A new Eastern Mediterranean alliance arises…
The fact that Ankara’s extreme rhetoric and provocative actions are part of the broader strategy of “Blue Homeland” is deeply disconcerting. It is clear that the President Erdogan establishment is not only a threat to Greece and Cyprus; it also irritates many states in the region -mainly France, Egypt, UAE and Israel.
The point is that Turkey, with each passing day, proves through its behavior that the only language it aknowledges is the language of power.
Anastassios Tsiplacos - Managing Editor
This year’s multinational exercise “MEDUSA 10” was executed in three phases dealing with search and rescue, cyber war, surface drills and marine formations scenarios. The exercise was conducted in the broader region of Alexandria, Egypt, and of Cairo FIR, with the participation of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France and the United Arab Emirates.
In Greek mythology, Medusa also called Gorgo, was one of the three monstrous Gorgons, generally described as winged human females with living venomous snakes in place of hair.
Those who gazed into her eyes would turn to stone…
The energy security in the eastern Mediterranean
Following the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, alongside with the ongoing US-Russia Energy War, the need to reduce dependency on Russian gas exports has forced European governments -except perhaps Germany- to see the eastern Mediterranean’s energy resources as a potential sub-alternative. Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian gas exports could contribute to the diversification of supplies.
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.
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 Energy 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.
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 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). 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.
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. 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”).
Noticeably absent is Turkey -despite its overlapping maritime claims, vast domestic market, and potential as a transit route for regional gas exports. Turkey disputes the right of the Republic of Cyprus to conduct gas exploration without the involvement of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Regional co-operation through Trilaterals
In the eastern Mediterranean, a possible confrontation is under way between Turkey and the rest stakeholders 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.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey seeks to enhance its political influence in the eastern Mediterranean and restore a sense of “greatness” to the country. Energy exploration and transportation are perceived by Ankara as a zero-sum game. However, Turkey needs allies to realise its plans. In November 2019, Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord signed a maritime agreement with Turkey in exchange for military support. The two countries are now supposed to share an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from Turkey’s southern shore to Libya’s northeastern coast. The legality of the agreement is disputed by the Libyan opposition, France, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus. The deal with Libya achieves two things: it makes Turkish foreign policy seem less unilateral; and it is a “lawfare” tactic against Greece, its main geopolitical competitor in the region, which claims the same EEZ.
Given the significant breadth of Turkish claims and its extremely maximalist positions on issues primarily 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.
Israel, Greece and Cyprus 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 eastern Mediterranean to European markets and a Cypriot LNG plant near Vassilikos on the southern coast of the island.
In January 2020, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli ministers signed an agreement to build the EastMed 1,900 km subsea pipeline to carry 10 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually. The EastMed pipeline is the best demonstration of the emerging Greek-Israeli partnership. Both countries have opposed Ankara’s grandiose ambitions in the region (see: REPORT #6 EASTMED: A pipeline of Peace or War? ).
As an alternative, Ankara has offered to build a “peace pipeline” to transport Cypriot, and possibly Israeli, gas to European markets via Turkish territory. Cyprus has not rejected this route, on the condition that there is a resolution of the Cyprus Problem, which would include unification of the island and the withdrawal of the Turkish troops from the northern part. After the opening of the “ghost town” of Varosha by the Turkish army, the prospects of a peace settlement seem more remote than ever.
The EastMed pipeline project, however, is only feasible with US backing. The passing of the “Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act” by the US Congress in 2019 sends a message of support to Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
The Egypt–Greece–France Axis + Cyprus
The second major regional Trilateral is between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, which focuses on all the issues of cooperation between the three countries, aiming to form a strong energy-based alliance in the eastern Mediterranean. The three countries have underlined the importance of making additional efforts to boost security and stability in the region, and strongly call on Turkey to “end its provocative actions” in the eastern Mediterranean condemning them as “unlawful and unacceptable”.
As a result, Greece and Egypt have signed 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 deal was widely seen as a response to the ilegal agreement reached earlier between Turkey and Libya’s Tripoli-based administration, that increased tension in the region. Greece, Cyprus and Egypt widely criticized the deal between Ankara and Tripoli, saying it infringed on their economic rights.
The recent arrival of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Athens for talks with his counterpart Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in the midst of a global pandemic, was seen as indicative of a veritable spring in the relations between the two countries. As al-Sisi’s visit suggests, Athens and Cairo are in very intensive discussions to further strengthen their relationship both within the tripartite scheme of cooperation with Nicosia but also beyond it.
France, which has close relations with Egypt, also wants to join the tripartite. France views Egypt as a key ally in the fight against terrorism, and together with Greece and Cyprus as important clients for its warships and fighter jets.
The French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom he referred to as his “friend” for talks. Al-Sisi’s visit, which follows the French president’s trip to Egypt, aims to strengthen relations between Paris and Cairo, a strategic partner and essential to stability in the Middle East. The two presidents discussed the problems stemming from regional crises, particularly that of Libya, and the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, which according to both countries are linked to Turkey’s regional ambitions.
The significance of the Greece-UAE defence agreement
At the same time, Greece and UAE signed a declaration on strategic partnership as well as a cooperation agreement in the areas of foreign policy and defense. The signing of these agreements demonstrates the identity of the positions on both sides, in the face of the common challenges the two countries are facing at regional level and upgrades the relations between the two countries at a strategic level in all areas of mutual interest.
