Cyprus support Israel, especially in discussions about Israel in the European Union framework. Although their ability to contribute there is limited, given that EU decisions are made by consensus, they can sometimes block decisions against Israel. For example, Greece, with the support of Cyprus, headed those opposed to marking products made in Jewish communities in the West Bank.
The three countries also constitute a core for the development of Israel’s cooperation with additional parties in the Mediterranean region and Europe. This has already contributed to Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan, at least in the energy sector, within the framework of the EMGF. In the future, this may also contribute to agreement between Israel and Lebanon on delimiting their maritime border and sharing the profits from gas production in the disputed gas prospects.
Israel’s success in making the United States a part of the trilateral activity (3+1) serves Israel’s interests in obtaining the superpower’s sponsorship in ensuring security in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although this involvement is also motivated by US interests, this sponsorship fortifies the strategic ties between the countries. It can likewise contribute to the materialization of some of the ambitious projects on the agenda, especially the EastMed gas pipeline, which includes United States involvement. Referring to this in the 6th tripartite summit in March 2019, which was also attended by the US Secretary of State, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Pompeo’s presence showed American support for this regional effort, and signaled the vitality of the framework (see: Why the U.S. participate in the Jerusalem’s Trilateral).
Nevertheless, co-operation by Greece and Cyprus with Israel is based on shared interests and values, but these can also change as a result of internal developments in the respective countries, or following possible changes in the balance of power in the region and in Europe. Furthermore, disagreements about the pace of progress in cooperation already agreed to by the trilateral partners are possible, with an emphasis on security measures and energy, as well as possible future disagreements stemming from efforts by Greece and Cyprus to achieve progress in their relations with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon in tandem with their tripartite relations with Israel.
Israel is “diving” into the troubled Eastern Mediterranean
The EastMed project puts Israel on a collision course with Turkey. Ankara has laid claim, reinforced with a maritime deal with Libya, to large parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is exploring for gas -and conducting naval exercises.
Israeli-Turkish relations are as low as they have been in years. Disputes over exploration rights and pipelines will add fuel to the heated rhetoric between the two countries. Turkish naval vessels harassed an Israeli research vessel near Cyprus last December, and Israel’s annual military assessment listed Turkey as a “challenge” for the first time last year.
Israeli military planning assumes that the current Turkish political leadership, which often verges on irrationality, could conceivably decide to engage Israel militarily, although Turkish Armed Forces generally and technically are believed to be about two or three decades behind the Israeli military.
This marks a shift in emphasis for Israel, which previously did not play a major role in Mediterranean issues. The EastMed deal has moved at a snail’s pace compared to Nord Stream, TurkStream and other pipelines. For this reason, Israel has been reticent to join Greece, Cyprus and Egypt in pushing back against Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement. The EastMed project was always a long shot, as far as its commercial feasibility was concerned; it’s expensive, and energy prices are low. Now there’s a question of its political feasibility. The more the Eastern Mediterranean begins to look like a site for a potential conflict, the less likely energy companies will want to develop serious undertakings like the EastMed pipeline. It could get a boost, however, from Chevron Corp.’s acquisition of Noble Energy Inc.
As Turkey deepens its involvement in Libya and steps up its own surveying and drilling activities in eastern Aegean and Cyprus, a clash with Israel and Greece, however distinct, is a possibility. Israel’s challenge, then, is to remain neutral in Turkey’s dispute with Greece and Cyprus without hurting its partnership with the latter two countries. Jerusalem’s goal will be to encourage the U.S. and the EU, as well as Russia, to help find an accommodation. Israeli interests, however, can still be harmed even if Jerusalem is not directly involved. Having decided to enter the troubled waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel can no longer prevent its feet from getting wet.
In this respect, on the eve of the surprise announcement that Israel and the UAE would normalize relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Greece’s Foreign Minister that Israel stood by Greece in disputes with Turkey. Israeli Foreign Ministry released a rare declarative statement that “Israel follows closely as tension arises in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel expresses its full support and solidarity with Greece in its maritime zones and its right to delimit its EEZ”. This brings Israel into the alliance of states that oppose Ankara’s increasing aggression in the region.
The “Abraham Accord”: A major anti-Iran coalition emerges…
In an extraordinary breakthrough, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel have agreed to establish open diplomatic relations after years of secret contacts. Marking the “dawn of a new Middle East”, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed historic and groundbreaking normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the third and fourth ever between Israel and Arab states.
The Israeli peace agreement with the two Arab states is transforming strategic alliances in the Middle East. It formalizes the Israeli-Sunni Arab bloc against the aggressive and violent Iranian Shiite crescent that spreads from Tehran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and from Tehran to Yemen. Other countries, notably Oman, Morocco, and Sudan, are said to be considering signing similar agreements in the coming weeks.
For Israel, the deal provided an off-ramp for a planned annexation of the West Bank, a promise that helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintain domestic support amid a corruption trial and international opposition.
The Israel-UAE-Bahrein agreement exposes the enemies of peace and stability in the region: Iran and Erdogan’s Turkey, the two big non-Arab Muslim theocracies. This agreement is probably the beginning of the end for Turkey’s and Iran’s imperial projects in the region. They have not only condemned the agreement, but have threatened the UAE and promised retaliation. Their purpose is to deter other Arab countries from following the two Arab states’ example.
Israel will take any action necessary to preserve its economic interests in the Mediterranean, which Turkey’s maritime deal with the Government of National Accord in Libya seeks to destroy. France and Egypt have also entered the Mediterranean fray on the side of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece. The UAE’s own investment in the Israel-Egypt-Cyprus-Greece pipeline further illustrates the strategic reorientation of the region and Ankara’s isolation.
For Israel, Turkey is a much bigger threat than Iran is…
Turkey is increasingly becoming a challenge to Israel, according to intelligence assessments. This paints a disturbing picture of a NATO member that is working more closely with enemies of the West while at the same time becoming more aggressive.
Once an Israeli ally, Turkey today is one of the most anti-Israel countries in the Middle East. It gives a red carpet to the highest level Hamas terrorists, hosts Hamas members wanted by the United States, challenges Israeli allies at sea and compares Israel to Nazi Germany, while using state-controlled media to bash the Jewish state at every opportunity.
That brings us to the view many have in Israel, both in government and think tanks, that Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean is an extension of mr. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and his pursuit of greater influence in the Muslim world. This goes together with his support for Hamas, fiery rhetoric on the Palestinians and funding of organizations hostile to Israel in east Jerusalem.
In January, Israel’s annual assessment conducted by the IDF noted that Turkey has also become a “challenge” for the first time. This appears to be the growing consensus in military and intelligence circles. Moreover, the head of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, has reportedly said that Iranian power is fragile and that the real threat is from Turkey. Yossi Cohen of Mossad made these comments when talking with his Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi counterparts. According to a Times’ article, Cohen’s point “…was not that Iran had ceased to be an existential menace but rather that it could be contained: through sanctions, embargoes, intelligence sharing and clandestine raids. Turkey’s coercive diplomacy, its sloppily calculated risk-taking across the Middle East, posed a different kind of challenge to strategic stability in the eastern Mediterranean.” Highlighted in the same article was that NATO was no longer a force that could keep Greek and Turkish relations stable and that it “…has lost its healing magic.”
With Mossad identifying Turkey as a larger threat than Iran, this could completely change the geopolitics of the region, as the EU and U.S. would be more willing to involve itself if Israel, that they see as a force of stability, is under threat.
EGYPT: A major energy hub opposing Turkey’s expansion
Egypt has the largest gas reserves in the region, at 75.5 trillion cubic feet. Zohr’s discovery was catalytic as it confirmed that, the region of the South East Mediterranean contains huge deposits of natural gas. The above discoveries have been combined with the existense-exploitation of additional deposits in the Egyptian EEZ, more specifically in the wider maritime region outside the vast Nile Delta. Italian Eni is especially strong in Egypt, where it operates the supergiant Zohr field and others. BP is also well positioned in country. Egypt already has two major LNG terminals in the Mediterranean, the Idku (east of Alexandria), where the gas pool of Shell, Texas-based Noble Energy Inc. and Israel’s Delek Drilling LP continue to hammer out a contract to service the liquefied natural gas plant, and Damietta (west of Port Said).
Eni and BP recently announced a new gas discovery in the so-called “Great Nooros Area”, located in the Abu Madi West Development Lease, in the conventional waters of the Nile Delta, offshore Egypt. This new discovery, achieved through the Nidoco NW-1 exploratory well, is located in 16 meters of water depth, 5 km from the coast and 4 km north from the Nooros field, discovered in July 2015. The preliminary evaluation of the well results, considering the extension of the reservoir towards North and the dynamic behavior of the field, together with the recent discoveries performed in the area, indicates that the “Great Nooros Area” gas in place can be estimated in excess of 4 trillion cubic feet. Eni, together with its partner BP, in coordination with the Egyptian Petroleum Sector, will begin screening the development options of this new discovery benefitting of the synergies with the area’s existing infrastructures.
Egypt and Israel have cooperated on hydrocarbons since the Suez Canal reopened in 1975; Israel started exporting gas from its Leviathan and Tamar fields to Egypt in January 2020. Egypt’s Mediterranean LNG export terminals at Idku and Damietta can flexibly serve Europe, but are less commercially advantageous for Israel, than a pipeline that runs directly from its Mediterranean fields. Exports from Idku rose by 151% between 2018 and 2019. Damietta is slated to come back online in July 2020.
Sisi vs Erdogan: Personal Animosity
Tensions between Turkey and Egypt have been high in recent years, as President Erdogan has sought to delegitimise the Sisi regime, which came to power after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt, Greece, France, and the UAE have made efforts to create a grander pro-Haftar coalition involving Tunisia and Algeria. When this failed, they doubled down on the Eastern Mediterranean grouping, and in May released another joint denouncement of Turkey’s interventions in the region. President Erdogan’s direct help to Sarraj, with weapons and with anti-Assad fighters, tilted the balance in favor of the GNA, which reached the outskirts of the cities of Sirte and Jufra, that demarcate the line separating the belligerents. Egypt was alarmed by this success and is seriously considering a military intervention.
President Sisi, however, is confronting serious challenges and doesn’t need an additional one in Libya. He is confronting Ethiopia, which is building the Renaissance Dam that will affect the flow of water to the Nile River. He is unable to eliminate Islamic terrorism in the Sinai. Relations with Sudan are tense. Hamas is a constant headache, and the economy and the coronavirus are not easing the situation for him. Although the Egyptian Army is classified as the seventh strongest army in the world, it has not engaged in any large traditional military operations since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
It is therefore unlikely that the Egyptian president will initiate a military adventure in Libya, knowing the political and economic price he would have to pay. Even the smallest military defeat by Turkey would be traumatic to the Egyptian Army and his regime as well.
Two elements, however, might change President Sisi’s position: one, a direct attack on Sirte and al-Jufra, which would compel him to intervene in order to save face; and two, a substantial strengthening of the Islamic radicalism in eastern Libya near the Egyptian border. If either one of these scenarios plays out, we will be in a new ball game. The personal animosity of the leaders in both countries could play a role in triggering such conflagration. If this occurs, it will be a direct confrontation with Turkey on Libyan soil. Should it come to an open clash between Turkey and Egypt, there could be a rapid horizontal escalation in which initial military clashes in Libya could turn into clashes over the Eastern Mediterranean and even possible strikes on key military objectives in Turkey and Egypt.
Both Egypt and Turkey, however, are close allies of the United States. US President Donald Trump is not interested in a crisis on the eve of the presidential elections, and has asked both leaders to calm down. Furthermore, there are a lot of major stakeholders who do not need a shooting war in the Eastern Mediterranean and/or the Middle-East. After all, if it came to a real military confrontation between Turkey and Egypt, then you can be pretty sure that NATO, CENTCOM, Greece, Israel and Russia would all have major concerns. Besides, it is hard to imagine what kind of military victory either Turkey or Egypt could hope for.
The Greek-Egyptian Agreement: a red line to Blue Homeland
The recent agreement between Greece and Egypt was nurtured from the Trilateral between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Unlike previous trilateral summits, which focused on all the issues of cooperation between the three countries, the 7th Trilateral Summit on October 8th 2019 in Cairo, aimed at forming a strong energy-based alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean. The joint declaration stated that the three countries underlined the importance of making additional efforts to boost security and stability in the region, and strongly called on Turkey to “end its provocative actions” in the Eastern Mediterranean condemning them as “unlawful and unacceptable”.
