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Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Security in 2022 – Equilibrium or Escalation?

The Eastern Mediterranean has witnessed a relative calm this year in contrast to last year’s dangerous escalation spiral that almost set off a geopolitical maelstrom involving parts of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. But is the current calm just a temporary lull?  Has a stable balance of power been established to create a new equilibrium? Or, has escalation been continuing by other means and the geopolitical storm will break out again in 2022? Here are some of the key factors to consider when looking over the horizon to determine the state of Mediterranean maritime security in the near future.

The 2020 Eastern Mediterranean Crisis was a Turning Point Event

Back in August 2020, the most combustible naval stand-off between Greece and Turkey during the 21st century nearly ignited into open conflict when a Turkish warship and a Greek warship collided at the height of the tensions. Rallying to Greece’s side, France dispatched warships to the contested waters, eventually sending its flagship Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft carrier. Egypt conducted joint naval exercises with Greece while the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ankara’s staunch antagonist along the Mediterranean’s southern rim, sent its F-16 fighter jets to conduct joint air force exercises with Greece in the air space above the conflict zone.  With France, Egypt, and the UAE already in open conflict with Turkey in Libya, international alarm bells sounded that any further escalation could lead to a Mediterranean-wide conflagration.  Although a NATO-brokered de-confliction process achieved a climbdown in tensions, neither side has been idle. Swiftly changing geopolitical currents in the region have created new strategic conditions whose implications need to be examined.

Greece’s New Strategic Depth

In the absence of a convincing security guarantee from its European partners, Greece has spent the last half decade skilfully developing its defence relations with Egypt and Israel, and then subsequently with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.  Athens’ efforts are paying off big.  Combined with engaging select EU members, notably France, Greece is building an effective deterrent capability outside European Union and NATO frameworks. Since the striking demonstration of Middle Eastern solidarity with Greece during its August 2020 naval confrontation with Turkey, Greece’s regional security partnerships have reached an even greater level of strategic cooperation.

The 15 September 2020 signing of the ‘Abraham Accords’ normalising relations between the UAE and Israel was a strategic boon for Greece by more deeply connecting its circle of security partnerships broadly aligned to offset the expansion of Turkey’s “coercive diplomacy” in the region. On 18 November 2020, Greece and the UAE signed a security pact that included an Article V-type mutual defence clause.  In 2021, the juggernaut of Greece’s military diplomacy has gathered even more steam. In January of this year,  Israel signed a $1.68 billion, 20-year agreement with Greece – the largest defence deal between the two countries – in which Israel’s private defence company Elbit Systems will establish and maintain an air combat training facility in Greece for the Hellenic Air Force.  Italy’s defence manufacturing giant Leonardo will supply the M-346 advanced jet trainers. The state-of-the-art air combat training academy builds upon Greece’s 2020 agreement with France to purchase at least 18 fourth generation Rafale fighter jets for $2.5 billion, all helping to close the gap in air combat capabilities between Turkey and Greece.  By late September 2021, Paris and Athens signed a new bilateral mutual defense pact between Paris and Athens, accompanied by Greece’s $5 billion purchase of three Belharra frigates and three Gowind corvettes from France.

These relationships provide Greece with much needed strategic depth – geographically, technically, and psychologically. Bolstered by the early stages of an economic recovery, Greece is no longer Europe’s troubled and dependent appendage on the Balkan peninsula, as many in the European Union attempted to portray Greece during the EU’s sovereign debt crisis.  Greece is realising itself as an Eastern Mediterranean power leveraging its strategic links to North Africa and the Middle East.  Greece’s new found strategic depth continues to expand with the Hellenic Republic’s deepening military relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which began its first bilateral military exercise with Greece, Eye of the Falcon 1, in March 2021. Demonstrating the power of its new regional status, Greece hosted the September 2021 “Hercules 21′ exercises – the first multilateral joint military exercise between Greece, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s Becomes a Blue Water Power

Greece’s recent efforts to gain strategic depth were prompted by Turkey’s impressive advances to become a blue water power. Turkey’s efforts to expand its power projection capabilities in the Mediterranean started two decades ago with Ankara’s $3 billion ‘National Warship’ program, known by its Turkish acronym MİLGEM, to expand Turkey’s capacity to deploy naval forces far from its coastal waters. In March 2012, a decade into the MİLGEM program, then Turkish Navy Commander Admiral Murat Bilgel declared Turkey’s naval objective was “to operate not only in the littorals but also on the high seas,” identifying the Turkish Navy’s goals for the coming decade as “enhancing sea denial, forward presence, and limited power projection capacity.”  Supported by the rapid growth of its domestic defence industry, Turkey successfully implemented its strategic agenda to establish forward bases in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The turning point in this policy came with Turkey’s 2020 military intervention to preserve the Government of National Accord then ruling western Libya.  Ankara’s first intervention far from its land borders and shoreline was an unqualified success and created an important strategic beachhead for Turkey in the central Mediterranean.  Turkey maintains an air power deployment at the re-captured al-Watiyah air base, located 27 km from the Tunisian border, and is reported to be developing a naval base in Libya’s coastal city of Misrata.  Its first Mediterranean forward basing beyond North Cyprus, Turkey’s outsized military presence in Libya is nothing short of a strategic breakthrough, enabling Turkey to move beyond the efforts to contain its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Libyan intervention also showcased the power of Turkey’s home-grown combat drone and electronic warfare technology that would be later used by Ankara to assist Azerbaijan in the Autumn 2020 Karabakh war that ended 30 years of stalemate against Armenia and changed the map of the South Caucasus.  Turkey’s continued advances in drone warfare technology are changing the face of warfare in the Mediterranean and could upend the military deterrence for which Greece has been striving, especially as Turkish-made, unmanned surface and underwater combat vessels come into service.  Changing the Mediterranean’s strategic equation in 2022 is Turkey’s soon-to-be-operational, light aircraft carrier the TCG Anadolu – a landing helicopter dock based on the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I-class design. The TCG Anadolu will be able to carry a formidable arsenal Turkish combat drones to any location in the Mediterranean theatre. As an amphibious assault ship, it will be able to transport a 1,000 troop battalion along with 150 vehicles, including battle tanks, for a marine troop landing. A blue-water power projection vessel par excellence, the TCG Anadolu will considerably augment Turkey’s efforts to set the strategic agenda in the Mediterranean.

Equilibrium of Escalation in 2022? Cyprus could be the Key

Greece’s deeper level of defense cooperation with its non-European partners also prompted Ankara to engage in serious diplomatic outreach to Egypt and Israel and then to the UAE and Saudi Arabia as a counter-balancing measure.  During 2021, Turkey has acted on its need to recalibrate its policy toward its Levantine and Gulf state neighbors to ease its isolation. This diplomatic opening creates the opportunity to increase commercial cooperation among the regional stakeholders that could act as a brake on renewed naval escalation in the future. While there is at least a temporary balance of power, such an opportunity should not be missed.

With its interlinked flashpoints, there is little reason to think that a stable equilibrium has been achieved in the Eastern Mediterranean. None of the underlying core issues has been resolved.  The most vulnerable point in the current security architecture is Cyprus.  A member of the European Union but not NATO, Cyprus was under military embargo by the United States until 2020 and consequently has insufficient naval capabilities to defend itself. Turkey maintains over 30,000 troops on the north side of the island and has established base for its combat drones in the self-declared Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. In 2021, Turkey upped its ante on the issue by formally declaring that North Cyprus should be internationally recognized as an independent state.  If a new cycle of naval escalation does break out in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2022, Cyprus is likely to be in the eye of the storm.