Trending Events - Issue 24 - Nov- Dec 2017

Militarizing the Mediterranean

Rising Features of Traditional Threats in the Mediterranean
Tuesday، March 13، 2018
Militarizing the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean basin has witnessed intensified traditional military threats, such as arms race, border tensions and major military maneuvers.  The current situation is unlike the previously witnessed non-traditional and non-state actors’ threats, like illegal immigration, influx of refugees, smuggling operations and organized crime networks.


First: “Non-traditional Security” Policies


Previous traditional military threats in the Mediterranean basin included military clashes such as the military skirmishes between Spain and Morocco in Perejil Island in July 2002. There were also former Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s threats in 2011 to fire missiles against European countries. The Mediterranean Sea has also been used by NATO to launch airstrikes against Libya.


Meanwhile, states’ reactions across the Mediterranean mainly focused solely on confronting non-state actors’ threats like illegal immigration, smuggling operations and organized crime groups’ activities. This is linked to European security policies, which have prioritized these threats for decades and tackled them in their partnership agreements with Mediterranean entities and within the NATO’s strategic concepts. [i]


These priorities were addressed by western think tanks in the past few years. This was evident in a study published by the Atlantic Council in cooperation with experts and security researchers in Europe. The study, published in January 2017, was entitled “Mediterranean Futures 2030: Towards a Transatlantic Security Strategy.”


This proposed strategy focused on non-traditional security threats, like climate change, demographic balance, identity crises, fluctuation of oil prices and disparity of economic and social conditions in the Mediterranean’s two basins.


The study briefly addressed traditional military threats in a section called Geopolitical Contours. It briefly addressed the escalation of military tensions between parties that overlook the Mediterranean and the increased military deployment of superpowers there. [ii]


“Troubled waters: a snapshot of security challenges in the Mediterranean region,” a study published by RAND Corporation in 2017, addressed armed non-state actors’ threats to the Mediterranean’s security. It particularly focused on the threats posed by terror groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda branches, armed militias in conflict zones in Syria, Libya and cross border smuggling gangs. [iii]


Non-traditional security threats were also extensively addressed in UN Security General Antonio Guterres’ report “Security Challenges in the Mediterranean Region” and which he discussed at the UN Security Council on November 17, 2017. The report, which UN Security Council members lengthily discussed, thoroughly addressed matters like illegal immigration, illegal drug and arms’ trade, human trafficking, smuggling of refugees, maritime piracy, human rights’ affairs in North African countries and political transition in Libya. [iv]


The 2016 EU global strategy discussed the concept of resilience when confronting threats in the Mediterranean region. According to the strategy, the most common threats are related to political instability, disintegration of states and societies, stumbling process of economic development, illegal immigration, demographic balance, climate change and others. [v]


Second: Increased Military Tensions in the Mediterranean


Contrary to the common visions of European and international political circles and think tanks, the rate of military tensions among countries on the Mediterranean increased. Superpowers’ conflicts also reached this basin, especially after Russia reinforced its military deployment in Syria, thus imposing the standards of traditional security on Mediterranean countries’ policies, according to the realistic perspective. The most significant manifestations of traditional tensions between these countries are:


1. Increased military confrontations: The possibilities of direct military confrontations in East of the Mediterranean increased in February 2018 as after the Turkish navy blocked a ship, which is chartered by Italy's Eni and was exploring gas in front of Cypriot coasts, Italy deployed naval troops to protect the company’s drilling operations. Egypt also deployed more naval troops near the Zohr gas field. The Mistral, a helicopter carrier, was also stationed near production platforms. Tensions also increased over controlling Block 9 between Lebanon and Israel. On one hand, the Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to militarily confront any drilling operations, while on the other Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened on February 16 to militarily respond to Israel, if its violates Lebanon’s right to explore its offshore gas.