The deal was a response to the agreement signed in November between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) which sought to establish an EEZ to legitimise Turkey’s claims to offshore gas and oil reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, much to the ire of Greece, Egypt and other nations collaborating on the EastMed pipeline project of their own. The Turkish-GNA agreement created a sea corridor between the two nations which cuts through the boundaries claimed by Greece and Egypt. Cairo and Athens have condemned Turkey’s deal as a violation of international law.
Earlier on, Egypt had said that part of a seismic survey planned by Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, in July, potentially encroached on waters where Cairo claims exclusive rights. Ankara’s most recent aggressive steps was a major factor that accelerated the signing of the maritime agreement between the two countries, designating a partial EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Egypt sees the demarcation of its maritime boundary with Greece as an additional boost to the flourishing strategic ties between the two states. It seeks to define a red line for Turkish activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, after setting a red line in Libya. The agreement also seeks to allow the two states to develop energy resources in their economic waters and promote the tripartite agreement for connecting the power grids of Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus, in light of Turkish-Libyan attempts to draw a maritime border that creates a buffer between them. An additional advantage of the agreement from Cairo’s perspective is that any Turkish attempt to challenge it will now put Ankara in direct conflict with the European Union. The agreement with Greece gives Egypt more limited economic waters than it would have had it recognized the Turkish-Libyan agreement. It thus symbolizes Egypt’s commitment to international law, as well as its loyalty to the anti-Turkish axis and Ankara’s failure to put a wedge between Cairo and its Greek allies.
To enhance their co-operation and send the message that the Trilateral “means business” Egypt, Greece and Cyprus have been intensively involved, during the last 6 years in aeronaval exercises, in order to enhance the security character of their cooperation. Within the framework of this practice, the large-scale, “MEDUSSA” aeronaval exercises, for air and naval forces of Greece Egypt and Cyprus, take place in the wider region of Alexandria, Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean.
RUSSIA: Multidimensional geopolitics…
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 re-enter 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.
Strategicaly, it is more than evident that Russia continues to have an interest in avoiding the proposed EastMed pipeline, 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 its dwindling presence in the Turkish gas market, on which Turkstream and Blue Stream pipelines 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 and its U.S. sanctions.
Russia’s advances -and those of Turkey as well- coincide with a vacuum created by the relative absence of USA in the region, due to retrenchment, pivoting to interests elsewhere, or simply lack of any coherent policy, or all the above together. The United States began to extricate itself from the Eastern Mediterranean following the end of the Cold War, but gained speed as it began to “pivot” to Asia and its greater focus on near peer-to-peer warfare.
Looking back at Russia’s operations in Syria since September 2015 at the invitation of Damascus, one can see three major benefits for Russia: a) it rescued the Assad regime from the brink of disaster and kept a military client alive; b) it created the first ever Russian air force base in the Middle East, Hmeimim which is an extension of the Latakia civilian airport, while reinforcing its pre-existing naval resupply station in Tartus, c) it performed a lasting operational demonstration of Russian military gear (cruise missiles, aircraft of various types) and tactical methods to both adversaries and potential future clients.
Consequently, President Putin desires to mediate between all stakeholders 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. In parallel, 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.
Russia’s Tatneft planed to conduct oil exploration in a contested area in the Ghadames Basin, which borders areas controlled by both the LNA and GNA. These contracts reflect 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, plans to 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.
“Africa a top priority”
According to a secret German Foreign Ministry’s report titled “Russia’s new Africa ambitions”, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has made “Africa a top priority.” Since 2015, Russia has concluded military cooperation agreements with 21 countries in Africa. Furthermore, the Kremlin was “contractually assured” it would be allowed to build military bases in six countries, namely the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. Moreover, Russia’s army is partially secretly and partially officially training soldiers from those countries, according to the report.
Russia is not only aiming for a permanent deployment of its troops in Africa, but it also increasingly relying on private armies or proxy groups like the Wagner Group -infamous for supporting warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya- which is considered as a Russian “…hybrid instrument to exert political, economic, and military influence.”
In addition, Russia is already a major arms supplier to the African continent. With a market share of 37.6%, Russia is the top weapons supplier to Africa, followed by the US with 16%, France with 14%, and China with 9%. Algeria reportedly remains the biggest recipient of Russian arms in Africa, followed by Egypt, Sudan, and Angola.
That is why Russia continues to pursue an active policy in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya. For Russia it is also important to ensure the safety of its navigations in the Mediterranean Sea. Probably it may be advantageous for Russia to have a ship maintenance point in Libya, which would be employed as a facility for communication between the Russian Northern and the Black sea regions. Also the sensitive topic for Moscow is the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism “on distant approaches.”
What does Russia want in Libya?
Russia is looking for influence and oil. Securing the oil fields, via Wagner Group, ensures that Russia can push for access no matter who wins the civil war. In 2016 Russia already printed 9 billion U.S. dollars of Haftar’s new Libyan currency, with the effigy of the old Rais, transported to Benghazi via Malta. Russia’s increasing involvement in Libya complicates a wide variety of conflicts. Russia’s military operations unfolded in parallel with steady developments in its involvement in the region’s energy sector. The Kremlin and Ankara may have different interests, either in Syria or Libya, however, their relations are based on bilateral projects including the construction of a nuclear power plant at Akuyu and the joint TurkStream natural gas pipeline, building a strategic partnership. Although the two partners have long supported opposing sides, the two countries have managed to closely coordinated in the past and agreed upon several deals to reduce hostilities.
However, Russia does not want a long war in Libya, which would wear out Mediterranean equilibria and probably exclude it from the new strategic context. On the contrary, Moscow officially wants an agreement between the parties, the end of hostilities and the creation of a Government of National Unity. On the other hand, general Haftar surrounded himself with allies who are more interested in siding with the winner than him. That is a dangerous position to be in if you are Khalifa Haftar. By Russian forces taking the oil field by their own volition, Moscow conclusively has proven it is not in Libya to prop up a Haftar presidency. The Russian Federation is playing its future true cards on Saif-al Islam Gaddafi rather than on General Haftar.
Nevertheless, Moscow doesn’t seem willing to take great risks, because it does not want to ruin the carefully planed equilibrium with Turkey, either in Syria or in Libya, as well their energy co-operation. It rely’s on Egypt, UAE and maybe France to try to stop Turkey’s plans.
U.S.A.: Reconsidering Eastern Mediterranean’s significance
The gradual withdrawal of the US from the Eastern Mediterranean and the subsequent return of Russia have changed regional security dynamics. The way the current US administration has initially responded to challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean reflects its lack of appetite for engagement in the region -with the exception of its continued contribution to Israel’s security.
Obviously the attention of once-omnipresent Washington is fixed on the November 3 presidential election. The administration has showed little interest in its traditional allies in the region, giving free rein to Turkey that could seriously damage NATO’s Southern Flank and the whole region’s equilibrium as well.
Many American policymakers -Republicans and Democrats alike- refuse to accept the obvious: Turkey is swinging away from the West. There should be no illusions. The West has diminishing influence over mr. Erdogan and must prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Turkey joins an anti-West alliance in the not-so-distant future. Here are three distinct reasons why:
1. Turkey is changing fast. The Islamization of the country is a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-American, anti-European, and sometimes antisemitic rhetoric has made him popular among many religious Turks. After all, the country views itself as the successor of the Ottoman Empire.
2. In this respect, Turkey now perceives itself as a rising power, one that is capable of fighting and winning wars. Erdogan’s Turkey has confidence -perhaps too much- in its ability to deal with external challenges. Turkey’s membership in NATO could become irrelevant, if not an obstacle, to an even more revisionist foreign policy.
3. Turkey’s now openly aggressive deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean, its agreement with Libya -which marks an indisputable violation of Greek-Israeli interests- the Turkish blockade of a ship hired by Italy’s Eni to drill for gas inside Cyprus’ EEZ, the harassment of the French frigate by the Turkish Navy, the maintenance of the naval base near Vlore in Albania, the Greek-Turkish showdown over the dispute about their EEZs and the Cyprus one as well, and plans to set up both a naval and air base in Libya, present huge challenges that the United States must address without further delay.
Turkey willing to set NATO’s Southern Flank ablaze…
Competition for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean is pushing U.S. partners and allies towards open confrontation. More specifically, Turkey and Greece are conducting rival naval exercises off the Greek island of Crete, with the participation of French, Italian and US navy vessels, while at the same time a multinational force from Greece, Cyprus, France and Italy launched joint military drills south of Cyprus. The U.S. is the only superpower and desires peace and stability in the region. How will respond to the current crisis between the two oldest NATO members and allies?
The Greek-Turkish Imia crisis of 1996 offered lessons for all sides. It was the high-water mark of tension between the two states, that had plagued the region and NATO for decades. Both countries very nearly stumbled into a clash that neither side wanted, driven in no small measure by the visibility of the confrontation in the media and the pressure of public opinion. And that was when news moved more slowly and social media did not exist. The military establishments on both sides knew and understood each other. Athens and Ankara -with considerable help from Washington- pulled back from the brink. The crisis ushered in a durable period of Aegean detente.
Why should the current tension, over competing maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean be any different from past experience? There are good reasons for the U.S. administration to worry.
The entire region is now the scene of more intense air and naval operations, without the sort of confidence building and risk reduction measures that prevailed even during the Cold War. With mistrust at the high political level, the risk of miscalculation only increases. It only takes a misjudgment in the use of targeting radars for aggressive behavior to be read as intentional. The recent incident of this kind involving Greek and Turkish naval vessels could easily have taken a more serious turn.
NATO allies debate whether Turkey is a partner or a rogue state. The debate is exaggerated however, there is little doubt that the strategic relationship between Ankara and its transatlantic partners has reached a point of virtual collapse. Nevertheless, the US does not want the only Muslim member of NATO to become another Pakistan or Iran. It is still counting on Turkey and wants it to remain close to the West.
At the same time, however, Greece’s security ties on both sides of the Atlantic have never been stronger. Washington ponders to reduce its military presence in Turkey to prefer other sites -such as Cyprus and Crete. Turkey no longer has the special weight it once had for US politics. After Ankara’s veto on US military operations, transit and logistical support before Operation “Iraqi Freedom”, the Pentagon began exploring alternatives: the MDCA agreement with Greece for the use of the 4 Greek bases demonstrates this. The US fears that as long as bilateral relations remain problematic, US personnel at the Incirlik base could be considered a future or potential hostage.
In the event that brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean spills over into military confrontation, Ankara will likely face a strong and unbalanced reaction. There would be no winners. It might mean the end of Turkey’s European Union candidacy and a de facto freeze on co-operation in NATO, alongside other damaging sanctions. Greece would be left to face an open-ended confrontation with an estranged and potentially unstable Turkey.
As rising tensions between the two NATO members rise allarmingly, the United States and Germany strive to defuse the situation at the highest level. U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary State Pompeo alongside with German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged the leaders of NATO allies Turkey and Greece in separate phone calls to step back from confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean and to “commit to dialogue,” which is the only path to resolving their differences.
Libya: Can United States afford to be neutral?
The Trump White House had taken an active interest in the conflict in 2019, reaching out to Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the warlord leading an offensive against the country’s United Nations-backed government. In recent months however, the President’s stance has changed. In fact the U.S. President has found himself caught between strongmen leaders who are supporting different sides in Libya’s war. President Trump has disregarded pleas by leaders of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and others to get involved in the conflict. He has told them he would rather not get involved in another messy Middle Eastern conflict, especially ahead of a presidential election, and urged them to sort the issue out amongst themselves.
Nevertheless, some accuse Washington of confusing things with mixed messages. The State Department might wring its hands with regard to escalation in Libya. To stay neutral, however, will not achieve neutrality.
Most recently, there has been marked a significant shift in Washington’s position. The great game in Libya has begun surging with the United States shedding its strategic ambivalence and resorting to a proactive role. The US embassy in Libya, which had reduced its role in the country after the murder of US ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012, has been upping its rhetoric, demanding that foreign interference in the country end. The US had drawn down its presence in Libya since the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The Russians threaten that reduced presence, as the US would be unlikely to support increased Russian influence in Libya. The renewed US attention on Libya, from the State Department and AFRICOM appear to represent a slow shift in US policy.
In essence, the senior US diplomats kick-started a new American policy trajectory. Washington came to prioritize the prevention of Russian entrenchment in Libya after initially winking at Khalifa Haftar, and sympathizing with Egypt’s concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood.
This became clear when in an interview with the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg disclosed that the alliance is ready to support the official Tripoli government. Clearly, Washington is inserting NATO into the Libyan conflict as a new strategy. Of course, any such NATO intervention in Libya also implies that the Western alliance is moving into Africa.
