New security dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 2 Jan 2020

The eruption of conflicts in some Eastern Mediterranean countries, particularly in Syria and Libya present pressing challenges to the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea which started production today is pictured from the Israeli northern coastal city of Dor on December 31, 2019 (Photo: AFP)

The new security dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean region are entirely different than they were after the Cold War. At that time, security and stability were the order of the day and the Eastern Mediterranean region was regarded as the “NATO’s lake”, security-wise. But this perspective is no longer present in light of the emergence of new regional and international players on the political scene of the Eastern Mediterranean. These players are threatening the influence of the existing powers and generating new security formulas in the region.

The eruption of conflicts in some Eastern Mediterranean countries, particularly in Syria and Libya, and the rise of unconventional and traditional threats, such as cross-border terrorism and illegal migration, present pressing challenges to the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, contention has broken out between some Eastern Mediterranean countries over their maritime boundaries, especially after the consecutive discoveries of natural gas fields in that area.

More recently, the Eastern Mediterranean region has gained strategic prominence because of its interactions in the Mediterranean Basin. There is a difference between the Eastern Mediterranean as a geographical region, where many countries share a coast, and the geopolitical concept of the region in the context of regional and international power shifts.

There has also been a broader perception of the geo-economic framework of the Eastern Mediterranean, in light of the energy boost it is witnessing. The economic dimension of the region had earlier been revolving around controlling the seas to secure trade, ports and islands on this international maritime route. But the increase of different activities in the “economic waters” of the Eastern Mediterranean created a new perspective for maritime security, that is in addition to its being a gateway to building economic blocs and multilateral political relations, which became the impetus for establishing new alliances and counter-alliances that changed the security map of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Change in the security map of the Eastern Mediterranean

Shifts in the international order were the main reason for the changes that occurred on the security map of the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia is back in the arena, looking at the Eastern Mediterranean as if it were its “lukewarm water”. Russia had been absent from the region for more than a quarter century, since the end of the Cold War era in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. This is the era that saw the “Russian maritime militarisation”, when the presence of the Russian military intensified in the area, taking the Syrian Tartous Port as a starting point, from which Russia headed to the Eastern Mediterranean amid warmer relations between Moscow and regional capitals.

Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean comes at the expense of the US presence in the area and is putting pressure on the borders of the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). This resulted in a state of competition, reminiscent of the Cold War era.

In this context, a large number of security reports issued by Western think-tanks coined the term “new cold war” for the state of competition between Russia and NATO countries, despite the fact that it is not confined to Moscow’s return to the Eastern Mediterranean, but extends from Eastern Europe all the way to the Arctic region.

The majority of forecasts, including those released by the NATO School, reveal the concern about the expansion of Russia’s military in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and its possible repercussions on the structure of NATO itself, particularly because Russia has lured Turkey, a NATO member of strategic weight, being the second-largest member in the organisation after the US. This polarisation has resulted in an imbalance because of its huge maritime logistical support opportunities for Russia. It provided Moscow with a shortcut to the Eastern Mediterranean through the Bosporus Strait. European fears are further compounded by the proliferation of Russian defence systems in the Eastern Mediterranean, after the Turkish army acquired the S-400 system, in addition to the backing it receives from multiple groups in Syria.

In tandem with these international shifts, the regional system is undergoing parallel transformations. Just as the decline of US influence in the Eastern Mediterranean provided an opportunity for Russia to fill this void, regional shifts invoked new regional players, namely Iran, that approached the Mediterranean coast through the Syrian conflict. Iran became more active in the area after the establishment of a regional-international alliance that included Russia, Turkey and Syria, which was confirmed by the US military withdrawal from Syria. The same case applies to Libya, where the differences between regional players, most of whom are from Eastern Mediterranean countries, have continued to intensify the conflict there.

Gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean are a major dynamic turning point, constituting one of the most important drives for the shift in the security environment of the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, the gas discoveries increased the importance of the region, provided it with economic opportunities and chances for multilateral cooperation between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, and gave way for Israel’s rapprochement with those countries within the framework of the energy file. The gas discoveries, however, have created mounting challenges, triggering a number of conflicts over maritime demarcations between some Eastern Mediterranean countries, including between Cyprus and Greece on the one hand and Turkey on the other, as well as between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Signs of instability

Because of the abovementioned shifts, the Eastern Mediterranean is no longer a secure, stable region. This is manifested in:

Increased conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean as part of the successive waves of the so-called “Arab Spring”, which has adversely affected the political stability and security in those countries and spread to neighbouring countries. It has had repercussions on the security of the Eastern Mediterranean, where the first wave of the “Arab Spring” was accompanied by the outbreak of armed conflicts in Syria and Libya in 2011, the security repercussions of which continue to date. There is no clear end in sight for these conflicts, nor the restoration of stability in those countries in the near future.

There is a current perception that some countries are experiencing a second wave of the “Arab Spring” as a reaction to the first wave. This can be seen in the case of Lebanon to some extent, and in Iraq more clearly, as well as the on-and-off escalation between Israel and Syria because of the Iranian presence in the latter, as well as between Tel Aviv and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

- Growing conflicts over demarcation lines as a result of the competition over energy sources between many Eastern Mediterranean countries:According to many international forecasts, there is no successful mechanism to deal with these intensifying conflicts, especially since they were not born recently. Land and maritime border disputes are complex, which is why it is not believed there is a possibility to draw demarcation lines between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbours, as a result of the history of Israel’s creation in the region. The same goes for the conflict between Turkey and its neighbours, Greece and Cyprus, in light of Ankara’s occupation of the northern part of Cyprus in 1983, and the fact that it did not recognise the maritime borders between Cyprus, Greece and Egypt.

Increasing unconventional security threats, which accompany the spread of chaos and instability in the Eastern Mediterranean region in general. Chaos affected countries of the region, and its repercussions spread to neighbouring countries, resulting in, primarily, cross-border terrorism and illegal migration. Countries of the Middle East, for example, suffer from terrorism that was centred in Syria with the outbreak of its conflicts in 2011. The Syrian conflict provided an ideal incubator for the proliferation of countless terrorist organisations, perhaps the most dangerous of which is the “Islamic State” that spread to Iraq and European countries before they were defeated militarily. The group then spread in different regions in Asia and North Africa through different routes, most of which cross the Eastern Mediterranean.

The phenomenon of cross-border terrorism is not much different than illegal migration, which is exported from countries of conflicts and economically expelling countries to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea that has become the lifeline of illegal migration.

Increasing militarisation indicators in the Eastern Mediterranean: Although militarisation is a historical phenomenon in the region, it has acquired new dimensions, quantitatively and qualitatively. Several international reports on security in the Eastern Mediterranean monitor the situation as an “arms race” in the region, a pattern that is different from the previous succession of security control.

The US military presence after the end of the Cold War, manifested in the presence of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, was an alternative to the Soviet military presence in the area. Recent reports of military deployment in the Mediterranean, nonetheless, indicate a marked withdrawal in US military deployment, which has become limited to its presence in Spain and Greece, in addition to the unsustainable presence of some naval ships in some locations, based on the naval tasks, such as joint exercises. On the other hand, there is a noticeable increase in Russia’s naval military presence, which ranges between 11-15 naval ships and two submarines.

The military deployment reflects the priority of the Russian and US powers. The US focuses primarily on moving its navy toward the South China Sea, while Russia is withdrawing many of its naval ships from its Black Sea fleet toward the Eastern Mediterranean.

