Manage a new order in the Middle East by Shlomo Ben-Ami

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The changes underway in alliances in the region are in part due to Iran’s growing influence. But the real story lies in the eastern Mediterranean, where the development of large gas reserves could lead to deeper cooperation or engender new conflicts.

TEL AVIV – Across the Middle East, alliances are changing in unexpected ways. What does the emerging configuration mean for a region that seems eternally to walk a thin line between war and peace?

The changes underway are largely driven by Iran’s growing influence. Gulf countries, fearing that the United States, their longtime ally, may not be willing to do enough to stem Iran’s rise, simultaneously reach out to the Islamic Republic and move towards ties of closer security with Israel. Meanwhile, the historically close relationship between regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE is growing increasingly strained.

But Iran is not the only factor. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the discovery of energy reserves in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters over the past decade has brought together old enemies. Jordan has a 15-year deal to buy gas from Israel, despite political tensions between the two countries.

Even gas-rich Egypt buys supplies from Israel – a reversal from just a decade ago, when Egypt supplied around 40% of Israel’s gas – to bolster its profile as a hub energy transit. (Energy superpowers such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have also acquired stakes in Mediterranean gas fields, in an attempt to bypass the Suez Canal.)

Today, an Eastern Mediterranean energy community is emerging. The first annual Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) was held in Cairo in 2019. Last year, this forum became an intergovernmental organization, with an unusually disparate group of members: Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel , Italy, France, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

The idea that this will lead to the emergence of a politico-economic union in the Eastern Mediterranean may seem far-fetched. But this would not be the first time that an energy security alliance has given birth to a regional strategic community: the European Economic Community emerged from the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s.

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Israel, for its part, has good reason to continue to deepen its engagement with its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece has already offered access to its airspace for the training of the Israeli Air Force, in exchange for Israeli gas, defense technology and military intelligence. Last April, Greece hosted a multinational exercise, in which planes from the United Arab Emirates flew alongside Israeli fighters. Israel could reach a level of strategic depth in the Eastern Mediterranean that it has never reached in the continental Middle East.

But one country is clearly absent from recent efforts to deepen cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has been locked in maritime disputes with Greece for almost as long as the two states have existed, and now they are at odds over competing claims over energy reserves in disputed waters.

Greece is part of two blocks opposed to Turkey: one with Cyprus and Egypt, the other with Cyprus and Israel. The latter group agreed in January 2020 to build an eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline to transport gas to Europe, thereby reducing the European Union’s energy dependence on Russian supplies. For Turkey, which has long sought to position itself at the center of any energy corridor between the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe, this is very bad news.

Already Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies in Europe have deteriorated sharply. Last summer, Turkish ships entered disputed waters between the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kastellorizo, prompting Greece to move nearly all of its naval fleet to the region, with a French naval contingent also providing A support. Only the intervention of German Chancellor Angela Merkel prevented a major outbreak.

At this point, Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership is almost buried. Yet the country has also been frustrated in its efforts to assume a more important strategic role in the Middle East. In 2019, when Turkey signed an agreement with the internationally recognized Libyan government, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, to defend Libya’s exclusive economic zone under the law of the sea, it was partly seeking to ensure that no EMGF project in the region can exclude it.

More broadly, Libya has become a theater of ideological confrontation, in which Turkey, along with Qatar, favors Dbeibah, a former ally of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups, and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support the commander of the Libyan National Army, Marshal Khalifa Haftar. . Russia is also fighting alongside Haftar’s rebel forces in Libya, as part of a regional strategy that is both energy and geopolitical.

Russia has a 30% stake in the Zohr offshore gas field in Egypt and a 20% stake in a gas exploration joint venture in Lebanon. It has also acquired significant gas concessions from its client regime in Syria and is involved in oil and gas projects in Iraqi Kurdistan. And the TurkStream gas pipeline, which supplies Turkey, was launched last year.

Russia hopes to keep the EU dependent on its gas and create a new gas corridor to South East Europe. But the threat it poses to the main Western interests is manageable. While Russia is a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Mediterranean, it lacks the economic and military capabilities required to fulfill the role of unchallenged regional hegemony.

Ultimately, the United States remains the main military power in the Middle East and an indispensable guarantor of regional stability – despite the fears of its Gulf allies and its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The United States, along with its NATO allies, is uniquely positioned to push back powers opposing the status quo, from Iran to Turkey to Russia, and to ensure freedom of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean.

But direct confrontation would only create chaos, with potentially catastrophic results. Instead, the United States should use its unique position to convince the EMGF, of which it is an observer, to reach a modus vivendi with Turkey, offering it a path to membership and possibly participation in exploration and a revenue-sharing agreement. In short, the United States must exercise the same kind of balanced diplomacy that it has often used to prevent confrontation between its own “friend-enemies” (allies of the United States but enemies to each other) in East Asia. Is.

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