Eastern Mediterranean – Conflicting Geostrategic Aspirations

Sub Title : The crucial role of religion, hydrocarbons and commerce in the region.

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2020

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer PVSM, AVSM

Page No. : 36

Category : Geostrategy

: October 2, 2020

The author has examined the Geopolitical and Strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean in lucid details. Religion, Hydrocarbons, Commerce play a crucial role in defining the future of this region and the neighbouring countries.

The Mediterranean Region

♦ The Mediterranean Sea has a total coastline of 46,000 Kms, 3000 Islands and 22 Nations on its littoral.

♦ It has served as a cradle, to the Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Arab, Turkish empires, and been witness to war and conquest through the ages.

♦ Three of the world’s greatest religions, have roots and territorial affirmations in the region.

♦ Always a superhighway for trade, commerce, transfer of knowledge and populace, its power struggles over the last century have been dominated by the global currency of hydrocarbons, as well as its geo strategic opportunities.

The politico strategic imperatives of Eastern Mediterranean have always been more dominant. From the ancient Fertile Crescent, to the present, this swathe of land and sea, from the coast of Italy, up to Libya, has been like a central Coliseum. It remains today, a crucible of conflictual and competitive interests, with a sphere of influence into the continents that are connected by it.

The influences that dominate the region today, revolve around:

♦ The capture of hydrocarbons.

♦ Geo Strategic aspirations of Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus.

♦ The wars in Syria, and Libya.

♦ Expeditionary aspirations and commercial interests.


Estimates of the recoverable hydrocarbons, from the Eastern Mediterranean basin, are at 1.7 billion barrels of oil, and 3.5 trillion cu.m of gas, (estimates of total gas are in the range of 122 trillion cu.m). To this must be added, the Libyan oil reserves 2.8% of the world total, and the flow from Egyptian Sumed pipelines, Red Sea to Sidi Kerer, on the Mediterranean (2–2.4 MBD). There are also the assessed Turkish gas reserves from the Black Sea, of 320 billion cu.m. A major factor of attraction is that these are mainly non-OPEC hydrocarbons.

The next element is the significant, long distance gas pipelines to Turkey, Turk Stream (Russia, which provides 50% of total Turkish requirements of gas), TANAP from Azerbaijan, and East Anatolian from Iran. Eastern Mediterranean is the gateway for trade, from the Red Sea and Black Sea, to the Atlantic. Surface transit on the seas are to the tune of 30% of world transportation, @4000 cargo and commercial vessels a day. 40,000 Russian vessels pass through the Turkish Straits annually.

Geopolitical Strategy

Geo Strategic aspirations while rooted in history, are greatly driven today by revealed resources, economic aspirations, and positioning. Equally relevant are the ambitions for
pre-eminence. Maritime disputes, the Libyan war, the Syrian trajectory, and geo-economics, are all its fundamentals. The struggle between competing powers dates to the Peloponnesian wars (431 BCE), and continues past the Arab Israeli Wars.

The principal competing centres of power today, are Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. Greece has a unique European and Mediterranean identity. Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are significant. Cyprus is central, France and Italy are important, while Iran and Russia have expeditionary aspirations.

Geo Strategic Aspirations of Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus

Modern Turkey, with the coming to power of President Erdogan, has acquired a new flavour that is Islamist and anti-democracy.  The impact on the negotiations to join the EU, ongoing from 1987, was disappointing, in that the EU suspended them, in 2016. Continuing in his classic mode of purges and restrictions, Erdogan’s verbiage now reflected the new paradigm. ‘Democracy is a train’, you could get off when you wished. Islamic hard lining, combined with a desire for Islamic leadership ‘… battle between cross and half-moon’. Adopting a new ‘Ottoman’ mantle, Turkey also now seeks to pursue a maritime domain. This has created a rift with Egypt, which detests Turkey’s preening, and its support to the Islamic Brotherhood.

Despite Turkey being a member of NATO, the Syrian war has left Turkey soured off with the US. US regional self-renunciation, coupled with Russian power play, and the congruence in personalities of Erdogan and Putin, has coalesced Russia and Turkey. Turkish shift away from the US, has also favoured linkages with Iran. NATO apart, Turkey and Greece have far too many disputations, and strategic departures, including Cyprus, which ensure a stormy relationship. While the US 6th Fleet still prowls the waters with all its potency, the Russians operate out of the Syrian port of Tartus and their base at Latakia.

Israel and Turkey had good relations, till the Mavi Marmara maritime incident of 2010, when relations were snapped. Despite being re-established in 2016, there are several fundamental points of departure between an ‘Islamic’ Turkey and an Ultra-Right Israeli administration. The initial troubled relations between Greece and Israel, were cemented between 2010 to 2016, and consequently Israel has shown full solidarity with Greece as well as the Republic of Cyprus on maritime, security, and other issues. There is active cooperation between the three on hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation. Israel has good relations and cooperation, with Jordan as well as Egypt.

Cyprus unambiguously scores a double six, on the roll of dice, in the region. Split between the Northern Turkish and the Greek Southern Republic of Cyprus (RoC), the southern Republic provides critical bases to the US and UK and France. Akriti Air Base is within 15 minutes flying time to Syria. Cyprus, is critical to the delimitation of EEZs with claims over the Hydro Carbon reserves. Tucked away, the Greek island of Crete, has great strategic value. This setting of an elastic power play gives us the vocabulary to understand the war in Libya, as well as the initiatives in the region.

