Italy Resurgent: Defending National Interests in the Mediterranean

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Capt. (N) Renato Scarfi (ret.)


History teaches us that maritime routes are essential to economies and, since the 19th century, are absolutely necessary to support the industrial capacity of nations. However, by their very nature, maritime lines of communication are exposed to aggression by those who wish to illicitly profit from such actions or by elements wishing to hinder normal international trade. In this context, military and commercial fleets are vital to the security and prosperity of nations, particularly when, due to a country’s scarcity of resources, industrial production capacity depends on maritime imports.

As much as Italy is concerned, the vital need of imports from the sea is evident, in particular because of the choice to base the national economy on strong industrialization. Although it is geographically defined as a peninsula, Italy can be likened to an island when it comes to its strong dependence on the availability of maritime lines of communication. The seas and the oceans therefore play a central role for the Italian economy because the scarcity of raw materials forces Italy to trade with foreign countries for supply. In order to ensure that the raw materials necessary for industrial processes arrive in Italy and that resulting products can be sold, it is therefore essential to guarantee freedom of navigation along the sea routes, which are still the most affordable routes for transporting goods. 80 percent of international trade still travels on water.

But the seas and oceans around the world are full of chokepoints where boardings can be made for ransom purposes or that offer the possibility of negatively affecting maritime transit, even from land or by relatively limited naval means. Some that are the most pertinent to Italian and European interests include the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, and Malacca. Piracy and international tensions are active in these areas and where a possible international crisis could create the conditions for a blockade of maritime transit. In order to combat piracy, patrolling and escorting operations have been successfully launched in waters far from Italy, mainly conducted by Italian naval units embedded in multinational forces. Thanks to these interventions, pirate boardings have drastically decreased in number and effectiveness. However, the international community must continue to pay attention to those areas in order to avoid any resumption of piracy.

Still, it should be emphasized that the Mediterranean has always represented Italy’s main political preoccupation. The Mediterranean basin is, in fact, a complex system of geography, climate, culture, geopolitics, and history. The sea is large enough to accommodate many different peoples with different interests, but still small enough for events to quickly influence one another and produce universal consequences. The Mediterranean therefore plays an irreplaceable role because it is home to a network of relationships and strategic, economic, and political interests which go far beyond its geographical boundaries.

Moreover, this area of Italy’s direct interest remains a region where latent conflicts, hotspots, and tensions are widespread. These issues have their roots in unsettled political challenges, and where international terrorism and organized crime have only added more instability. These tensions grow with rising economic competition, especially now that new technology can allow nations to reach previously inaccessible and hidden resources, such as the extraction of hydrocarbons. The search for resources in the Mediterranean is making some states eager to create an ever-widening living space, often with actions that exhibit an overbearing and muscular interpretation of international norms.

Turkish Aggression

The particularly aggressive actions of Turkey, which is already politically and military very active, introduce serious risks to the balance in the basin. The Turkish military intervention across the Syrian border seems to have allowed the release of numerous jihadists previously captured by the Kurds, which triggered an influx of foreign fighters returning to Europe and adding instability to many European countries. In the conflict in Libya, Turkey resolutely took sides with Fayez al-Sarraj, employing troops and armaments on Libyan territory in support of the Government of National Agreement (GNA). The supply of armaments to GNA, despite the embargo ordered in 2011 by the United Nations, and the continuous provocative attitude recently manifested by Turkish warships, risks causing dangerous friction with the western naval ships assigned to Operation EUNAVFOR Med “Irini “(in Greek it means “peace”). Other active maritime surveillance operations in the Mediterranean added friction, such as the dangerous event recorded on June 10 during the NATO Sea Guardian maritime surveillance operation. A Turkish military ship’s radar targeted a French military unit, a NATO ally. This provocative and extremely aggressive action triggered formal French protests and a temporary withdrawal from the operation starting on July 1, and it could have triggered much more serious reactions and consequences. The event was also examined during the last NATO defense ministerial meeting, at the end of which the Secretary General communicated that the allied military authorities were instructed to provide further investigation.

Furthermore, al-Sarraj’s support allowed Ankara to sign two bilateral agreements with Tripoli on November 27, 2019, one formalizing military cooperation and one concerning the delimitation of the borders of the respective maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). In particular, the Turkish EEZ affects a large portion of Greek territorial waters, confirming the aggressive Turkish expansion plan in the eastern Mediterranean. This EEZ agreement has enormous economic implications, with the Levant Sea being dense with gas fields (among others, the Leviathan field of 450 billion m3, Zohr of 850 billion m3, and Noor estimated to triple Zohr) and the area claimed by Ankara would be an obligatory passage for any future gas pipelines going to Italy or Europe. This agreement is considered illegal by both the European Union and the United States and has raised many international legal and economic doubts. Based on this agreement, Ankara in mid-July 2020 started oil and natural gas research operations off the coast of Kastellorizo, a Greek island. The initiative, in which 17 military ships escorted a hydrographic research ship, raised Athens’ formal protests, followed by a dispatch of Greek warships to the southern and southeastern Aegean Sea.

