Tag Archives: Turkey

Terrorists, Tyrants, and Tobacco: How the Illicit Cigarette Trade Fuels Instability in the Middle East

This article is part of our “Border Control Week”

The sea is the circulatory system of the world economy, through which the economic blood of trade, ideas, and information flows.  At odds with this healthy economic lifeblood are the pathogens of theft, corruption, and illicit trafficking.  In addition to patently illegal contraband, such as narcotics and weapons, numerous illicit goods move through the maritime transportation system, avoiding taxes and undermining legitimate trade.  Tobacco is one of the most commonly smuggled illicit goods around the world.  The commodity moves in multiple directions, sometimes both to and from the same countries, making it challenging to understand the traffic flow.  Specifically, the distribution of substandard, untaxed cigarettes through the Eastern Mediterranean involves a complex criminal network of producers, smugglers, and dealers and benefits nefarious actors across the Levant.

Turkish Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel SG-701 Dost (image courtesy Turkish Coast Guard Command)
Turkish Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel SG-701 Dost (image courtesy Turkish Coast Guard Command)

These substandard cigarettes are often cheaply made in Eastern Europe, circumventing European Union safety regulations.  Brands such Prestige and Victory are packed aboard container ships in Bulgaria which move through the Black Sea, then into the Aegean via the Bosporus Strait.  From there, some of the contraband shipments make their way to Syria, while others continue down to the Red Sea and around to the Persian Gulf.  The Gulf-bound cigarettes likely continue into Iraq and Turkey.  In the Eastern Med, many are offloaded at the Syrian port of Latakia.  The cigarette distribution network in Western Syria is controlled by and benefits the Assad family while bypassing various international sanctions against the authoritarian regime.

Upon arrival from sea at the port of Latakia, cigarettes move through a series of storage warehouses and distribution points from Assad-controlled coastal regions of western Syria into transshipment points near the Turkish border that are sometimes controlled by smugglers aligned with the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL).  The cheap cigarettes are sold at a premium price in Syria and also smuggled across several border points into Southern Turkey. In a typical display of jihadist hypocrisy, ISIL has publicly burned shipments of cigarettes to enforce Sharia while continuing to profit from their smuggling into Turkey.  The product and profit not only support ISIL and their organized crime network, but other Al-Qaeda affiliates and foreign fighters drawn to the region.  The illicit tobacco trade is an instrumental part of their funding portfolio, which also includes weapons trafficking, and sale of stolen oil.

Disrupting a trade that crosses multiple sea and land borders (some of which are in war-torn countries) is challenging to say the least.  Law enforcement and military organizations are incentivized to ignore or take action against illicit smuggling networks for various reasons.  Clearly, customs officials in more than one jurisdiction are complicit in looking the other way or even facilitating these illegal cigarette shipments that contribute to instability in the Middle East.  On the other hand, one of the more active maritime law enforcement authorities in combating the illicit tobacco trade is Turkey’s Coast Guard.  In 2013, the organization seized 177,420 packs of cigarettes, down from over half a million in 2012.  The organization’s deployments in the Bosphorus Strait and along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline place it in a strategic position to combat shipments moving towards Syria.

Contraband cigarettes seized in August 2014 at Thessaloniki. (image courtesy of Hellenic Coast Guard).
Contraband cigarettes seized in August 2014 at Thessaloniki. (image courtesy of Hellenic Coast Guard).

Another regional player with a demonstrated a propensity to disrupt the illicit tobacco trade is the Hellenic Coast Guard.  The agency recently arrested two smugglers and seized a container full of nearly nine million contraband cigarettes at the port of Thessaloniki.  Interdicting a cargo ship at sea to find a contraband cargo in one or more specific containers is extremely difficult from a tactical perspective and often unsuccessful.  But intelligence sharing can assist in narrowing down the search and aiding in the removal of suspect containers as the ships make port while not disrupting the flow of legal cargo.  Additional cooperation between intelligence services, private companies, and maritime law enforcement will erode the illicit cigarette trade, and reduce the profits supporting the region’s bad actors.

Chris Rawley is a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve with experience in maritime interdiction and counter-smuggling at the tactical and operational levels.   The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its agencies.

Cyprus: The Mediterranean Pivot

CyprusBy Chiara Proietti Silvestri

In recent years the Eastern Mediterranean has increased its international strategic importance following significant discoveries of hydrocarbons. In this region the recent offshore findings of natural gas are radically changing its geostrategic and economic status. But before achieving the ambitious objective of becoming a net exporter of energy, the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus in particular, must confront regional challenges and interests of the major powers in the area – be they economic, politico-strategic, or due to the required energy infrastructure.

