Trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea: The Coming Dash for Gas

Date Published:

Mar 20, 2013


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In recent years, resource disputes in the South China Sea have made headlines across the world. But another body of water—the Mediterranean—is rapidly becoming as volatile as its eastern cousin. Exploratory drilling near the coasts of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas. Competition over the rights to tap those resources is compounding existing tensions over sovereignty and maritime borders. Without more active engagement by outside powers, these disagreements will be difficult to resolve.

Israel stands to be the main beneficiary of the eastern Mediterranean’s bounty, due mainly to the geographic distribution of recent discoveries. In 2009 and 2010, a pair of U.S.-Israeli consortiums exploring the seabed near Haifa discovered the Tamar and Leviathan fields, which collectively hold an estimated 26 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas. The timing of these discoveries was opportune. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israel has suffered frequent supply interruptions and the eventual termination of its contract with Egypt, which had previously provided 40 percent of the gas Israel consumed, at below-market rates. The Tamar and Leviathan fields, once developed, could satisfy Israel’s electricity needs for the next 30 years and even allow it to become a net energy exporter.

Lebanon -- with whom Israel has never settled its maritime boundary -- has declared that a portion of the Leviathan field falls into a 330-square-mile area that both countries claim as part of their protected economic zones. This dispute, along with Hezbollah’s threat to attack Israeli gas platforms, has increased the burden on Israel’s small navy. Until recently, the Israeli navy’s primary strategic focus was on coastal defense and maintaining a blockade of Gaza. To equip the fleet for the protection of offshore gas rigs, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz have approved a plan to procure four new warships. Israel has also worked to expand political, military, and economic cooperation with other local stakeholders, particularly Cyprus.

Since Cyprus signed a maritime border agreement with Israel in 2010, it has become the second main beneficiary of the gas boom. The island straddles Israel’s most likely gas export route to European markets. Cyprus also lays claim to its own gas deposits. The Aphrodite field, which is adjacent to Leviathan, may contain up to seven tcf of natural gas -- enough to meet Greek Cypriot domestic consumption needs for decades to come. Yet even that field is contested by others. The breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus claims co-ownership of the island's natural resources and has opposed Nicosia’s attempts to unilaterally secure offshore drilling contracts.

e Northern Cyprus and Lebanon, Turkey has viewed the Israeli-Cypriot gas bonanza with apprehension. Ankara does not recognize Cyprus’ border agreements with its neighbors and fears that Turkish Cypriots will be excluded from Nicosia’s future gas profits. Turkey also sees a possible gas export route through Cyprus and Greece as a threat to its own ambitions as a transit country feeding Caspian and Central Asian gas to the European market. Ankara has thus protested cooperation between Israel and Cyprus and supported Lebanon’s position in boundary disputes with Israel. Upping the ante, Turkey has scheduled major naval exercises to coincide with drilling by Greek Cypriot contractors and has sent its own exploration vessels to disputed waters, threatening to drill on behalf of Turkish Cypriots in the Aphrodite field -- which lies partly within Israel's economic zone.

These moves come during an ongoing deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations, signaled most notably by Israeli commandos boarding a Turkish relief ship en route to Gaza in May 2010. That and other incidents have prompted Turkey to devote greater resources to ensure the safe passage of its civilian and merchant ships in the eastern Mediterranean. As the region’s largest and most capable maritime force -- it boasts a 200-ship mix of frigates, corvettes, tactical submarines, fast-attack craft, amphibious vessels, and logistics ships -- the Turkish navy has happily embraced its expanded mission.

The region's two remaining littoral states -- Egypt and Syria -- have been too consumed by domestic unrest to generate a coherent response to the offshore gas discoveries. Egypt is Africa's second-largest gas producer, with 77 tcf of proven reserves, 80 percent of them in the Nile Delta and Mediterranean. Yet post-revolutionary upheaval has cast doubt on Cairo's reliability as a supplier, slowing exploration and exposing a host of pipeline security challenges. Meanwhile, exploration in Syria has been at a near-standstill due to ongoing violence and stiff international sanctions. Syria’s lack of an agreement on exclusive economic zone borders with Cyprus bodes ill for stability in the future, particularly if a more Ankara-friendly regime replaces Bashar al-Assad. Eventually, both Egypt and Syria will emerge from political crisis and reassert themselves in the region.