2. Increased military maneuvers: Countries overlooking the Mediterranean recently organized several huge military maneuvers. Turkey voiced its rejection of the Medusa 5 drill, which was carried out from October 3 until November 4, 2017 between Egypt and Greece near the coast of Rhodes. Ankara claimed the maneuvers violated the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties prohibiting military exercises in Rhodes. Turkey sent drones to gather information about these maneuvers’ course of plans. [vi]


Few days after these maneuvers ended, Turkey announced launching joint military maneuvers under the pretext of being a NATO military exercise. The maneuvers dubbed the Blue Whale were held from November 7 until November 16, 2017.  The US, Bulgaria, Britain, Romania and Turkey participated in the exercises. [vii] In addition, Israel carried out military maneuvers in the Mediterranean. The most important ones were with the US in May 2017 and with Cyprus in December 2017. [viii]


Russia organized several maneuvers near the Syrian coasts. In July 2017, Russia closed the airspace of international waters in east of the Mediterranean to prepare for maneuvers carried out by Russian naval and aerial troops using live ammunition. Russia conducted similar maneuvers in May 2017. Some of these exercises extended to Libyan coasts. During these maneuvers, Russian submarines fired missiles in the Mediterranean. [ix]


3. Advanced arms’ deals: Countries overlooking the Mediterranean sealed deals to attain advanced weapons to enhance their military capabilities. Egypt received two French Mistral-1 helicopter carriers and two Type 209 attack submarines from Germany. It also attained four al-Fateh frigates, which were jointly manufactured with France. It further signed a contract to get 50 MiG-29M fighter jets, 46 Ka-52 attack helicopters and S-300VM anti-ballistic missile system from Russia. [x]


In the beginning of 2017, Israel received the German nuclear dolphin-class submarine, a Sa’ar 6-class corvette and two F-35 multirole fighters. This is in addition to manufacturing Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 missiles in cooperation with the US. [xi]


Turkey signed contracts to get S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system in December 2017. The deal is worth USD 2.5 billion and it was reached, despite the US objection and the NATO’s reservations. Russia plans to import these missiles to Turkey in March 2020. [xii]


The Stockholm Institute for International Peace Research 2017 report on weapons sale showed that Algeria received two MEKO 200 frigates from Germany in 2016 and 14 Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Mi-28 attack helicopters and 200 T-90 SA tanks from Russia. This is all within the context of other massive armament deals signed with Russia. [xiii]


4. Military bases’ expansion: Over the past two years, Russia worked on expanding and equipping the naval Tartus base and Khmeimim airbase to accommodate long-term Russian military presence in Syria. The two bases are significant for Russian military deployment in the Mediterranean. Some European countries think this deployment violates its vital space south of the Mediterranean. [xiv]


Egypt inaugurated the Mohammed Naguib military base in Marsa Matruh in July 2017. The base is considered the largest military base in the Middle East and Africa. This is in addition to expanding the military base in Sidi Barrani near the borders with Libya. This revealed that Egypt has been focused on securing the northern and western fronts near the borders with Libya. [xv]


Iran established several military bases in Syria. In December 2017, Israeli air forces launched intensive airstrikes against an Iranian military base near the town of El-Kiswah. In November 2017, Israel targeted military posts, missile platforms and warehouses for the Lebanese Party, Hezbollah, in Syria. [xvi]


Tel Aviv observed that there were Iranian attempts to deploy submarines in Syrian ports. This pushed it to enhance its military presence in the Mediterranean. It deployed advanced systems that send early warnings, anti-missile Iron Dome platforms and patrol boats. [xvii]


Third: Traditional Security Issues at the Forefront


Military tensions in the Mediterranean basin escalated due to several issues that are a priority to Middle Eastern countries. The most important of which are:


1. Regional axes’ clashes: The East Mediterranean region witnessed the rise of a Cypriot-Greek-Egyptian alliance considering the three countries’ similar interests. Between November 2014 and November 2017, five summits were held between the countries’ officials. The last meeting was in Cyprus and it aimed to improve economic and military cooperation. During their meeting in December 2017 in Cyprus’ capital Larnaca, the three countries’ defense ministers’ agreed to establish a mechanism for military cooperation and coordination. The mechanism stipulates holding an annual meeting to improve cooperation in defense-related matters. [xviii]


Meanwhile, Turkey headed towards improving its regional alliances via extensive military deployment. This was seen via establishing the Turkish military base in Qatar and deploying troops there. Turkey is also seeking to establish military bases on the Red Sea. On September 30, 2017, Turkey inaugurated a military base south of the Somali capital Mogadishu.


