2016 EMF Conference Part 4: Maritime Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean – Admiral IDF (Retd.) David Ben-Bashat 5-7 December 2016
EMF Conference Part 4: Maritime Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean
Admiral IDF (Retd.) David Ben-Bashat
EMF Conference 5-7 December 2016
The Eastern Mediterranean is a region of great importance, as it serves as a gateway between the Far East, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. We are currently observing the increase in maritime capabilities of regional powers wanting to emphasize their ambitions. There has been also a rising interest in the Eastern Mediterranean among the outside powers, mainly Russia and China, while the US has been withdrawing from the region. Although the regional environment remains volatile with numerous ongoing conflicts, there are certain issues and challenges that remain common to many of the regional players. These issues should serve as an incentive for developing regional cooperation.
Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): Welcome to our East Med Forum. This is a Skype conference. My co-host is Air Commodore Andrew Lambert and our speaker this morning is Admiral David Ben-Bashat who will talk to us about maritime developments in the eastern Mediterranean. Admiral good morning.
David Ben-Bashat (D. B-B): Good morning, good morning.
C.P.: Thank you for joining us.
B-B.: I said that I’m very happy to be part of the conference and the seminar.
C.P.: Thank you very much. David tell us what are the new developments?
B-B.: First of all, before I start I want to compliment you and with the forum initiation, I think that it’s very, very important in those days to discuss what’s going on in our region, because a lot happened around us from many directions, and it’s very, very wise to sit down once in a while and to discuss it, and to bring the issue to our conscious. Even we are unofficial, I believe that some influence from this type of discussion can go to the right people. And also I believe, and I want, and I hope that also the officials doing the same.
About our issue. You know, 80% of the economics of the world is going through the oceans and the sea and in international waters. And there’s no specific government that rules all these routes of communication around the world. And 80%, it’s also, let’s say, from the size of the globe, and also 80% of the economics is there. That means it’s very, very, very important. Therefore, always when there is some threats. There are official and unofficial organization that make cooperation between countries, mainly between navies. We saw during the last decade, after September 11, when the terrorism, the global terrorism start to increase, how a country gathered together and made allies like in Strait of Malacca, in the Indian Ocean, the European Union, South America, forces like NATO and active endeavor work in the Mediterranean, and also a lot of other organizations around the world, because the world is very worried about these routes of communication for the trade of the world.
Our corner of this world is a very important one. One of the important, let’s say, areas in the world because we are the gateway between the Far East – Asia – and Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea. all the country around the Black Sea, all the country around the Mediterranean, and for sure the countries in the Pacific they need the Suez Canal, they need this area, and therefore it’s become very, very important not only for us as neighbors in this region, also for countries from other parts of the world, their interest is that this gateway will be open and this route will be secure. Like China, for example, like Russia. And lately because of the instability of some countries in the region, mainly because of the Arab Spring, and the new Islamic organizations like ISIS – Daesh – that suddenly rose up in the region. And in, let’s say, in a short period we can find a lot of things that we didn’t know in the same volume and same magnitude before. We have the Russians in the area after many years when their presence was very weak, suddenly they are strong. The Chinese, as I mentioned, they are in the area. And we have relatively a new regime in Egypt, and we have, as I mentioned, ISIS in the area. We have the hydrocarbons, the gas, that suddenly we discovered in the area, and countries started to organize their EEZs, the exclusive economic zones. All these together, and for sure the refugees that came from Libya to Italy, from Turkey to Greece, and in very big numbers. Therefore, many new factors in this relatively small area bring a new situation. And we need to first of all understand and try to predict where we’re going and if we can do something to make more stabilized, to help this situation.
I want to go and to mention every one of the factors that I said. Mainly in the country, in the region. Because the first phenomenon is that most of the players increase their power. And the only one maybe the United States that was with a large presence in the Mediterranean in the last decades, in these days they’re almost not there, and I can say maybe unfortunately. But the United States, I think, because of China, they need to increase their presence in the Asia Pacific. And also the forces that they send against the pirates. By the way, the pirates have become weaker in these days, but the potential is still there. Then the present of United States in the Mediterranean and in our region is not as used to be in the last decade. We don’t know what will happen after the new president will take the position. Maybe the policy will be changed. But right now they are the only one with the player that they’re not increase the power – decrease the power.