Back in May, US State Department officials raised the ante by holding a special “Briefing on Russian Engagement in the Middle East” with a focus on accusing Russia of worsening the situation in Libya by funneling Syrian mercenaries. In the Western assessment, any Russian consolidation in Libya would weaken NATO’s dominance of the Mediterranean. The commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa said recently that if Russia obtains permanent coastal bases in Libya, its “next logical step” will be to introduce long-range air defence systems, which could pose a threat to NATO’s access to its Southern Flank.
The US and NATO strategy focus to evict Russia from the eastern Mediterranean, including from its bases in Syria. Suffice it to say, the US and Turkey find themselves today on the same side over Libya, even though the U.S. State Department has called the Libyan maritime accord, signed with the UN recognized GNA “provocative”.
On the other hand, NATO’s intervention in Libya is heartily welcomed by Turkey. So far, the US has mostly provided supportive statements for Turkey and harsh language towards Russia. The US Assistant Secretary for Near East affairs, David Schenker, recently reprimanded the European naval mission “IRINI” in the Mediterranean Sea, designed to help enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya, for exclusively focusing on Turkey, while ignoring the activities of Russia and the UAE. Yet, despite such posturing, Washington has not provided concrete support to Ankara in the field. Russia, therefore, has reasons to be anxious about the future of its relations with Turkey and its overall standing in Syria as well. Interestingly, Russia and Syria held a joint exercise at the end of May to strengthen the security of the naval base in Tartus on the eastern Mediterranean.
To be sure, the NATO intervention in Libya cannot be to Russia’s liking. Russia has strong political and economic interests in Libya. The Pentagon accusation regarding Russia providing jets to Libya suggests that Moscow is stepping up too. Russia’s introduction of fourth-generation fighter aircraft in Libya suggests that Moscow will try to push back against NATO’s intervention.
The resignation of the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, took most of the stakeholdes by surprise, even though several leaks in the press about a week ago should have prepared them for it. While some view Sarraj’s resignation as a procedural step to pave the way for the next government of national unity, others see it as reflecting the failure of his attempts to prevent his being excluded from the scene, especially when Interior Minister and rival Fathi Bashagha was reinstated in his post.
Most political interpretations of this particular development were almost all unanimous that mr. Sarraj was subjected to strong pressures, related to international arrangements being prepared in several Western capitals, especially in Washington, for a quick settlement in Libya through reshaping the political scene before the coming U.S. elections. Many believe that Sarraj’s resignation was brought about by strong U.S. pressure with the purpose of appeasing international parties disturbed by the agreements he signed with Turkey, especially the maritime border demarcation agreement that angered the Europeans in general and France and Greece in particular.
Overall, as we are approaching the date of the Presidential elections President Donald Trump, whose administration sees the new Israeli-Emirati thaw as creating a more united front against Iran in the region, has shown he is able to score some significant foreign policy points. Whether the Abraham Accord plus Bahrein, which was also followed by the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, could be a precursor for a successful mediation in the Eastern Mediterranean remains to be seen.
FRANCE: Introducing “PAX Mediterranea”
Paris views itself as a first-tier power in the region with a number of advantages. It is the only Mediterranean state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and it maintains the strongest army of all the countries in the region. Although in recent years France has given priority to military deployment in Africa, French forces are also deployed in a number of key points in the Eastern Mediterranean and are involved in its own operations, as well as the operations of the European Union and NATO. In addition, France can rely on soft power in the region based on its historic ties with many regional actors, complex though these ties may be. Paris has recently displayed increasing involvement in the region, which, although consistent with its ongoing interest in the region’s developments and trends, also reflects the personal desire of the French President Emmanuel Macron to play a more significant role in these processes.
France’s regional status, however, has been negatively affected by developments related to the growing Russian and Chinese presence in the Middle East, and the increasing influence of regional powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf states. Despite a number of successes of individual French companies, France lags behind Germany and Italy in terms of trade in the region and has difficulty maintaining its economic standing, even in countries where it dominated economically. In addition, French soft power in the Eastern Mediterranean is now in direct competition with the more effective activity of countries such as Great Britain and to some extent, Germany as well.
The current geopolitical position of France is shaped by a variety of factors. Especially in the Mediterranean region is based on national interests and realpolitik accordingly, having two principal goals: First, Paris wants to maintain and, if possible, also improve its status in the region. Second, it is trying to strengthen the regional actors whom it regards as effective in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
France is now primarily a european leader filling the void left by the diminishing role of Washington in the Mediterranean region and to a greater extent in the Middle East, while the influence of Turkey and Russia increases. Paris is looking for ways to fill in part of this gap because it feels that if it is not filled by the EU, or some other formation within the EU, then it will be Turkey and Russia that will try to fill it in.
France continues to struggle with domestic policies, while the French President has introduced a €100 billion rescue fund for his economy which is expected to shrink by 11%, due to COVID-19. So, President Macron decided to gain the moment and go on a geostrategic offensive, possibly taking new steps against Turkey until the 2020 French general elections. Therefore, he has to create resources.
France’s support of eastern Mediterranean countries in disputes with Turkey is helping generate new French arms sales. Paris staunchly backs fellow European Union members Greece and Cyprus in a standoff with Turkey over maritime territory and ownership of offshore hydrocarbons. Greece announced plans this month to expand its air force with 18 new Dassault Rafale fighter jets, and made a $305 million deal to upgrade its existing fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000-5 fighters. Back in February Cyprus, another country with historical tensions with Turkey, reached a $282 million arms deal with France for purchasing new anti-ship and anti-air munitions, as well as updates to Cyprus’ existing air defence capabilities.
Africa’s role in France’s energy mix strategy
Africa, when it comes to oil, gas and uranium has been essential both to France’s energy mix strategy, over the past 20 years, and Europe’s energy independence through resource diversification. France’s energy policy in Africa is largely born out of its relationship with its 18 former African colonies, since the start of many African countries’ independence.
TOTAL, established during the French colonial period, and ELF Aquitaine, which was formed in 1966 and absorbed by Total in 2000, have active roles in this energy policy in Africa. Total is committed to increasing international and European competition, seeking new markets and bringing more projects to Angola, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique covering the Mozambique Canal, as well as offshore capacities in the Gulf of Guinea, in and around Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast.
The recent major oil and gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea around the coasts of Egypt and Libya, with estimated reserves of 50 billion cubic meters and 1.5 billion barrels, as well as the construction of the Trans Mediterranean EastMed Gas Pipeline from Israel to Italy, prove that France is considering this area with great interest.
French oil companies are likely to be among those hoping for lucrative oil contracts in Libya. Considering Libya’s plentiful and largely unexplored energy reserves, French energy companies could stand to profit from helping LNA take power in Tripoli. Haftar’s forces control important oil fields in southern Libya. Paris has set its sights on the El Sharara oil field in the Muzuq desert in Libya with estimated reserves of 3 billion barrels, and which produces 300 thousand barrels of oil per day.
Tensions with Turkey mount after NATO naval incident
In late July, after a long eight-month investigation process, including interviewing over 60 experts on the penetration of Islamism in French society, the French Senate has produced a 244-page very laudable report that will be remembered. Indeed, for the first time in the West, a very important body of the State has deemed the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) a dangerous organisation that controls more than 10% of the country’s mosques and some 600 Islamic organisations. The report pointed to Turkey and Qatar as the primary supporters of the Brotherhood in France, highlighting that half of the 300 foreign imams in France are from Turkey, despite Turkish people representing just 5% of Muslims in France.
France has geostrategic interests in Africa and consequently to Libya. The NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 was initiated by Paris, that was a big political surprise both for supporters and opponents of the intervention. France’s involvement in the region is based on the extensive interests it has historically had in Libya. Its southern border is of great importance to France because the former colonies of Chad and Niger are just across. Among other things, Libya is the main hub of the Western Mediterranean migration route. Paris fears that if Turkey gains influence in Libya it will also increase pressure on the whole of Europe by the migration flows.
It is interesting though, that France has largely refrained from criticising Russia’s role in Libya, due to their mutual support for Haftar and as a counterbalance against Turkey. (see: France, Turkey, NATO & Libya…).
Paris, therefore, has established significant security partnerships with Turkey’s Middle Eastern regional rivals, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. France is Egypt’s third-largest weapons supplier and maintains a naval base in the UAE. This relationship extends into North Africa, where Paris cooperates with Cairo and Abu Dhabi to support the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his war against the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). French governments have regarded General Khalifa Haftar as an essential actor for removing the jihadist groups. French assistance for Haftar has been limited to a few missile batteries and intelligence agents, sent prior to 2017, unlike the extensive military, technical and militia support that Ankara has provided to the Tripoli forces. The French support was insufficient to bring about Haftar’s victory, and he has suffered difficult losses at the hands of forces of the Government of National Accord of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. These defeats have also been perceived as tactical French losses.
The Paris-Ankara conflict which has many roots, worsened recently when, after years of Presidents Macron and Erdogan exchanging verbal attacks, a maritime incident on June 10 further increased tensions between the two countries. France maintains that Turkish vessels threatened a French frigate when, within the framework of NATO, it sought to check the cargo of a ship bound for Libya based on concerns that it was engaged in arms smuggling. Turkey, for its part, claimed that the French frigate harassed the Turkish ships, which were escorting humanitarian cargo, and demanded an apology from Paris. The “equal distances” approach of NATO had as an aftermath France to withdraw from NATO operation “Sea Guardian”.
To make matters worse, the NATO investigation about the naval standoff in June, has been rated too sensitive to discuss in public and does not apportion blame, as Paris and Ankara wage a war of words. A NATO official confirmed the report had been finished, but declined further comment. “It’s been swept under the carpet,” he said.
For France, however, it was the final straw. Due to this incident, Paris considered that President Erdogan had exceeded all limits. Thus, President Macron raised his tone with the aim of isolating Turkey diplomatically, primarily from the EU, but also from NATO. Nevertheless, Paris was unable to mobilize any significant support from either its NATO allies or its European partners so far (see: France, Turkey, NATO & Libya…).
France heads an anti-Turkey coalition in Eastern Meditarranean
Paris has the means to hamper Turkey in Africa, where France holds permanent military bases in Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Senegal and has run counterterror operations in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad since 2014. France also has close ties with Tunisia and Algeria, two important neighbors of Libya.
For several years, it maintained two irons in Libya, with a kind of geographical division. In the west (Tripoli), these COS soldiers were present, in a fairly modest way. We also noted the presence of GIGN gendarmes in charge of the security of the French ambassador in Libya. In the East, with Marshal Haftar, was on the other hand the domain of the DGSE and its Service Action. Engaged in the fight against Daesh, the latter’s personnel were quite large. The figure of a hundred men has circulated but it is, by nature, unverifiable. Some of these clandestine elements, however, accompanied Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli in 2019, as evidenced by the discovery of French Javelin missiles abandoned there.
In this respect, the bombing of the al-Watiya base is unlikely to have happened without the participation of the French. This is, after all, an event of much greater importance than the publicity it received. For the first time, Turkey’s opponents are using real military tools against it. Until the bombardment, the military tool was used only by mr. Erdogan (see: Al-Watiyah’s hit exposed Turkey’s limitations…)
According to our information, the dispatch of elements of the special forces (COS) to Tripoli is being considered in French government and military circles. For supporters of this option, it would be an attempt to limit Turkey’s influence with the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by al-Sarraj.
France has staked a lot on Marshal Haftar, but his star is fading because of his military rout. Even if he continues to be supported by the United Arab Emirates, to which France is very close, certain circles in Paris are now thinking of rebalancing France’s policy by making a gesture towards the government recognized by the international community.
The Empire Strikes Back…
Paris has long sought to return as a central player in the Eastern Mediterranean and in this context made agreements for military facilities with both the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. The French oil company Total, moreover, has a central presence and interests in both the Cypriot and Greek EEZs.
In the showdown between Turkey and its Greek neighbors, Paris has expressed its distinct support for the Greek and the Cypriot position, while viewing itself as the guardian of the interests of the European Union in the region. France provides also outside support for the East Med Gas Forum and has issued a large number of joint statements denouncing Turkish activity there. It has also increased its military presence in Cyprus. Following the latest Turkish moves in the Eastern Mediterranean in August, President Macron expressed his full support for Greece, condemned Ankara’s stance, and announced the reinforcement of French military presence in the region, as well as defense exports to Athens in a general frame of strategic cooperation.
Nevertheless, French diplomacy has not achieved much of its goals so far. This is because at the NATO level, the United States and Britain are betting on Turkey to prevent the creation of a Russian base in Libya, although they acknowledge that serious side effects are emerging. At the EU level, Germany is resisting effective sanctions against Turkey. On the contrary, Berlin is promoting the renewal of the Euro-Turkish agreement on immigration, as well as the framework of Greek-Turkish negotiations.
