A new Great Game has begun in the Eastern Mediterranean

Oil and gas discoveries off the coasts of Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus have added a new dimension to old, unresolved conflicts.

By Marco Carnelos and cross-posted from Middle East Eye.

After centuries of marginalisation, the Mediterranean Sea is back in the international spotlight. A new Great Game is unfolding in its eastern part, similar to the 19th century machinations of the British and Russian empires in Central Asia.

Massive migration flows from Africa and the Middle East towards Europe have traversed its waters, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring and the subsequent conflicts in Syria and Libya.

At the same time, the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its biased management by the US continues to stir resentment. These crises have concerned the states overlooking the Mediterranean, but more recently, the resources hidden in its sea beds have fuelled controversy. 

Oil and gas discoveries off the coasts of Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus have added a new dimension to old, unresolved conflicts. The dispute between Greece and Turkey for control over the Aegean Sea, the division of Cyprus, and the issue of maritime boundaries between Lebanon and Israel are just a few examples. 

Almost all of the countries on the Eastern Mediterranean’s shores claim conflicting and overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to exploit these resources up to 200 nautical miles from their coasts. A political and legal controversy — promising decades of work and fees for specialised international jurists and lawyers — is looming.

These increasing tensions have been attributed to the alleged disengagement of the US from the area and from its recent historical role as referee. But a referee must be impartial, and the record of the US, from this point of view, is far from satisfactory. 

The real problem is the lack of US leadership when it had the soft and hard power, as well as an intact reputation, to make a difference. American leadership within Nato has not eased the decades-old rivalry between the organisation’s two southernmost members, Greece and Turkey. The same can be said about the Cyprus issue. 

Instead of solving problems, Washington has preferred to freeze or ignore them. The US now seems to be a narcissistic socialite who has received a VIP party invitation and wonders: “Will they notice me more if I attend or I do not?” Furthermore, from November onwards, the US will likely be paralysed for months in deciding who has really won the presidential election…

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