Although an open naval conflict in the eastern Mediterranean is unlikely in the near term, inadvertent escalation due to incidents at sea is becoming an increasingly probable scenario. As the region’s fleets begin to operate in close proximity and with greater frequency, even a minor accident or provocation might be mistaken for an act of aggression. Risky maneuvers -- such as interference in naval formations, “shouldering” tactics (when a ship from one navy forces ships from another to change direction), mock attacks, “buzzing” ships with low-flying aircraft, and other close-quarter actions -- are likely to become more common. In a climate of perpetual mistrust and uncertainty, such provocations can easily invite retaliation.

The tension could be defused in several ways. For one, expanding and regularizing multinational naval exercises could deepen military-to-military contacts among countries in the region and make miscalculation less likely. Yet such exercises are becoming increasingly rare. Turkey has not held combined exercises with Israel since 2009, although it regularly engages in training activities with NATO allies, including Greece. The Israeli navy has not participated in major multinational maneuvers since 2006, with the exception of two high-visibility exercises with the United States. The tiny fleets of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria are even more isolated.

The region would benefit most from revitalized efforts to address its underlying political disputes. A conflict would be far less likely if Israel and Lebanon settled their maritime borders, if Greek and Turkish Cypriots agreed to a temporary gas revenue–sharing arrangement, and if Israel and Turkey reached an incidents-at-sea agreement. But the window of opportunity to reach these bargains is closing. Once new gas supplies reach domestic and international markets (beginning in mid-2013), Israel’s and Cyprus’ leverage will only increase. Knowing that, Lebanon, Northern Cyprus, and Turkey will be skeptical of Israel’s and Cyprus’ intentions of adhering to any settlement reached now.

Due to these commitment problems, any serious attempt at conflict resolution would require mediation and enforcement by an outside power. A newly assertive Russia appears eager to play that role, but its neutrality and power projection capacity remain in doubt. The country holds about a quarter of the world’s total proven gas reserves (at 1,680 tcf) and accounts for, on average, 71 percent of gas imports in central and eastern Europe. Future production in the eastern Mediterranean would be too marginal to offset Russia’s dominant market position. Nevertheless, the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom is seeking a financial stake in the development of local resources. It has actively pursued licenses for production in Israeli and Cypriot fields and has offered to help develop liquefied natural gas infrastructure.

Israel and Cyprus see Russia as a source of both technical expertise and potential political support. Russia has repeatedly affirmed Cyprus’ right to explore offshore deposits in its exclusive economic zone. And the Russian navy has sought to restore its once-formidable local presence -- which peaked at 96 warships during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, declined to between five and eight by 1991, and fell to zero throughout most of the post–Cold War period. Since 2011, Russia has conducted three series of naval exercises in the Mediterranean, on a scale unseen since Soviet times. The latest round, in January 2013, involved more than 20 surface warships and submarines from the Black Sea, Baltic, and Northern fleets, as well as long-range aviation from the Fourth Air and Air Defense Forces Command. The exercises covered more than 21,000 nautical miles and tested the resilience of command and control systems in a range of scenarios -- from disaster management and counterterrorism to air defense and antisubmarine warfare. Commenting on the exercises, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “We are not interested in further destabilization of the Mediterranean region, and the presence of our fleet is an unconditional factor of stability.”

