By KERRY BOYD ANDERSON, Arab News
Rather than seeing the Mediterranean as it was in ancient times — a “liquid continent” more important to trade and travel than land routes — today people tend to view the sea as a dividing line between discrete land areas: North Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
While the Mediterranean is no longer the unifying sea that it was in Roman times, nonetheless it remains important. Thousands of refugees and migrants attempt to cross it or its adjacent smaller seas every year, creating political and humanitarian crises but also cultural and economic links. Goods and people cross the Mediterranean through sea and air routes. Gas pipelines connect North Africa and Europe beneath the waves, with potential plans for new gas pipelines in the eastern Mediterranean.
With all this connectivity, areas of instability around the Mediterranean Sea create risks for the entire region. As the previous flood of Syrian refugees into Europe via the Aegean Sea and the constant steam of refugees and migrants across the sea from Libya to Europe clearly show, political and economic instability or collapse around the sea affects the broader region. Conflicts can reduce the flow of natural gas. Various factors affect trade, travel and other connections.
Therefore, it is useful to take a look at existing or potential hotspots around the Mediterranean and to consider the risks for the region.
In the 1990s, the Balkans, along the Adriatic Sea, experienced some of the worst violence the modern Mediterranean region has seen. Concerns about the Balkans today are increasing, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elections are scheduled for Oct. 7, but problems with the country’s electoral law are mixing with other factors — including nationalistic, even separatist, rhetoric; growing involvement from Turkey, Russia and regional actors; and neglect by the United States and the EU — to create a combustible situation. Multiple experts have warned that Bosnia-Herzegovina could collapse.
Further south, Turkish and Greek politicians have been ratcheting up tensions. Turkey will hold significant elections on June 24 and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increased his nationalist rhetoric, including revisiting disputes with Greece over ownership of certain islands and waters. Some Greek politicians have responded in their own nationalist tones. Media reports suggest a significant increase in incursions by Turkish military ships and planes into Greek territory. Greece refuses to extradite eight Turkish military officers that Erdogan accuses of participating in the attempted coup of 2016, and Turkey in turn is holding two Greek border guards. The two countries have a long history of escalation ending in mediation, and it is likely that tensions will cool after Turkey’s election if Erdogan successfully consolidates power. However, brinksmanship is always risky, and any significant conflict between Turkey and Greece would present major risks for the Mediterranean region, as well as for the EU and NATO.
The Syrian civil war and refugee crisis represents the bloodiest development and most profound risk in the Mediterranean region in recent years. The war within Syria is bad enough, but it has also demonstrated that modern conflict is seldom contained, as massive refugee flows significantly affected European politics and Daesh used Syria as a base for terrorist activities. If the Syrian conflict or other issues destabilize vulnerable Lebanon, the effects on security and politics around the Mediterranean would be severe.
Events in recent weeks have reminded the world that the crisis in Gaza is far from resolved, as Israeli forces killed more than 100 Palestinian protesters. The ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza has created a humanitarian emergency, and electricity shortages have led to the pumping of untreated sewage from Gaza into the sea, polluting Gaza’s beaches and creating problems for Israel too. Israeli policies have undermined Palestinians’ ability to tap into the fishing and, most importantly, natural gas resources along Gaza’s coast.
Libya remains a divided country with multiple militias and competing administrations in Tripoli and eastern Libya, as well as being the major point of departure for African migrants trying to reach Europe. A meeting hosted by France last week produced a plan for elections in December, but there is significant uncertainty about whether the elections will occur and how various powerful players would respond.
The war within Syria is bad enough, but it has also demonstrated that modern conflict is seldom contained, as massive refugee flows significantly affected European politics and Daesh used Syria as a base for terrorist activities
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The Mediterranean region faces other risks as well. The dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus is unresolved. Tensions over rights to gas and oil fields in the eastern Mediterranean continue to simmer. The Egyptian government continues to battle Daesh and insurgents in Sinai, including near the Mediterranean coast. Tunisia and Algeria are relatively stable today, but both face significant long-term political risks.
One major theme in this scan of Mediterranean hotspots is the decreased presence of the US. Bosnia-Herzegovina is heating up in part because Washington has lost interest. The US mediated the last major crisis between Greece and Turkey but may have less leverage or willingness to engage today. US decisions early in the Syrian civil war to avoid significant involvement made it easier for Russia and Iran to bolster the Assad regime and extend the war. The Gaza crisis peaked as the US embassy opened in Jerusalem.
The EU has direct interests in a stable Mediterranean and might pick up some of the leadership vacuum left by Washington. The Union for the Mediterranean is an existing institution designed to facilitate development and relations between the EU and the rest of the Mediterranean, but it has struggled to make significant achievements and to adapt to political change in North Africa. Nonetheless, at a time of increasing risk around the sea, diplomatic efforts are more necessary than ever to reduce risks — to the benefit of all countries that boast a Mediterranean shore.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk.