Cyprus: MED 7 summit should not overlook real regional security issues

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Cyprus: MED 7 summit should not overlook real regional security issues

By Dr. Cyril Widdershoven – Berry Commodities – Global Head of Strategy & Risk

The upcoming fifth Southern EU countries (MED7) Summit, to be held on January 29 in Nicosia, is a sign that the Eastern Mediterranean region has popped up on the radar screen of the EU and its southern member states.

The meeting, slated to be discussing major issues such as migration, Brexit, eurozone reform, Europe?s energy security and climate change, however, again overlooks real security issues in the region.

While French President Emmanuel Macron, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa and Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, will be attending, no emphasis is put on the changing security environment in the region.

The latter is strange, as especially France and Italy are currently heavily engaged in the ongoing civil war in Libya and have increased their security posture with Egypt.

For Cyprus and Greece, there should be a renewed focus on real security issues, looking at the growing military posture of Turkey offshore Mediterranean, in addition to energy security.

Even that Cypriot Foreign Minister Christodoulides stated that the Summit will focus on EU issues, there is a blank related to the need for a direct security alliance set up in the region.

The latter stands in stark contrast to the position taken by the US.

The US is currently pushing for an East Med security alliance, which according to Washington also should include Israel and Egypt.

Washington seems to be very aware of the growing crisis situation offshore Mediterranean, supported by Turkish honeymoon approach with Russia, Iran and Syria.

Based on a possible new energy corridor to transfer offshore East Med gas reserves to Europe, seen by Washington as a way to undermine Europe?s dependency on Russian gas imports, it also is looking at Turkey and the influence of other players, such as Iran and potentially China.

After the US-Greece Strategic Dialogue in Washington, a new meeting is planned in February, to address real security issues, in addition to counter-terrorism and the energy corridor.

In stark contrast to the EU, Washington has understood that taking in Egypt into a security alliance, a possible alliance could block or contain Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The US is also considering the lifting of arms sanctions on Cyprus in the coming months.

The Turkish position also is hardening the last months. In 2018 the Turkish navy and air force were very active in the East Med, sometimes openly challenging offshore gas operations of international companies, such as ExxonMobil, offshore Cyprus.

At the same time, Ankara has stepped up its pressure to block offshore operations even further.

Officially the Turkish position is based on the line that Turkish Cypriot (living on Turkish occupied northern Cyprus) have a right to offshore gas and oil reserves of the island, and its revenues.

Nicosia still rejects this claim as long as there is no solution for the ongoing Turkish occupation.

The Turkish foreign minister has openly warned foreign operators not to drill offshore in the so-called disputed areas.

These threats should not be taken lightly, as Ankara has shown a willingness to defend its interests even if it brings them into conflict with other countries.

US oil giant ExxonMobil is already proceeding with its offshore operations, but French Total and Italian ENI could be forced still to hold back.

The US oil giant seems to be able to proceed due to Washington?s support, as Ankara is not willing to take on the US military at present. For the European oil firms, this is, however, a different ball game.

The coming weeks will be pivotal on all levels. ExxonMobil expects its results of offshore Cyprus drilling to be known.

European companies also are planning new drilling campaigns.

At the same time, Turkey has announced that it will be holding a major naval exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara?s largest naval exercise of the past 20 years is expected early March, with major exercises planned in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The exercise, called Blue Homeland, is already used in Turkish newspapers and media as Ankara?s answer to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which aims explore energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including disputed areas.

Even that the overall strength of the Turkish navy should not be exaggerated, Ankara feels that a strong military posture is needed at present.

The combination of navy and air force, however, could be impressive, even that the ongoing purges by Erdogan of the military is taking its effect.

Turkey also has expanded its naval activities and bases in the region substantially.

In December 2018 construction began on a naval base at Trabzon on the Black Sea coast. That base will be the navy’s ninth.

Turkey currently has naval bases at Mersin and Iskenderun on the Mediterranean Sea, Aksaz and Foca on the Aegean Sea, Golcuk on the Sea of Marmara, Eregli on the Black Sea, and at Istanbul and Canakkale on the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits.

The growing regional deployment of Turkey is clearly linked to the East Med and Aegean.

Looking at what is on the plate of politicians and strategists in the region at present, NATO and the EU should combine their forces to address these issues.

The first chance to do this is to admit the heating up of the region, not only commercially, but also with regards to military threats and potential confrontations.

A structured European security posture, backed by NATO, pushing for an East Med security alliance should be discussed at the MED 7 meeting.

The current ostrich position taken will give room for power plays that are unwanted on the soft underbelly of Europe.

By Dr. Cyril Widdershoven for