ITALY: Bound to an incoherent policy
In terms of energy security, the Mediterranean significance for Italy is unquestioned. It imports almost the 90% of its primary energy and Italian main energy companies have heavily invested in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Northern and Western Africa.
Since 2015, Italian energy company ENI has been seeking to create an alternative natural gas supply to the EU by pooling Cypriot, Israeli, and Egyptian offshore resources, and by using Egypt’s liquefication facilities for the cost-effective delivery of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to EU markets.
However, Italy’s initial participation to the EastMed project remains a question, due to the fact that Rome has not finalized yet the EastMed deal with its signature. In May 2019 the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had expressed concerns to the Poseidon project, the last section of the pipeline connecting Greece with Italy. Rome’s posture is rather ambiguous towards the project. One has to keep in mind that Italy retains significant economic relations with Egypt and Russia as well, which they both don’t eye EastMed positively.
The Italian LNG export scheme undermined plans that Turkey had previously developed for a regional energy hub. So, in February 2018, Turkey expressed its opposition at these developments by sending its Navy to prevent an Eni drillship from reaching its destination in Cypriot waters, forcing the company to withdraw the vessel.
While Rome has long been among the strongest advocates of closer EU-Turkey relations, the Turkish intervention brought Italy closer to the Republic of Cyprus and Egypt on Eastern Mediterranean energy matters. With Italian encouragement, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was formed in 2018. Headquartered in Cairo, the organisation counted Italy among its founding members, along with Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. Eni also partnered with French energy giant Total in all seven of its Cypriot licensing blocks.
Libya for Italy is obviously its oil. ENI has seven extraction-processing areas available but, according to 2019 data, Italy receives 7 million oil tons from Tripoli and Sirte, equivalent to 12.1% of its total energy imports. In the Libyan crisis Rome is with an incoherent strategy, which is against its EU and NATO ally France, along with Egypt and the rest energy partners of EMGF, supporting al-Sarraj’s GNA siding with Turkey, while at the same time supports Greece and Cyprus in the matter of their EEZs and the EastMed pipeline.
When Egypt convened a ministerial-level meeting between the European states involved in the EastMed coalition -Cyprus, France, Greece, and Italy- to denounce Turkey’s MoU and push for a settlement of Libya’s crisis, the discussions caused enough disquiet for the Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio to refuse to sign the communique, likely because of Italy’s strong interests in western Libya and its migration agreement with the GNA.
On the other hand, however, Rome participated to the recent Quadrilateral Initiative -obviously opposed to Turkey’s aggressiveness- that conveys the commitment of France, Greece, Cyprus and Italy to implementing UNCLOS and customary international law, maintaining stability and respect for law-based rules, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean, through collective permanent naval presence, based on mutual understanding, in order to enforce -if necessary- peace and security
The Initiative’s inaugural activity under the name “Eunomia”, involving naval and aerial assets from all four countries, took place in the maritime area, south of Cyprus, from August 26 to 28, in the middle of the Greek-Cypriot-Turkish crisis, and included a broad range of naval and aviation exercises, as well as Search and Rescue drills.
GREECE: At the crossroads of energy and geopolitical developments
Greece is a rather newcomer to the “Energy Game”, however with great prospects of becoming energy hub, to the Balkans primarily and the South Eastern Europe. If the estimates are confirmed, the natural gas reserves of Cyprus and Greece amount to 31 trillion c.m. If the estimates are confirmed in practice, the fact that a very large part of these quantities of gas will potentially go to the European market, makes Greece a potential competitor of Russia. More specifically, the area of 10 targets in the two huge plots that have been granted to the consortium ExxonMobil, Total and HELPE is 2,000 km2, which is 20 times larger than the target of the “Zhor” deposit. This will be proven by the drillings when they are done by the companies.
Whether these targets have the fullness in natural gas that the “Zhor” and “Kalypso” deposits have, then the expected quantities will be of the order of 16 trillion c.u., i.e. more natural gas than the cumulative EEZs of Egypt and Cyprus have. The worst case scenario, however, is that the quantities of natural gas in these two areas do not amount to 16 trillion c.m., but only to 2 trillion c.m.
Whatever the case, on January 2 Greece, Cyprus and Israel signed an InterGovernmental Agreement for the EastMed natural gas pipeline in Athens. Its geopolitical/security perspective is crucial. Especially Article 10 of the agreement that contains provisions on measures to protect the pipeline. The relevant provisions are considered very important, as such clauses are not included in similar agreements.
Moreover, this year the TAP pipeline, is expected to start. ExxonMobil too, has a partnership with Total and Hellpe for exploration south of Crete. And ofcourse the FSRU in Alexandroupolis, which is particularly important to unlocking that Balkan energy island and expanding opportunities for exports of LNG, that are 100% dependent today on Gazprom and Russia’s use of energy as a political weapon. Greece is an important key to unlocking that situation (see: REPORT #4 ‘S.E. Europe – S.E. Mediterannean. Multiple Energy Challenges and Complex Geopolitics”).
At the same time, Greece lives in a complicated neighborhood vis-a-vis Turkey; but also a complicated neighborhood vis-a-vis North Africa and the Magreb, the refugee problem and the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece eyes the Eastern Mediterranean, as a region that has to be present in order to safeguard its economic, energy and national interests, making the necessary alliances. You see that in the thriving Greece-Israel relationship, the very successful 3+1 Greece-Israel-Cyprus + U.S.A. cooperation, as well as the Trilateral of Greece-Egypt-Cyprus, which was the basis for the formation and the eventual signing of the recent Agreement that partialy delimites an EEZ between Greece and Egypt.
The “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019” paved the way for the U.S. to fully support these trilateral partnerships through energy and defense cooperation initiatives, essentially upgrading the geopolitical roles of Greece and Cyprus. Through the bilateral Strategic Dialogue and the recently updated Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement, the US and Greece share common strategic objectives. Washington eyes Greece as a pillar of stability and a key NATO ally, when it comes to halting expanding Russian influence in an increasingly complicated strategic environment.
In April 2018, an image materialized at Athens’ Venizelos airport: an American freighter C-5M Super Galaxy loading 40-ton weapon systems. An icon that said much more than press releases and declarations as to the ongoing mutation of the approach to the eastern Mediterranean quadrant, where Washington ponders to reduce its military presence in Turkey to prefer other sites -such as Cyprus and Crete. The Pentagon began exploring alternatives and significant steps have already been taken: precisely the military cooperation agreement signed between the Secretary of State and the Greek Prime Minister has foreseen four bases, including the Cretan one of Souda Bay, which is about to be upgraded by a series of expansion works, both to enhance the capacity for submarines and to transform it into a great nerve center for American intelligence in the eastern Mediterranean.
SOUDA BAY: The Fortress Crete
The strategic importance of Crete for the central and the eastern Mediterranean region had also been recognized since antiquity. During the Second World War, it was strongly fought over by the Germans and the British, and was eventually captured by the Germans after they conducted the greatest and bloodiest airborne operation until that time.
Nowadays, Crete hosts the Souda Bay Naval and Air Bases where U.S.A. and, generally, NATO forces are accommodated. Souda Bay is the second in importance naval base for the Greek fleet, after its main Skaramangas naval base on the island of Salamina, adjacent to the port of Piraeus. The Souda port facilities are huge with the larger installation being Quay K-14 constructed with NATO funds: its length, about 300m. and width, about 100m., allow an aircraft carrier to berth and it is the only NATO naval base to provide such facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The U.S. Defense Budget for 2020 includes 2 sums of $47,850,000 and $2,220,000 for future infrastructures at the U.S. Suda Bay Base. These sums are a big investment and obviously show its high importance to the U.S. and NATO, as well as their will to extent their presence. Last October’s signing of the US-Greek updated Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Athens, together with the upgrade of the Strategic Dialogue between the two countries, will enable these investments.
The Air Base of Akrotiri, Chania, which serves the Souda base is home to the Hellenic Air Force’s 115th Combat Wing with two squadrons of F-16 Block 52+ fighters. These aircrafts were obtained from the outset with external conformal fuel tanks, in order to be capable of long range operations and can carry out missions reaching Cyprus. The Akrotiri AFB is itself part of the broader Souda infrastructure complex, serving thousands of flights per year by American and NATO transports, fighters and every other type of aircraft. It has been used extensively in all operations in the Gulf region (Desert Strom – Desert Shield in 1991, Iraqi Freedom in 2003 etc) and it was the base for NATO and Allied fighter jet sorties in 2011 against the supporters of the dictator Gaddafi in Libya. The significance of the Air Base is bolstered by the fact that U.S. monitoring operations are being executed at large, gathering imagery intelligence (IMINT), telemetry intelligence (TELINT), and signals intelligence (SIGINT) (see: “ENERGY WARS: The Security of Energy Routes in the South East Mediterranean”).
Last but not least, the island also has several civilian and military airports, such as Heraklion International Airport, Sitia Airport and the airfields at Tymbaki (southwest of Heraklion on the South Mediterranean coast) and Kastelli (south-east of the city of Heraklion). At the latter location, the construction of the new international airport of Crete has begun to replace the one at Heraklion which is already congested. Finaly, located in Eastern Crete, on Mt. Ziros, there is a major Air Force radar installation which is one of three area control centres in the Greek territory with a range of more than 450 km.
In this chessboard, enriched by the constant and repeated provocations of President Erdogan who claims the Greek islands, international diplomacy was inserted with the 2-day visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Greece, in a context made more harmonious by the work of the American ambassador in Athens, Jeoffrey Pyatt, which has already been extended twice in light of his very active role. The head of the State Department will visit Souda Bay to certify its operational strategicity and will meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (see: Big U.S. investments in strategic sectors of mutual benefit).
This was the second trip by Secretary Pompeo to Greece in a year amid the Greek-Turkish crisis, following his very recent visit to Cyprus, highlighting the successes in bilateral relations and Greece’s emergence as a strong regional partner for the US in security and energy.
It is necessary for Greece to carefully monitor changes in the Middle East landscape. Although the Palestinian cause has not lost support among Arab countries, it arguably is no longer considered a priority. Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and some other Arab states place more emphasis on Iran. This is also the case for the American administration which brokered the Abraham Accord. Greece needs to find a delicate balance between its historical ties with the Palestinians as well as Iran and the new Middle East realities.
Under the circumstances, Greece could intensify its effort to better promote its positions in the US. The momentum after the Abraham Accord favors the effort, that should rather aim at both the President and the Congress. This entails both opportunities and risks for the Greek government. While Greece along with Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have some common interests at stake in the Eastern Mediterranean -for example in Libya- the country sometimes gives the impression it is entering an obscure military environment that contradicts its peace-loving philosophy. Another midway solution is required here.
The Greek-Egyprian Maritime Agreement
In a surprise move, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias secretly jetted off to Egypt to sign a maritime treaty between Egypt and Greece, that partialy delimited an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two states, in an area containing offshore oil and gas reserves. The deal finalized a strategic alliance with Cairo, which diplomats in Athens said required 13 rounds of negotiations and 15 years to ultimately conclude, due to Cairo’s reluctanty to interfere in the Greek-Turkish disputes.
Greece has struggled and sometimes hesitated to reach official agreements with other states to demarcate its economic zones, due to its dispute with Turkey about its sovereignty over some Greek islands and the demarcation of the economic zones between them. Athens was concerned that concessions to Egypt would later be used by Turkey against it.
Even before reaching the agreement with Egypt, Greece managed in June 2020 to reach an agreement to demarcate its maritime border with Italy, and is in talks with Albania about signing a similar agreement (see Italy-Greece EEZ: An audible Greek diplomatic answer to Turkish provocations). Although Cyprus reached agreements over the years about demarcating its economic waters with Egypt (2003), Lebanon (2007), and Israel (2010), Greece avoided signing a similar agreement with Nicosia based on concerns of deterioration of the conflict in Cyprus.
Nevertheless, Greece feels compeled to defend Cyprus from any attack by Turkey, as formalised in the 1993 Greece-Cyprus joint proclamation of Single Area Defence Doctrine. Athens has clearly stated that it will support the Republic of Cyprus in any way Nicosia has requested, for example by working together to impose strict EU sanctions against Turkey or/and by other means if necessary.
It seems that in light of Turkey’s assertive policy and the need to act against the Libyan-Turkish agreement, Greece’s position changed and now Athens and Nicosia are reconsidering signing a mutual agreement.
