Do not write off states as power brokers in the Eastern Mediterranean maritime arena just yet. It is easy to do so. Great powers (past, present and aspiring) as well as non-state actors seem to have eroded the centrality of regional state actors in shaping the region’s maritime security environment in the last few years. Russia – both a past and an aspiring great power – revived the Soviet era fifth Eskadra (flotilla), which includes a permanent force of 10-15 vessels. Moscow further announced that it would be sending its sole aircraft carrier in the fall for a few months to the region. The deployment supports the Russian mission in Syria. It also allows Moscow to show off its technological prowess. On December 8, 2015, the improved Kilo Class diesel electric submarine Rostov on Don, operating in the Mediterranean, was the first-ever Russian submarine to fire operational Kalibr submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) while submerged, targeting Raqqa, the ISIS de-facto capital in Syria. More broadly, coupled with Russia’s energized relationship with Egypt and Israel and recently with Turkey, the deployment signals Russia’s reemergence as a regional power broker. The United States offered a response of sorts, by deploying for the first time in years, two carrier Strike Groups – Truman and Eisenhower – in the region for several weeks in the summer of 2016.
In the meantime, China continues its slow maritime advance in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the routes leading to it. Beijing strengthened its civil and naval presence by buying, building, and operating port facilities in Greece, Israel, and Egypt, in the last few years. China is also building its first overseas naval station in Djibouti. These moves are part of Beijing’s ambitious new Silk Road vision, and will allow it to further secure its crucial sea line of communications to Europe. China’s maritime actions in the region signal that it accepts the responsibilities of a rising world power. In the spring of 2015, its naval forces evacuated not only hundreds of Chinese citizens, but also hundreds of other nationals from war-torn Yemen. There are also early signs of a more direct Chinese military and naval involvement in the region. In August 2016, a Chinese admiral visited Syria, and a month earlier China completed the delivery of a third corvette to the Algerian Navy. The Chinese also conducted a joint drill with the Russians in the Mediterranean in May 2015.
Global superpowers like China and Russia are not the only ones to pose a challenge in the Eastern Mediterranean. Several sub-state armed groups share the stage. Back in 2006, the Lebanese Hezbollah damaged an Israeli naval vessel, killing four sailors, when it effectively fired a land-sea c-802 missile at the Israeli flagship Saar 5 Class corvette INS Hanit. In recent years, Islamist groups have attacked a merchant ship in the Suez Canal and Egyptian navy vessels on the Mediterranean coast. A senior NATO official expressed concern earlier this year that an even graver threat will evolve in the central Mediterranean, following the expansion of ISIS in Libya.
Yet, states are still important in the maritime regional security architecture. American engagement in the region has waxed and waned since their navy operated against the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century. In the latest chapter of American naval power projection in the region, the 6th Fleet presence declined dramatically. At least for the US and China, and to a lesser extent even Russia, the eastern Mediterranean is a peripheral region, far from their core interests. Unlike great powers, local actors will remain engaged in the region due to the dictates of geography. For the regional actors, defending their shores and their sea lines of communications is a core interest: Not only because they are here to stay, but the discovery of offshore gas beginning in the 1990s raises the stakes for Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Turkey and possibly other regional actors. Indeed, regional actors have been building their naval capabilities, including power projection abilities in the last few years. In 2016, Israel received its fifth (out of six) German-built diesel submarines. A year earlier it signed a deal with the same German shipyard to purchase four multitask corvettes. In June, Egypt took delivery of the French-built Mistral class landing helicopter dock, and is expected to receive a second one by the fall. This year Egypt also began the local construction of the first of four French-designed Gowind Corvettes, purchased marine helicopters from Russia, commissioned a missile corvette donated by Russia, and a FREMM class French-Italian frigate. Talks of a possible deal for two more French corvettes commenced in 2015. Egypt also took delivery of two American fast missile boats during the summer of 2015, completing an order for four. Cairo also purchased from the United States submerged Harpoon missiles for its submarine fleet.
Similarly, the Turkish Navy, a nine-century-old institution – continued the expansion of its power projection capabilities. In April 2016, Ankara opened an overseas military base in Qatar, which will include naval units. A Turkish shipyard began in May the construction of a landing helicopter dock (LHD) to be completed by 2021. President Erdoğan hinted that his country would move to construct a fully-fledged carrier in the next decade.
Robust regional navies suggest both risks and opportunities. On the risk side, growing naval prowess enhances the chances that an escalating regional conflict can turn violent. Turkish self-confidence on the seas, for example, can lead Ankara to take an even more assertive position over Cyprus’ gas prospecting. In turn, this can affect great powers by forcing them into conflicts they would rather avoid. A possible Hezbollah-Israel clash, for example, might expose the American forces operating in the region to allegations that they support the Israeli effort by virtue of the American-Israeli alliance. Strong regional actors could also humiliate, and even constrain, great power activity. Back in 1968, The Israeli Airforce shot down Soviet jets over Egypt, and more recently it was Turkey that downed a Russian jet. Both events embarrassed Moscow, and in effect, presented a constraint of sorts on its freedom of action.
Effective regional navies also create opportunities. They can serve as allies. After all, three strong regional navies – Egypt, Turkey, and Israel – have solid (though at times, strained) relations with the United States. As such, they can offer a compensation of sorts to the limited presence of the US Navy in the region. Even if not fully-fledged allies of the United States on the waters, some of the regional powers, notably Israel and Turkey, surely share America’s concern over the anti-access/area denial “bubble” the Russians created on Syria’s shores. This is fertile ground for cooperation.
Therefore, although external powers are yet again active in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and despite being challenged by non-state actors from below, regional states still matter in shaping the maritime security environment. The increased capabilities, and expanded reach of the Egyptian, Turkish, and Israeli navies coupled with the Russian and American presence in the region, as well as Chinese ambitions there, all create a more complex environment. In a final analysis, this complexity presents opportunities for the United States, as most of the strong regional actors are closer to Washington than to Moscow. This remains the case, even with the current glitches between the United States and its traditional allies Turkey, Egypt and Israel. If Washington plays this new iteration of a maritime regional “great game” well, it has much to benefit. However, in order to exploit the potential benefits of the relationship with regional states, Washington needs to re-build trust with these regional actors. A clear signal from Washington that the East Mediterranean remains a high priority for the United States, would be a good start.