Monday, 20 May 2013

Israel wary of Turkey gas role, while Russia steps up Eastern Mediterranean involvement

A couple of interesting pieces in the Israeli press that I came across over the weekend, dealing with the pre-eminent issues currently facing the Eastern Mediterranean, namely the exploration for hydrocarbons in the Levantine basin and the war in Syria.

In an editorial for the Jerusalem Post, it was argued that Turkey’s recent willingness to patch things up with Israel are an ill-disguised attempt by the Turks to get their hands on Israeli gas and, through the building of a pipeline from Israel to Turkey, implicate Turkey in Israel’s economic interests.

The editorial strongly argues against allowing Turkish involvement in Israeli hydrocarbon exports, suggesting that Turkey is not a reliable business partner; warning that Turkey may in the future undergo ‘an even more extreme Islamic transformation’ that would inevitably jeopardise Israeli interests; and concluding that any arrangement Israel and Turkey make on hydrocarbons would be entirely dependent on Turkish goodwill, which is not something Israel can rely on.

The editorial also argues that an Israel-Turkey deal would mean Israel discarding its nascent hydrocarbon alliance with Cyprus, which the author suggests would be a poor decision by Israel:

‘A deal with Turkey would undermine cooperation already fostered with the Cypriot Greeks, whose own gas discoveries are anathema to Ankara which occupies the northern parts of the island. Do we really want to ditch Cyprus in favor of an unpredictable and hardly friendly business partner? Pipelines can also be built in the Cypriot direction and another possibility is liquefying the gas and transporting it to Europe by tankers. It may be more expensive but this would be offset by the removal of pipeline security concerns. Also, Cyprus has allocated land for a liquefaction plant, which would relieve Israel of another safety headache.’

(It’s also worth stressing that Israeli wariness of Turkish involvement in the region means that Israel now has an interest in any Cyprus settlement and would oppose a deal to reunite the island that would leave Turkey with a significant say in how Cyprus is run, particularly in relation to foreign relations and hydrocarbon exploration).

The other piece of interest is from Haaretz and looks at how and why Russia is continuing to back the Assad regime in Syria – particularly through the supply of sophisticated missile systems – and the implications of this for Israel and any potential intervention by external actors designed to precipitate Assad’s downfall. Anshel Pfeffer argues that Russia’s support for Assad stems from its determination to maintain a presence and influence in the Eastern Mediterranean:

The reports on possible missile shipments are part of a wider move by Russia to show its support for Assad. This includes a large naval exercise in which 11 Russian warships have converged in recent days in the eastern Mediterranean, not far from Syria's shore. It is the Russian Navy's largest maneuver in the Mediterranean since the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

‘The Russians have a clear interest in Assad's survival. He is the last secular head of state in the Arab world who isn't considered an ally of the U.S. administration or a supporter of radical Islamist movements that are also threatening Russia's eastern provinces. Assad is the last recognizable agent of Russian influence in the Middle East, and despite his closeness to the Iranian-Shia axis over the past decade, his current dire situation puts him at Moscow's mercy.


‘The Russian Navy has a long-term lease for use of Syria's Tartus port and is the only Russian military presence currently in the Mediterranean basin. Even if the regime in Damascus falls, an Alawite rump state would probably remain for a while along the coast, with Tartus at its heart. Both Assad and the Russians have a joint strategic interest in defending that bit of coast.’


Indeed, as part of Russia’s recent show of force in the region, we note that over the weekend, three Russian warships docked in the port of Limassol and were visited by the island’s defence minister, Photis Photiou who, coincidentally, will be in Russia this week for meetings with his counterparts. Cypriot press has been reporting that Russia will be requesting that Cyprus allow other ships from Russia’s Mediterranean taskforce to use Cypriot port facilities.

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