The Greek government had been expecting a strong Turkish reaction to the signing of its agreement with Egypt. However, it considered the deal with Egypt a necessary risk, as Athens sought to nullify the illegal Turkey-Libya memorandum which included areas of Greece’s continental shelf. What’s more, the agreement with Cairo will serve as a very powerful diplomatic weapon, in the event that the issue of maritime zones is referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The Greek-Turkish conflicts
After the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Greece and Turkey determined their place in the international system mostly through the prism of their bilateral relations. This was a result of Turkey’s longstanding decision to remain anchored to the West and to Europe. Greece was a key factor in these ties. The situation changed under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Greece is no longer the main priority in Ankara’s foreign policy. Turkey is now viewing it with the logic of the old Ottoman Empire: Greece is too big to ignore and too small to pose a threat. In fact, Greece annoys Turkey because it is influencing EU-Turkey relations, while potentially verging into Turkey’s area of interest.
They are both NATO member states, and as a definition allied to each other. However, in reality, they have always been in a constant state of conflict of various degrees. This constant, relatively low tension, is a result of unresolved territorial disputes, that continue to this day, alongside a long history of ethnic conflicts between the two countries, in addition to very obviously conflicting policies and interests that they pursue in the region.
The heart of the Greek-Turkish dispute concerns the question of whether populated islands deserve the same radius of economic waters around them as do continental territories. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982 supports the Greek position, but accepting Greek demands fully would be very problematic for the Turks, as this would leave them with relatively limited economic waters.
Greece and Turkey have been engaged in an “exploratory dialogue” for 20 years now and the positions on both sides have been fully clarified: Greece wants its disputes with Turkey to be resolved on the basis of the International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which favors Greek positions, while Turkey wants to circumvent International Law, which it has not endorsed -precisely because it does not favor Turkish claims. It is obvious, therefore, that Turkey has been relentlessly pursuing the policy of pressure, the strategy of coercion and the diplomacy of brinkmanship in order to create the conditions that could lead to a military incident and then seek to hold negotiations “with the gun on the table.”
Greece’s relations with Turkey, already difficult and tense to start with, have deteriorated even further over the past few months as a result of hostile actions, such as the deliberate use of migrants as a “battering ram” to forcefully breach the Greek border at the Evros region. The aim was to blackmail the EU institutions and individual European governments to provide additional economic assistance and other concessions, such as a visa waiver, a new Customs Union, e.t.c. to Turkey.
Additional hostile actions included frequent low-level overflights of Turkish military planes over Greek islands or even over the border region in Evros and an announcement for seismic research south of the Greek island of Kastelorizo in late July, a crisis averted because of the quick deployment of the Greek fleet and the diplomatic intervention of Germany.
Nevertheless, long-simmering tensions between the two NATO “allies” have flared again, after Greece signed with Egypt recently a maritime agreement. Ankara was angered saying that the deal came as Turkey and Greece were making progress in informal talks brokered by Berlin.
This time President Erdogan perhaps decided to end with the Greek “annoyance.” He dispatced again the surveyor ship Oruc Reis to conduct seismic research in an area Greece says is over its continental shelf, and Athens has demanded the ship’s withdrawal, setting its Armed Forces on “Red Alert”. This development was tantamount to an informal ultimatum: Let’s settle all disputes between the two countries. Or, as the Turkish president warned, Greece would “pay the price” of having to take on Turkey.
Amid an ensuing NAVTEX war between the two states, Athens responded by multiple aeronaval exercises with its US, French, Italian, Cypriot and UAE allies, in the same disputed areas, begining from the islet of Kastelorizo ending in Cyprus’ western limits of its EEZ, in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.
Even more, Greece supported by France, Austria and some other EU members, demands its European Union partners to prepare “crippling” economic sanctions for use against Turkey if it goes ahead with its planned offshore gas and oil exploration off Greek islands. Athens says that the EU is Turkey’s biggest trading partner. If it wants, it can create a huge problem for the Turkish economy.
Time for a new Eastern Mediterranean strategy…
About 70 years ago, the late US diplomat George F. Kennan set the foundations for the American policy of containing Soviet expansion. The idea was to deal with the Soviet Union in a determined, cool-headed, smart and targeted manner, without the excesses of the anti-communist missionaries of US policy-making. Washington did not always stick to the strategy but this was eventually vindicated.
Turkey is a long-term problem for Greece. Dealing with it -let alone finding a solution to it- will take patience, persistence and inventiveness from Athens. It needs “Achilles”, but also needs “Odysseus”. After all, it was thanks to the cunning Odysseus that the Greeks were able to conquer the city of Troy.
At the point where things have reached, it is vital for Greece to abandon two traditional syndromes definitively: First, military entrenchment within the Aegean. Secondly, understanding its foreign policy exclusively and unilaterally in EU terms. The European dimension is a given, but the events themselves have forced Greece in recent years to perceive itself as a Mediterranean power. The game in the Eastern Mediterranean, however, is played on other terms. It is not limited to the classic post-war diplomacy of cautious steps, if not inaction. Turkey is already doing that and it is promoting its status at every chance possible. Furthermore, Ankara has developed quite a degree of self-confidence in terms of its naval prowess.
Greece obviously cannot shrink away from all that. It needs to protect its own vital interests and at the same time project its influence in the wider region. Even more, because currently Turkey has made more adversaries than it can afford. Preisdent Erdogan has made the serious strategic mistake of “over-extension”, provoking everybody on its periphery to team together against him. Turkey in the post-war era, never had more enemies around it, never had more serious problems internally, and never projected such a negative image abroad.
The fact that Ankara’s extreme rhetoric and provocative actions are part of a broader strategy is deeply disconcerting. It is clear that the President Erdogan establishment is not only a threat to Greece, it also irritates many states in the region -mainly France, Egypt, UAE and Israel.
Greek governments have sought to increase the country’s leverage by launching cooperation schemes with Cyprus, Egypt and Israel. Such initiatives have intensified in recent years, which is a welcome fact. However, they are not enouph to solve the actual problem. This is an urgent matter. Solutions do exist and they have to be examined with the maximum possible degree of political consensus. This practically means that the most effective way for Greece to defend its sovereign rights and at the same time to avoid war -or even a hot incident- with Turkey is to take the initiative to upgrade the current trilateral schemes to a defense Mediterranean Alliance together with France, Egypt and Israel with a distinct anti-Turkish tinge. It is not an initiative with a given successful outcome, however the conditions today are more mature than ever and it is definitely worth the effort.
The point is that Turkey, with each passing day, proves through its behavior that the only language it aknowledges is the language of power. The strong Greek stance may be welcomed as a means of curbing Turkish aggression, but it is not enough.
The Quadrilateral Initiative
An unprecedented alliance has been forged against Turkey in the region by various diverse countries such as Egypt, Israel, the Gulf Arab states -except Qatar- and France. Now Greece should be at the forefront of this anti-Turkish rally. Athens’ problem is currently how to neutralize Turkey as a bully state in the region. There are many other states that have exactly the same position.
As a first step, France, Greece, Cyprus and Italy -which although it sides with Turkey in the Libyan conflict, is the major stakeholder in the region having substantial exploring interests in Cyprus’ EEZ too- decided to strengthen their common naval and aerial presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, through a Quadrilateral Initiative. The Initiative conveys the commitment of the four European countries to implementing UNCLOS and customary international law, maintaining stability and respect for law-based rules, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean. Priority is given to diplomatic channels of communication, both on a bilateral and on a European level. However, the four European countries wish to contribute in a reinforced, collective permanent naval presence, based on mutual understanding, in order enforce -if necessary- peace and security in the region.
The Initiative’s inaugural activity under the name “Eunomia”, involving naval and aerial assets from all four countries, took place in the maritime area, south of Cyprus, from August 26 to 28, and included a broad range of naval and aviation exercises, as well as Search and Rescue drills.
The key to resolving the Eastern Mediterranean’s problems is for the actors to work collectively and not individually. The region needs to take a big step and start to cooperate as a group in the areas of defense, technology, academia, and economy. A stable future for the region rests on an improvement in the collective prospects of states like Greece, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as perhaps Syria, Libya, and Lebanon under certain circumstances, that mainly have to do with their domestic political status. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) has paved the way and is evolving to a political institution that the leaders of the region put forward, with the possible inclusion of Turkey when and if it decides that being a good neighbor is preferable to being a neo-Ottoman perpetual aggressor.
The French “wedge”
In the recent face-off with Turkey France responded almost automatically: President Macron announced, following a phone call with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, that he decided to reinforce the French military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in cooperation with European partners including Greece. Next day, litteraly, the French frigate “Lafayette” and the helicopter carrier “Tonnerre” held joint exercises with four Greek frigates in the eastern Mediterranean, in areas Turkey was “exploring.”
The Greek PM Mitsotakis tweeted that French President Emmanuel Macron was “…a true friend of Greece and also a fervent protector of European values and international law.”
In the wake of President Erdogan’s increasing war threats, Paris responded by preparing the “Charles de Gaulle” aircraft carrier to be sent to the region. According to French sources, the flagship of the French fleet, included its full complement of Rafale fighter jets, accompanied by a Task Force of unknown number of ships and submarines of the French Navy.
Futhermore, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the French President Emmanuel Macron have agreed the start of negotiations that may result in a strategic partnership, in the lines of the according Greek-US MCDN, as well as the aquisition of 18 Rafale fighters to bolster Hellenic Air Force. Neverthelss, due to the recent de-escallation of the crisis, “Charles de Gaulle” did not reached eastern Mediterranean.
The period toward the US elections is critical and full of developments…
With Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean becoming increasingly provocative, Greece is bracing for a possible scaling up of tensions. Athens is weighing its diplomatic options while trying to keep channels of communication with Ankara open, despite the ambiguous stance of the Turkish government.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis faces a particularly difficult period as, while coordinating the response to a possible second wave of the COVID-19 and seeking to bolster the economy against the repercussions of an unprecedented health crisis, he must also continue to handle ongoing tensions with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey sending its Oruc Reis vessel -which actually was not conducting exploratory activities in the Greek continental shelf as it was accompanied by 10 Turkish warships- was more of a “declaration” of Turkey’s claims. After the two opposing fleets having spent two months at sea in conditions that were as close to a real war as physically possible and under international pressure, Turkey’s research ship returned to waters near the southern province of Antalya. Nevertheless, Ankara is sending mixed messages to both Greece and the European Union and Turkish officials are downplaying the significance of the move, calling it “routine maintenance,” and said the ship will soon resume its activities.
President Erdogan, obviously, struggles to destabilize the region in an effort to win time, being squeezed between Turkey’s economic woes growing and the lira nosediving, the stalemate in Libya, the war fronts in Indlib, Iraq and Azerbaitzan, as well as the new status quo the Greece-Egypt Agreement established in the Eastern Meditarranean. The danger has never been higher. With Washington distracted, mr. Trump unpredictable, and Europe susceptible to his cynical refugee blackmail, mr. Erdogan may believe that the time for action is now. He estimates that his geopolitical time is up to the American presidential elections that is a period fraught with danger. Should mr. Trump lose, mr. Erdogan may see the final weeks of his presidency as his last chance to act. Nevertheless, the more pressure he feels on a political and geopolitical level, the more unpredictable, or even dangerous the situation will become.
Washington and Berlin have expressed their deep concern by Turkey’s intended plans, saying that such provocative actions increase tension in the region. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has in many occasions urged “everyone to stand down” in ongoing disputes about drilling and maritime rights in the East Mediterranean. Athens does not underestimate the significance of the close ties the American president has developed with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, it has been encouraged by the readiness President Trump displayed in responding to the East Med crisis, calling PM Mitsotakis twice, when tensions peaked and offering help to de-escalate the situation. With the US President facing a difficult election in a few weeks, the support of the Greek diaspora has gained in significance. Also, mr. Trump is unlikely to want his legacy to be tarnished by a conflict between two NATO member-states.
The same applies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who does not want a Greek-Turkish conflict while her country holds the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency. German efforts continued fervently in order to create a climate for dialogue between the two sides.
The European Union has also expressed its concern over the rapidly deteriorating situation, however in the same cautious and restrained tone it has been accustomed to, giving time to Turkey to change its aggressive posture.
Ankara’s decision not to renew a NAVTEX for the activities of the Oruc Reis, to conduct activities within a 6-12 nautical mile range from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, literally at the 11th hour before the expiration of the previous one, was reportedly the result of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts. Turkey’s decision was reportedly taken after Berlin conveyed that it would be difficult for the European Council not to issue a tough response.
Whether the diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the tension do not yield any results, the possibility of a lasting crisis with Ankara is seen in Athens as highly likely. Officials in Athens are trying to establish exactly when and where Ankara will choose to escalate tension again in the region. There is the certainty that Ankara wants to test Greece’s resolve. If the Greek government does not want to be fooling itself, it must recognize two simple realities:
The first is that Turkey, by maintaining the tension on the military level, seeks to wear down the Greek armed forces, through the prolonged operational involvement -mainly of the Navy. Ankara is well aware of the more than ten years of Greek inaction in the defense sector, as well as its consequences.