During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Sudan in December 2017, Ankara sought to include Khartoum within the Turkish-Qatari alliance and to control strategic areas in naval paths in the Red Sea via handling the management and development of the Sudanese island Suakin. [xix]


2. Border disputes: Disputes on the demarcation of borders between Israel’s exclusive economic zone and Lebanese territorial waters have not been finalized yet. Israel also militarily controls Gaza’s territorial waters. Within this same context, Turkey has exploited the border disputes between the two parts of Cyprus to impose its influence in the Mediterranean.


Moroccan-Algerian disputes regarding the closed borders between them have also not been finalized. This was clearly implied in October 2017 when Algeria’s Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel accused Morocco of “laundering drug trafficking money via investments in Africa.” In April 2017, Moroccan security forces accused Algeria of facilitating Syrian refugees’ passage towards Morocco. This is all linked to the two countries’ contradictory stances regarding several issues, such as the fate of the Moroccan Sahara and the rights of people residing in the area inhabited by Amazigh tribes in Algeria. [xx]


3. Military intervention policies: Some Mediterranean countries adopt the policy of militarily intervening in neighboring countries. Turkey, for instance, launched the Olive Branch Operation in January 2018 to control the Syrian city of Afrin. In October 2017, it deployed its troops in the Syrian city of Idlib, within the context of the de-escalation agreement reached between Ankara and Iran and Russia. [xxi]


Russia became a key regional player, as a result of its permanent military deployment in the Mediterranean Sea and its military bases in Syria. Italy also strengthened its military presence in Libya and Niger in January 2018, as part of its plan to confront illegal immigration and rehabilitate local security and military forces to confront threats. [xxii]


4. Conflict over energy: Conflict over gas reserves is a major reason behind conflicts in the Mediterranean Sea, as although there are some agreements on the demarcation of maritime borders and gas drilling areas, many of the latter are still disputed by Mediterranean countries.


One example is when Turkey in July 2017 pressured Cyprus to stop the French Total from gas drilling in its territorial waters. The Turkish army deployed ships and submarines to observe the situation and obstruct drilling operations. Ankara also said it intends to begin oil and natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. This is in addition to the agreement with Russia to start building the TurkStream pipeline, which passes through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and negotiations with Israel to establish another gas pipeline that passes through the Mediterranean Sea. [xxiii]


Israel plans to explore 24 naval sectors in East of the Mediterranean Sea, near the Leviathan gas field. In July 2017, the Israeli defense ministry bought a missile system and control and surveillance systems worth USD 430 million to protect gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea. [xxiv]


Regional and international powers have increased their activity at Syrian coasts, as they want to secure their share of gas drilling operations. The Russian oil company Soyuzneftegaz is drilling off Syria’s coast as part of the agreements between Moscow and Damascus to develop oil and gas fields. The Russian company Novatek has also drilled for gas off the Lebanese shores. This work is within the context of an international Consortium that includes the French Total company and the Italian Eni company. [xxv]


In October 2017, the Russian Russneft company signed a deal to buy 30 per cent of the Egyptian Zohr gas field for USD 1.25 billion. This makes it the third partner in managing the giant field, along with the Italian Eni, which owns 60 per cent of the project and the British BP company, which owns 10 per cent. [xxvi]


In conclusion, the escalation of traditional military threats in the Mediterranean Sea will probably make some European countries, the NATO and the US review non-traditional security concepts that govern their strategies. They may do so as a result of the intensified regional arms race, of Russian, Turkish and Iranian military deployment in the Mediterranean Sea, conflicts over energy resources and gas pipelines corridors and rising military tensions among regional axes.

