Seeing through the mist in the eastern Mediterranean: Looking forward

19 March, 2014 | Posted By: Vassilis Kappis

By Vassilis Kappis

Having evaluated the implicit historical logic behind the arguments about Israel-Turkish relations and the role of Greece and Cyprus and having tried last week to shed light on their inherent weaknesses, this week, we assess the accuracy of the main actors’ perceptions of current and future regional dynamics.
The Eastern Mediterranean has always been hard to navigate, politically speaking. Most players have therefore developed an almost instinctive capacity to make choices on the basis of tangible benefits, particularly when it comes to the security domain. Since its creation, for instance, Israel has been selecting friends and partners based on an overwhelmingly strategic logic. The US-brokered partnership with Turkey was no exception. The alliance was inspired by Cold War considerations, namely the containment of both Soviet influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Arab nationalism. Cooperation deepened after the 1958 Iraqi revolution which overthrew the Hashemite monarchy; Prime Ministers Menderes and Ben-Gurion expanded bilateral relations to joint military and intelligence undertakings.
While in retrospect successful in maintaining a degree of stability in the region, the rationale behind the relationship has been rendered obsolete. Israel is, perhaps for the first time in its history, not facing an existential threat by its Arab neighbours. Iraq, Syria and Egypt, for different reasons, do not pose a credible danger anymore. To make matters more interesting, Iran’s reintegration in international affairs should act as a catalyst towards a détente with Israel. After all, Iran’s priorities in Afghanistan and Syria seem rather consistent with Israeli interests.
As a result, Israel’s security doctrine is undergoing a radical transformation. Until recently, Israel had regarded itself as a land and air power, since its survival depended on its capacity to fight for scarce territory and launch swift air strikes against its enemies. Maritime operations were an afterthought, often regarded as a complement to ground and air operations. With most of its former regional rivals in disarray, Israel is now turning its sights to the Mediterranean.
There is almost a sense of urgency in this shift, as the discovery of oil and gas in its Exclusive Economic Zone renders the creation of a maritime protection umbrella a necessity. Israel is now set to become not only an energy producer, but an energy exporter; there should be little doubt that in the coming years all steps necessary will be taken to ensure that no conventional or asymmetrical threats could curtail this ambition. For this reason, the IDF is in the process of creating the most technologically advanced fleet in the region, upgrading the capabilities of its patrol boats and increasing the size and operational scope of its naval assets.
And it is exactly this shift that brings former partners Israel and Turkey in a collision course. Turkey’s post-Cold War strategy initially targeted Central Asia and the Caucasus with limited success due to restrictions posed by the rebounding Russian influence. Today, Turkey’s ambitions place the eastern Mediterranean as a strategic priority; the re-emergence of the Ottoman past in the country’s contemporary grand strategy, as articulated in the writings of Ahmet Davuto─člu, leaves few doubts in this regard. It is also doubtful that this goal will be pursued in an amicable manner. Not only has Turkey thus far failed to discover substantial amounts of oil and gas in its territory, but international law provisions could actually deprive its leadership of the potential to secure and control the flow of energy resources in the region.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Turkey is undertaking the biggest naval expansion programme in its history. In December 2013, Ankara shocked its neighbours when it announced its intention to build a 1-bln-euro amphibious assault vessel capable of hosting a battalion sized force with more than a thousand troops accompanied by multiple tanks and helicopters.
The Mavi Marmara incident was thus only a prelude of things to come. Taking into account the drawdown of the American Sixth Fleet, the dominant naval force in the region, the two emboldened and empowered neighbours are almost destined to fight over the power vacuum left behind. Paradoxically, however, the US is almost forcing Cyprus, Israel and Turkey to cooperate. Since Netanyahu’s infamous phone call to Erdogan, every effort is made to apply an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” solution to regional security issues. Reluctant to distance themselves from their allies, Israel feels almost obliged to consider the American overtures.
But Israel too can be short-sighted. In 1973, its leaders were adamant that Egypt would not attack before acquiring air superiority. They were proven wrong when the Egyptians marched through the Suez Canal, a miscalculation that led Israel to initiate preparations for a nuclear strike. Thankfully, that doomsday scenario was never realised.
Small states like Cyprus do not have the luxury to commit a faux pas of this magnitude. Israel may have the resources to compensate for a strategic blunder and great powers such as the US can adjust to a multitude of miscalculations; that the international system is more permissive when you are among the strong. A small state on the other hand is rarely in a position to absorb the consequences of a short-sighted strategy. How would Cyprus react if Turkey and Israel clashed after a natural gas pipeline to Turkey had already been constructed? What would be the approach of a re-unified Cyprus in case of a tense standoff between Turkey and Israel? Would its foreign policy decision-making mechanisms allow it to respond effectively? And how would the Cypriot constituent states tackle these potentially divisive conditions?
Small players ought to be deft balancers and the Turkish-Israeli rivalry may turn out to be a prime future challenge in this corner of the world. In the meantime, the word “viable” will be increasingly brought up when discussing a Cyprus settlement; nevertheless, the long-term viability of a country does not simply rest on efficient and equitable garbage collecting arrangements, but rather comes down to its capacity to adapt to - and benefit from - its external environment. When this quality is elusive, security is compromised (as in Ukraine). For a strategically vulnerable state like Cyprus, such a handicap could jeopardise its very survival.

Vassilis Kappis is a fellow with the European Rim Policy and Investment Council (ERPIC) in Larnaca and a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Sydney. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ERPIC.