Eastern Mediterranean Heating Up

The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.

The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.

The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.

While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.

Talking Turkey: 3 August, 2020

Turkey’s reach has been exceeding its military, and diplomatic means in recent months. Erdogan’s efforts to deepen its footprint in the Mediterranean, and Middle East is placing his nation in real danger of becoming overextended at some point in the not-too-distant future. The occupation of northern Syria, decisive intervention in Libya’s civil war, and seeking economic advantage in the natural gas-rich waters of the Eastern Mediterranean are the better-known Turkish adventures of late. There are others going on in places like the Horn of Africa, and in the Persian Gulf region too. Erdogan has been assertively going after perceived threats and enemies to Turkey, while simultaneously prowling after economic interests that hold the prospect of a jackpot level payout down the road.

Unfortunately for Erdogan, there are two factors coming into play which threaten to hinder, or perhaps entirely derail Turkey’s ambitions at some point. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Turkey is running a very real danger of overextending itself in the near future. The Turkish armed forces are stretched thin. Since the failed coup in 2016 Turkey’s military has lost thousands of capable officers to show trials, and purges. Operations in Syria and Libya are costing billions of dollars, and Turkish troops are taking losses in both places. In short, the Turks cannot afford a new military commitment now or in the near future.

The second factor working against Turkey’s regional ambitions is the absence of a clear vision. Ankara’s moves certainly haven’t been guided by ideology, or political alliances on the international front. This is where Turkish actions, and ambitions become confounding as it is working with its allies and friends on some fronts, while directly opposed to them on others. Syria and Libya are two prime examples. Turkey’s military incursions into Syria were frowned upon by many of its NATO allies. However, many of those same nation-states fully support Turkey’s intervention in Libya. In recent years Ankara has deepened the relationship between Turkey and Russia at a time when tensions between Moscow and the West has skyrocketed. The Turks committed to buying SA-21 surface-to-air missiles from Russia which forced the United States, to cancel the sale of F-35 Lightnings to Turkey.

Compounding Turkey’s burgeoning issues on the foreign front is the current state of the Turkish economy. Turkey is working to prevent a currency crisis in the face of economic turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. That topic will be touched on later in the week as we hopefully have the opportunity to expand the discussion on Turkey.

Cyprus and the Eastern Med Heating Up

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Yesterday in Washington the House of Representatives voted to end the thirty-two year old US arms embargo on Cyprus. The move came as part of the annual defense authorization bill, which has already made it through the Senate. Later in the afternoon the House passed a compromise foreign aid package that increases security aid for Cyprus, and censures Turkey for its oil, and natural gas exploration activities off the coast of Cyprus. The Turkish foreign ministry  responded with a statement warning that the US move “will have no outcome other than hampering efforts towards a settlement on the island and creating a dangerous escalation.” US-Turkish relations are at their lowest point in years and threaten to deteriorate further as a result of Turkey’s activities in Libya, Cyprus, and in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The settlement mentioned in the foreign ministry’s statement refers to the fact Cyprus has been a divided island since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup backed by the Greek government. Cyprus has been gaining international attention recently as oil, and gas exploration off its coast threatens to bring about a new crisis. Turkey has been at odds with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel since signing an agreement with Libya that claims extensive areas of sea between the two nations for Turkey. This deal violates international law, and undercuts claims made by Greece, and Cyprus. On Monday, a Turkish UAV landed in northern Cyprus, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This comes after an Israeli research vessel was intercepted in Cypriot waters by Turkish warships and escorted out of the area.

The deal between Turkey and Libya has raised tensions in the region. If the Libyan government collapses it will be interesting to see how Ankara responds, and how it will affect the oil and natural gas scramble now going on in the Eastern Med.

The Great 21st Century Sea Grab Part One

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There’s gold beneath them thar waves, boys!

Well, not literally. But there is an abundance of natural resources underneath the ocean floor at strategic locations across the globe. Oil and natural gas mainly, which does translate to gold for many nation-states. For others, those resources are the lifeblood that sustain their economic growth and national infrastructures. Not all nation-states are blessed with large stockpiles of natural resources and raw materials within their boundaries. By necessity, they must import the needed resources to keep up with demand. China and India are perfect examples of this.

