The Strategic Value of the Eastern Mediterranean
MIN READMar 21, 2017 | 13:49 GMT
By Dr. Konstantinos Filis for the Institute of International Relations
As the Eastern Mediterranean's usefulness increases, the region is becoming an increasingly critical parameter in the strategic planning of the U.S., the EU and Russia.
The region's importance lies in its being:
- A trade hub (which explains Beijing's interest), lending depth to the Suez Canal. In fact, the recent addition of a new shipping lane doubled the daily capacity and shortened passage time. Access to the European market presupposes footholds of some kind in the wider region; footholds acquired through investments and related economic collaboration and/or through a military/naval presence for securing merchant marine routes.
- A buffer zone against threats developing on its perimeter. More specifically, beyond the activity of terrorist groups, the arc stretching from Afghanistan to sub-Saharan Africa is characterized by instability, with trafficking of all kinds, transnational organized crime, poverty and inequality, religious fundamentalism, corrupt and despotic regimes, failed states and the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction being only a few of its attributes. Additionally, given the concentration of a large number of people who will seek refuge in Europe in the coming time, the "security cushions" the EU is creating include interception at the final stage of control before the arrival in Europe of those people who are not satisfied with the living conditions in their country or in the country where they are being hosted, usually in very poor conditions.
- A source of energy diversification for the EU. The EU is pursuing the development of addition plans for safeguarding security of supply. This entails seeking new suppliers and new routes. The Eastern Mediterranean offers both, as long as the right choices are made based on financial, technical and geopolitical criteria. Moreover, existing finds and extrapolated export capacities (which are expected to increase in the coming years), suggest that all interested parties can be satisfied. All of this is of course conditional on the situation's not deteriorating further and on players acting in a counterproductive manner, like Turkey, moderating their stance – not through agreements on energy or broader settlements (see the Cyprus problem) that will serve their interests almost exclusively, and thus render them less aggressive, but through pointing out the losses that will accrue from continuing with the "all or nothing" motif. The other powers need to jointly promote – together with established energy giants – projects with the fewest possible doubts in the direction of the region's interconnection with the European market. In terms of regional clients, Turkey maintains primacy – due to the magnitude of its needs – as long as it supports general solutions in a spirit of compromise, which we will not see happen until after the referendum. Time pressure is part of the equation: Iranian gas is present in huge quantities, though not immediately available, and there is also U.S. fracking gas, which, however, is not competitive price-wise for the time being.
The eastern Mediterranean is also an ideal region from which to monitor military and other goings on in the Middle East. And if the need arises, it can be used as a staging area for operations (in Libya, for example). The Islamic State's territorial losses have forced a significant number of fighters to disperse to areas where jihadist cells/forces are already operating. The chaos prevailing in Libya is fertile ground for consolidating the terrorist network's activities beyond the Middle East. Libya's role as a transit country for migrant flows means the the Caliphate and the West are looking to gain control of it for different reasons, with selective or broader interventions not ruled out.
Russia's recent involvement concerns a web of interests that includes the need for a more permanent and substantial physical presence in a space of strong, though not vital, strategic interest (it is developing footholds in Libya as well), particularly following its intervention in Syria and given the energy dimension, which is attested to by its participation in Egypt. While the eastern Mediterranean can't be seen as rivalling Moscow, it can be added to the EU's supply sources and, by virtue of its geographical proximity, it could, under the right conditions, supply Turkey, one of Moscow's best customers.
That being given, Washington will likely remain committed in the region. The Trump administration appears to attach particular importance to the Israel-Egypt nexus and prefer bilateral settlements with countries it deems important to 'useless' or 'ineffective' multilateral collaborations. Whether various partnerships will arise or the U.S. will depend on a specific axis of allies – as well as the extent to which greater room for action will be offered in the EU, with the West moving in a coordinated manner — will become clear in time.