In NATO’s Southern flank, the general picture is quite bleak. There is a general failure of governance as the Eastern Mediterranean and its adjoining regions remain an extremely turbulent and unstable neighborhood, where the security environment continues to be “Hobbesian”. The list of, frequently interacting, problems is very long indeed: civil conflicts; the emergence of fragile, unstable, dysfunctional or even failed states; the possibility of de facto (or even de jure) border change in various parts of the region; sectarian tensions; Jihadist terrorism; extreme inequality in the distribution of income; democratic deficit; population flows; the proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as small arms and light weapons; existing regional conflicts; the ambitious agendas of regional powers (including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia); competition for energy resources; the lack of a regional security architecture; a relative decline in U.S. interest and presence in the region; and a deep, structural European crisis also affecting the EU’s global and regional influence and policies. All those factors combined to cause an almost perfect storm in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

An attempt to describe the evolving regional security environment in the Eastern Mediterranean will have to include several scenarios, with numerous variations. However, irrespective of which scenario will reflect more accurately future developments in the region, it would be fairly safe to predict that the wider Middle East is gradually evolving into a multi-player security system.

As a result, the West and NATO may have to adjust to a new reality where their influence in this region will decline, at least in relative terms, as changes in the global balance of power will be reflected here as well.

China has been implementing a policy of close relations with resource-rich states in Africa and the Gulf region and is undoubtedly an emerging player both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Southern Europe. Through initiatives and projects such as “Belt and Road”, “16+1” , the acquisition of ports and other strategic infrastructure assets across the Mediterranean, China is continuously increasing its economic, but also political footprint in the above-mentioned regions. For the time being, China has limited its regional involvement in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean mainly to the economic sphere, satisfied with the U.S. guarantee to the safety of supply lines. But this may change given its growing energy dependency. On the other hand, there are no signs so far that China is interested in acting as a security provider in this region.

Russia has also been trying – quite successfully, one might add – to regain some of its past influence in the region. Smart use of its rather limited – at least in comparison to the U.S –  capabilities has allowed Moscow to become a key player in Syria, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean in general. It tried – and succeeded – in projecting the image of a great power, willing to invest considerable resources to support an ally (although it is not specifically committed to Assad’s political survival but rather to the regime’s one). It also used Syria as a “card out of jail“, a bargaining chip that would allow her to negotiate with the West from a position of relative strength and exchange an agreement on Syria with a compromise solution in the Ukrainian crisis (hoping that the West would accept Crimea as a fait accompli). Along the way, it took advantage of rather poor policy choices by the U.S. and the Europeans to increase its own influence in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, although it probably underestimated the complexity of the Syrian conflict and overestimated its own ability to facilitate a negotiated solution. It may also have been prepared to prevent a Cyprus settlement that would diminish its influence on the island (it needed not to worry, though, as the central players in that conflict were once more unable to reach an agreement) and has been keeping an eye on hydrocarbons developments in the Eastern Mediterranean.

There is also some concern that Russia may try to use its relationship with Turkey, or tensions between Greece and Turkey, as tools for undermining NATO’s cohesion. Regarding the latter, it is not expected that tensions will go beyond a certain level, although there is always the risk of inadvertent escalation. And despite Russia’s good relationship – although of a very different nature – with both countries, Moscow has very limited influence in the evolution of Greek-Turkish relations.

Russia’simproved Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean have caused concern to both American and NATO planners. They were not used, however, to interfere with the April 2018 attack against Syria launched by the US, Britain and France. Furthermore, although there is no denying that Russia’s presence in the region has been upgraded, it is still limited to Syria, as Moscow has no other close allies in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (a certain rapprochement with Iran and Turkey looks more like an alliance of opportunity than a truly strategic relationship).

Instead, the European Union has lost some of its regional influence and appears to be lacking a coherent and comprehensive policy/vision towards its Southern neighborhood. Based on the Global Security Strategy adopted in 2016, the Union is interested in investing in the advancement of its Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and in supporting cooperative regional orders worldwide, especially in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa. It is also actively seeking the strengthening of its defence capabilities through a series of initiatives such as PESCO, CARD, the European Defence Fund and the European Intervention Initiative. Efficient use of its – still considerable – normative power and of other foreign policy tools at its disposal would have a significant impact on Mediterranean stability and security. But, alas, this is not yet the case.

The other transatlantic partner, the United States, has been shifting its strategic attention to Asia and has been trying to reduce its military presence in the Mediterranean by delegating responsibility: for the Western Mediterranean and parts of sub-Saharan Africa to the EU and for the Eastern Mediterranean to regional partners and allies. Although currently U.S. foreign policy towards the Eastern Mediterranean seems to be lacking strategic focus and clarity, the very good relations of the Trump Administration with IsraelEgypt and Greece augur rather well for sub-regional cooperation efforts with U.S. support. However, the U.S. decisions to move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem and, more importantly, to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), in combination with its broader strongly confrontational stance vis-à-vis Iran, may have serious negative consequences for regional stability.

There are certain potential success stories in the context of sub-regional security cooperation, regarding mostly the triangular strategic partnerships developed by Greece and Cyprus with Israel and Egypt, and the most recent addition of Jordan (all countries involved are members or partners of NATO or the EU). What links these states is the concern about regional stability, and, to a certain extent, cooperation in the energy sector. It is noteworthy that the relationship is evolving from the initial concept of perceived common adversaries (which constitutes a rather shaky ground for a strategic relationship and a source of friction with Turkey), to one based on common interests. In view of the complete lack of a regional security architecture, these sub-regional cooperation schemes are currently the “only game in town”. To maximize its contribution to regional security, such cooperation should be as inclusive as realistically possible.

Finally, regarding NATO’s involvement in the Mediterranean, it is possible to identify five categories of missions where NATO could, in principle, make a contribution: (a) Peacemaking operations/PSOs, humanitarian intervention (Libya-type) and post-conflict stabilization; (b) Security Sector Reform (SSR); (c) Maritime security; (d) Combating WMD proliferation; and (e) Energy security (given the Eastern Mediterranean’s increasing energy footprint).

There are diverging views regarding the possible role of NATO in the field of maritime security. Although there is little doubt that NATO can be a useful player, most experts believe it can have only a modest impact on the management of refugee/migration flows or in combatting organized crime, as such missions are best suited for coast guards.

NATO’s active presence in the Mediterranean, however, is rather highly appreciated and sought by governments in terms of a mostly psychological re-assurance against Jihadist terrorism and wider instability in the South. Therefore, although not a central player anymore in most scenarios, NATO will remain in the foreseeable future a very useful tool for crisis management in the Mediterranean region.

[1] The Chinese multilateral platform for cooperation with 16  Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC), established in 2012.


Source: Italian Institute for International Political Studies