Then maybe I’ll start with Egypt. Egypt – not a rich country, but although they are not a rich country, the President el-Sisi decided to increase his maritime forces. He gets some help from the Saudis, but he is increasing the forces by new submarines, helicopter carriers, new surface boats, and he is investing a lot of effort and money to collect from his people, and we need to salute the people of Egypt for this. In very short time they upgraded the Suez Canal, widened it, deepened it, and now they can use it for bigger ships, and they did it in a relatively short time. That means he gave a lot of importance to the maritime arena. And also I believe that he uses it as a tool to reflect power to his neighbors. No doubt that Egypt was in the past and he want to be also now a dominant a country in the Arab world. One of the tools that he is using for this is to reflect power in the maritime arena – that’s what countries normally do and that’s what makes emperor an emperor: the maritime forces. And it looks like Egypt in these days doing a lot of effort to strength the navy and the maritime forces. And also, fortunately for them, they detect some gas also in the economic zone. Therefore they need also to protect their gas, they need to protect the Suez Canal, they want to reflect the power.
And they are also under attack of the non-governmental organizations like Daesh that attack even military ships and civilian ships in their territory. That means we are seeing that Egypt has made a lot of efforts to be dominant in the region. This is for Egypt.
Going to Israel. Israel like Egypt also increased its maritime power. In 2013 Israel declared its EEZ, the EEZ doubled, let’s say, the area of the country. And because of this, Israel only lately signed contract for four new corvettes that will be built in Germany. But not only these; UAVs, an unmanned platform, and a lot of other tools, to make safe the region that increased by size because of the EEZ and the hydrocarbon that we are detecting in this region. Therefore the power of Israel in the area, in the maritime area became bigger.
Israel continues to deal with Hamas in Gaza, blockades the area not to let Hamas get any weapons by the sea, and therefore requires the intensive presence in this area. And the navy is also watching Hezbollah, although in the Hezbollah’s case, there is a NATO maritime force under resolution 1701, but Israel is also watching, because Nasrallah already threatened Israel that if it will be required from him, he will shoot missiles at the gas rigs in the area.
Therefore, for Israel that’s a threat, and therefore they need to watch and to maintain power against this threat, if it will happen. This is Israel. Egypt – growing forces. Israel – growing forces.
Then we go to Turkey. Turkey also would like to be very dominant country in the region. And as I said, maritime forces reflect power of the nation, and we are watching, and we see that Turkey is making a lot of effort to increase and use submarines, a new frigate – the MILGEM type – and others, and therefore we identified efforts to be dominant in the maritime arena. No doubt that Turkey also shows a lot of interest about gas that they don’t have in their country, and their waters they are looking for. But we believe that the reason for the problem with Israel was because of the gas interest, and no doubt about interest of Turkey in Cyprus. Turkey wants to be the dominant power in the region. We have the NATO forces around, and many many country take part, even Indonesia or Bangladesh – they are there between Cyprus and Lebanon.
And then let’s talk about Russia. Russia that was with a nice presence in the Mediterranean, mainly in Syria, when they were Soviet Union, but after they collapsed, they disappeared from the area. But now the crisis in Syria is a big chance for them to bring their forces again, and they are using it. And right now there is more than ten naval ships in the area, and I believe that is going to increase, and they are very, very dominant. And it’s a play to their interest that there is no American forces to balance them – only NATO forces. And they did only lately contract with Cyprus that they can stay also with ships there, and they tried to be a part of the play in this region to make exercise with Israel, with Greece, with Cyprus, and so and so.
The next country that I want to mention is China. China in the last few years decided to take very seriously the maritime routes. They like to import from Europe, for sure also to export, but import – it’s very important for them. Therefore the Chinese government drew a strategy that they need to take seriously the maritime route from Asia, from Far East Asia, to the Mediterranean. And they are doing it in few ways. One way is they increase, they double the maritime, military forces, and also they show their presence in the main port along the routes, like they are in Alexandria, they are in Cyprus, they are in Israel in Haifa, in the Horn of Africa. Also there is a small fleet of Chinese frigates and corvettes in the Indian Oceans fighting against the pirates and they even came to this region. Last year they did exercise with the Russians in the Mediterranean and also they visited the Black Sea, and also trained over there.
I’m jumping to Russia again because I didn’t mention it. For Russia it’s very important to be in this region because of the Black Sea. To be only in the Black Sea with the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits is too risky. Therefore, they need to be out of the Black Sea if they want to be sure that they can maintain a free line of communication from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. I believe that this is the main reason that they want to be present in this area. And as I say, they are cooperating with the Chinese, and they are cooperating with the other nations.
