Military Efforts in the Mediterranean Basin

Image by German Navy photo by Photographer PO1OR-6 Alyssa Bier

Image by German Navy photo by Photographer PO1OR-6 Alyssa Bier

by Effie Seiti

The Progressive Globalization of the Mediterranean Security

The Mediterranean area, the so-called ‘crossroad of civilizations’, is considered to be a hot spot in the process of developing the international scene. Over the time, the events that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean region, affected either directly or indirectly the whole international arena. Regarding the term ‘gate of Middle East to Syria and Mediterranean area’, the region is thought to be a pole of attraction as well as field of constant competitiveness between major powers.   

The Destabilizing Factors


At a first glance, the civil war in Libya and the continued fights, had a huge impact on internally displacing more than 434,000 people as of June 2015. The country has also been used as a passageway for Libyan refugees and refugees from other Northern African and sub-Saharan African countries. Taking into consideration the International Organization of Migration’s report, half a million people had fled from Libya during September 2015.  As The Guardian mentioned, in 2015, an estimated number of 76,000 refugees and migrants made the journey to Europe from Libya by boats in a fate worse than death.


Relating to the unsettled situation in Egypt, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, the concern that arises is whether the Islamic state occupied the Sinai Peninsula to act as a stepping stone throughout the Middle East. This area could facilitate the performance of other attacks in Egypt and to cause additional political instability. Furthermore, the existence of a threat towards Israel, since it shares common borders with the region of Sinai, has caused several incidents of intercepting rockets from the region. 


While the Arab Spring’s context served initially as a protest against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March 2011, it finally transformed into a full-scale war. From the one side, the Syrian government supported by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shiite Muslim political party and from the other side, the militant group Hezbollah and anti-government insurgent groups. This situation has led to a spill over effect on neighbouring countries and the involvement of third parties, as a response to the expansion of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. As Ian Lesser mentions[1], the prospect of a protracted conflict in Syria and Iraq and the possibility of spreading extremism- which recently occurred in the activities of ISIS- is expected to shape the Mediterranean security environment for the time being.

The Driving Factors for Military Presence in the Mediterranean Area

What factor urges the states to expand their presence in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea? It was obviously the situation in Syria and a potential spillover effect in the region that led to this presence. Since the beginning of the air attacks by the USA, many countries have set up surveillance and reconnaissance operations in Eastern Mediterranean area.

The naval presence in the region has occurred mainly in order to ensure the uninterrupted flow of free trade which is translated to 2,000 ships sailing in the region at any given moment and an annual traffic volume of 200,000 ships[2]. Its proximity with the northern hemisphere and the world’s oil-producing countries results in the daily trafficking millions of tons of mineral oil, hydrocarbons and other products via tankers of any age, type and operational capacity.​[3]

Moreover, the eastern Mediterranean serves as a major energy pathway and it is an area rich in oil and natural gas reserves, while important is the existence of  refineries, ports of loading/uploading and transfer stations. There are also various types of facilities from which drilling operations take place. Another essential point for this region, is the fact that oil and natural gas transport pipelines ending up in the Mediterranean sea, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Pipeline. The region’s total energy reserves equal 30 billion barrels of oil with an approximate market value of $1.5 trillion. Another significant example is the discovery of natural gas and oil reserves with an estimated volume of 3.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrel of oil in Leviathan, Israel.[4]

Military Presence in the Eastern Mediterranean: Reasons and Efforts 

The recent crisis in the region, which resulted from the exploration activities of Turkey’s research vessel ‘Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa’ in the eastern Mediterranean, prompted a further increase in military moves. These activities that took place convoyed by frigates of the Turkish navy launched an outbreak of exploration in the exclusive economic zone declared by the Republic of Cyprus. The reactions to this move were instant. The Cypriot Minister of Defence claimed that the Turkish operations that took place where located in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and are considered to be facts of violation of the International and European Law of the Sea.

Another crucial factor which urges the states to establish their military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region is the high demands on the delimitation of maritime zones. This need seems to be more essential now in this particular region, following the recent natural resource discoveries. Within these claims, a dispute between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey emerges. The government of the Republic of Cyprus states that it is an indisputable right to negotiate with other countries and companies for the purpose of exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the sea area of the island, without previously notifying the Turkish-Cypriot side.

During the 2011 agreement, which was signed with Turkey in order to prevent any unilateral move by the Cypriots concerning hydrocarbon exploration around the island, the Turkish-Cypriot side claimed that these resources should be reclaimed fairly within a united Cyprus. Following these developments, in October 2015, Russia, Israel and Cyprus’ naval forces held a joint naval exercise.

Another exercise followed shortly between NATO and Turkey, called ‘the Blue Whale’ which was carried out inside Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), violating its sovereign rights. Regarding the ‘Blue Whale’ operation, this exercise included air defence, underwater attacks and anti-submarine operations and developed joint operational procedures.

