Jack Harding

Head of Political Risk

 

On Wednesday this week (20th March), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Jerusalem as part of a trip that will also include visits to Lebanon and Kuwait. While in Israel, Pompeo will hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Cypriot and Greek leaders, Nicos Anastasiades and Alex Tsipras.

 

Pompeo’s visit has attracted criticism that the US is attempting to influence the outcome of the elections for the twenty-first Knesset, scheduled for 9th April. Pompeo’s own response to this charge was measured; he stated that the US would not ‘interfere in the election of a democracy. Elections campaigns are tough. We’ll allow the Israeli people to sort this out.’ However, the truth is that despite his legal issues, Netanyahu is still the White House’s preferred candidate and he is someone Trump has described as ‘tough’, ‘smart’ and ‘strong’ – Pompeo will likely not meet Netanyahu’s main rival, Gen. Benny Gantz and pollsters are already preparing for a “Trump Bump”.

 

This sideshow has overshadowed the significance of the summit and the potential geopolitical implications for the region. Its purpose is to discuss the ‘key energy and security issues facing the Eastern Mediterranean’ – Iran and Iranian proxy groups (such as Hezbollah) will certainly be on the agenda, as will the EastMed pipeline project, which will facilitate the transfer of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean into Europe. ExxonMobil recently announced that it had discovered a substantial gas field off the coast of Cyprus that could hold between 5 and 8 trillion cubic feet of gas. This discovery is the biggest in Cyprus’s history and underlines the region’s status as a crucial energy hotspot of the future.  

 

However, the discovery is also likely to seriously exacerbate tensions in the region – in particular with Turkey who dispute Cypriot ownership of the seas within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Turkey has seen a dramatic deterioration in relations with the West of late and has taken an increasingly aggressive stance towards oil drilling in the region: in November 2018, Erdogan stated ‘As we made the terrorists in Syria pay, we will not leave the scene to the bandits of the sea’ and, in February this year, a drilling ship contracted by ENI had no choice but to abandon its operations after Turkish warships blocked its path.

 

Despite Turkey’s stance, ExxonMobil has indicated that it will continue to pursue its oil exploration operations. Given the high stakes and the intransigence of the parties involved, the situation is likely to escalate further. The danger lies in the fact that Ankara and Moscow are enjoying more cordial relations through operations in Syria. This presents a serious security issue not only for the EU, but also to NATO. Russia recently supplied Turkey with the S-400 air defence system – a move which has been heavily criticised by the US who believe it could seriously undermine collective defence. NATO’s fifth generation fighter jets, such as the F-35, will soon be operating in the region on exercises and operations and this would hand a strategic advantage to Russia by allowing them to gauge how effective their systems are against the stealth capabilities of the F-35.

 

 

Russia and Turkey also recently conducted large-scale bilateral naval exercises with 103 ships in the Black Sea. The significance of this becomes apparent when Russia’s ownership of the Tartus naval base in Syria, which is just 200km away from Cyprus, is factored in. Given Turkey’s current animosity towards oil drilling off its southern coast, Cyprus or any oil companies such as Total, ENI or ExxonMobil, could find themselves encircled. This will push Turkey even further away from the EU and its NATO partners, but, at this stage, they may be past the point of no return. Now it will be essential for the US to ensure that its partners in the region are both ready and able to counter any threats that may arise – formalising the EastMed project at the summit this week will be a significant step towards ensuring their strategic interests are aligned.

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