Two years after the great discoveries of the Leviathan and Tamar fields off the Israeli coast in 2009, it was, in December 2011, Cyprus’ turn. The U.S. company Noble Energy reported an initial discovery of offshore gas in block 12 of Aphrodite, with an energy potential estimated at between 5-8 trillion cubic feet (140-230 billion cubic meters). Evidence suggests that this area is an extension of the Levant basin: it is still the subject of an initial exploratory phase, and these initial estimates are considered conservative, with the prospect of rising in the coming years. There is therefore a potential wealth for the island of enormous proportions. According to some experts, Cyprus could potentially be sitting on a goldmine of at least 60 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters) of gas. Not considering the possibility of petroleum it could generate revenues of up to $400 billion once commercially exploited.

The declared objective of the government of Nicosia is to use the geo-strategic position of Cyprus, between Europe and the Middle East, to make the country a true energy hub, with a central role in commercial transit and in the provision of European energy. This is a perspective, however, that does not consider the tensions and several unresolved questions that could hinder the energy development of the island, essential in reviving an economy itself in deep crisis.

Cyprus oil concessionsFirst, the strong political destabilization resulting from the 1974 Turkish military invasion, which produced a de facto division of the island between the Turkish-Cypriot north and the Greek-Cypriot south. The discovery of energy resources in the southern part of Cyprus, as well as an absence of results from research conducted thus far into the offshore areas of the north, have added a new and relevant source of friction in relations between Nicosia and Ankara. The island’s peculiar political situation could therefore constitute a brake on the development of the country’s economy, capable of affecting decisions regarding investment by foreign companies, especially those who have strong interests in Turkey. The latter, in fact, threatened repercussions for those companies that intend to enter into agreements to exploit resources with the Cypriot government. Such is the case for Eni S.p.A. which has seen the suspension of all projects undertaken with Turkey, due to its exploration agreement signed with Nicosia in January. Ankara, in fact, maintains that such energy resources are located in international waters and that they should benefit all of the island’s inhabitants, and not only Greek-Cypriots. Turkish interests, profoundly connected to energy, therefore emerge. Furthermore, relations between Cyprus and Israel, in particular those relating to a possible project for the liquefaction of gas for export, feed the prospect of an energy partnership. This could provide an alternate route for transporting gas to Europe and Asia, obstructing the great Turkish mission to become a regional energy hub. According to several analysts, this prospect was one of the reasons behind the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, which enabled the former to maintain its centrality as the country of transit, and the latter to optimize conditions for its gas exports. While in the long-term the economic advantages of cooperation between Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Athens, and Ankara might be more convincing, in the short-term, energy pressures feed tensions in an already established hot spot.

It is probable that Turkey’s firm stance on the Cyprus question is one of the reasons behind the Russian decision not to accept the bailout plan hastily proposed by Nicosia in exchange for licenses for the exploitation of gas fields. To this must be added, among others, the European position and the special relationship between Berlin and Moscow, sealed by the agreement on the Nord Stream gas line, which might have suffered setbacks if Putin had decided to approve a bailout plan for a member country within the EU. Moscow’s position, then, is understandable when considering the multiplicity of interests that the country shares with other regional players, such as Germany, Greece, and Turkey: these can be safeguarded only by a strategy of ambiguous realpolitik. Although the issue of the Cypriot bailout has put pressure on the relationship between Nicosia and Moscow, it is difficult to imagine a rupture of relations between the two countries, instead of a redefinition in the interests that still bind them. Moscow, in fact, has long-standing ties with the island of Aphrodite, ranging from banking and finance to real estate and military strategy. There are strong suspicions, for example, regarding the role played by Cyprus in the trafficking of weapons from Russia to Damascus.

Brussels, for its part, seems determined to impose comprehensive change on the Cypriot business model and on its banking system, thus affecting its status as a tax haven for the offshore investments of Russian magnates. Discoveries of gas in the Cypriot Sea represent a great opportunity for Europe to diversify energy supplies, with respect to Russia’s dominant role. Cyprus’s economic problems, however, which have led to the forced levy on bank deposits, also herald strong domestic discontent: the EU should not exacerbate the economic situation because, as the multiple demonstrations on the island show, anti-European sentiment is particularly widespread among the population and could become a source of political instability. This could obstruct a possible solution to the conflict with Turkey, a central obstacle in Ankara’s access to Brussels.

The framework outlined above seems far from optimistic given that, at least in the short- to medium-term, the European controls on bank accounts, the withdrawal of Russian support, and Turkish pressure all clamp the island in a vice that will only increase internal malaise and aggravate the downturn in the national economy. A situation which seems as if it will not improve until exploitation of the energy resources of the Aphrodite gas field is at full capacity, something that might require several years.

