The Pax Americana now being defunct, regional initiatives are coming alive in and around the Red Sea and Levant. I refer to the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa as the “Great Crossroads,” where sooner or later everyone will make a transit or have an interest. No one’s national security is untouched by what’s going on there. America’s trade and alliances depend heavily on whether the maritime precincts of the Great Crossroads are a quiescent “free space,” through which everyone can pass without let or hindrance by a regional power – or if they become a space over which a regional power holds a veto. Every new development there has implications for US security.
And the new developments just keep on coming. Between 7 and 14 October, Egypt and Turkey conducted a large-scale joint naval exercise, “Sea of Friendship,” in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt hosted the exercise, which reportedly was observed at one point by Mohammed Morsi. The Turks sent two frigates, two smaller patrol ships, and – in an unusual twist – two landing ships and a marine infantry company, along with helicopters and a special forces team. This was not a small exercise. Egypt reportedly deployed five naval ships, although there has been no information in the media on ship types or names.
Morsi’s take on the exercise (emphasis in original):
Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi stressed that the Egyptian armed forces are in high readiness against all possible attacks.
“Just as we do not interfere in the works of anyone, we do not want anybody to interfere in our own issues. Just as we do not attack anyone, we would not want anybody to attack us,” Morsi underlined.
Morsi later got underway on an Egyptian frigate to observe a live-fire naval drill off Alexandria on 21 October, which is Egyptian Navy Day. The day was selected because the Egyptian navy sank Israeli destroyer INS Eilat on 21 October 1967.
Also on 21 October, the US and Israel began long-anticipated Exercise Austere Challenge 2012, a missile-defense exercise involving 3,500 US personnel and 1,000 Israelis. Most of the US personnel are operating out of command centers in Europe or afloat, but 1,000 are in Israel. The exercise is intended to be three weeks long, and to test the reactions of the Israeli Arrow, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome systems, along with the US Patriot and Aegis ballistic-missile defense (BMD) systems, in simulation and live fire.
A report put out on 26 October suggests that Israel decided to curtail the length and scope of the exercise because of frequent Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, including a barrage of 68 rockets in 12 hours 23-24 October. According to an Israeli official: “Force protection is a priority — even before the exercise itself. The last thing we want is casualties.”
Although Hamas agreed on the 25th to another in a long succession of rapidly-violated ceasefires, the terrorist rulers of Gaza resumed rocket fire on Israel on 28 October. Meanwhile, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Israel late the same day to observe the exercise. If Austere Challenge is ended early, we are unlikely to hear about it through the mainstream media.
Lovin’ on Hamas
Speaking of Hamas, everyone knows they’re terrorists, right? Neck deep in the blood of terror victims? So it’s interesting – one word for it – to note that on 23 October (that would be the day Hamas started the 68-rockets-in-12-hours-against-Israel effort), the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani, made a state visit to Gaza and was photographed tooling around with Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (shown here at soccer events in Hamas-controlled Gaza sponsored by Pepsi). NPR helpfully pointed out that the Emir is the first foreign leader to visit Gaza since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
Sheikh Hamad naturally plans to send $400 million to Hamas. Everybody sends money to Hamas, including the European Union, the Turkish NGO IHH, and very possibly the Bank of China. Hamas may soon have another solicitous donor: taking a cue from Qatar, Bahrain has sent a high-level delegation to Gaza, where on 1 November it “opened a school, a library, and a clinic.” Early reporting suggested that the delegation would be led by one of Bahrain’s royal princes, but the official statement from the Hamas government in Gaza named the head of the Bahraini Royal Charity Organization as the delegation’s leader.
Bahrain may well have trimmed the delegation’s stature in response to quiet pressure from the US. The US and Bahrain have longstanding ties, and our naval presence in Bahrain is – putatively, at least – the principal guarantee against subversion by Iranian-backed factions within Bahrain’s Shia majority.
But we have a large military presence in Qatar too, including Al Udeid Air Base, now the US Air Force’s main base in the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater, and a huge command-and-control center housing the CENTCOM forward headquarters. Basically, these two Middle East partners of the United States – Qatar and Bahrain – have decided to no longer follow the US lead on Gaza, and to take initiative themselves.
That last sentence is the take-away from this piece. It pervades the motives of everyone in the Great Crossroads now.
Greece-Israel military exercise
Consider all of the preceding context as we turn next to the joint exercise between Greece and Israel that took place the third week of October (just as Austere Challenge was starting). The exercise included air combat maneuvers by F-16s from both nations, along with ground strike drills and air refueling. Greece hosted the exercise, which took place on Greek territory.
Iranian warships scoot into Sudan
But that event has been overshadowed by the air strike on a weapons factory in Sudan – probably conducted by Israel, due to the installation’s connection with Iran and Hamas – and the subsequent port visit in Sudan by two Iranian navy ships, a destroyer and a fleet oiler/replenishment ship*. This is Iran’s first naval visit to Sudan, although the Iranians have sent their antipiracy ships in and out of Eritrea since 2009 (and possibly as early as December 2008). The timing was quite pointed, however, with the port visit starting four days after the strike on the Yarmouk installation. It is always worth noting that the Iranian replenishment ship has a big cargo hold, and could have offloaded all kinds of things, including weapons, in Port Sudan.
Israel: beefed up presence in the Red Sea?
Now Israel has deployed two warships to the Red Sea, although this may not be the reactive move it seems. The two ships are INS Eilat, a Saar-5 corvette, and INS Kidon, a Saar-4.5 missile patrol boat, which transited the Suez Canal on 29 October.
In the past, Israel did not maintain her major combatant platforms in the Red Sea. The naval base at Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba, had only the smaller missile patrol boats. But the Israeli navy deployed a Saar-5 corvette and a Saar-4 missile patrol boat to the Red Sea in March 2012, and there is no subsequent information on a return trip by those ships to the Mediterranean.
The most likely interpretation of these events is that the Israelis want to keep more naval combat power in the Red Sea, and are rotating their bigger, more capable ships through. If this evaluation is correct, we can expect the ships that deployed to the Red Sea in March to return home in the next few weeks. It’s also possible that Israel wants to keep all of them in the Red Sea – but doing so would leave her with only one Saar-5 corvette in the Mediterranean. I consider it more likely that the Israelis want to keep a rotating presence in the Red Sea and exercise their transit right in the Suez Canal on a regular, if infrequent, basis.
The point to take away from this series of developments is not that war is about to break out. It isn’t. The point to take away is that everything is changing in the Great Crossroads. Once the US began relinquishing leadership, it had to. And that does mean that war is ultimately more likely.
* The replenishment ship is being referred to in many reports as a “helicopter carrier,” but the ship is not of the type signified by that designation in naval parlance. A helicopter carrier is a combatant ship with a large deck that carries helicopters – typically between 4 and 12 – to support maritime combat operations. The Iranian ship in question, the Kharg, is a fleet auxiliary, and in fact was built in the UK as a modified unit of the Olwen-class Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship. These ships transit with warships to provide fuel and stores at sea. The Olwen-class ship has a helicopter deck above the stern and an enclosure for helo maintenance, in which two smaller helos could park – and Kharg has these features. But the helos that deploy with these ships are used for transport; they don’t have a combat role. Perusal of Kharg photos in Port Sudan revealed no helo on the outer deck, although it is possible (if unlikely, given Iran’s helo inventory) that a helo was inside the hangar.
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