The Wars in Syria, and Libya

Libya’s descent into fratricidal war with two governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, is a direct outcome of the removal of Col Gaddafi and his subsequent killing by the National Transitional Council. Today, there is the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez Al Sarraj and the National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. The UN recognises the former. That does not change the fact that they are both battling over the oil crescent with Sirte and Jufra being central locations. Libya is dotted with hydrocarbon blocks and facilities, operated by multiple oil companies and nationalities. India, China, Italy, France, and the US are some of the stake holders. Alignments with the local contestants, is a simple matter of ownership interests and the need to produce and export by sea.

Egypt shares a 2000 Km border with Libya, and together with Russia, backs Gen Haftar, who controls the contiguous territory. France, S Arabia, and the UAE also support Haftar. Haftar controls the oil crescent and the production, which he has halted. The Sirraj government is recognised by Turkey, Qatar, and Italy. In fact, Turkish airpower was instrumental in the survival of Sirraj. Germany and the US are pursuing negotiations for a demilitarisation, as well as commencement of oil production. There has been a shaky cease fire in place since June. Italy has concerns related to energy, as well as immigration. Everyone has concerns about the Libyan offshore gas potential. It may seem complex but is rather simple, just follow the money trail. Even Turkey and Russia land up opposing each other here, dollar is after all king.

Expeditionary Aspirations and Commercial Interests

The maritime conflicts centre on the ambitions of Turkey, Greece, and Israel. Each of them wants a dominant access to the European gas market. Turkey at the centre of transnational pipelines, sees itself as the leading gas pivot.

It has also a historic departure in approach to Greece with respect to EEZs. It refutes the 200-mile EEZ to Greek islands and even Cyprus, insisting their claims should be restricted to 12 nautical mile territorial limits only. It is not a signatory to the UNCLOS. Greece argues to the contrary seeking the 200-mile EEZ to all its inhabited islands and is a signatory to UNCLOS. On the side lines Israel and Cyprus delimited EEZ in 2010. Egypt (without effecting Turkish claims) and Greece settled their maritime issues in 2020. Ongoing cooperation between Israel, RoC and Greece, is construed by Turkey as fencing it off from the bonanza of the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel is a major factor, since the resounding success of its Leviathan Gas Project (joint US, Israel) has made it an exporter.  With an output of 9.7 billion cu.m @ year. 4.7 and 3.5 billon cu.m of which is sold to Egypt and Jordan. Israel now seeks to be a supplier to Europe. Turkey has responded with aggressive drilling and exploration, in waters contested by Greece and RoC, and in November 2019, by concluding an MOU on maritime delimitation with the GNA, of Libya. This MOU by two non UNCLOS signatories, attempts to rewrite the EEZ in these waters, and legalise Turkey’s exploitation and projected pipelines. The MOU has been debunked by Egypt and Greece and rejected by the EU.

Response to the Turkish – Libyan MOU has been definitive. The earlier Israel, Greece, Cyprus economic grouping has in Jan 2020 been subsumed into the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, EMGF. Its members are Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Italy, later France, and the US as a permanent observer. Prominently missing are Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria. Part of this formulation (termed the OPEC of the Mediterranean), is the 6 billion-Euro, gas pipeline, that will bypass Turkey and provide gas to Europe.


Mediterranean remains true to its past. Merciless commercial ambitions, historic socio-cultural motivations, a nursery for conflict and workshop of war. The spin of the roulette is heavily loaded by the retreat of the US, as a key player, and the aggressive world posture that Russia seeks. Russian success in Syria has left it self-assured and sharply focussed to win every strategic opportunity offered by the US draw back. This has also encouraged the neo Ottoman policies of Turkey, which has frequently resorted to NATO baiting. Turkey also chooses to approach Europe combatively. It threatens to unleash waves of immigrants and cohabits with extreme Islamic entities such as the Islamic Brotherhood. The Chinese, who are keenly assessing outcomes, have chosen the path of investments in the region.

As varied as the colours of the Mediterranean Sea, so also in strategic equations there are several shades of grey. Turkey does maintain secularism, with all religious denominations free to practice and live. It looks forward to the lucrative commercial and tourist flows from Israel. Technically Israeli gas could flow to Europe through Turkey. Greece is home to 150,000 Turkish Muslims, in the island of Thrace. Turkey and Egypt have significant intelligence sharing in specific areas. The operations of the Wagner mercenaries of largely Russian extraction, and other extreme Islamic groups, in Libya, are a cause concern to all functional entities.

If an over the horizon view is taken, all the competing entities will need to take a step back from their grand standing. To exploit the hydrocarbons of the region fully and pragmatically, several pipelines and vulnerable infrastructure, will need to transit over claims and passage lines to make landfall. None of the contentious maritime claim formulations and stands are practicable. There are Greek Islands next to Turkey, and several mid sea entities such as Cyprus that cannot be dealt with in a formulaic manner. No unilateral or arbitrary maritime settlement are likely to be sustainable. Aggression on the water will only lead to issues spinning out of control such as in the South China Sea. The future involves hard decision making by the political leaders, and there is no other way forward than a cooperative approach. With no nation except Germany willing to hold the high ground, and the EU/NATO, lacking credibility, it would possibly only be under the UN that the issues can be resolved. This however at the present is daydreaming, no one is looking in that direction.