By Marios P. Efthymiopoulos*
The discovery of massive fields of natural gas in the coastal waters of Cyprus and Israel has set off an energy race that underscores the need for the Obama administration to re-examine its policy of retrenchment in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The gas finds will make Israel and Cyprus exporters of energy for decades, thus strengthening the hands of two reliable allies in the war on terrorism. Israel has signed a deal to supply Jordan with $15 billion worth of natural gas from its Leviathan energy field over 15 years, according to The Times of Israel, and Israel has signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt to sell as much as 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas to Egyptian industrial, nongovernmental customers. Texas-based Halliburton has signed an agreement with Cyprus to drill up to 54 gas wells during the next few years, thereby investing more than $5 billion in production costs.
Egypt, which has a liquid natural gas conversion plant on its territory, is eager to be an importer of hydrocarbon assets, possibly through Cyprus.
Security for the gas rigs in coastal waters and protection of undersea pipelines is a major issue, which Washington needs to consider with high seriousness. A multibillion-euro gas pipeline from Israel to Cyprus to Greece is the transportation solution supported by Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy, as announced Nov. 19 at a conference in Rome of energy ministers of Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries.
The pipeline, which could be exporting gas to EU countries as early as 2022, according to Cypriot officials, would feed into the European Trans Adriatic Pipeline.
All hands agree that Eastern Mediterranean alliances, which created a Pax Americana during the Cold War, have broken down. Turkey is a NATO partner, yet an unreliable one. Turkish tanks lined up at the border with Syria during the August siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani and pointedly refused to intervene. The Turkish-Israel strategic and security alliance has soured in recent years, and Turkish-U.S. relations have slid downhill since 2003, when Turkey initially refused to allow the United States to use its air base at Incirlik for the invasion of Iraq.
With the U.S. 6th Fleet a mere shadow of its former self, and with Russia fielding the only carrier fleet in the region, the once-dominant role of the United States as power broker is challenged. Partly as a result of the U.S. military drawdown and the administration’s deliberate policy of risk avoidance, Russia has rushed into the ensuing power vacuum, brokering a peace between the United States and Syria in 2013 over the issue of chemical weapons, establishing energy trade relations with Turkey, securing its military presence in Syria, and courting all countries in the region for port facilities for the Russian fleet.
In these fast-churning waters of realignment, American allies such Israel and Cyprus look to the United States to continue to be a stabilizing force in the region. Yet, since 2011, the Obama administration has been doing its best to shift its military assets to Asia. As The Middle East Quarterly puts it: “While the U.S. military is still capable of acting in the East Mediterranean, the general perception in the region is that the Obama administration lacks the political will and skills to do so.”
Former U.S. Rep. Dan Burton emphasized the importance of strategic and practical U.S. engagement in the region in order to secure regional stability and the energy security of U.S. allies. “As a congressman for 30 years, I can tell you that Congress can nonetheless do a lot by funding or defunding projects advanced by the White House,” Mr. Burton told an energy conference at The Washington Times this month.
The White House supports Cyprus‘ claims to energy rights in the area. Now there needs to be a sign of investment on enhanced security in the area. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has said he would welcome a stronger link to NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a network of countries on the margins of NATO. A member of the European Union, Cyprus is an international security ally against international terrorism.
It also may be argued that it is in the interest of both the United States and Cyprus to plant U.S. military assets on Cyprus. Such a move would backstop the naval security forces of Greece and Israel, and would pave the way for Cyprus to join the nations of Partnership for Peace and, eventually, NATO itself. With Islamism showing its hand in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, now is the time to play the Cyprus card.
* Marios P. Efthymiopoulos is CEO and founder of Strategy International, a visiting academic at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and an adviser and member of the Geostrategic Committee of Foreign Relations of Cyprus, attached to the president of Cyprus.