World Review | Mediterranean alliance revives Cold War memories

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Mediterranean alliance revives Cold War memories

Mediterranean alliance revives Cold War memories
The crew of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov line up during a visit to the base at Tartus, Syria (photo: dpa)

THREE developments in the eastern Mediterranean since 2008 have produced a geopolitical balance reminiscent of the complicated alliances of the Cold War.

They are the emerging Greece-Cyprus-Israel alliance, the civil war in Syria and the post-Communist Kremlin’s policy in the region.

The Western powers’ strategy there during the Cold War (1947-1991) was closely intertwined with three main factors: the region’s energy resources, the establishment and continued existence of Israel, and the maintenance of Nato’s south-eastern flank.

Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s traditional enemies, were prevented from establishing close ties with Israel and as Turkey secured Israel the strategic advantages it needed, they became of less importance.

Russia's policy was characterised by a slow but steady strategic and economic penetration into the countries of the eastern Mediterranean.

But since Israeli-Turkish relations became strained from 2008, Greece, Israel and Cyprus have moved closer in an unprecedented political, military and energy relationship, boosted by significant gas discoveries.

Both the United States and the European Union have vigorously supported exploiting these energy deposits, in a bid to reduce the dependence of EU countries on Russia.

Turkey, a Nato member, has opposed the project and contests the ownership of the fields. As a result, the recently forged Israel-Cyprus-Greece alliance has a well-shaped military character.

Israel and the United States invited Greece to join a joint military exercise in 2012. The overall mission was attack and defend scenarios.

The fact that the Greek and Israeli air forces simulated repelling an attack on offshore natural gas and oil rigs showed that any future threat from Turkey was being covered.

As in the Cold War era, this geostrategic shift of power provoked a response. Turkey and Russia agreed to cooperate on energy and nuclear power, fuelling a new form of US-Russian conflict in the region.

Russia has been attempting to strengthen its position in the region’s markets by establishing energy and defence cooperation, while the US has been seeking to secure its vital interests there.

However, Turkey-Russia cooperation is hampered by the dangerous situation in Syria, where Russia is reluctant to take more serious steps over the government’s actions against opposition forces.

Russia retained a tiny military base at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean. It was compelled to evacuate the last of its personnel from Syria as the crisis developed, but because of Russian interests in Cyprus’s troubled banks and its solid existing political, economic and especially military ties to Cyprus, it has sought to replace its dismantled base with a new one on the island.

The longer the civil war in Syria continues, the more complicated matters will become for Western countries.

Turkey has already demanded backing from its Nato allies. In the summer of 2012, after Syrian troops shot down a Turkish warplane, it called for a convention of members under Article 4 of the organisation’s charter, which provides for consultations when a state feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.

Russia’s decision to dispatch a permanent fleet of five or six combat ships to the Mediterranean to defend its interests in the region, has precipitated a complex and very explosive geopolitical and economic equation in a very sensitive area for Nato.

The US Navy has a support activity facility at Souda Bay in Crete. US vessels, normally stationed at Naples, regularly visit that naval base and those visits have been more frequent since 2012.

One can conclude that a new Cold War is under way in the eastern Mediterranean. It is a new East-West confrontation, backed however by other countries.

During the previous encounter the front lines as well as the allies, enemies and blocs were clear. In the new one, they are not.

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