The Strategical Importance of (Eastern) Mediterranean

Following a series of natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean offshore in recent years, the strategies / tactical attacks of major powers and regional players in the region, as well as around Cyprus island have accelerated. These discoveries are of significant importance both in terms of geopolitics as well as economics

Eastern Mediterranean which holds 48.3% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 38.4% of natural gas reserves1 is the Middle East ‘s gateway to the Mediterranean, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Red Sea, and the Atlantic. The region is also Africa’s main natural geographical access to the seas listed above as well as to Turkey.

“With regards to its strategic location, Cyprus, which is one of the main pillars of Turkey’s security, is also strategically and militarily crucial for England, Russia, China, Israel, Greece, the US, and the EU.(2)”

“Approximately 30 percent of global trade moves through the Mediterranean basin. Every day, an average of 4,000 cargo and merchant ships sail along the Mediterranean Sea. Every year, approximately 40,000 Russian merchant ships cross the Turkish Straits towards the Mediterranean Sea.”

Today, the Syrian territories drenched in blood stand out as a region of conflict between Qatar and Iran’s rival natural gas export pipeline projects. Ever since Bashar Assad chose to go with Iran’s Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline over the Qatar-Mediterranean-Turkey project, Qatar and her rulers have become Assad’s and Syria’s main enemies.

Other strategic exit routes for the Middle East oil and natural gas to the Mediterranean are the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, followed by the Suez Canal through the Red Sea. The Suez Canal in Egypt merges the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2016, 3.9 million barrels of crude oil and refined products were transported through the Suez Canal daily. While the amount of transport in the north direction increased by 300 thousand barrels per day in 2016, the flow in the opposite direction decreased for the first time since 2009. However, the Suez Canal still is of strategic importance for hydrocarbon and oil product exporting countries (in southbound direction) like Russia, Turkey(3), Holland.

The 200-mile Sumed pipeline transports oil from the Red Sea over to the Mediterranean Sea via Egypt. It has a capacity of 2.34 million barrels per day and is the only option to cross from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean when ships cannot use the Suez Canal for any reason. Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb is located between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and connects the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. In 2016, the amount of crude oil and products transported via this route reached 4.8 million barrels per day (vs 3.3 million barrels per day in 2011).

Cyprus island stands at the center of a strategically important intersection area where the transportation routes of the rich Middle East hydrocarbon resources crosses the Eastern Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. Cyprus island, as a result of its geo-strategic importance and its proximity to the Suez Canal, which is one of the three gates providing access to and exit from the Mediterranean Sea, hosts British (you may call them NATO&US bases if you like) bases with early intervention and listening stations used to ‘control’ the “security” in general as well as energy security and international trade in the region.

Therefore, the militarily strategic situation and the critical role of Cyprus island is another point we must take into consideration when evaluating the regional dynamics and developments. In addition to UK’s presence; Russia, France and the USA have been pressing for access to air and naval bases out of Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus (GASC). Israel made a similar request in 2012 to demand privileges and access similar to those of existing British bases. Russia and France have already received a positive response on the use of bases (in the southern part of the island) whereas the US is already free to use the British bases; but has also made separate requests. It is clear that the main goal of this US demand is to control and bring balance to Russia’s growing presence in the region and the island of Cyprus and to provide a strategic point of control for its Middle East policy. As a matter of fact, Russia has been warning the Cypriot AdministrationGASC on this issue(4). In order not to give Russia the opportunity to benefit from current air and naval bases; the UK, the EU and the USA are putting pressure on the GASC. GASC is using these demands in an effective and balanced way in order to garner support from the states in question.

“The island of Cyprus provides the US and the UK a location with close proximity to regions of instability and a chance for early intervention and resupply in cases of possible crises” (Ergun Olgun). For example, British planes departing from Akrotiri base can hit their “target’ in Syria and return to their base in as little as 15 minutes.

UK’s air operations to Iraq between 2003 and 2011, were conducted via the Akrotiri (Agrotur) Base (Operation Telic). The British intervention in Libya (2011) was also possible “thanks” to this base(5). Therefore, the island is of strategic importance for both the UK and NATO.

“If Russia is settling in Syria right under your nose, I’d ask you to wake up. Russia is a land state, its maritime history hardly exceeds three centuries. They have many shortcomings in that area. But let’s not forget: Russia is a nuclear naval force. With England coming and settling in certain locations in the Eastern Mediterranean, setting military bases in Cyprus, the United States parading its Navy around, and even the Germans, for whatever reason, looking to settle there, Russia, for sure, will seek a place of its own. We too need to be there because it’s the front door to our home” (Prof. Ilber Ortayli).

As can be seen, the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus are not crucial for Turkey only due to their natural gas discoveries and potential, but also for the production, transportation, and marketing of energy resources. It is a geography that is indispensable for our economic and national security.

In the meantime, another important feature of the region in terms of energy resources and transport routes is that it bears another dimension of the Qatar and Iran conflict in Syria. The multi-faceted interventions Qatar undertakes to overthrow the Assad administration is something that should be closely monitored. The Syrian territories on the eastern side of the Eastern Mediterranean stand out as the transit route and conflict zone of two competing natural gas export pipelines by Qatar and Iran. Bashar’s refusal to implement Qatar’s suggested pipeline over the Mediterranean Sea towards Turkey and, instead going along with Iran’s Iran-Iraq-Syria route has turned him into Qatar’s biggest adversaries ever since.

Another strategic importance of the island of Cyprus, as far as Russia is concerned, is that it has allowed them to form a strategic triangle by combining the control it has over the Latakia and Tartus bases in Syria with the nuclear power plant (NPP) facility in Akkuyu (Turkey). With the agreement signed between Russia and Syria in 2016, the number of simultaneous Russian warships that are allowed to anchor at TARTUS naval base has gone up to 11, including those with nuclear fuel. And since nuclear-fueled ships were included in the agreement, Russia’s Kirov-class warships and nuclear-powered submarines are sure to benefit from this base. Therefore, it should be noted that Akkuyu (NPP) may be functional in supplying fuel for these ships. In this respect, Turkey as a NATO member who is already going through a crisis because of the S-400 deal with Russia, may have further problems with its NATO allies.