At the same time, although Ankara may see a change in Greece’s military stance, however continues to assess that it is unlikely that the Greek leadership will decide to “push the button”. Obviously, this is a decision that involves great risk and cost. To be, however, out of a list of options of the Greek side, means essentially a Greek defeat without a battle.
However for now, neither appears willing to be the first to trigger a face-off that would have dramatic consequences for the entire region and beyond.
The Greek-Turkish tensions are expected to increase before they de-escalate. In view of this, Athens is banking on the involvement of both Washington and Berlin in the effort to de-escalate tensions. It is clear that a “hot” incident in the Eastern Mediterranean would come at a heavy cost to both sides and would further burden the battered Turkish economy. His aggressive stance with the constant escalation may be aimed at masking this very anxiety.
Despite the apparent de-escalation, however, the situation will not be easy. There are conflicting power centers at play in Ankara, with some playing hardball. It is almost certain that President Erdogan, through his escalating aggressive rhetoric, strived to find and optimum exit plan in terms of communication to generals on one side, and the Turkish public on the other. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far he will push his luck this time.
It is clear that Turkey has come under an immense amount of pressure. The recent downgrade of its credit rating by Moody’s has been attributed to geopolitical risks and the messages being sent to Ankara are strict. Maybe Mr. Erdogan has been temporarily convinced that he and Turkey have much more to lose if they get involved in a conflict with Greece and the regional co-alition which has been formed against Turkey. The future direction of events is likely to depend on the extent of President Erdogan’s growing personal insecurity as well as internal and international pressure.
CYPRUS: A new ground of US-Russia confrontation?
The island has been partitioned between Turkish and Greek zones for more than half a century, and is home to one of the oldest UN peacekeeping missions. The Republic of Cyprus, in the south, is a European Union member state, while the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised by no one but Turkey.
Over the past few years, tensions have been rising between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus -and between Turkey and the EU accordingly- about who has the right to assign exploration and drilling permits for the hydrocarbon resources around the island and the contours of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is a convergence of old and new disputes: Cyprus has claimed a sovereign right to take energy decisions on its own, while Turkey, as the guarantor state for Turkish Cypriots, objects to any such activity without an agreement with the TRNC on an “equitable” division of natural resources. The two sides disagree on what is “equitable” and what decision-making process is appropriate according to the island’s 1960 constitution and the UN framework for a Cyprus settlement.
In 2019 Turkey doubled down on its gunboat diplomacy by sending an exploration vessel and a drillship into Cypriot waters, each of which was escorted by Turkish warships. Ankara’s escalation drew strong opposition from Brussels, resulting in unequivocal EU condemnation and the activation of a mild sanctions mechanism. For Brussels, Turkey’s intervention in EU territorial waters crosses a red line -a position that reflects the consensus among the MED7 (Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain) as expressed in their strong condemnation of Turkey on the issue at the annual summit in June 2019. Nevertheless, Turkey repeated its energy “invasion” last July, sending again its drillship “Yavuz” in RoC’s EEZ, in a gesture of defiance.
This puts the EU in an awkward position. Brussels should focus its energy on brokering a deal between the two sides on how to share the hydrocarbon resources. This is no easy task. The Turkish side wants to be involved in decision-making with energy companies, while the Greek side claims a sovereign right to lead the negotiations -out of suspicion that, by allowing Turkish Cypriots in, it would legitimise the political division of the island. There are disputes between Turkey and Cyprus on the EEZ and still larger disagreements between them about Turkish claims on maritime rights, following Ankara’s recent agreement with the internationally recognised Libyan government.
Republic of Cyprus’ energy plan
Cyprus discovered its first offshore field “Aphrodite” nine years ago, yet none of that natural gas has made it to market or even been extracted from the seabed. The same goes for more recent discoveries, “Calypso” and “Glafcos”, which some observers see as possible game-changers.
The exploitation of the hydrocarbon resources in Cyprus’ EEZ is a main priority for its government. Nicosia granted the Noble Energy, Shell, and Delek consortium an exploitation licence for the “Aphrodite” gas field, while at the same time Israel claims a share of its production, as a small portion of the reservoir stretches into the “Yishai” field.
The companies intended to pipe the gas to neighbouring Egypt. On September 1, it was announced that Cyprus and Egypt were again intensifyied discussions on the gas pipeline aimed to transport Aphrodite gas to the Idku LNG plant for liquefaction and export. This is encouraging, but on its own it remains a political development. For such a pipeline to be built, first there must be a commercial gas sales agreement in place for the Aphrodite gas. This requires Chevron, Shell and Delek to find buyers for this gas in Egypt, such as the Idku LNG plant.
Chevron and Noble Energy have reaffirmed the importance they attribute to the development of “Aphrodite” natural gas field. Moreover, they assured ROK’s government of their intention to proceed the soonest possible with their plans on how to exploit the gas field, despite the relevant delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past decade, however, prices and demand have dropped considerably as Europe has been over-supplied with gas. The discovery of new reserves, like Egypt’s massive “Zohr” field, further reduced the value of eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons. Then the pandemic hit, halting the global economy and further eroding gas demand.
To make matters worse, US major ExxonMobil has decided to freeze exploration at Block 10 and France’s Total and Italy’s ENI postponed their drilling activities. On the positive side, though, on July 9 was the launch of the construction works of the LNG terminal project at Vasilikos, by a consortium comprising 2 Chinese and 2 European companies. The project entails the acquisition of an FSRU, the construction of a jetty, pipelines and all related infrastructure.
Last but not least, Cyprus participates in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), and most importantly in the proposed EastMed pipeline, which beyond its main energy nature also possesses a clear geopolitical and geostrategic one. It may even take on the guise of a security subsystem that will alter not only the energy and economy, but also the military balances between Cyprus, Greece, and the EU, on the one hand, in comparisson to those between the 3+1 initiative and EU, on the other.
A new ground of US-Russia confrontation
The ongoing “Energy War” in the region has heated up lately and all the major stakeholders wish to have a role. While the Turkish ongoing “Energy Invasion” continues unobstructed, the recent -full of messages- visits of Russia’s and US top diplomats showed that the island of Cyprus has become a field for the proxy political struggle between the U.S.A. and the Russian Federation.
In this respect, during his recent visit to Nicosia, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow’s will and determination to provide assistance, via a genuine dialogue towards mutually acceptable solutions, if asked to do so by the leaders in the area, regarding the escalation of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey. He also added that there are outside players such as the United States who are trying to create lines and contribute to conflicts rather than peaceful solutions, answering to previous US Ambassador’s, Judith G. Garber, accusations of the destabilizing role that Russia plays in the region.
A short while ago, the ambassador of the Russian Federation in Nicosia, Stanislav Osadchiy, had first expressed Russia’s surprise by the statement of his US counterpart and commented that the United States, which often uses in its policy the principle “divide and rule”, are used to be friends only for the sake of their benefit. “The proof of it is their desire to damage the relations between Moscow and Nicosia by imposing for their demand to deny access for Russian military ships to the ports of Cyprus.” he said.
Russian ships are very active lately in the Eastern Mediterranean and use ports in the Greek Cypriot administration, mainly in Limassol. Moscow also aims to use the shared faith of Orthodox Christianity, as an instrument to enhance cooperation between the countries as Lavrov emphasized this aspect of relations during his recent visit. The U.S. has observed that Russia has been increasing its cooperation and military presence in the broad region and wants to prevent it.
What is most interesting, Russia was scheduled to hold a rocket test firing exercise by its navy for August 18, that for undislcosed reasons never happened, perhaps avoiding to be embroiled amid the hot face-off between Turkey and Greece. Instead, the Russian Navy had announced two live-fire naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean between September 8-22 and September 17-25, amid a NAVTEX “war”, escalating tensions between Turkey and its coastal neighbors Greece and Cyprus.
The Sept. 8-22 exercise, which “coincided” with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrof visit to Cyprus, covered an area south of Kastellorizo, where the Turkish seismic survey vessel Oruc Reis was active, but which is outside the Greek continental shelf and Athens’ jurisdiction, while the Sept. 17-25 exercise would be conducted off the coast of Cyprus in an area where Turkey’s Barbaros seismic survey vessel is active.
Nevertheless, neither of these two exercises took place, probably silently canceled, without any official statement from Russia.
In order to counter Turkish aggressiveness and secure its energy plans as well, Cyprus participates in the two Eastern Mediterranean tripartite schemes: The Israel-Cyprus-Greece and the Egypt-Cyprus-Greece Trilaterals. These schemes, together with the support of the EU and especially the U.S.A., that has repeatedly condemed Turkey’s tresspassing of Cyprus’ EEZ, either by drilling actions or harassment and interidiction of the programmed drillings, provide a rather secure diplomatic context against Turkey’s increasing threats, without however much practical results so far.
Nevertheless, the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019” paved the way for the U.S. to fully support the 3+1 trilateral partnership through energy and defense cooperation initiatives, essentially upgrading the geopolitical roles of Greece and Cyprus. As an aftermath, the US decided to partially lift the arms embargo of non-lethal systems against Cyprus, for one year, with the possibility of renewal. Assistant Secretary of State for the region Matthew Palmer reportedly said that each Cypriot request for the supply of American systems will be reviewed separately. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the move as a step toward “deepening security cooperation” with “key partner” Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. The restrictions will be lifted beginning on October 1.
The timing of the US decision to end the 33-year embargo was seen in Athens and Nicosia as having substantial diplomatic value at a time of fever-pitch tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean with Turkey. Furthermore, the State Department’s timing amid the East Med crisis, but also the threats from Ankara to settle the ghost town of Varosha in Famagusta in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, is seen as an indirect message that Washington is moving to strengthen stability in the region.
During his recent visit U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent one more subtle warning to Turkey and made clear his position on the potential of eastern Mediterranean energy reserves. “We see the Eastern Mediterranean region as a strategic space where we are actively working with our partners, including the Republic of Cyprus, to promote greater stability, security, and prosperity. The Republic of Cyprus has the right to exploit its natural resources, including the right to hydrocarbons found in its territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone,” he said.
In the sidelines of his visit, moreover, the construction of a Center for Land, Open-seas, and Port Security (CYCLOPS) training facility in Cyprus was announced by the State Department, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides.
The Memorandum was singed in the framework of the bilateral co-operation between the Republic of Cyprus and the United States in the security and defence realm, in order to establish a training facility, in Larnaca. CYCLOPS will be a Cyprus-owned facility. An initial funding has already been secured by the US government for the purpose of establishing and operating it. The construction is expected to begin later this year.
Secretary Pompeo’s trip came shortly after Washington lifted the arms embargo on the Cyprus’ administration, outraging Turkey, and days after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid his visit to the region.
The U.S. is concerned about the rapprochement between the Greek Cypriot administration and Russia and the increasing influence of Russia in the region. Secretary Pompeo took the opportunity to remind the Greek Cypriot administration that Washington was uneasy about Russian warships stopping off to refuel at Greek Cypriot ports, as well as concerns over Russian money laundering -something Cyprus repeatedly denies.
State Department officials identified the Cyprus’ decision as a way to help mitigate Russian influence on the island. In this respect, the CYCLOPS agreement is a step aimed at creating obstacles for Russian ships to call at Southern Cyprus ports. Moreover, with its actions, Washington is trying to protect itself against China, whose New Silk Road strategy entails active actions in the Mediterranean. Some analysts also say the U.S. aims to use the Greek Cypriot administration as a base for its military actions in Libya and Afghanistan.
Looking for additional security for its vulnerable EEZ
At the same time, Cyprus and France build-up slowly but steadily their alliance. August 1st, officially marked the initiation of a defence cooperation agreement between the two EU member-states, with particular focus on military and energy areas. The agreement, signed by the two states on April 4, 2017, came into force and provides for upgraded cooperation in the fields of energy and maritime security, early warning and crisis management, and combatting extremism and piracy. On the military level, the agreement foresees cooperation as regards armaments and defence technologies, as well as joint military training and search and rescue exercises.
So what is taking place now aims to put into practice the France-Cyprus alliance in the latter’s EEZ, since at every turn French officials have stated that Paris will defend its interests, thus sending clear messages. All the more now, that the increasingly growing diplomatic confrontation between France and Turkey has flared-up. The two states have signed a statement of intent to co-fund the building of a new docking area at the “Evangelos Florakis” naval base at Mari, to allow larger French Navy’s warships to dock and service. Work has already started to upgrade the naval base. Cyprus will be an intermediary station for the French navy, following the loss of the bases France held in Lebanon and Syria, and especially for the Task Force formed around the “Charles de Gaulle” aircraft carrier, patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean.