On the contrary, within an extended timescale the need for cooperation between the main players involved only increases due to pressures deriving from the stabilization of the Cypriot economy and the gradual exploitation of the rich intra-European gas fields. Turkey has already signaled to this effect: conscious of its role as transit towards international markets, Ankara has proposed to Nicosia its help in the development of gas, as long as the benefits of such discoveries should, as noted previously, be shared by all the inhabitants of the island. In conclusion, one aspect is more certain than others: without a resolution of the dispute over sovereignty of the island, an issue that has dragged on for 40 years now, eventual regional cooperation seems difficult to envisage.

Chiara holds the position of Junior Analyst in the energy consulting firm RIE (Industrial Research and Energy) of Bologna and collaborates with Energy Magazine. She holds a degree in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna (Forlì campus). Her interests mainly relate to energy issues, including energy policies in the Middle East, nuclear energy, and the processes of public debate and consensus. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@ orienta_giovani).

This article was cross-posted by permission and appeared in its original form at TheRiskyShift.com.

Crimea River – Will the Syrian Conflict spread into the Black Sea?

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Potentially the first time anyone’s been told to stay ON someone’s lawn.

As Russia continues to conduct port visits and provide weapons to Syria amidst the violence, it does so with a preponderance of transits through the Turkish Straits.

The Montreux Convention of 1937 set forth guidelines for warship transit in the Dardanelles Straits, for which, Turkey was established as gatekeeper. Black Sea littoral nations are permitted uncontested warship transit (with a few caveats), yet Turkey is the initial authority in both restricting access to foreign warships and disputing local (riparian) warship transits during times of war.

For thousands of years, both the limits of anti-access and the role of gatekeeper have been contested by the Black Sea littoral nations (primarily Russia and the Ottomans). The authority granted by the Montreux Convetion has, for the most part, gone uncontested as global powers acknowledge the strength in stability that anti-access regulations provide to the region, but the recent conflict in Syria poses a dilemma for regional powers, primarily Turkey. Should Turkey restrict the transit of Russian warships through the Straits that are providing military support and weapons to Syria? With Russia’s only warm-water port based in Syria at Tartus, Russian diplomats would (on the surface) contest any such restriction and claim that any and all transits from the Black Sea to Syria are part of ongoing alliances and in support of established naval facility agreements.

Yet in this situation Turkey has the upper hand thanks to the Montreux Convention, specifically in Article 20:

“In time of war, Turkey being belligerent …the passage of warships shall be left entirely to the discretion of the Turkish Government.”

With the recent downing of a Turkish warplane and various conflicts on the Syrian border, a “time of war” is a reasonable description for Turkey. Any future Turkish political decisions to employ military operations in Syria should solidify Turkey as a “belligerent.” If these events were to unfold and Turkey enacted Article 20 on the Russian Navy, the question remains as to which, if any, international body would attempt to stop Turkey. Although many might assume that the U.N. is the appropriate governing body for such discussions, it is important to recognize that the Montreux Convention has gone virtually unchallenged since inception and still includes outdated references to things such as the League of Nations. This small loophole may be enough for Turkey to disregard any public or diplomatic outrage from Russia and its allies and deny Mediterranean access to the Russian Black Sea Navy.

A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer.He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals. He is currently a student at an advanced military planner course. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

The Sublime Porte Takes the Lead

Goose isn’t available, Syria. Meet Turkey.

In a surprise move, Turkey has aggressively taken the lead in what seemed a stalemate over Syria. While Bashir Al-Assad has announced his country is at war, his observation might be more accurate than he is comfortable with. Following Syria’s encore performance of shooting at Turkish F-4’s, Ankara has decided to remind the world that the “sick man of Europe” has been in the gym for a long LONG time.

With unconfirmed reports of Turkish units moving to the Syrian border, Turkey is poised to take the lead on a NATO mission no one has wanted to touch. Turkey taking the reins shows optimism for future potential on NATO’s heart monitor. NATO is not merely a support structure for US operations abroad, but as indicated by Turkey’s actions, an institution by which any member state can take the lead on security issues no matter how feckless the majority.

Turkey has been sitting on the periphery for a long time. The nation many dismissed as a NATO ornament and an EU impossibility has proven itself an economic powerhouse, a political leader, and now a military spearhead. “Everybody should know that Turkey’s wrath is just as strong and devastating as its friendship is valuable,” said President Erdogan. With the speed and rigor of the Turkish response both politically and militarily, perhaps the long-ago sick man of Europe will become its backbone.