Something is Happening in the MidEast and the EastMed

By Zenonas Tziarras

Something is definitely happening at the geopolitical intersection of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Rapid, crucial, and very much interlinked, developments at the same juncture cannot be coincidences. Here is some of the developments and their geopolitical impact, although only time can reveal the true and complete pattern.

In Turkey, apart from the discussion about the new constitution, the country is going through an historic period as the decades-long conflict between the state and the Kurdish separatist movement, led by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), seems to be coming to an end. The imprisoned Kurdish leader has called for a ceasefire and ordered the Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Turkish soil.

At about the same time the economy and banking sector of the Republic of Cyprus were stricken hard by the decision of the Troika and the Eurogroup to impose a levy on all savings in Cypriot banks. After the parliament rejected the decision, a crisis followed for about ten days only for Eurogroup to reach a similar decision for imposing a much bigger levy on all savings over 100 thousand Euros. Eventually the credibility of Cyprus’s banking sector has vanished over-night, and the Cypriot economy has essentially been put on life-support waiting on its imminent default.

In the meantime, tensions in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece have been re-ignited after the latter started expressing more vocally its intension for the delimitation of its Exclusive Economic Zone. Needless to say that the issue of maritime zones and territorial waters has become even more important after the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the EEZ of Israel (2009) and Cyprus (2011-12) as well as the estimations for large natural gas and oil reserves in Greece’s seabed.

Moreover, Turkey and Israel seem to be passed the period of cold relations as Israel apologized to Turkey for the killing of nine Turkish activists during the raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla which was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. The two countries are now in the process of discussing the amount of money with which Israel will compensate the families of the victims. The rapprochement was made possible after the US President’s visit to Israel, and it aims both at energy cooperation as well as at the strengthening of the pro-Western axis in the Middle East against such threats as Syria and Iran.

Importantly enough, and very much against the will of Iran and Russia, the Arab League has legitimized the Syrian opposition (Syrian National Coalition) by inviting it to take the seat of Assad’s government in the latest summit.

To be sure, each piece of the puzzle is important in its own right. However, it seems that all pieces are ultimately parts of a greater picture. Starting with Turkey, the solution of the Kurdish issue has been the country’s most important problem not only in terms of human rights and democratic standards, but also because it has been the biggest obstacle to a successful Turkish foreign policy. Therefore, not only Ankara but also the US, and the West more generally, needed a stable Turkey and resolved Kurdish problem if Turkey were to be an effective anchor of western interests in the region.

Israel’s apology to Turkey had to do with many things, and the Obama visit was perhaps the less important one. Just as common threat perceptions (i.e. mainly Syria) brought the two countries together in the mid-90s that is how the threats of an unstable Syria and an Iranian nuclear program have led them to a rapprochement today. In addition, the cooperation between Greece, Israel, and Cyprus has become of high security risk because of the tensions between Turkey and Greece and Turkey and Cyprus while Cyprus has lost much of its political and economic credibility and power due to the financial crisis. In this light, although the US is the leader of this plan, Obama had little to do with the actual Turkish-Israeli rapprochement since the geopolitical ground was already set. It is also worth noting that, for the Americans, the Israeli and Cypriot natural gas would better pass through Turkey to Europe as Israel and Turkey are their allies; at the same time, an alternative Russia-related route through Cyprus and Greece would not please the US both because of Russia’s involvement and the prospect of EU (mostly Germany) energy independency.

Yet, for all that to happen, Cyprus had to be stripped off of whatever political and economic leverage it had in the formation of this plan. EU’s bail-out/bail-in plan was political. The economically murderous measures are only the tactical means which will most probably lead to two things. First, the economic rescue of Cyprus will be linked to the future profits of the Cypriot natural gas (as a last resort) thus ceding sovereign rights and shares to European countries, through the attainment of lower prices on and less control over the natural resources. Second, the urgent and quick settlement of the Cyprus problem will be put on the table and the Cypriot people will be verbally extorted to accept it – whatever its problems and injustices – as it will also provide the potential of economic and social recovery. These two reasons along with the decrease of the Russian influence over Cyprus, through the clash with the off-shore Russian capital parked in Cyprus, and the creation of a precedent for the management of the EU economic crisis (based on the imposed levy) have been the main aims of the EU-driven Cypriot crisis. A similar situation seems to be developing in Greece’s relationship with its European lenders.

So far, two fronts, Cyprus and the Kurdish issue, are in the process of not being problems for the US (and Turkey) anymore. The next front is Syria. Western powers and Arab states are already supporting the rebels with humanitarian aid, intel and arms. The replacement of Assad’s government with the SNC opposition at the Arab League summit was another political, yet significant, step that reveals much of what is going to follow. Further, the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime will very likely be the – real or constructed – pretext for even more involvement in Syria by Western powers. Once that happens (successfully) the Syrian crisis front will close as well. After the settlement of the Kurdish issue and the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, the management of the Syrian crisis – military or otherwise – will be much easier (not necessarily easy though).

But Syria, although important in and of itself, is only the centre of gravity of the Western strategy in the Middle East right now. Taking Assad down is only a tactical move in a strategy that is aimed at hitting the Russian and Iranian regional power and influence. One of the flaws with this plan is that Israel is not as patient as the US.

This does not necessarily mean that all things point to Iran, although one has to admit that it is one of the US foreign policy priorities. As the US, NATO and the West in general have been losing power the past ten years, they have to find other ways to achieve their goals in the Middle East since they also need to focus on other regions of the world like the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic. Because of that Turkey and Israel, among other Middle East western allies, need to be strong and coordinated. And that is why all these fronts need to be dealt with immediately. It is important to note that among the western powers there are also conflicting interests, and even though Germany seems to be dominating Europe, the US does have a foothold in the EU through allies such as the United Kingdom.

Since both the grand strategic planning and calculations are multileveled, developments on many levels lead to the end result as well. While we are still far from having a clear picture of what is happening, and while all the above might as well be mere speculations and scenarios, it is a fact that in world politics coincidences rarely happen.

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