We can see that there are many factors from different interests that are playing in this relatively small corner and there are two issues that can leverage the cooperation in this region, and I hope the countries will know how to use this leverage. One leverage is cooperation against terrorism, Many times terrorism can be very, very dangerous, and as I said, they can cause chaos to the world. Therefore, all the countries that play in this area have to cooperate with intelligence, to be ready to make together search and rescue, if it’s needed to exchange information, to exchange doctrines and not to let the maritime terrorism rise. It’s a very, very important one and can be leveraged for good cooperation between the countries. The other thing is gas. There is gas in Egypt, there is gas in Cyprus, there is gas in Israel, there is gas in Greece. Maybe there is potential gas in Lebanon. And I believe that the countries need to cooperate, then they can even use the same means, they can exchange information, they can protect it together. There is a pipeline on the bottom of the sea that they need to share together. I think that there is a big room of cooperation around the gas and this is a good opportunity for the neighboring countries to cooperate together.
And there is the issue of the EEZ that has not finished the process of establishment. There are few contracts already established but there are some areas that still there is some debate around it. And I hope that the countries will find the way to establish it in the right way, and not to make it as a leverage for fighting. Last year when I visit you Chris and I mentioned at the very fantastic location of Cyprus in this eastern Mediterranean. And I believe that if I’ll take this location, geographic location and start from this to build cooperation, but already start, let’s say, with Israel, with Greece, to build the platform, then to bring Egypt inside. Maybe Turkey will join, maybe Russia will be part of this. I think that this region with America or without it – I don’t know what will be the policy of President Trump when he will take over – but I think that for the local countries in this region, I hope that we will find a way to build a platform that we can cooperate all of us together around the energy resources, around fighting against terrorism, around search and rescue. And although it looks complicated, although there are many, many partners, I believe that all of them have the same interest in the day is to make is to build security from the line of communication and use the energy in the right way. And this is my hope. And as I said in the beginning, I hope that not only us, let’s say, private people discussing. I hope that also the official, the government will find the way to do it.
Thank you very much.
C.P.: Thank you David, thank you very much. Andrew?
Andrew Lambert (A.L.): Admiral, thank you very much. May I say so, very lucid exposition of the situation, the geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’ve got two or three questions, if I may. I spoke yesterday about the derogation from various international treaties, notably the ICJ, and of course more recently in July this year, when China decided it would not accept the tribunal of UNCLOS do you see there’s a bit of a problem with nations who have the power, but are not necessarily prepared to abide by the rules of the game?
D.B-B.: I didn’t hear what you heard, but I believe, I believe that China has the forces, no doubt. They need them for the region, there’s a lot of conflict over there, with India, with Japan, I don’t know, Vietnam, America over there. But also they came to our region, and in this region, as I said, they are already involved in Egypt, in Israel, in Greece, cooperating with Russia. I believe that if they want to maintain their power so far away from their country, let’s say, in this region, they need to find the way to cooperate in the right way and with the right rules with all of us, and not try to make any violence of the rules. This is what I believe, if I understand you correctly.
A.L.: Do you think that can be achieved, though or do you think they will just exercise their power where they can?
D.B-B.: I think it can be achieved because I think that in the end of the day it’s their interest. I’m not saying it about their territories, economic zone, the island that they are building, I’m not talking about that. About this region far away from their country. If they want to maintain power and influence in this region, like they go inside to the countries. There are many opportunities right now. I think that they need to play, let’s say, with our rules, not with different ones.
A.L.: If I may, on a slightly separate subject. As you know, NATO maintains a recognized air and surface plot of all maritime and air activity, or tries to. Do you think there is a role here for trying to maintain a recognized air and surface plot of the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean?
D.B-B.: I believe that they need to be part. I don’t say that this country need to be part of NATO, okay? And I think that it’s not an easy task – maybe they want to be – but I don’t think for the European countries, they will not bring the other countries to be a part of this. But some type of cooperation they need, I believe, to keep. Because it’s very very important, as I said, corner of the world, this gateway between Europe and Far East. Therefore, there is a big interest for the European Union, the European countries. And I think that type of cooperation, the same platform that let’s say Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus – and Greece is already part of NATO – together with the presence of UK in Cyprus, and together with NATO, I think it was very important. And also we don’t know what will happen with Russia in the region. And therefore, full stability, I think that their presence is very, very important. Why? And there is a way to do it. Even without being the same, let’s say, organization.
