The Eastern Mediterranean vortex

The Eastern Mediterranean vortex

Dr. Ian O. Lesser
In important ways, the future of the international security order is being shaped in the Eastern Mediterranean. A marginal theater during the Cold War, today the Eastern Mediterranean has moved from the periphery to the very center of global concerns. The land and sea space spanning the Levant, the Aegean, Egypt, and onward to Libya, is set to be a zone of persistent chaos and conflict. NATO, the EU, and others, including Russia and China, are now compelled to address the challenges of strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the midst of this pervasive tension, there are a few positive opportunities, including the potential for a Cyprus settlement, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, and cooperation regarding the region’s energy resources. 

The Levant and North Africa are principal theaters in the struggle to contain and roll back violent Islamist groups bent on the control of territory and the export of terrorism. The jihadist threat could also acquire a more significant maritime dimension. The maritime environment is a challenging one for terrorists who are used to operating ashore, but the threat from this quarter should not be exaggerated. Maritime security in the Mediterranean is among the most obvious areas for multilateral security cooperation led by NATO and the EU. Indeed, both are already engaged in this area, including NATO’s longstanding Operation Active Endeavour and the more recent deployment in support of refugee control in the Aegean. 

The Eastern Mediterranean is the place where Europe’s post-enlargement external policy is being formed and tested. Migration will be a key factor in shaping the future of the European project, from the survival of the Schengen regime to foreign and security policy. The close connection to internal security and identity concerns within European societies gives the Mediterranean migration question a sharp edge in this time of populist politics and widespread disillusionment with elite projects and institutions. 

Russia, an old Mediterranean actor, has returned to the region in dramatic fashion after the collapse of its Cold War-era presence. For the moment, Russia is a leading strategic concern for NATO in the south as well as the east. Turkey is particularly exposed to Russia’s new assertiveness around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. 

China, too, is acquiring greater stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean. China’s vaunted “one belt, one road” initiative promises to bring China into the Mediterranean world in a more direct fashion. Although a relatively marginal actor today, China’s growing role in the region will be increasingly difficult to ignore in the years ahead. 

Arguably, the center of gravity in the Middle East is shifting from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and above all, the Eastern Mediterranean. Iran plays a key role here, with its active involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. If US-Saudi relations continue to cool, the prospects for some form of limited alignment with Iran in the fight against ISIL and Al Qaeda are likely to grow. 

Disenchantment with business as usual with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, reduced anxiety about Gulf energy, and the rise of security concerns in the Levant and North Africa, could encourage a broader westward shift in America’s Middle Eastern strategy. This would unfold against the backdrop of a renewed American investment in European security, and would imply a net shift from the Gulf to the Mediterranean in terms of strategy and presence.  The hard security dimension of European security looking south is likely to receive more attention at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw Summit, and afterwards. 

Turkey is the place where the eastern and southern dimensions of transatlantic strategy meet. Turkey is hardly alone in facing the deteriorating strategic environment in the Eastern Mediterranean, but it is certainly the most exposed transatlantic partner. The collapse of the security order in Turkey’s neighborhood has understandably thrown Turkish policy into disarray. Taken together with the need for reassurance and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia, it is not surprising that Ankara now looks to rebuild strained ties with transatlantic security partners.

Dr. Ian O. Lesser is executive director of the Transatlantic Center, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), and GMF’s senior director for foreign policy. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2016 issue.