The Eastern Mediterranean is in crisis. The focus of U.S. and NATO security concerns is moving inexorably westward from Iraq and eastern Syria as a result of the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, massive refugee flows to Europe, the expansion of Iranian influence in the Near East, uncertainty in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and renewed Russian presence in Syria. Add to these problems the discovery of major energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and the expansion of the Suez Canal, and the likelihood of expanded conflicts in the area is growing along with the importance of NATO facilities at Souda Bay in Crete, Greece.
Russia’s deployment of military forces to Syria fits a pattern, one that should worry us all. Moscow is on the march from the war with Georgia to the seizure of Crimea to an expanded military presence in the Arctic while also conducting airstrikes in Syria. In addition, Moscow conducts military exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, practicing for antisubmarine, anti-ship and air-defense operations — inconsistent with a counterterrorism strategy, but appropriate for a conflict with the U.S. and NATO. Moscow has also signaled that its intention to supply friends and clients in the region with advanced military capabilities, threatening to destabilize the balance of power across the Middle East.
China is also entering the eastern Mediterranean. Beijing’s strategy in the area focuses on economic diplomacy and military exercises. Athens serves as a gate for Chinese products to access European markets. As a result, China has made major investments in Greece since 2008 such as the privatization of the port of Piraeus. As the largest dock in the Mediterranean, Piraeus is a transit for shipping to several continents, and is one of the fastest growing dockyards in the world. Over 60 percent of Beijing’s imports and almost half of its exports are carried by Greek ships — over 400 Greek ships were built in China over the past 15 years. Beijing has also conducted military exercises with Ankara in which Chinese forces were deployed to Turkey. As China strengthens its position in the region and protects its investments, the eastern Mediterranean will increase in military significance for Beijing and could provoke competition with other actors.
Regional players also see the clouds of crisis and even war on the horizon. In 2013, Ankara decided to buy a Chinese surface-to-air missile system that cannot be linked with NATO’s air defense architecture while simultaneously asking the alliance to deploy Patriot missiles to Turkey for protection against the Syrian threat. In addition, Egypt is seeking to acquire new military capabilities from countries other than the United States. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are also engaged in a major military buildup including missile defenses, advanced surface combatants, combat aircraft and precision munitions. Furthermore, Israel is expanding its missile defense capabilities, most recently with the decision to deploy the David’s Sling system.
The U.S. military and those of its NATO allies have spent some 15 years focused on the demands of counterterrorism and stability operations and, bluntly, shortchanging investments in capabilities and training for higher-end, more complex crises and conflicts. Now they must regain lost skills in such areas as suppression of enemy air defenses, anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare and large scale combined arms operations.
As the likelihood of conflict in the eastern Mediterranean increases, Souda Bay’s facilities, strategically located on the island of Crete in Greece will become more significant. The Hellenic naval and air bases located there support joint U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force reconnaissance missions and air refueling. The NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center, located at the bay and constructed and operationally funded by the Hellenic Navy, trains members and non-members to improve execution of surface, subsurface, aerial surveillance and special operations. The only port in the Mediterranean long enough and deep enough for an aircraft carrier pier-side is located at Souda Bay, providing facilities for carrying, arming, deploying, and recovering aircraft. Due to the close proximity of Souda Bay’s facilities, NATO is able to project power into the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The eastern Mediterranean is becoming a hot spot for conflict which is why Russia and China are increasing their presence and conducting military exercises and regional actors are preparing to defend themselves. As a result, facilities at Souda Bay have become more critical to NATO because they provide member and non-member support and training to counter security threats. Washington must also focus more on investing in capabilities and regaining lost skills to counter complex crises in the region.
This article originally appeared at The Lexington Institute.