A.L.: How do you think we can achieve that? What would be the initial action that will be taken to establish the sort of coordination you’re talking about?
D.B-B.: I think that the establishment need to be first of all to let the countries here to establish something between them. And I think that right now to make Cyprus, Israel, Greece and even Egypt, it’s not something not achievable – we can do it. And maybe Turkey – Turkey is part of NATO anyway. And then this organization needs to establish some type of cooperation with NATO, and then decide if the forces need to be present here, or it’s just a cheap game and continue like this. But I think that it’s very important.
A.L.: I was talking about the first steps in order to get regional coordination, and I wonder if one shouldn’t approach it in a twin-track way, that is top-down and bottom-up simultaneously. Look for the political dimension, get people together and talk about it, but at the same time coordinate things like search and rescue centers, so that one could actually generate a recognized surface plot, which all nations could then feed into an take out of. Would that seem a sensible, practical first step?
D.B-B.: I think and I hope that I understand correctly what you say, I think that we need the work bottom-up right now. If I can think about the type of the coordination, let’s say, it’s not only military.
A.L.: Of course.
D.B-B.: There needs to be civilian and military together, that means every country need first of all to coordinate between themselves, between, let’s say, the navies, and the civilian that they’re controlling search and rescue, like the bodies of the transportation ministry, and then together with the joint body of each country to try to do it with their country. I know that they have already started, it’s not that I’m saying something that it’s not possible. But I don’t think that it’s right now in the right volume. And no doubt that Greece, Cyprus and Israel can be the first ones. Maybe Cyprus can bring Egypt also to the picture. And I believe that maybe there are some political… maybe if the leader will be the civilian, not the military, it will be more easy to do it. I think that people need to sit down and make a brainstorming how they can bypass all the political issues, the diplomacy issues, and the military issues. But there is no doubt that there is a demand for this, and it’s not, looks to me, imppossible to do it.
A.L.: And you think that Cyprus would be a good first step, or first position would be here? Not because it’s fairly uninvolved politically, and therefore a much more neutral country, where obviously in your own country there will be political difficulties, or there could be it.
D.B-B.: Exactly. Also, as I mention, also the location. And there are neutral positions in, let’s say, the political arena.
D.B-B.: They need it, they can bring to the table all the others. And then we need to find a way to bring Turkey also inside.
A.L.: But maybe that’s the next stage. If it’s suddenly something that’s successful and seems to work, and then see if you can interconnect with Turkey, and see if they are willing to join. And then if it was really successful, get the Russians and Chinese to access it on an occasional basis. So sort of a step-by-step approach, you think?
D.B.-B.: Exactly. And you say, okay, first of all you build the corporation, you build the rules and everything, and then you can invite others, even not a region country, but they have interest in the area. Okay, come to the table, let’s see how you can cooperate with us. But in the end, everyone in this region that has interests in the region need to come and be part of this. This is my vision, let’s say.
A.L.: That’s an excellent vision, Admiral, well done. I wonder if I could change the subject slightly and talk to you a little bit about the immigration – the refugee problem. Do you see that as being something of big concern in the Eastern Mediterranean, or is it merely a bilateral problem Turkey to Greece, or perhaps Libya across up to Italy?
D.B-B.: I think that also this very, very painful issue, but I think that it would be better if not every country will deal it by itself. Let’s say, first of all, it starts in international waters, then it finishes in the waters of the country. But I think that this is also a very good chance to cooperate between the countries that live in the area, and together to build the same rules, the same attitude, the same way of treatment, exchange information, and do it together. This is what I believe. You can say it’s a private problem, you can say it’s a regional problem. I believe that right now it belongs to the region, and the region needs to be, it will be more easy for everyone if the country will cooperate the way it treated… At the end of the day, if you detect it in your national water, therefore the country needs to (inaudible) by itself. But it start out of the initial water. It start from the country that they left. And if you exchange information, you have the same intelligence and then you can share the information together from one center.
A.L.: Should it be done internationally or bilaterally? I’m thinking in particular the sort of European aspect…
D.B-B.: I see in the end of the day internationally. Its international problem.
A.L.: Absolutely. Excellent.
C.P.: David, thank you very much. Thank you very much for taking the time.
D.B.-B.: Chris, think you. It was pleasure talking to you.