With Natural Gas Fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel Now Has a New Front: the Sea
As new fields come online, Israel is beefing up its naval assets to fend off threats from Turkey, Lebanon, and Russia
After each incident Erdogan’s rhetoric markedly increased, although neither event was ever followed by concrete actions of the Turkish armed forces. However, as he finds himself challenged repeatedly at home and isolated abroad, and as his nation’s energy needs mount, the danger of a propaganda stunt turning into an actual conflict increase, as does resorting to the age-old tactic of starting a war in order to consolidate power and externalize the source of national turmoil. This, combined with the degradation of the Turkish officer corps and the short-term service of most naval personnel, only increases the potential of a shooting war in the Levant basin.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the eastern Mediterranean is the role an emboldened Russia will play, especially considering the drawdown of the United States’ Sixth Fleet—traditionally the dominant naval presence in the area. Russia recently acquired exploration and development rights to a substantial portion of Syria’s off-shore waters and has engaged both Cyprus and Israel to help develop and monetize their own gas finds. Staying true to its Machiavellian foreign policy, Russia continues to sell energy to Turkey notwithstanding their antithetical positions on Syria’s future and Turkey’s unremitting intimidation of Cyprus and Israel.
With a financial stake in the energy future of virtually every relevant regional actor, Russia has regained its Soviet-era foothold in the eastern Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, Russia’s role has taken on a military dimension—Cyprus just granted Russia’s navy full access to Cyprus’ main port. Moreover, Russia has so far managed to retain its Tartus naval base on the coast of a war-torn Syria and has sent warships to oversee Syria’s destruction of its chemical arsenal. Russia’s newfound military footprint in the eastern Mediterranean is underscored by the multiple naval exercises it has recently conducted, the latest of which involved more than 20 warships and submarines war-gaming against terrorism scenarios and disaster management response.
Russia’s vast economic interests in the region suggest its foreign policy focus in the eastern Mediterranean will somewhat mirror that of the United States—stabilization and the avoidance of conflict. Such a benign role, however, is not guaranteed. Traditional alliances still drive much of Russia’s actions in the region, as evidenced by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwavering support for Syria’s Assad. Nevertheless, with its perceived ability to influence Assad and its fleet’s persistent presence in the region, Russia could find itself in the unenviable position of reining in Hezbollah and serving as a buffer between Turkey and the Israeli-Greek-Cypriot axis. It is not inconceivable that Putin could pull off a magic trick similar to the one he pulled with the United States regarding Syria’s chemical-weapons program. If Putin could negotiate a deal between the various factions, an option still very much on the table, it would substantially diminish, if not preclude outright, the possibility of a war over resources in the Levant basin.
Israel cannot rely on such optimistic thinking, nor on the good will of Russia should a military escalation occur. The real hope within Israeli defense circles is that Israel’s new fleet, combined with its continuous improvement of land and air assets, and the increasing cooperation with Greece, will give pause to any regional actor that would consider turning the Mediterranean Sea into the next great field of battle in the ever-widening Middle East war.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Israel Aerospace Industries by its former name, Israel Aircraft Industries.
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