Claude Salhani* oilprice.com
The discovery a few years ago of an important deposit of oil and gas reserves in the waters just off the Lebanese, Israeli and Cypriot coasts has raised the interest of foreign militaries who have in recent weeks become attracted to the region, adding ingredients at sea to an already explosive atmosphere on land.
From China to Iran, not forgetting Turkey, Israel, the United States, Britain, and France, all the principal actors in the region are now present in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
In addition to the important oil fields under the sea waiting to be exploited, the bloody civil war that has been raging in next door Syria for the past two years has brought renewed interest in these troubled waters.
Russia, primarily, is very concerned by what the future holds for the Assad regime in Damascus as the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartous serves as the Russian Mediterranean Fleet’s main port of call, where the Russians continue to hold onto an important facility established back in the days of the Soviet Union. For Russia, whose northern Baltic ports freeze over during the long cold winter months, having access to a friendly port for its Med fleet is a matter of national security.
To reiterate just how important the Eastern Mediterranean Sea plays in Russian affairs, Moscow has just dispatched a naval task force comprised of about 10 vessels, including its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov, to the region.
The Chinese, who much like the West are quickly discovering their addiction to oil in order to keep those million of cars that the new middle class is buying up faster than the Koreans and Japanese can manufacture them, are starting to be drawn into this great game of nations, albeit the aquatic version. In recent months units of the Chinese Navy have been seen in the vicinity.
The Iranians, who have always aspired to become a regional force to be reckoned with, have announced last January that they too will be dispatching naval forces to the Eastern Mediterranean.
European powers, France, Britain and to a lesser degree, the Italians and the Germans have all sent naval forces to the region, some as part of the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon) some unilaterally.
The US, who traditionally have maintained an impressive array of naval forces comprised of units of the Sixth Fleet, had decided to reduce its naval presence in the Eastern Med, but in view of the increased traffic, especially by Russia, China and probably the most worrisome of all for the Western allies, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has now changed its mind and will continue to retain an important naval force in the Med.
Israel, who is directly concerned by what is unfolding close to its shoreline and with proximity of South Lebanon, (read here Hezbollah), is naturally worried by the presence of so many naval forces that would support enemies of the Jewish state. China – at least in principal -- supports the current regime in Syria, as does Iran and as does Russia, has recently taken to maintain a military naval presence in the region.
This is worrying the Israelis who wanted to begin exploration of the new finds almost as soon as they were discovered, hoping that exploiting the new fields would start bringing in seriously needed foreign currency into a staggering economy. However any hopes of a quick return had to be shelved on behalf of the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah, threatening to attack any Israeli attempts to drill before a resolution to the regional conflict was reached.
Lebanon along with Cyprus, for their part, have the smallest navies in the region, comprised mostly of coastal patrol boats, depend heavily on friends and allies for their coastal defenses. Lebanon relies on members of UNIFIL, primarily France and Italy for support; Cyprus relies on Greece and Britain. The Turkish occupied northern portion of the island meanwhile looks to Ankara for its naval support.
As can be expected all players in the region are boosting their naval presence in view of recent developments in what is turning out to be a mega-Catch 22 at sea. Given that the Chinese are becoming new actors on the Mideast naval scene, the Russians are automatically stepping up their presence, an incentive for the Americans to do the same. And if the Russians and the Chinese are going o be there, so too will the Americans. And if the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans are going to have a naval presence in these waters, by all means, so too do the British and French need to have their navies present also; as do the Greeks, the Turks and so on and so forth.
No doubt the smaller countries such as Lebanon and Cyprus will be tempted, or more likely, coerced into investing in expanding their naval presence. Though with UNIFIL forces present in the region, especially the French with whom the Lebanese have a special relationship, Lebanon might want to reconsider before committing to building up a navy that will from the start be smaller and weaker than its two principal neighbors, Israel to the south and Syria to the north and northeast.
Likewise the Cypriots could never build a navy strong enough to take on the only nation with whom Cyprus is in contention today; Turkey. And just as Lebanon relies on the French, their former protector, so too can the Cypriots, a former British colony, rely on the Royal Navy for the same. Britain continues to maintain sovereign bases in Akrotiri, Episkopi and Dhekelia where the British military garrisons a certain number or active troops. The bases are considered British soil.
With all those amphibious assault ships, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, littoral combat ships, submarines, etc., the Eastern Mediterranean will probably be either the safest place in the world in which to sail or the most volatile. Time will tell.
*Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. He tweets @claudesalhani.