At the core of NATO’s southeastern flank and the nexus of the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean region a half decade ago was relatively serene. Egypt, Libya and Syria were ruled by enduring dictators. Turkey’s falling out with Israel had been triggered by the notorious Mavi Marmara episode to crack the Gaza embargo. The economic depression in Greece had begun, but its severity was not yet apparent. Cyprus was governed by a Communist, but with little regional impact.
Today, the transformation of the complex political and geostrategic environment of the broader Mediterranean region, whose regular problems were generally manageable, has been stunning. Syria is a coastal rump state, devastated by government attacks on civilians, Iranian arms manned by Hezbollah ground forces, Russian bombers defending the regime, and embedded Islamic State barbarism extending its murderous reach to Europe and the United States. Egypt teeters between Islamist tyranny and muscular secularism, confronting an Islamist State-affiliated terrorist base in the Sinai Peninsula (where 700 U.S. peacekeepers are currently stationed to uphold the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement) even as it assures commercial shipping passage through the Suez Canal. Libya is in sheer anarchy, the victim of Western genocide prevention that has destabilized northern Africa and provided Islamic State a terrorist foothold just a few hundred miles south of Italy and Greece, close enough to more effectively infiltrate into southern European and the broader continent.
Among traditional Western partners, Turkey has descended into NATO policy drift, anchoring itself to the alliance in the face of Russian adventurism yet defying the West on democracy values and counter-terrorism priorities. Greece’s long-term political stability is in question, as a radical leftist coalition battles the eurozone against the potential for social collapse within the European Union. Israel and Cyprus remain relatively stable, their energy cooperation plans dashed by global resource gluts and domestic financial and regulatory legal wrangling.
Russia and China have repositioned their armed forces into and within the region. As a result of its Syrian operations, Moscow has reinforced its military posture from its naval base in Tartus, and its air base in nearby Latakia, from which it exercises de facto control over all of Syrian airspace via its advanced S-400 surface to anti-missile system. Joined to Russia’s renewed military position in Crimea, from which it seeks to dominate the Black Sea, the Russian surface and submarine navy can easily and indefinitely access warm water ports through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits controlled by Turkey, and the Aegean Sea amid hundreds of Greek islands, an area traditionally patrolled by the once-mighty U.S. Sixth Fleet.
In addition, Russian diplomatic overtures have increased significantly, including to Greece, Cyprus, Israel and even Egypt. Efrain Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies recently noted that, despite the annual $1.3 billion in assistance that Egypt has received from the U.S. government for more than three decades, “American reluctance to support the al-Sisi regime plays into Russian hands. The Russians are selling weapons to Egypt, negotiating port rights in Alexandria, and supplying Egypt with nuclear reactors.” China has advanced its naval forces into the region similarly. In May 2015, Chinese ships conducted replenishment and escort exercises with their Russian counterparts. Four years earlier, four Chinese cargo planes conducted an effective evacuation of nationals from Libya before the launch of NATO’s anti-Khaddafy campaign.
The eastern Mediterranean for decades was ordered by unchallenged American sea and air power. That robust American military presence under the Sixth Fleet guided NATO’s regional operations, assured allies, projected sea and air power, and influenced power balances throughout the periphery effectively for decades. Former Navy Undersecretary Seth Cropsey crisply described that earlier might: “In the 1980s, the Sixth Fleet comprised two supercarriers, multiple escorting destroyers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, and an amphibious ready group with helicopters and several thousand embarked Marines.”
According to the United Nations, about 15,000 shipping transits pass annually through Suez Canal, linking Indian Ocean and Red Sea commercial shipping lanes to the eastern Mediterranean, en route to markets in the United States and northern Europe via the Straits of Gibraltar, to eastern and central Europe via the Greek port of Piraeus in the Aegean Sea, and to Black Sea ports via the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits controlled by Turkey.
Security remains a primary concern. If terrorism, piracy or a naval blockade were to successfully shut down the canal, maritime shipping between Europe and South Asia would have to circumnavigate Africa, increasing the sea voyage distance by about 4,300 miles and resulting in higher prices for all attendant energy supplies, commodities and consumer goods in American, European and Asian markets.
The next administration will need to re-strategize for international security throughout the eastern Mediterranean, assuring allies, deterring foes, protecting shipping lanes and projecting power more effectively to support diplomatic efforts that can help stabilize northern Africa, the Levant and Middle East, and the Black Sea/Caucasus regions. The new regional landscape offers a series of innovative geopolitical trade-offs for the West.
At the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, connecting Asian commerce to Europe and North America’s East Coast, and struggling with furious sectarian battles and geostrategic military engagements, the stabilization of the eastern Mediterranean Sea is more critical to the international order than ever. The next President of the United States, working closely with regional allies and partners, has little choice but to engage expeditiously, energetically and decisively.
• John Sitilides is a Washington government relations and geopolitical executive, and a speaker at business conferences.