More Trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean

U.S. Intervention or Not, the Sea is Already Boiling

The USS Barry, seen here firing a Tomahawk Missile during Operation Odyssey Dawn, has moved into position off the coast of Syria. U.S. Navy

So far, public debate about the intervention in Syria has centered on the immediate scope and aims of any U.S.-led military operation, and whether the U.S. Congress should be involved. But no matter how the possible intervention and its aftermath play out, one thing is certain: the eastern Mediterranean -- where exploratory drilling has unearthed vast reserves of natural gas, and where competition over the rights to tap those resources is already fierce -- will become less stable. 

For now, the least bad outcome seems to be a prolonged stalemate. And that is the most likely outcome, at least in the short term, if the United States indeed opts for limited military strikes. By definition, punitive cruise missile strikes seek to change an opponent's strategy without necessarily depleting that opponent’s capabilities. By raising the costs of bad behavior -- say, by damaging airstrips and bombing the presidential palace or other targets of value to the regime -- coercive air power is designed to make Assad’s generals think twice before contemplating indiscriminate tactics in the future. They would do little to end the war.

The regional implications of such a stalemate are not difficult to imagine, as they represent a continuation of the current state of affairs. With an average of over 100 reported fatalities per day, Syria would remain the most violent place on Earth. Sectarian fighting would continue to spill over into parts of Lebanon and Iraq. Refugee flows to Turkey and Jordan would continue. And Hezbollah and the al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra Front would be preoccupied with fighting each other rather than Israel or the United States, although they would gain valuable battlefield experience in the process.

The human costs of this scenario are staggering. Still, although a Syrian stalemate would not be helpful for economies in the region, it would likely be the least disruptive prospect for gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Exploratory drilling began off the coast of Cyprus in 2011 --

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