The Eastern Mediterranean has entered a worrisome period. The strategic environment is more uncertain and conflict-prone than at any point since the Imia crisis in 1996 over the islets Turkey calls Kardak. Today, the sources of risk are, if anything, more profound and widespread than in previous decades.
Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have been beneficiaries of the detente that has prevailed in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean since the later 1990s. The benefits have been felt widely, across Europe and across the Atlantic. European Union and NATO partners have had the luxury of not worrying about traditional flashpoints, from air and sea space in the Aegean, to Cyprus, the Balkans and Thrace. Leaderships in the region and on both sides of the Atlantic can no longer be complacent about stability. The dangers of accident and brinkmanship are back.
First, none of the underlying political and territorial disputes has been resolved. This is not an immediate source of risk in its own right, but it becomes more troubling when accompanied by an increased tempo of air and naval activity in the Aegean, and heightened commercial efforts around the region’s energy resources. In fact, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and others have a shared interest in getting the best value from the region’s economic resources, including energy and tourism. But these resources will be difficult to develop and sustain against a backdrop of tension. Indeed, regional cooperation is the key to bankable projects, especially in the offshore energy field, where new deep-sea pipelines are enormously expensive. This is also the key to minimizing environmental risks. Against a backdrop of geopolitical strife, the outlook on this front is not encouraging.
Second, the high-stakes political atmosphere on both sides of the Aegean cuts against sensible diplomacy. Under normal conditions, an incident involving soldiers straying across the Greek-Turkish border would have been resolved quickly and quietly through routine channels. That this has not happened is a warning about potential accidents to come, at sea and in the air. From the Balkans to the Levant, governments are loath to appear weak. Nationalism is a potent force around the region, not least in Turkey, where the country is seized with multiple struggles against perceived security challenges. Sadly, diplomacy on Cyprus has not advanced, even as the situation on the island has become relatively stable. Today, Cyprus may be more exposed to risks flowing from the region as a whole than from anything likely to arise on the island itself.
Finally, this regional chaos is likely to prove durable – and a magnet for great power friction. The deterioration of the strategic picture across the wider Eastern Mediterranean, from Libya to Iraq, from the Balkans to the Aegean, is unlikely to end anytime soon. Syria may never go back together. And a Syria reunited under the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, would hardly be an improvement in security or moral terms.
Conflict and zones of chaos will continue to encourage the flow of migrants and transnational crime, at substantial human costs. In the worst case, the crisis in Syria may yet trigger a clash between Russia and NATO, or between Iran and Washington (a low-key conflict is already under way between Israel and Iran). No actor, local or external, has an interest in wider, open conflict. But history is replete with examples of countries stumbling into conflict by accident, even if underlying competition and distrust play a role.
Today’s international scene has multiple flashpoints of this kind, from the Baltic to the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, the Eastern Mediterranean is now one of them.
Ian Lesser is vice president for foreign policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.