[box] In this three-part series, Necdet Pamir looks at the changing dynamics of the relationship between the energy sector and geopolitics in and around Cyprus and Eastern Mediterranean[/box]

The Strategic Significance of the (Eastern) Mediterranean

Following the discovery of a series of natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years, we have been witnessing a steady increase in strategical and tactical moves towards this region and Cyprus by global and regional powers. I would like to start by pointing out that, as important as they may be, to reduce the importance of Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus in particular, to natural gas discoveries and projects, would be both lacking, and more importantly misleading.

Eastern Mediterranean is the gateway of the Middle East region -which accounts for 47% of the world’s proven oil reserves as well as 43% of its natural gas, to the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is, similarly, the gateway for Africa to open to the aforementioned seas. Cyprus, with regards to its strategic location and its status as one of Turkey’s most sensitive security issues, is strategically crucial to the UK, Russia, China, Israel, the US as well as Greece, Southern Cyprus Greek Region and the EU.

Almost 30% of world trade transits through the Mediterranean basin. There are approximately 4,000 cargo and commercial vessels floating on the Mediterranean on a daily basis. 40,000 Russian vessels alone pass through Turkish Straits annually.

Syria is at the frontline of the natural gas pipeline rivalry between Iran and Qatar. Ever since Bashan al-Assad decided to go with Iran’s pipeline deal which takes the Iran-Iraq-Syria route to the Mediterranean instead of Qatar’s plan to take the gas over Syria to Turkey and the Mediterranean, the emirs of Qatar have become al-Assad’s archenemies, and they have played the central role in messing Syria’s political regime.

Other strategic gateways for Middle Eastern oil and natural gas to the Mediterranean are the Strait of Bab-el Mandeb and the Suez Canal. Egypt’s Suez Canal merges the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. In 2016; a total volume of 3.9 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products was transported through the Suez Canal. Northbound transportation has increased in 2016 by 300,000 barrels per day, while southbound traffic decreased for the first time since 2009.

The 200-mile long Sumed Pipeline carries oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean over Egypt. It has a capacity of 2.34 million barrels/day, and it is the only route for vessels moving from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, when the Suez Canal is out of commission. The Strait of Bab-el Mandeb is located between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and it unites the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. In 2016, 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and other refined petroleum products were transported through the strait, compared with 3.3 million barrels/day in 2011.

Within all this geopolitical landscape, Cyprus is located at a very crucial strategic location. It is close to the Suez Canal, which is one of the only three gateways to oil and natural gas reserves as well as the Mediterranean itself, and it is for this reason that it hosts a number of British bases erected to supervise the security of energy and trade around the region. Cyprus is also home to the American tracking and early response stations. The island, with its close proximity to unstable regions, acts as a fuel delivery and early intervention point for both the UK and the US.

When we look at the military aspect of the location, we must never think of it to be irrelevant from the international struggle to get hold of the hydrocarbon resources and control the transportation routes most of which originates from the oil and gas-rich Middle East region.

British (NATO) planes taking off from Akrotiri British Base can reach Syria in 15 minutes.

Russia is also increasing its military presence in the area. They have already solidified their standing at the Port of Tartus with the addition of Latakia base, and they show no signs of letting NATO to exclusively take control of the region. Russians seem to have learnt a lot from their Libya experience. Therefore, as stated before, it would be very naïve to think of the current struggle in the region separate from the struggle to control the transportation routes of Middle Eastern resources.

I also wish to state that, with the addition of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) which will be under total Russian control (100% control for the construction, operation, fuel supply and waste fuel management as provided by the related agreements which were ratified by both country’s Parliaments), will form a “strategical trifecta” along with Latakia and Tartus. 12th article of the Akkuyu NPP Agreement clearly states that Russia has the authority to decide on the disassembly of the NPP as well as managing Akkuyu NPP’s nuclear waste. The port of Tartus, where Russia has obtained a special status from the Syrian government is effectively Russia’s base for military vessels to include the nuclear ones. The agreement between Syria and Russia gives the ships of the latter, the permission to dock and get serviced. Russia has successfully obtained immunity from all Syrian control over the contents of its vessels -including arms, and furthermore will not be levied any taxes by the Syrian government. This brings back the question as to why Russia chose to build the nuclear plant in Akkuyu rather than in Sinop, which is very close to Russia geographically. Nuclear fuel for the plant will be carried through Turkish straits and close to Turkey’s tourism centers to the west and south, creating a huge risk. Sinop would be a much better choice of location not only logistically, but also operationally, since the temperature of the Black Sea waters are more efficient (much colder compared to that of the Mediterranean) for the NPP cooldown process. All these make Akkuyu a questionable choice for the nuclear plant. It is ironical to note that NATO member Turkey did not hesitate to provide such a strategic advantage to Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean power game[1].

Despite the importance given to the Mediterranean and Cyprus by major world powers, including the US, the UK, NATO and Russia, Turkey does not seem to register the significance of this region.

Prof. Ilber Ortayli, in his idiosyncratic way, perhaps puts it best: “If Russia is settling in Syria, which is right Turkey’s next door, we have to wake up and smell the coffee. Russia is historically a land territory; their maritime history is no more than three centuries. But let’s not forget that they are a nuclear naval force. The UK has settled in Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus region long ago with their bases, the US has a full NAVY force floating around there, and even Germans are looking for a way in. It is only natural that Russia will want to be there, too. We must be there also, it is our own entryway.”

[1] While for many reasons I am against any nuclear plant with so many risks, here I am trying to point out the rational for a more economic site selection. However, the strategic interests seem to be much more important for the Russians.

→ Continue to Read Part II


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