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Israel navy needs ships to guard gas fields

July 19, 2012 at 3:10 PM   |   Comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, July 19 (UPI) -- Israel's navy is pressing for $756 million to buy four corvettes to bolster protection for the country's growing natural gas bonanza while naval exercises around Cyprus has heightened tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

With growing uncertainty in the region stemming from the civil war in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, political turmoil in Egypt, on its southern flank, and fallout from the confrontation between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf, Israel's getting jumpy about the offshore gas fields that are about to make it a regional energy power.

Russia's deployment of naval forces in the region isn't helping cool things down.

Israel is to start production at the Tamar field, with reserves of some 8 trillion cubic feet of gas, in 2013. So the navy's plan to protect the fields and the infrastructure it will generate is moving into high gear.

The navy wants four 1,200-ton warships equipped with defensive missile systems to intercept anti-ship missiles, possessed by Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, aimed at production platforms.

"The gas fields spanning a large area west of the coast of Israel significantly broaden the challenges facing the Israeli navy," the military said in a statement.

"The protection of these strategic assets requires increased resources and extensive preparations."

The simultaneous naval exercises in the region in recent days have underlined tensions surrounding the energy discoveries that have triggered disputes between Israel and former ally Turkey and rekindled the ancient rivalry between Turkey and Greece.

In recent weeks, Russian warships cruised into this volatile mix as Moscow sets up a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus at a time when the regime in Damascus is fighting for survival against a 17-month-old rebellion.

The Russians, eager to revive their Cold War influence in the region, seek to re-establish a naval presence in the eastern Med, where Moscow deployed warships before the Soviet Union's collapse two decades ago.

The energy stakes are high. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin -- encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Cyprus -- contains an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and perhaps 4 billion barrels of oil.

Cyprus, whose exclusive economic zone abuts Israel's, has recently found gas off its southern coast and looks set to strike it big.

But Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 and seized the northern one-third of the island. The Greek Cypriot majority holds the south.

Ankara's declared the Greek Cypriot offshore exploration illegal and has threatened to use military force to stop it.

Israel and Cyprus are pooling their planned gas infrastructures to export the gas to Europe via Greece.

This has enraged Ankara, which has ambitions to become the key energy hub between east and west. The Turks also don't like Israel's growing military alliance with Greece.

Russia, fearful of losing its chokehold over gas supplies to Europe, also isn't happy at the Israeli-Cypriot export plan.

The Nicosia government approved separate naval exercises by Israel and the United Kingdom south of the island in early July, and this prompted Turkey to deploy warships on maneuvers nearby.

Then NATO's Maritime Group 2, consisting of Turkish, French and German frigates, exercised in the eastern Mediterranean.

All that caused widespread unease. Nothing untoward occurred before the exercises ended last week but the political temperature has gone up.

Russia's involvement in the region may have been responsible for some of that.

Enter the Russian Kashin class destroyer Smetlivy, part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which visited the port of Limassol in southern Cyprus Monday.

It's one 11 Russian warships bound for exercises in the region, which conveniently puts the Russian navy close to its ally Syria, while no doubt looking for a possible alternative base -- think Cyprus -- if the Damascus regime falls.

Moscow is sweetening the pot by offering Cyprus financial aid to rescue its banking sector which was badly hit by Greece's economic collapse.

"Growing energy interest in the eastern Mediterranean combined with financial calamity in Greece and Cyprus provide Russia with a more diverse array of options to maintain its influence -- and energy politics is one arena Moscow certainly knows how to navigate with cunning and foresight," Stratfor commented.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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