This is the latest chapter in a tough and ongoing dispute that has lasted more than ten years on the rights to exploit the natural resources within Aegean waters. Ankara believes it has rights to the area south of Kastellorizo as part of its continental shelf, while Athens has always strongly denied it, denouncing a violation of its territorial waters. The Turkish activity, therefore, was seen as a serious threat to Greek national sovereignty over that stretch of sea. However, the joint Greek-U.S. naval exercise conducted at the end of July suggested that Ankara should withdraw from the area, but the provocation has marked a new limit where Turkey can push action next time. Less than two weeks later, as predicted, Turkey was back at sea in the same area in order to conduct naval exercises, as a military response after the formal denial of the recent agreement between Greece and Egypt related to their EEZ, which heavily influences the self-claimed Turkish EEZ.

The 2018 disputes between Turkey and ENI (Italian energy company Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) over mining rights off the southeast coast of Cyprus mark another incident. Ankara, in an intimidating move and without legal basis, prevented drilling by the ship Saipem 12000, which had been regularly authorized by Nicosia. In this case, Turkish political will was expressed by navigating its military ships in the waters assigned to ENI, preventing it from carrying out its operations and forcing it to give up the search for hydrocarbons in that area.

Algeria and Egypt

In 2018 Algeria claimed an EEZ of 400 miles which, in a sea as small and congested as the Mediterranean, claimed the right to use marine resources to the limit of Spanish (Ibiza) and Italian (Sardinia) territorial waters, infringing on Article 74 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which states “…The delimitation of the exclusive economic zone between States with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be effected by agreement on the basis of international law, as referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, in order to achieve an equitable solution…” The Algerian authorities, after diplomatic reactions from Spain and Italy, have declared their willingness to discuss it again with the two concerned states. But the fact remains that it would have been better to start the consultations before the unilateral act.

Broadening the horizons, another area of strategic interest is represented by northeast Africa, with instability around its chokepoints of the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Suez Canal. Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Renaissance Dam, once completed on the Nile River, will operate the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, guaranteeing Ethiopian’s energy independence and further gain through the sale of the surplus. The water coming from the Ethiopian highlands along the course of the Nile ensures about 80 percent of the average flow of the Nile which, during summer, becomes almost all the water that flows to the estuary. Over 100 million inhabitants depend more or less directly from the water of the Nile.

The filling of the reservoir means that the water will be subtracted from the normal flow of the river, causing a significant decrease in the usability of water for African countries downstream of the dam, especially Sudan and Egypt. This decrease will exacerbate the water depletion already being experienced, potentially causing serious resource, economic, and social emergencies for the populations. The issue has important national security implications for Egypt, owner of the Suez Canal, and an essential country for the maintenance of regional balances in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. The dispute could trigger a water war in the region that would have inevitable political and economic repercussions on Mediterranean countries.


For more than 2,000 years the Mediterranean has served as an arena for competing national interests. Any crisis or conflict in this strategically critical area risks serious repercussions on the freedom of navigation and maritime safety, with important implications on the economies of the coastal countries and to all of Europe. Being at the center of this turbulent sea, it is essential for Italy to stand ready to assert its legitimate national interests, mainly with diplomacy and with strong support for international law, but also with force if necessary.

Indeed, the alliances around the broader Mediterranean are changing with unprecedented rapidity in recent history and it is quite difficult to imagine that lasting stability will be achieved soon. The failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016 brought Ankara closer to Tehran and Moscow, accelerated the breakdown of Kemalism, and delivered absolute supremacy in internal leadership to an Erdoğan who initiated the most assertive Turkish foreign policy in the nation’s recent history. At the same time, in North Africa, Turkey and Egypt face each other’s interests in the Libyan desert while engaged in a conflict that could grow to include other actors.

In a time of global disorder and emergency it seems essential to identify the national interest and provide the navy with the appropriate tools to pursue those interests, such as the indispensable STO/VL aircraft to be embarked (F-35B), so that Italy’s aircraft carriers can reach full operational capability in order to be able to, along with the other vessels of the fleet, pursue the assigned objectives.

In a context of a worrying deterioration of the international situation in the Mediterranean basin, it seems indispensable for Italy to adopt a more active posture for the promotion of its national interests. The road to achieving a credible balance in the Mediterranean basin cannot disregard the involvement of the United States, allies, and friends whose support is indispensable, but whose attention is currently focused mainly on the Indo-Pacific, China, and Russia. Italy must stand ready, as one of the most advanced countries on the basin, to guarantee freedom of navigation and the protection of its national interests in order to guarantee respect for international law.

Captain Renato Scarfi entered the Italian Naval Academy in 1977. As a junior grade lieutenant he attended the U.S. Navy Pilot Training Program in Pensacola, FL, and Corpus Christi, TX, where he gained the Navy Wings for multi-engine fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. After the Staff Officer Course in Leghorn, Italy, he served on the Defence General Staff, the Navy General Staff (Plans and Policy), the Joint Operation Headquarters (JOHQ) as Head of Crisis management section, and in the cabinet of the Ministry of Defense as Senior Military Assistant of the Diplomatic Advisor of the Minister. He has degrees in international relations, maritime strategies, and international anti-terrorism. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence or the Italian government.

Featured Image: Italian Navy aircraft carrier Cavour (Wikimedia Commons)

2 thoughts on “Italy Resurgent: Defending National Interests in the Mediterranean”

  1. “but whose attention is currently focused mainly on the Indo-Pacific, China, and Russia.”
    Well, mainly focussing on Russia and China means all their activities, including in the Mediterranean.

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