Russia’s ability to maintain a presence in the eastern Mediterranean, however, depends in part on what happens in Syria -- and the conflict there is not trending in Moscow’s favor. Syria is Moscow’s main partner in the region and is home to Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union -- a naval supply and maintenance station in Tartus. Although the Russian navy hopes to maintain this facility, it is beginning to operate on the assumption that the Assad regime will fall. Rather than attempt to defend the facility if Assad’s regime collapses, the Russian navy is more likely to evacuate it. In that event, Russia will try even harder to cultivate partnerships with Israel and Cyprus, as exemplified by recent signals of a Russian financial bailout for Cyprus. The prospect of replacement naval facilities in these countries remains slim, however, and Russia's force projection capacity will likely be limited for the foreseeable future.

As an ally and partner to most of the parties in the conflict, the United States might seem better suited for the role of regional security manager. Yet new questions have emerged about its credibility as a balancing, stabilizing force. The United States has three principal interests in the eastern Mediterranean: It seeks to uphold its allies’ economic and physical security, keep the area integrated with global markets, and ensure the safety of U.S. citizens and energy workers. Washington's position on local gas disputes has been substantively similar to Moscow's. The United States also supports Cyprus's right to explore for energy in its offshore areas while encouraging UN-brokered negotiations over the island's reunification. This position, along with the involvement of U.S. firms in Israeli gas projects, makes the United States an appealing alternative to Russia for some local actors seeking external political support. From Ankara's perspective, however, it has become increasingly difficult to view Washington as impartial.

More important, Washington’s real strategic focus remains on the Persian Gulf and, increasingly, the Asia-Pacific. Throughout the Cold War and during the 1990s, the U.S. Sixth Fleet maintained a dominant presence in the Mediterranean, with an average deployment of four submarines, a Marine expeditionary unit, and at least one carrier battle group escorted by between six and eight principal surface combatants. This force has since diminished due to ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the only warship that remains on permanent local deployment is the Sixth Fleet's command ship, U.S.S. Mount Whitney.

Stretched thin, the United States is becoming more selective in its use of rotational deployments and multinational training exercises, both of which are needed to keep the calm in the eastern Mediterranean. Given these new national priorities and the fiscal impact of sequestration, a return to Cold War–era force levels in the Mediterranean seems unlikely in the near future. The United States might be tempted to rely more heavily on European navies to counterbalance Russia and defuse potential crises among its allies. Such an offshore balancing approach, however, may prove insufficient so long as France and the United Kingdom are themselves constrained by fiscal austerity and fatigue from recent and ongoing operations in North Africa and Mali.

The time has come for a new, “realistic” eastern Mediterranean strategy, which recognizes both the grim realities of regional political stalemate and unprecedented budgetary and resource constraints. Such a strategy should rest on three components: confidence building, risk reduction, and crisis response. To increase mutual understanding, share lessons learned, and push the region's elites toward cooperating with one another, Washington should host eastern Mediterranean military-to-military contact programs at U.S. professional military education institutions and sponsor track-two diplomacy efforts at local think tanks, universities, and nongovernmental organizations.

The fruits of those efforts are mostly long term, so the United States should also take immediate steps to enhance operational safety at sea, by promoting the establishment of eastern Mediterranean information-sharing centers and emergency hotlines, similar to ones proposed in the South China Sea. Finally, the U.S. Navy will need a plan for responding to crises in the absence of forward-positioned forces. The deployment of warships to the immediate vicinity of an incident at sea will be essential to deter further escalation and protect U.S. flag merchant ships. As the United States’ global force posture shifts to Asia, any credible commitment to the region's security will require the United States to do more with less.

Any one of the issues facing countries in the eastern Mediterranean -- disputes over gas deposits, increasingly assertive gunboat diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the status of a divided Cyprus, the Syrian civil war -- is a formidable policy problem in its own right. Yet their fundamental inseparability complicates the search for stability even more. As regional players attempt to manage these developments in a climate of persistent distrust, conflict will become even more common. The region’s future stability depends on whether a powerful outside party can generate the political will, military might, and strategic vision to keep local tensions at bay. Even in an era of diminished resources and curtailed foreign policy ambitions, the United States remains the only viable contender for this mission.

Last updated on 01/02/2014