In the military realm, the first thirteen years of the 21st Century have been dominated by armies and airpower. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the 2006 Lebanon War….the conflict list is extensive. Naval power has played a secondary role in these conflicts. Only off the coast of Somalia, in the fight against piracy, has naval power played a major role. Even there, naval power has been applied in a less than traditional sense. Pirates do not have surface fleets, submarines and aircraft carriers to contend with.

The trend might be changing in the near future. The discovery of natural resources in some very important neighborhoods has the potential to bring naval power to the forefront of attention once again. I don’t mean to say that another fleet action off of Jutland is coming soon, however, navies are going to become relevant once again.

In the South China Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and potentially, up at the North Pole, there are copious amounts of black gold and natural gas beneath the waves. Whoever controls the sea space in these areas will control the resources, more or less. A handful of nations are preparing to do just this. Others are only now realizing the need to begin readying their navies to do the same. Russia, China, Japan and the United States are among the nations already preparing their navies. Canada, Denmark, Turkey and Israel are among the ones having epiphanies.

The South China Sea is the logical place to begin. Tensions are high in the region. At current, China is involved in a number of territorial disputes with neighboring nations. The Spratly Islands are the setting for most of these disputes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and China all have claims on at least some of the small reefs and islands that make up the chain. The Spratly Islands are valuable in the economic sense. They possess rich fishing areas and surveys have indicated potentially large deposits of oil and natural gas. Naturally, all of the nations in the region with claims there want to cash in on the oil if it is there. But only China has the naval power to back its claims up with action if need be. There have been skirmishes there in recent years. In 2011 PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) forces fired on Vietnamese oil exploration ships and fishing vessels on more than one occasion. China and the Philippines have also experienced an increase in tensions and have engaged in a small number of non-violent incidents at sea. The message is clear: What belongs to China belongs to China and what doesn’t will be decided in Beijing.

China is immersed in a more significant struggle with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Here, the potential for conflict is even more present. Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces have met on a number of occasions. Luckily no shots have been fire yet. It would not take much, though, for a mistake to lead these two nations into open conflict. When the shooting begins, all bets are off. There is much bad blood between these nations.

Half a world away, in the waters of the Eastern Med, the prospect of natural gas deposits beneath the sea bed is offering hope to a nearly insolvent island nation and threatens to further deepen the animosity between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Surveys have discovered the existence of natural gas fields in the Eastern Med. The region suddenly finds itself blessed with gas. Unfortunately, it is an area also cursed by strife and mistrust. Israel and Cyprus stand to gain the most economically from the find. In the case of Cyprus though, it has no naval forces to protect the resources inside of its economic zone. Turkey, desperate to quell its own energy needs and already no great supporter of Cyprus, has stated that it would oppose drilling until the ‘Cyprus Problem’ is resolved. The Turks have also promised to dispatch aircraft and naval forces to monitor Cypriot energy problems. Add to the mixture the strengthening Cyprus-Russia relationship and there is the possibility of seeing Russian warships protecting Russian workers in gas fields off of Cyprus.

**Part II of this article will delve into Arctic security considerations.**

A Very Brief Look At The Eastern Mediterranenan

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This is break week and I’ve been relaxing as much as possible. Add to that the facts that the NCAA tournament began yesterday, and I accidentally deleted my planned post for yesterday. This post will be a short one. I’ll follow it up with a more detailed entries over the weekend and beyond. A naval themed piece on Sunday and Cyprus on Monday.

For now let’s take a brief look at the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Cyprus situation has caught me by surprise. I’ll admit it. I was looking the other way. My attention has primarily been on North Korea and Syria lately. The possibility of yet another Eurozone member in financial crisis didn’t even cross my mind. Yet, here we are. The Cyrpus crisis is interesting for many reasons, however, the potential instability it could bring to the Eastern Med is the one that has caught my eye. More on that Sunday.

In Syria, Assad is still in power but his strength is weakening significantly. His removal from power is essentially a foregone conclusion at this point. What’s yet to be determined is how messy his departure will be and what type of government replaces the Assad regime. The Syrian National Coalition is suffering from political infighting. Liberal minority members have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of assuming control. With the election of Ghassan Hitto, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Western support for the creation of an opposition government is going to be cool.

There are other potential flashpoints across the globe right now. But for the next six hours let’s all try to relax and focus on how our brackets are progressing. Back to the foreign policy issues tomorrow.