An equally integral aspect of the defence agreement is the “Andreas Papandreou” air base at Paphos, with reports claiming that France is looking to regularly use the base for its helicopters and aircrafts.
The recent Quadrilateral Initiative between France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus conveys the commitment of the four European countries to implementing UNCLOS and customary international law, maintaining stability and respect for law-based rules, while guaranteeing the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean.
Cyprus had repeatedly stressed the need for a more concrete presence of an EU force in the region, a Cyprus-based EU task force to fill in the a power void in the eastern Mediterranean. France and Italy’s naval presence in Cypriot territorial waters was a critical policy objective for Nicosia, which seeks to translate those countries’ economic stakes in eastern Mediterranean energy, into a form of security guarantee to defend its sovereignty. In the Quadrilateral Initiative’s framework France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus conducted, last August, a three-day naval exercise named “Eunomia” off Cyprus’s southern coast.
Last but not least, the program of tripartite military cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel for 2021, that was signed on September 9, will further enhance the military cooperation between the Armed Forces of the three countries, by joint exercises and operational activities.
Naval and Air Forces in the Eastern Mediterranean
Military might and military means have become more important for littoral states and other stakeholders, regarding several critical issues ranging from energy competition to political signaling. Thus, the Eastern Mediterranean is witnessing more ambitious defense modernization programs and a significant increase in game-changing naval developments. The result is a new round of naval rearmament. Over the past decade, and while gas fields were consecutively being discovered, the countries of the region were entering into a more energetic sort of arms race. This was no coincidence. Valuable national resources discovered at sea require naval and air forces for their safeguarding. Geopolitical goals too.
It is therefore no coincidence that the largest arms race has been taking place in Egypt for the past 5 years, which is also the country with the greatest discoveries in the number of natural gas fields. And no wonder also, that Turkey and Greece have embarked on high ambitional arms’ projects, dispite their respective significant economic setbacks.
On the other hand, the rest major stakeholders have significant aeronaval units in the region either to safeguard their energy and geopolitical interests, or to contain the regional crises. To this respect, Eastern Mediterranean recently is the field of several aeronaval exercises. These exercises are messages to specific parties, representing a deterrence strategy, whereby each party tries to flex its muscles and show off its capabilities to the other party.
As Turkey forcibly pushes ahead with its controversial activities in the region, it is facing increasing opposition from regional states, many of which have formidable navies. Apart from US and Russia’s Navies, all the other are operated by states that want to see Turkey’s grand plans in the Eastern Mediterranean circumscribed, and might eventually compel Ankara to seriously reconsider its moves in that strategically-important and resource-rich region. Tensions are likely to increase in the coming months, meaning Turkish naval vessels may well face-off with those of other Mediterranean nations that staunchly oppose their actions. Many of these navies are quite powerful and could pose a significant obstacle to Turkey’s objectives.
The Turkish Navy and Air Force
Currently, Turkish navy ships have been a constant presence off the Libyan coast and in the Eastern Aegean Sea. To help ensure GNA’s victory, Turkish vessels are thought to have given sensor support to Turkish drones, as they attacked Haftar’s LNA and destroyed Russian Pantsir air defense systems backing him. Vessels that Turkey has already deployed in the Mediterranean have also been busy escorting cargo ships to Libya loaded with arms and supplies for fighters in Tripoli.
At the same time the escort flotillas of the surveyor Oruc Reis in eastern Aegean, as well as the Barbaros and Yavuz in Cuprus’ EEZ, convey a message of determination that President Erdogan wishes to show, especially to his people, that Turkey’s might and will are unbeatable.
The main Turkish naval units are 16 frigates: 8 ex-US Oliver Hazard Perry class, 4 MEKO 200TN Block I and 4 MEKO 200TN Block IIA/B, 9 Corvettes: 3 ADA class built in Turkey under the MILGEM National Ship Program, and 6 D ‘ESTIENNE D’ORVES class of French origin, 12 submarines: 4 Type 209/1200 (2 upgraded), 4 PREVEZE class Type 2009T1/1400 and 4 GUR class 2009T2/1400 mod and 21 missile boats. \par
The 8 ex-US Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates were delivered in 1998-2001. They are the only naval assets with an area air defence capability equipped with SM-1R mid-range anti-aircraft missiles. The 4 Track IIA/B frigates of German origin entered service during 1995 to 2000. The four MEKO 200 Track I frigates, also of German origin, entered service during 1987-1989. The three Turkish-built ADA class MILGEM corvettes, entered service during 2014-2018 and the 6 D ‘ESTIENNE D’ORVES’ class were acquired second-handed from France during 2001 to 2002.
Deliveries over the past decade have included:
1. 4 ADA class MILGEM corvettes
2. Completion of the modernization program for 4 GIRESUN class frigates (formerly Oliver Hazard Perry class). This involved the installation of a ESSM RIM-162B missile Mk 41 vertical launch missile system (22 km range), retaining the Mk 13 launcher for the SM-1MR missiles (37 km range) and installation of a new GENESIS combat system.
3. Completion of a modernization program for the Track II A/B frigates. This entailed the installation of two Mk 41 vertical launch system 8 cell modules and replacement of the Mk 29 Mod 4 rotating launcher, installation of a new 3D SMART-S Mk2 air and surface surveillance main radar and installation of a new GENESIS Combat Management System.
4. Completion of the modernization program for the 2 type 209/1200 submarines with the installation of the American Raytheon INS system, German Zeiss periscopes and the underwater version of the ARES-2 electronic support system (ESM) by Turkish-Aselsan.
5. The first type 214TN AIP submarine “Reis” was comissioned in early 2020.
Under construction today are:
1. The first (out of a planned acquisition of four) Turkish-built ISTANBUL class frigates under the MILGEM national ship program. Estimated delivery of the first ship is in 2021.
2. 5 type 214TN AIP “Reis” Class submarines although the program is suffering from major delays. Deliveries are planned of one per year for each new submarine until 2025.
3. An ANADOLU class “Mistral” aircraft-helicopter carrier, (planned of carrying 6 F-35B (VTOL) fighters, however their delivery was canceled due to the rejection of the whole F-35 project, over the S-400 dispute with USA), with 4 attack, 8 utility and 2 anti-submarine helicopters.
The Turkish Air Force’s major fighter aircrafts belong to 2 main types: F-16 and F-4. Deliveries over the last decade were of 30 F-16 Block 50+ Advanced during 2011-2012. In 2005 it was planned to upgrade 162 F-16 aircraft (99 Block 40 and 73 Block 50) to F-16 CCIP (Common Configuration Implementation Program) standard. Their capabilities are almost identical to those of newly-acquired F-16 Block 50+ Advanced. Also being structurally upgraded since 2015, are 35 F-16 Block 30 that are currently further modernized. During 2001-2003 Turkey completed the upgrading of its F-4E aircraft to F-4E 2020 Terminator standard. Today, 42 aircraft of this type are operational. The Turkish Air Force has 4 E-7A (737-700) Peace Eagle AEW&C aircraft (delivered 2014-2015), and 7 KC-135 Stratotanker Aerial refuelling aircraft that were delivered used from the USA during 1995-1998.
Over the past decade, Turkey had participated in the production program of stealth F-35 and had ordered 100 fighters. However, Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Ankara’s purchase last year of the S-400s. On the heels of the delivery, the United States cut Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has authorised the U.S. Air Force to withhold six F-35s fighter jets that were sold to Turkey after modifications. The six jets originally delivered to the Turkish government, but never left the U.S. soil. Turkish defense industry is reporterdlly gradually phased-out too from F-35s main parts production.
During this same period, Turkey began stockpiling spare parts for its F-16s out of fear it could face wide-ranging U.S. sanctions for its S-400 purchase. Furthermore, it was recently revealed that Congress secretly blocked arms deals to Turkey since 2018, reportedly including a contract for Lockheed Martin to structurally upgrade 35 of Turkey’s older Block 30 F-16 fighters to prolong their operational lifespan.
President Erdogan has several times announced that Turkey’s TF-X 5th generation fighter jet would be ready for flight in the next five or six years. However, Turkey’s inability to produce a fully indigenous engine is drasticaly delaying , to say the least, the project’s progress.
On top of these serious shortcomings, Turkey might even find it difficult to buy 4.5 generation aircraft in the meantime, to serve as stopgap fighter that can gradually replace its aging fleet of 4th generation F-16s and even older F-4s until Ankara can finally acquire a 5th generation jet.
So while the Akinci UA is an undoubtedly impressive achievement it’s not the aircraft Turkey needs to substantially modernize its air force for the decades to come.
Last but not least, Turkey has made impressive progress in drone production in recent years. Its Bayraktar TB2s and TAI Anka-S drones have seen combat and proven themselves formidable opponents. Given this record, it’s not at all surprising that Turkey is investing in bigger and more advanced drones like the Akinci, since it will be well suited for the kind of conflicts Turkey is fighting and will most likely continue to fight for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, although armed drones have increased in sophistication, will not eventualy cover the county’s military needs without the purchase of new generation fighter jets in the coming decade.
The Hellenic Navy and Air Force
Greece is traditionally a major naval power. Anyone who has studied the country’s history can easily grasp that fact. The axis strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean, led the Greek state to year after year dispose over 2% of its GDP in military expenditures for NATO, becoming the steadiest buyer of weapons in the euroatlantic alliance. The Hellenic Navy, however, has found itself lagging behind due to the decade-long financial crisis. Sure it can still fulfill its mission, but it is in urgent need, due to the ongoing Turkish aggressiveness and despite the economic crisis, of a brave modernization program.
The main Greek naval units are: 4 “Hydra” class type MEKO 200HN frigates, of German origin, which entered service from 1992 to 1998, 6 KORTENAER “S” frigates of Dutch origin, modernized in the years 2007-2010, 3 KORTENAER “S” frigates that have not been not modernized, 11 submarines and 17 missile boats (5 British SUPER VITA, 4 modernized French Combattante III, 5 also French Combattante IIIB and 3 former German S148). Deliveries over the past decade have includes 5 AIP submarines: 4 “PAPANIKOLIS” class type 214 and a completely upgraded type 209/AIP and 3 “ROUSSEN” class, Super Vita type missile boats. Another one Super Vita boat is being built in Greece, but the program has suffered very long delays.
The Hellenic Air Force’s major fighter aircraft belong to 3 main types: F-16, Mirage 2000/2000-5 and F-4. Deliveries over of the past decade have been 30 F-16 Block 52 + Advanced during 2009 – 2010. Very recently, it was decided to modernize 85 F-16 (55 Block 52+ and 30 Block 52+ Advanced) to F-16V (AESA radar) standard. In addition, the country upgraded 5 P-3B naval co-operation aircrafts. The Hellenic Air Force also uses 17 Mirage 2000B/EGM-3 (delivered 1988 – 1992), 24 Mirage 2000-5Mk 2 (delivered 2007 – 2009), 32 F-16C/D Block 30 (delivered 1989 – 1990), 39 F-16 C/D Block 50 (delivered 1988 – 1992), and 34 F-4E upgraded to Peace Icarus 2000 standard, during 2003-2004. Finally, the Hellenic Air Force also has four Erieye EMB-145H (delivered in 2008) AEW&C aircraft.
Faced with Turkey’s aggressive behavior in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, Greece is forging bilateral and multilateral partnerships that are not restricted to the field of diplomacy, but also entail defense procurements. The significant upgrade of the country’s armed forces announced recently is part of this framework. The government recently announced that Greece is expected to spend €10 billion to enhance the Hellenic Armed Forces.
Specifically, Greece plans to acquire 18 Rafale fighters, a full squadron’s strength, to replace the aging Mirage 2000; 4 new frigates, while refurbishing 4 existing ones; 4 Romeo naval helicopters; antitank weapons for the Army; torpedoes for the Navy and guided missile for its Air Force. On top of all this, the Greek government has already submitted a “Memorandum of Interest” to buy over-expensive American F-35 stealth airplanes in the future.
The RAFALE programe: A game changer in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean
According to the information thus far, 10 will be of newly built airplanes, meaning they will be of the latest Rafale C F3-R variant, and the remaining 8 will be older versions that will be delivered from the French Air Force as “hot transfer”. The most impressive element of the agreement, though, appears to be that the 8 older aircrafts will be allegedly given to Greece for free!
According to sources, a major element in the package being discussed are long-range, stand-off cruise missiles like the ship-launched MdcN/Naval Strike Missiles, as well as additional air-launched Scalp cruise missiles, to reinforce Greece’s strategically important attack capability. Both missiles are made by MBDA, as are other weapons that Greece would like to acquire, including ground-based air defense and modern air-to-air missiles like the new-generation MICA-NG.
