Natural gas a new cause for conflict in the Middle East

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Natural gas a new cause for conflict in the Middle East

In recent weeks, two wars of words have erupted — one between Israel and Lebanon, the other involving Egypt and Turkey — as a result of disputes over natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. Competition over energy sources has played a central part in shaping Middle Eastern history since the turn of the 20th century: This was the case in the Gulf, Iraq and Libya, while Syria had limited hydrocarbon sources and Egypt and Lebanon enjoyed none. But new discoveries have shown that the Eastern Mediterranean is home to one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves — if not the largest ever. 
Historically, the Eastern Mediterranean has never been a geopolitical backwater. Its key position on the road to the east had European powers competing for dominance over it. The Russian and Ottoman empires fought countless wars for the right to access its waters through the Turkish Straits. But, in the second half of the 20th century, and despite Cold War tensions reaching that area, the Eastern Mediterranean was never at the center of great power politics.
And, apart from the Turkish invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, there were no regional conflicts either. Despite the many wars Arabs had fought with Israel, no major naval engagements were recorded. The United States had no permanent bases there and the Soviet Union only had a support base for its Mediterranean “squadron” in Syria’s Tartus.
Optimistic observers once argued that, with energy sources spanning different territorial waters, the European interest in developing Mediterranean natural gas as a counterweight to Russian gas imports, and the need for a stable environment in order to attract investors and for production to take place, regional players might be induced to resolve their disputes peacefully. Unfortunately, a combination of unsettled borders, diplomatic machinations and vital economic stakes might engulf the Eastern Mediterranean in conflicts no less serious than elsewhere in the Middle East.
The US and Russia, the world’s largest and second-largest producers of natural gas respectively, are both poised to play a vital role in brokering (and benefiting) from the coming crises. European powers will, despite being the primary beneficiary of these riches, take a back seat in the coming “Eastern Mediterranean game.”
Owing to its air and naval bases in Syria, Russia is currently the dominant power in the area of the Mediterranean between Turkey, Cyprus and Syria. Moscow has already secured a pre-eminent role in the Syrian oil and gas sectors for years to come, including offshore gas reserves. Turkey is aggressively asserting its rights to benefit from the gas fields off its shores and those of the Republic of Northern Cyprus — which no one in the world recognizes except for Turkey. UN peace efforts in Cyprus have not come to fruition and the EU, of which Cyprus is a member, does not seem to have any workable initiatives. Russia, however, enjoys good relations with Cyprus, which does not recognize any Turkish rights in its northern waters. 
The discovery of enormous riches has transformed the Eastern Mediterranean into a geopolitical hotspot and clashes seem inevitable, especially as Russia and the US may well use this arena as an additional battleground in their ever-growing rivalry.
Fadi Esber
The Russian-Turkish rapprochement is moving forward, as political and economic cooperation is strengthening between the two countries — including a Russian pipeline to transport natural gas through Turkey. This web of relations and Russia’s preponderant military presence will make Moscow the prime arbiter in any crisis in the area.
If President Vladimir Putin could bring Turkey to the negotiating table in Syria, he could do the same in Cyprus. This would enable Russia to keep a close eye on the development of Eastern Mediterranean gas riches, which the Europeans desperately need in order to decrease their dependence on Russian imports.
The largest of the gas fields discovered, Zohr, is in Egyptian territorial waters. Extraction of natural gas from this 850 billion cubic meter behemoth has already begun. This is a much-needed boost to the Egyptian economy and could help solve many of its chronic problems. Egypt has no disputes with Israel over these gas reserves, but Egyptian-Turkish tensions are escalating over Cyprus. Egypt has settled its maritime borders with the latter, and is supporting Cypriot claims against Turkey. Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry met with his Greek counterpart during the Munich Security Conference last weekend to coordinate action against Turkey.
This row has broadened the existing gulf between the two countries. The US, whose relationship with Turkey is also heading south, has done little to resolve their differences, while Europe has no hand to play.
Here too, Russia is a possible broker. Russian-Egyptian relations have surged under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as well as Russian arms sales to Egypt. There is even talk of Russia deploying forces to bases there. This will only strengthen Russia’s position as the arbiter of the Eastern Mediterranean. 
In December, Putin visited Ankara and Cairo in one day — the same day he announced victory over Daesh from the Russian air base in Syria’s Latakia. Good relations with both Egypt and Turkey will enable Russia to broker reconciliation talks between the two key regional powers. It is also worth mentioning that Putin enjoys a special relationship with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who has broken Europe’s anti-Russia consensus on numerous occasions.
Lebanon and Israel, meanwhile, are looking forward to benefiting from offshore natural gas, but an American initiative failed to resolve disputes over the unsettled maritime border, which runs through some of the gas fields. Israel has threatened Lebanon, and both Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have responded. Yet, for the time being, it is unclear whether Russia, the US or the EU will mediate this looming crisis.
The discovery of such enormous riches has already transformed the Eastern Mediterranean into a geopolitical hotspot. Conflicts seem inevitable, but the ability of Russia and the US to contain them is yet to be tested. Yet, given their disagreements, the two great powers may very well use this space as an additional battleground in their ever-growing competition in the Middle East, and the world over. 
 
  • Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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