Martin Berger — New Eastern Outlook Sept 27, 2018
The last couple weeks in the Eastern Mediterranean could remind a casual observer of some sort of a military parade, with members of the US-led coalition bringing an ever increasing number of military assets to the region.
The number of warships flying various flags being dispatched as a show of force to the Eastern Mediterranean has been increasing on a daily basis. The warships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, including HNLMS De Ruyter of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Greece’s Elli, HMCS Ville de Québec of the Royal Canadian Navy, and four American Tomahawk-wielding destroyers – USS Carney, USS Ross, USS Winston S. Churchill and USS Bulkeley. Even the flagship of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet USS Mount Whitney made an appearance in the region together with at least three of the multi-purpose Los Angeles class nuclear submarines, one of which was the USS Newport News, which was previously stationed in Gibraltar.
Further still, this massive force was then joined by an American carrier strike group, led by the USS Harry S. Truman, bringing along the missile cruiser USS Normandy together with a number of destroyers.
France has also been keeping its FREMM class frigate Auvergne stationed in the area. Further still, Germany’s FGS Augsburg passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea on September 21.
In the meantime, corporate media sources are desperate in their attempt to persuade us that such an unprecedented number of military ships deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean must be attributed to the ongoing conflict in Syria. They argue that this is a means of intimidation to deter Damascus from staging an otherwise totally illogical “chemical attack” in Idlib as if there was a single viable explanation as to why Syrian authorities would even consider such an option.
But is this the only reason for such an urgent concentration of Western armed forces in the Eastern Mediterranean? What is the actual rationale behind such an unprecedented event?
One must be mindful of the fact that the conflict in Syria has been raging for years and at this point, it’s approaching its end game. To launch a transition to peaceful life and begin a discussion regarding post-war arrangements of the country, President Bashar al-Assad has to reestablish control over the last Governorate still occupied by radical Islamists – Idlib. The prospects of the peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict and the situation around Idlib was greatly facilitated by the joint plan of action agreed upon by Russia’s president with his Turkish counterpart mid-September.
Therefore, the West has no real pretext to carry on the concentration of its armed forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, since it has no way of attributing this build up to the present situation in Syria. Nevertheless, this process continues. At the same time, the Pentagon has recently intensified negotiations with Greece on expanding its military presence in the territory of this European country.
So, what is this all about?
Careful analysis of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean shows that in the nearest future a new conflict can erupt in this region that will be much more violent than previous hostilities since it’s basically going to be a free for all engagement. In comparison, the still raging Syrian conflict will look like a minor occurrence. The driving force behind this future struggle is the huge hydrocarbon deposits of the Eastern Mediterranean, which is believed to hold the world’s third largest natural gas reserves. The West which has effectively established tight control of well over half of all energy deposits in the Persian Gulf has been willing to jump the gun in a bid to secure its grip on the Eastern Mediterranean but was unsure how bloody the future battle for local resources was going to get. However, the clock is ticking now. ExxonMobil is going launch an exploration mission in the gas fields of Cyprus, a part of its exclusive economic zone. On top of that, Total, Shell, Eni, Qatargas, Noble Enerji, and Kogas have all been planning to start gas production in the region.
Predictably, Turkey, too, has no intention to sit and watch idly, as it has also increased its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean dramatically while blocking all attempts by Italy’s Eni to start drilling, as Ankara argued this company was acting in violation of its exclusive rights. In turn, Ankara is planning to start gas production on the shelf on its own, as it has its own drillship Fatih to be assisted by a number of other vessels hired for drilling and exploration works. It is possible that the start of drilling by Turkey in the disputed areas, which now remain under the control of Greek authorities in South Cyprus can lead to a rapid exacerbation of hostilities in the region.
Northern Cyprus has also made claims on the disputed fields due to Turkey’s assistance. Perhaps that is the reason authorities of South Cyprus allowed France to use air and naval bases of the island. Further still, both London and Washington have established their own military installations on Cyprus a long while ago, which remain fully operational. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the Greek and Greek-Cypriot newspapers autumn preparations in the Mediterranean are commented on with dismay and predictions that a new bloody war is looming on the horizon. The main concern of Athens and Nicosia is the Turkish fleet.
Syria, too, is going to produce gas on its section of the shelf, as it has already signed contracts with Russian and Chinese hydrocarbon producers. According to the US Geological Survey, the Syrian shelf can contain up to 700 billion cubic meters of gas, which is two times the amount found so far on the mainland. As Syria’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, Ali Ghanem stated, gas production on the shelf will be launched as early as 2019.
So far, the only countries that have begun production on the shelf are Israel and Egypt. Lebanon is still being held back by the licensing process, and also has a dispute with Israel over rights to the shelf, so its prospects in this race look grim.
It’s clear as the leading international players compete for exclusive rights for gas production in the Eastern Mediterranean, a number of countries that have had no experience in this business will try to get their own piece of the pie. This makes an already unpredictable situation even more volatile.
But, of course, the true motivation for the exacerbation of tensions in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean are much more complex than even this. There’s a fierce geopolitical competition going between the great powers for the future of a much wider new world order.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”