Whether the specific program progresses, even if the 8 used fighters belong to the F1 & F2 variants, these aircrafts can carry out interception missions with the RBE2 radar and the MICA EM/IR missiles.
But the real force multiplier will be the F3-Rs variants which in combination with the RBE2 AA radar of AESA technology and the BVR METEOR missiles, with their amazing capabilities (100 km range, 60 km no escape zone, 4 mach speed), will definately change the tactical situation in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, Rafale’s ability to utilize the AM-39 Exocet and SCALP EG missiles maintains, if not extending, the country’s existing capabilities at anti-ship and strategic strike missions.
The acquisition of even this small number of fighters in combination with the 24 Mirage 2000-5 MkII will be the most effective fleet of interceptor fighters in the region.
The Egyptian Navy and Air Force
In the past six years, Egypt has made notable efforts to strengthen its Navy, aiming to become the leading naval force of the Arab world and expand its influence in the Red Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and, above all, defend its newly discovered undersea gas fields.
The main Egyptian naval units are: 2 French built “Mistral” class helicopter carriers – amphibious assault ships, 8 submarines, 9 frigates, 4 corvettes and about 45 missile boats. Deliveries over of the past decade have included 3 German class 209/1400 submarines with one remaining, 1 French Fremm class frigate, 1 French Gowind class corvette and a second-hand Pohan G class corvette of South Korean origin.
Moreover, Italian sources reported that Cairo plans to sign with Italy the largest military deal with a European country worth about €10 million ($11.2 million), including two Bergamini-class FREMM frigates, which are ready since they were originally built for the Italian Navy, in addition to four other frigates that will be built specifically for Egypt.
The Egyptian Air Force’s major fighter aircraft belong to four main types: F-16, Mirage 2000, Rafale and F-35. Specifically, Egypt has ordered 24 French Rafale fighters, deliveries of which begun in mid-2015 and currently 14 aircraft are operational. That same year the country also ordered 46 MI -35, of which 15 have been delivered and are already in operational use. Egypt also uses 18 Mirage 2000, 40 F-16 C/D Block 32 delivered in 1986-1988, 138 F-16 C/D Block 40 delivered in 1991-2002 and 20 F-16 C/D Block 52 delivered between 2013-2015. Finally, the Egyptian Air Force also has 9 E-2C Hawkeye 2000 AEW&C aircraft, which were upgraded to the 2000 edition during 2003-2007.
On March 18, 2019, the Egyptian Air Force inked a $2 billion deal to buy 24 Russian-made Su-35 fighter jets, including related equipment, according to Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS), that reported back then that the deal entered into force in late 2018, and the fighter jets will be handed over in 2020-2021, with the first five reportedely being already delivered. The jets will be added to the Egyptian Air Force’s list of Russian-made weapons, including the Mikoyan MiG-29M, Ka-52 Alligator helicopter and S-300VM “Antey-2500” air-defense systems.
The U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet
U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for the Mediterranean, has recently increased its rather depleted presence in the past, due to the extensive Russian presence in the region and most importanlty the heated regional confrontations in Libya and Eastern Aegean as well. The deployment patterns of U.S. ships have taken them to the Eastern Mediterranean, to monitor and deter any possible hot incident that may occur.
The standard composition of the 6th Fleet, includes a Carrier Strike Group (CSG), comprising 4 Arleigh Burke class Destroyers equipped with Tomahawk missiles and 2 submarines.
Additionaly, the massive USS “Hershel Woody Williams”, recently arrived in the Greek island of Crete, reporterdly on a mission to keep an eye on escalating tensions between NATO allies Greece and Turkey over energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Military experts describe it as a floating base, the second of a new class of massive ships the US Navy is now using as fast transport and support centers for military operations. The 230-meter-long ship, about the size of some skyscrapers, was earlier in Naples, Italy, for a routine logistics stop before it was sent to Crete where it is on standby as Greece and Turkey remain locked in a standoff.
6th Fleet’s vessels also participate to the multi-ethnic Standrad Nato’s Marine Group 2 (SNMG-2) in rotation, patroling the area from central Mediterranean up to the Black Sea.
The Russian Mediterannean Task Force
The Russian bear has returned to the warm waters of Mediterranean. Moscow maintains its own interests in the region and has a powerful naval force permanently deployed to the Tartus base at the port of Lattakia and the Hmeimim Air Base, in Syria.
Amidst the flurry of diplomatic and political activity accompanying the Syrian and Libyan crises, the Russian Navy rotate its warships in the Mediterranean joining other units of Russia’s permanent Mediterranean Task Force. Since July 2018, a 15-strong permanent 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.
It’s standard composition consists of: one guided missile cruiser, an anti-submarine destroyer, five frigates, three corvettes, two Kilo class submarines, two landing crafts, an oiler and two minesweepers, mostly from Baltic Sea fleet. Obviously, this is far from the final number of ships of the Russian Navy, located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. This Task Force is accompanied usually by a Navy Aviation contingent with seven Su-30SMs, four Su-33s, two Il-38s and two Tu-142MK maritime patrol airplanes.
Russia was scheduled to hold a rocket test firing exercise by its navy, in the fringes of Cyprus’ EEZ, for August 18, which for undislcosed reasons never happened. Instead, the Russian Navy had announced two live-fire naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean between September 8-22 and September 17-25, amid a NAVTEX “war”, escalating tensions between Turkey and its coastal neighbors Greece and Cyprus.
The Sept. 8-22 exercise, which “coincided” with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrof visit to Cyprus, covered an area south of Kastellorizo where the Turkish seismic survey vessel Oruc Reis was active, but which is outside the Greek continental shelf and Athens’ jurisdiction, while the Sept. 17-25 exercise would be conducted off the coast of Cyprus, in an area where Turkey’s Barbaros seismic survey vessel is active.
The Russian Navy’s massive exercises were expected to involve 24 ships, two submarines and 30 airplanes as a show of force, demonstrating its global presence and power projection capability, conveying to friends and foes the message that Russia is a major stakeholder in the region with considerable say. Nevertheless, neither of the two exercises ever took place, perhaps avoiding to be embroiled in the hot geopolitical face-off between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
The French Navy and Air Force
France maintains a strong naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean sea that occasionally includes a battle group around the aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle” (R91), the only aircraft carrier of the French Navy. The French Navy is able to rely on permanent naval deployment in one or two maritime regions, on its United Arab Emirates base, on several sites in Africa and recently in Cyprus.
The last two years the French naval presence in the region consisted of one or two ships, including one of the Horizon class destroyers (with area defence capability), a FREMM class or Lafayette class frigate or smaller corvette size combatants. It is believed that the French Navy maintains a nuclear powered submarine (SSN) in the area, although French naval command never releases details about such deployments.
French Air Force accordingly, maintains a number of Rafale fighters, of section size, in an undisclosed location in the area, believed to be northern Jordan. Rafales are collectively contributed by squadrons of the Armee de l’Air, as well as the French Navy Flottilas, and their number fluctuates between 6 to 10 aircraft.
During last summer though, there has been an increased naval and air presence in the eastern Mediterranean, due to the Libyan war as well as the increased tensions between France, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. French Navy’s frigates as well as Rafales, stationed at Cyprus’ bases, have participated in joint bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral exercises with Greek, Italian and Cypriot warships and aircrafts, in an effort to convey a message of regional stability and containment of Turkey’s increased aggressiveness as well.
The Italian Navy and Air Force
The main naval units are: 1 Cavour class aircraft carrier, 1 Giuseppe Garibaldi class helicopter carrier, 2 San Giorgio class amphibious assault ships, 8 submarines (4 Todaro class, 2 Primo Longopardo class, 2 Pelosi class), 4 destroyers (2 Orizzonte class and 2 Durand de la Penne class), 15 frigates [6 Bergamini class (2 general purpose, 4 anti-submarine warfare), 6 Maestrale class, 2 Soldati class] and 2 Minerva class corvettes. Deliveries over the past ten years have included the 6 Bergamini class frigates, the 2 Orrizonte class destroyers, the Cavour aircraft carrier, and the 2 (out of 4) Todaro class (Type 212) submarines. The Orizzonte class destroyer and Bergamini class frigates are the only ships capable of launching mid-range surface to air missiles of the Aster 30 type (120 km maximum range). Both types of vessel use the same type of vertical launcher, the MBDA SYLVER A50 VLS. The destroyers have a 48-cell missile launcher and the frigates a corresponding 16 cell launcher.
Today an additional 4 Bergamini class general purpose frigates are under construction, with the final one expected to be commissioned in 2021.Italy has also received a new LHD vessel, the Trieste, which hosts the navy’s F-35Bs, while local yard Fincantieri is also building new PPA vessels for the navy.
The Italian Air Force’s main fighter jets are of three main types: Eurofighter Typhoon F/TF- 2000A, Panavia Tornado IDS, AMX A/T-11 and F-35 A/B. Deliveries over the past decade have been 27 F-2000 Tranche 1 upgraded to Block 5 (delivered 2007-2008), 47 F-2000 Tranche 2 and 21 Tranche 3a (delivered 2013 -2018), 9 F-35A (delivered 2016 – 2017) and 1 F-35B (delivered January 2018). The Italian Air Force also has 62 Tornado IDS and 34 AMX-11. The Italian Air Force also has aerial refuelling aircrafts on strength: 4 KC-767A (delivered 2008 – 2009) and 6 KC-130J (delivered in 2005). Italy has also ordered 60 F-35A and 15 F-35B. The latter shall operate off the Cavour aircraft carrier.
The Israeli Navy and Air Force
The major Israeli naval units are: 3 corvettes, 8 missile boats and 6 submarines. Delivery of the last 3 submarines has been taking place over the past 10 years. Specifically, the Israelis have 3 Sa’ar 5 class Corvettes which entered service in 1994 and 1995, 3 Dolphin class submarines of German origin, commissioned between 1999 and 2000, as well as 3 state of the art- Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) Dolphin 2 class submarines, the first 2 of which entered service in 2012 and 2014, and the third was commissioned in 2019. The Israelis also have 8 Sa’ar 4.5 class fast attack missile craft: 2 Aliya subclass, with a helicopter deck, commissioned in 1980 and 6 Hetz subclass, commissioned from 1981 to 2003.
Israel’s navy has never been regarded as a major military arm. It relies principally on submarines and corvettes to project power beyond its nautical borders. However, since the dicovery of its off-shore energy fields, it realized that had to defend all the complex installations and prospective pipelines. In this respect, is taking delivery of new Sa’ar 6 class corvettes and will eventually build new Reshef class combat vessels to upgrade the protection of its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Israel’s main fighter aircraft are of 3 types: F-16, F-15 and F-35. Specifically, Israel has ordered 50 F-35I “Adir” of which 20 have been delivered in two squadrons and have been operational since December 2017. Deliveries will be completed in 2024. It is the first and only so far state in the region to operationally employ, such an advanced aircraft. Israel also has very large numbers, F-16C/D with the Barak 2020 refit completed in 2014 (78 and 48 aircraft respectively) and F-16I Block 52+ (97 aircraft). It also uses the F-15E “Ra’am” (25 aircraft) which were gradually delivered starting in 1998, as well as F-15 C/D with Baz-2000 refit (36 aircraft), which were delivered in the 1980’s. The Israeli Air Force has also 3 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircrafts: a Boeing 707 and two Gulfstream G550. There are also 13 aerial refuelling aircrafts: 9 Boeing 707 and 4 KC-130.
The Republic of Cyprus’ Navy and Air Force
Cyprus realizing its strategy to become the outmost E.U. frontier in the region whatever it takes, together with the growing needs for the defense of its EEZ, plans a new rearmament program for its National Guard. Conforming to EDA’s guidelines and decissions, this programme of about €100 million aims to the aquisition of european weapons systems, as well as U.S. ones, now that the arms sales embargo has been raised partialy. In this context, a program of bilateral Defense Cooperation has been signed between the MoDs of Cyprus and France, as well as Egypt, Israel and most recently with the U.S.A.
Navy and Port & Marine Police units are: 1 Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Al Mubrukah class of british origin, 1 israeli Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Saar 62 class, 4 italian Patrol Boats C382 type, 1 finnish Patrol Boat Ammohostos class, 2 Patrol Boats FAC-23Jet type, 1 Patrol Boat Shaldag Mk.I class, 2 Patrol Boats UFPB type, 5 Motor Launches SAB-12 type, 2 Special Forces Patrol Boats (SFPB) Rodman 55 type of spanish origin.
Air Force units consist of: 11 Russian Mi-35P attack helicopters, 4
French SA341L1 Gazelle attack helicopters, 3 AW139, 2 Bell 206L3 Long