While the European Union is under the shadow of the most serious refugee crisis after the World War II, in May 2015, the Council approved the Crisis Management Concept for a military CSDP operation in order to combat trafficking and smuggling networks in Mediterranean region.

As part of the EU’s comprehensive approach in June 2015, the EU launched the military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED). The aim of this operation is to undertake concerted efforts to identify capture and dispose vessels as well as enable assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers.

Regarding this operation there is an air of optimism. More specifically, as Admiral Lord West of the UK’s Royal Navy told the BBC the proposals to destroy the boats are difficult to be carried out but achievable. Also, the European Commission has previously suggested the EU’s tactics should be inspired by the ‘positive results obtained by the EU antipiracy mission of the coasts of Somalia ‘Atalanta’.

There are opposite voices indeed. Atalanta’s former head of operations Gerry Northwood mentioned that destroying boats would have ‘limited value’ and he warned that this approach could result to unwanted loss of life. Hans Lucht, writer and senior researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies stated that destroying boats would not necessary stop trafficking networks. Finally, as Mr. Lucht added, ‘you cannot expect to hit one or two smuggling operations and then the whole thing goes away’.

A Globalized Mediterranean Security

Summarising, it seems to be an amalgam of factors that contributes to the establishment of military presence in Mediterranean. Each regional or international actor is trying to protect its interests since the unsettled situation in the Middle East serves as destabilizing factor and jeopardizes any aspect of security in the region. On the one hand, the European Union is trying to give an unequal battle with the refugee streams, especially after 2014 the immigrant flows have increased dramatically while from the other, Russia is trying to secure its interests in the region (there is a Russian naval base in the city Tartus). Furthermore, the access to warm seas plays an essential role in shaping the country’s foreign policy and every possible action is driven by economic and military incentives.

Jeffrey Mankof, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said: ‘I think Russia does have a bigger geopolitical view of the world, regards the eastern Mediterranean as an area of importance, and wants to be sure that it can secure its interests there. Moreover, according to General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander: ‘Tartus may also be part of a Russian effort to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble over Syria, designed to prevent NATO forces from taking offensive action against Russia and its allies in the region’. These ambitions are also illustrated by Russia’s new Maritime Strategy, the Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020. This strategy includes the Mediterranean Sea, claiming that the aim of Russian Federation is to re-establish a Russian Navy presence there.

Apart from these, the Cypriot issue and the dispute between Israel- Lebanon and Turkey-Cyprus regarding the delimitation of maritime zones and agreements on resource rights in international waters, they contribute for heating up the Eastern Mediterranean and jeopardize the security of critical maritime routes as Al Monitor mentioned.

These developments are turning eastern Mediterranean into a crossroad of regional rivalry including a growing naval presence and confirm that the new dynamics in the strategic environment created a progressive globalization of Mediterranean Security. That means that these rivalries are related mainly with international security and less with the region exclusively[5]. What we can hope is that diplomacy will outweigh and that humanity will not dragged at the same mistakes of the past.


[1] Ian O. Lesser, ‘’The United States and thr Future of Mediterranean Security: Reflections from GMF’s Mediterranean Strategy Group’’, Mediterranean Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, April 2015

[2] ‘Natural disaster prevention and management in the Mediterranean marine space caused by oil or gas leakage’, Draft Report, 2nd Standing Committee on Economic, Social and Environmental Cooperation, Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carlo Masala and Konstantinos Tsetsos, ‘’The Maritime Dimension of the European Union’s and Germany’s Security and Defence Policy in the 21st Century, Maritime Security of the European Union’’, ISPW Strategy Series: Focus on Defence and International Security, Issue No.229, May 2013

[5] Ian O. Lesser, ‘’The United States and thr Future of Mediterranean Security: Reflections from GMF’s Mediterranean Strategy Group’’, Mediterranean Policy Program, The German Marshall Fund of the Unted States, April 2015

Effie Seiti was born and raised in Rhodes, Greece. She received her bachelor’s degree in the field of International Relations and Organizations (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2009-2013) and earned a Master’s Degree with merit in Political, Economic and International Relations in the Mediterranean (University of the Aegean, Rhodes, Greece 2013-2015). She has participated in many workshops and conferences (as speaker and as organizer). She has also participated in 3 summer seminars, in Crete (Erasmus Intensive Programme, Governance and Security in Europe & Mediterranean), Istanbul (Global Politics Summer School Turkey 2014) and Rhodes (Tulane Law Summer Abroad, Scholarship as Aegean Institute Alumnus for the participation in Tulane Law School Summer Programme about Maritime Law, Law of the Sea & Ocean Management 2015). The highlight of her academic activities is her participation in simulations of regional and international organizations (Model United Nations) as a delegate and as a member of the board in Greece, France, UK and Romania among others. She is now working in a multinational corporation in Warsaw, Poland whileshe seeks for a PhD programme.


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