Conflict may be in the pipeline in Eastern Mediterranean

Conflict may be in the pipeline in Eastern Mediterranean

Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a trilateral agreement that laid the foundation for the construction of a $6.5 billion EastMed gas pipeline. (File/Shutterstock)
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In recent years, not much good news has originated from the Eastern Mediterranean. It has mostly been a saga of discord and conflict. The discovery of vast quantities of offshore natural gas might have been a cause for celebration. Instead, while some countries are already starting to reap its benefits, others perceive it as a threat or see themselves as excluded from those benefits, and consequently that discovery might also turn out to be the trigger for diplomatic and even military confrontation. 

Last week, Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a trilateral agreement that laid the foundation for the construction of a $6.5 billion EastMed gas pipeline. When completed, this pipeline will connect Israel’s offshore fields with Europe via Cyprus, the Greek island of Crete and all the way to Italy, which will serve as a gateway to European energy markets. This project signals a complete change of fortune for Israel, from importing all of its energy needs to becoming a major energy exporter.

In two decades of offshore exploration, it is now known that the Eastern Mediterranean is rich in natural gas, and the Israeli fields are estimated to contain more than 30 trillion cubic feet of gas while, according to some experts, double this amount might still be found. Both the smaller Tamar gas field, which has been operating for a decade, and Leviathan, its much bigger neighboring field that became fully operational last week, are radically changing Israel’s position in the international energy market, with far-reaching economic and political consequences for the region. 

For a country of little more than 8.5 million people, this is a real undersea bonanza, which will not only supply all Israel’s domestic needs for decades, but will also be a source of massive exports, providing Israel with a steady flow of income. In the first instance, Israel is exporting most of its new source of wealth to Egypt and Jordan, which, in return, also fortifies wider strategic cooperation with these two immediate neighbors. In December, Israel’s state energy company and Egypt’s Dolphinus Holding signed an estimated $20 billion agreement to export natural gas to Egypt, in addition to the $10 billion-worth of supplies to Jordan, which became possible with Leviathan becoming operational. When the pipeline to Europe is completed, it is expected to provide an estimated 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas, reducing significantly the EU’s reliance on Russia, which currently supplies 40 percent of its gas.

There are two alliances forming and confronting each other in the competition to maximize the economic value of producing natural gas

Yossi Mekelberg 

This might look like a straightforward windfall for Israel, Greece and Cyprus, who are engaged in exploring, extracting and transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, old (and renewed) political tensions are resurfacing. As it stands, there are two alliances forming and confronting each other in the competition to maximize the economic value of producing natural gas, and also to exploit the political influence that comes with it. The demarcation line is between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, supported by the US, on one side, and Turkey and its newly discovered ally Russia on the other. Considering the powers involved in these efforts, military adventurism shouldn’t be ruled out, especially with gas gaining importance as a transitional source of energy toward greener and renewable alternatives. Hence, the competition to produce and supply it is becoming fiercer. 

The risks of raising tensions with Turkey are real and, in the populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan era, confrontation with old and new foes is something to be taken very seriously. Ankara, rightly or wrongly, views the EastMed gas project as a deliberate attempt to exclude Turkey from the Mediterranean region’s hydrocarbon boom. The EastMed pipeline is planned to bypass Turkey, which infuriates Ankara and noticeably evokes its historically hostile relations with Greece and Cyprus, not to mention a decade-long dispute with Israel over the Marmara affair and the Palestinian issue. Moreover, Israel’s gas fields were explored by Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, which adds economic concerns to America’s existing geostrategic interests in this part of the Mediterranean. These interests are becoming more prominent as tensions with Russia and Turkey grow, threatening the southern flank of NATO in a situation reminiscent of the last century’s Cold War. 

Turkey is working on two fronts to confront what is about to boost its rivals. The first is cooperation with Russia. Both countries are a number of years ahead of the EastMed pipeline — which is expected to start delivering gas by 2025 — as they last week opened the first leg of the 930-kilometer TurkStream underwater pipeline, which stretches from Russia’s Black Sea coast to Kiyikoy near Istanbul and targets Turkey’s domestic consumption. When the second phase of this project is completed, Russia’s gas will be carried to Southeast Europe, mainly to the Balkans, bolstering Russia’s influence in the region through dependence on its gas. TurkStream also enables Russia’s state-owned Gazprom to bypass Ukraine in supplying gas to Europe.

Turkey’s other policy plank in its strategy to foil what it sees as Greek-Israeli attempts to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean is to build closer ties with Libya. In November, Ankara signed a maritime agreement with the Tripoli authorities in an attempt to carve up the Mediterranean based on Turkey’s claim to an exclusive economic zone that stretches to the edge of that claimed by Libya. Turkey’s claim is far from being universally recognized and is more a signal of its displeasure at the EastMed pipeline plan and its intention to contest this project. Moreover, Turkey under Erdogan is trigger-happy, as shown by its clear provocation of Cyprus in drilling for gas in the latter’s waters while deploying its navy and air force to protect the drilling vessels. At the same time, it has also been deploying troops to Libya, which it hopes to use as a base to thwart Greek-Israeli-Cypriot plans from a western front.

Until sometime in the middle of the century, by which time the world should be depending mainly on renewable energy, natural gas has the potential to play an increasing role, including for the benefit of the Eastern Mediterranean countries. However, for this to happen, historical rivalries and old-fashioned greed must be overcome, and leaders must show a readiness to settle differences diplomatically instead of by threats and force.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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