[i] Roberto Aliboni, "The New NATO Strategic Concept and the Mediterranean",  in, "IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2011", Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean, 2011, pp. 158-161

[ii] Peter Engelke, Lisa Aronsson, Magnus Nordenman, :Mediterranean Futures 2030: Towards a Transatlantic Security Strategy", Washington: Atlantic Council, 2017, pp.4-27  

[iii] James Black, Alexandra Hall, Giacomo Persi Paoli, Richard Warnes,"Troubled waters: a snapshot of security challenges in the Mediterranean region", Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation ,2017, pp. 4-18

[iv] António Guterres, "Remarks to the Security Council on Security Challenges in the Mediterranean Region", United Nations SecretaryGeneral, November 17, 2017, accessible at:

[v] Erwan Lannon, "The Mediterranean in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy: Connecting the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa", in, "IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2017", Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean, 2017, pp. 213-216

[vi] Metin Gurcan, "Eastern Mediterranean may be scene of first conflict of 2018", Al-monitor, December 26, 2017, accessible at:  https://goo. gl/LJ4nwe 

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Anna Ahromheim, " Israel Cyprus Begin Joint Drill on Mediterranean Island", Jerusalem Post, December 3, 2017, accessible at: https://

[ix] Tom O'connor, "Newest Russia Threat? Military Challenges U.S. and Europe by Winning in Syria", The NewsWeek, July 15, 2017, accessible at:

[x] “Egypt: Transfers of major conventional weapons”, SIPRI Trade Registers Database, 2017

[xi] “Israel: Transfers of major conventional weapons”, SIPRI Trade Registers Database, 2017

[xii] Burak Ege Bekdil, "Turkey makes deal to buy Russian-made S-400 air defense system", Defense News, December 29, 2017, accessible at:

[xiii] “Algeria: Transfers of major conventional weapons”, SIPRI Trade Registers Database, 2017

[xiv] James Black, Alexandra Hall, Giacomo Persi Paoli, Richard Warnes,"Troubled waters: a snapshot of security challenges in the Mediterranean region", Op.Cit., pp. 27-28

[xv] "Egypt Opens Monumental Military Base", Jerusalem Post, July 25, 2017, accessible at:

[xvi] "Air Stike on Iranian Base in Syria Raises Questions", Jerusalem Post, December 2, 2017, accessible at:

[xvii] Gordon Corer," Iran building permanent military base in Syria", BBC News, November 10, 2017, accessible at:

[xviii] “Egypt, Greece and Cyprus work together to enhance security in the Mediterranean Sea,” Al-Hayat newspaper, December 15, 2017, accessible at:

[xix] Fehim Tastekin, " Erdogan's Ottoman dream causes storm in Red Sea", Al-monitor, Januray 3, 2018, accessible at:

[xx] Ismail Azzam, “Before the hashish crisis,” a phase in the disputes between Morocco and Algeria, Deutsche Welle, October 23, 2017, accessible at:

[xxi] Turkey targets Kurdish forces in Afrin: The short, medium and long story", BBC News, January 23, 2018, accessible at: com/news/world-middle-east-42704542

[xxii] "Italy approves military mission in Niger, more troops to North Africa", Reuters, JANUARY 17, 2018, accessible at:

[xxiii] “Different significances: What Drives Turkey’s Intensified Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration?,” Future for Advanced Research and Studies, August 9, 2017, accessible at:

[xxiv] “Israeli deal to protect gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea,” Russia Today, July 9, 2017, accessible at:

[xxv] "Lebanon approves first offshore oil and gas exploration", Times of Israel, December 14, 2017, accessible at:

[xxvi] Tsvetana Paraskova, "Rosneft To Buy 30% Stake In Giant Zohr Gas Field", Oil Price Website, October 9, 2017, accessible at: https://