The agreement on cooperation in the areas of foreign policy and defense provides, inter alia, for the establishment of a High Level Committee, which will oversee its implementation, as well as the strengthening of defense cooperation on the basis of the 2007 military cooperation agreement. The mutual defense assistance clause, activated in the event that one of the two countries’ territorial integrity is threatened, is probably the most important part of the defense and foreign policy cooperation agreement signed by the governments.
Even though the agreement explicitly states that it does not concern specific third countries, both parties understand that it was signed to counteract Turkey’s attempts to destabilize the wider eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region.
As an aftermath and in order to enhcance their defense cooperation, naval units from Greece and the United Arab Emirates took part in a joint three-day military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean. The drill, which involved one UAE corvette, two Greek frigates and Hellenic Air Force aircraft, focused on communications, anti-aircraft warfare and fast-roping from helicopters. The drill followed the “MEDUSA 10” multinational exercise, in which Greece and the United Arab Emirates joined Cyprus, Egypt and France in a joint sea-air exercise off the coast of Alexandria, in Egypt, between November 30 and December 6.
A new Eastern Mediterranean alliance emerges…
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 all the major stakeholders in the eastern Mediterranean region -not only for Greece. In Ankara’s 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 power, Turkey strives to subverse the current status in the region with high risk actions and statements.
President Erdogan believes Turkey’s regional empowerment, despite the political and economic cost, gives him more room to bargain with Europe and other regional stakeholders. As the reactions of the United States and the European Union are carefully balanced and rather lukewarm, he is expected to continue his belligerence activities.
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.
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 growing militarisation of the eastern Mediterranean mainly involves US allies –Israel, France, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. There is a cycle of confrontation between Turkey and the rest that could lead to an armed conflict. It is imperative for the US to use its influence to defuse tensions in the region. Nevertheless, dealing with Ankara’s assertiveness -let alone finding a solution to it- will take patience, persistence and inventiveness.
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. Greece, obviously, is at the forefront of this anti-Turkish rally. Athens’ problem is currently how to neutralize Turkey as a bully state in the region, while there are many other states that have exactly the same position.
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.
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 the “Quadrilateral Initiative”.
The Initiative conveys the commitment of the four European countries to implement 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 to 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 Initiative continued its action on December 6, with the aeronautical exercise (PASSEX) that took place in the sea area south of Cyprus, on the occasion of the presence of naval forces from France, Greece and Italy in the eastern Mediterranean. The exercise, coordinated by Cyprus’ General Staff of the National Guard (GEEF) was another step in enhancing interoperability between the four cooperating countries.
The naval and flying means used in the exercise were the French frigate FS “Aconit” with its organic Panther helicopter, the Italian aircraft carrier ITS “Garibaldi”, the Greek frigate HS “Hydra” and on behalf of the Republic of Cyprus, the patrol boat “Ioannidis” and an AW-139 Helicopter (see: Report #7: Energy Wars and Naval Diplomacy in the Mediterranean).
Multinational exercise MEDUSA 10/2020: A meaningful message to Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dreams…
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 defensive character of their cooperation. Within the framework of this practice, the large-scale “MEDUSA” exercises, for air and naval forces of Greece and Egypt, with the participation of Cyprus, take place in the wider region of Alexandria, Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The joint aeronautical exercise aims to strengthen maritime safety in the Mediterranean Sea and for this purpose, asymmetric threat drills, real fire drills, casualty drills, maritime communications’ drills, amphibious operations as well as search and rescue drills.
The exercise aims also to polishing the skills of officers participating in the various naval formations, exchanging combat and field expertise, improving readiness to carry out any joint tasks under different circumstances, and protecting the vital energy routes and economic targets in the eastern Mediterranean against any potential threats.
This year’s “MEDUSA 10” was executed in three phases dealing with search and rescue, cyber war, surface drills and marine formations scenarios. The exercise was conducted in the broader region of Alexandria, Egypt, and of Cairo FIR. The scenario of the exercise was based on an amphibious movement by enemy forces. During the final phase, amphibious drills and air strikes took place on coastal targets, as ell as operations of dealing with asymmetric threats.
It is obvious that “MEDUSA’s” scenarios are gradually being expanded and the participating forces are also increasing both in size and in the variety of the hardware involved. This year the cooperation was enhanced with the strong participation of forces from France, following the “Quatrilateral Initiative”, and the United Arab Emirates.
The participating forces
The breakdown of the participating forces indicate the scale of the exercises: Greece participated with 2 frigates and their on-board SA-70B “Aegean Hawks” helicopters, 1 type 214 submarine, 8 F-16s, 1 C-130, 1 AWACS aircraft, 1 CHINOOK helicopter, 2 AH-64 attack helicopters and Special Forces (parachutists, marines and navy commandos) personnel. Egyptian forces participated with the “Gamal Abdel Nasser” Mistral class helicopter carrier, 2 frigates, 1 type-209 submarine, 2 missile boats, 6 F-16s, 2 RAFALEs, 1 E2-C AWACS aircraft, 2 Kamov Ka-50 “Black Shark” anti-armour helicopters and Special Forces personnel. Cyprus participated with the offshore patrol vessel “Ioannides”, and Special Forces personnel. France participated with the La Fayette-class frigate “Aconit” and the UAE with the Baynunah class corvette, which after the 5 day exercise continued to cooperate with greek naval units and aircrafts in a “PASSEX” drill, and finally visited the port of Pireaus.
It is more than evident that all the above innitiatives and multinational 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 participants 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 obstract this kind of co-operation, as well as the change of the regional energy status-quo.