Many Western reports point to Russia’s return to the designation of its fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean as the “Mediterranean Squadron”, which was the name of its navy fleet during the Cold War, considering the huge difference in the capabilities of those ships that became equipped with missiles such as “Kalibr”, and the boosting of military structure in the port of Tartous, which witnessed a paradigm shift. Overall, Russia’s military structure in Syria confirms Moscow’s drive for a sustainable presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition, there is a marked qualitative increase in maritime armaments in every Eastern Mediterranean country. For example, Egypt has doubled its naval powers in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as the Mistral aircraft carrier and several frigates and submarines to secure its economic waters on the high seas.

Militarisation is no longer limited to naval deployment. There is a Russian air base in Khmeimim, which monitors the Eastern Mediterranean. The naval force in Tartous is not solely positioned as part of the​ military presence in Syria, but is seen within the bigger context of the relationship between NATO and Russia.

The future of Eastern Mediterranean security

Given the current security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, the majority of opinions agree that it is difficult to predict decisively what will the security situation be like in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and the time it will take for stability to be restored following what the new balance of power will dictate, given that the majority of similar cases remain unstable. Prospects for stability appear less than the possibilities of the intensification of conflicts, at least in the short term. However, there are two likely scenarios for the security shifts in the Eastern Mediterranean:

Establishing multilateral relations: This is a scenario that establishes stability and cooperation between forces rather than the breakout of disagreement as a result of a conflict of interests between parties. Those in favour of this scenario do not prefer this type of interrelationships to be recognized as absolute alliances, but rather multilateral relationships, particularly because there are challenges regarding the strategic requirements for building alliances, including the lack of a perfect convergence of views on many issues. For example, there is a relative convergence in the Russian-Turkish vision on Syria, but this doesn’t exist in the case of Libya, where the Russian and Turkish views appear contradictory.

Regarding the kind of military participation in alliances, there is, for example, a growing Egyptian-Cypriot-Greek strategic military relationship, one manifestation of which is the Medusa joint military exercise. But Israel cannot participate in such or other military exercises, even if it shares the same security vision with Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.

-Crisis and conflict management: This is the present scenario in light of the continuing challenges posed by the security threats in the Eastern Mediterranean. These conflicts are seen as long-term, without a mechanism to eliminate them altogether, especially in the cases of terrorism and illegal migration.

In the case of border disputes, there is a fluctuation between calm and anxiety that did not reached the point of military escalation, as is the case between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. The same goes for the relations between Israel and Iran. They became neighbours by virtue of Iran’s permanent presence in Syria. The case is not much different in the Libyan case, where it is difficult to see a resolution in favour of the country. Consequently, every player prefers the pattern of conflict management that allows them a margin of movement.

Finally, the current state of affairs in the Eastern Mediterranean region paves the groundwork for a new era the image of which is yet unclear, but that will erase all the post-cold war features, prime among which is the retreat of US leadership in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is what many US views have been warning against because it will create for Washington a crisis not less in magnitude than the crisis in the South China Sea, in addition to the continued erosion of NATO borders and influence.

It is envisaged that the final outcome of the Eastern Mediterranean map will present new balances of power to be determined primarily by economic interests, followed by dealing with concerns and urgent threats.

The Eastern Mediterranean will remain predominantly tense as a result of conflicts and competition between its various players, especially since there are emerging foreign powers, such as Russia and Iran, in the region’s security equations. The two countries are a source of tension for other parties in the Eastern Mediterranean region and its neighbours, such as the Middle East, Western Europe, and the Southern Mediterranean.

Therefore, the repercussions of Turkey’s hostile attitude towards its neighbours cannot be predicted. In addition, mechanisms to defuse chronic conflicts between the parties are absent, especially since they have intensified over energy sources. Compounding the matter even further is the fact that the unconventional phenomena can regenerate themselves on a more aggressive scale.

The East Mediterranean region has become a hotbed of geopolitical flare-ups in the absence of effective mechanisms to restore stability in the near future. It is expected, however, that a comprehensive restructuring of the security environment of the Eastern Mediterranean in the medium and long terms will result in new security arrangements that may restore to the region some of its long-lost stability.

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