Article
COMMENT

East Med security after Gulf drone attacks should top Cairo summit

23 September, 2019 | Posted By: Cyril Widdershoven

Impact of the wake-up call by the drone attack on the Saudi gas-oil separation plant (GOSP) of Abqaiq should reverberate into discussions of the East Med partners.


Until now discussions between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, have always been largely focused on regional strategy for the exploration, production and export of their offshore natural gas reserves.

Without any doubt, the future of East Med offshore gas is bright, as long as security issues are not constraining the latter.

The Turkish position in the whole constellation has been put as the main constraining factor that could cause the East Med plans to fail, as no investor will be willing to take part if a military confrontation is imminent.

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) partners have been very reluctant in setting up regional security frameworks or direct offshore energy security structures.

Talks have been held, multilateral defence discussions and drills conducted, but real security directions have been until now put on hold.

Ideas about an East Med NATO 2.0 structure have not even been touched yet, as it could be seen as a direct anti-Turkish project.

Analysts also have been looking at offshore energy security based on state-actors, which made the project from the start a very difficult one, looking at EU, NATO and other parties involved.

The Abqaiq attack, blamed on non-state actors or Iranian proxies, until proven to be directed by Tehran, has however opened Pandora’s Box.

With the focus of energy security threats on maritime oil and gas transportation and other conventional options, no attention was given to non-state party threats to offshore oil and gas operations.

In the whole East Med, if offshore energy security operations is discussed, it is usually a national concern.  Egypt and Israel have been addressing Daesh or Hamas/Hezbollah threats, while Greece-Cyprus had only eyes for Turkey.

The use of drones or cruise missiles has been mentioned, but largely about onshore operations and very low level, such as in the Sinai (pipelines), Western Desert (Libyan rebels) or Hezbollah-Hamas to any available Israeli energy project.

A pure offshore strategy of adversaries, however, has not been addressed fully, looking at the minimal navy capabilities of the littoral states.

This has however changed with a big bang. Hydrocarbon infrastructure has become a legitimate target.

For most adversaries, offshore rigs and vessels are a challenge, due to the maritime environment. Drones or cruise missiles have however removed part of these constraints and upped the ante, if in the hands of militias or state-actors.

No real defence mechanisms at present have been put in place capable of dealing with low-flying, small UAVs, operated not by armed forces but by militias and proxy forces.

The threat for East Med operations, after Abqaiq, has become clear, especially after statements made by leading Iranian officials that if the crisis in the Gulf explodes, the Red Sea and East Mediterranean is to be considered a military target area too.

No references were made to proxies, but Iran’s IRGC, Hezbollah and Hamas have built up a very strong missile capability.

When looking at East Med, where the Turkish confrontation on the offshore Cypriot hydrocarbon ventures continues or is heating up, threats are clearly there.

This week Ankara warned again that it wouldn’t let foreign companies licensed by Cyprus in the EEZ. It came after Nicosia awarded new offshore licenses to France’s Total and Italy’s Eni. Ankara repeated it claims part of License Area-7.

Last week, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish Foreign Minister, reiterated that the (unrecognized) ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) needs Ankara's guarantor ship "more than ever".

This ongoing confrontation, combined with the potential fall out of the Gulf conflict, necessitates a full and prompt security focus by the EMGF partners.

Cyprus foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides already commented that the region lacks a regional organization.

The Cypriot official however referred largely to economic-social and energy structures in his remarks. At a conference in Nicosia, where also Israeli, Greek and Egyptian parties took part, the EMGF was pushed as the road to be taken. 

The upcoming Cyprus-Greece-Egypt tripartite summit on October 8 in Cairo will need to not only focus on energy and economic cooperation but should, looking at the Gulf and Turkey, to set-up a full-scale security organization.

An East Med NATO 2.0 is needed not only to counter security concerns of investors and operators, but increasingly to mitigate or answer full-scale real security threats, either from state actors or proxies. 

To have a regional offshore gas infrastructure in place necessitates the latter. This cannot exclude Israeli involvement for sure.

Military technology, training and experience, with hybrid warfare is needed to include the new conflict arena of oil and gas offshore.

New threats, as deployed in the Middle East, have not yet been fully recognized or trained for during the series of large-scale military drills between some of the EMGF partners.