Tag Archives: Greece

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.

And If We Became the Barbarians…

The “Sacking of Rome” series continues with this fifth installment.

Much is made of the imagery of barbarians storming the gates of Rome. It conjures the picture of masses of foreign hordes bursting over the walls and crashing through the gatehouse, razing a great city to the ground and subjecting its people to horrible torment, slavery and death. Today we can perhaps wonder whether Slavic or Asiatic armies can overwhelm a crumbling Western alliance, subduing Western Europe, the United States and our allies in Asia, achieving decisive victory. While this may make for popular filmmaking (see “Red Dawn” – the original, not the awful remake), it is hardly likely.


Consider the etymology of the word “barbarian.” The ancient Greek word, “barbaros,” literally meant “non-Greek,” and was used to describe any foreigner, which to the Greeks would include such advanced civilizations as the Egyptians and Persians as well as the uncivilized tribes they came into contact with. Its direct antonym is “polites,” Greek for “citizen” and where we get our words “polity” and “politics.” To be a barbarian meant more than just being uncivilized, it meant that you were not a citizen. The word would become a pejorative used by the Greeks to even describe other Greeks, suggesting they were not worthy of citizenship, and the responsibilities that would come with it. This would be an important distinction from the word “subject,” used to describe an individual who is subjected to the rule by elites, such as feudal subjects.


No one better understood these distinctions than Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his magisterial overview of the American polity Democracy in America[i] identified the mores, or the “habits of mind” that served to protect the political liberties that mid-19th Century Americans enjoyed. These mores and habits can be best thought of today as “the whole moral and intellectual state of the people,” or our national character. He observed that institutions such as our political order – republican democracy – as well as the rule of law, religion, family and private associations (what Edmund Burke would call “little platoons”) created a network of self-reinforcing pillars that permitted the continued growth of freedom and served as America’s greatest source of national power.


Tocqueville was quick to point out the vulnerability of a “democratic social state like that of the Americans [to] the establishment of despotism.”[ii] Unlike the time of the ancient emperors of Rome or Persia, where “the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control” the despotism that America was particularly vulnerable to “would be more extensive and milder, and it would degrade men without tormenting them.” He goes on at length to define this form of despotism. As the citizenry begins to “fill their souls” with “small and vulgar pleasures,” it begins to withdraw from the institution that buttress republican democracy, “becoming like a stranger to the destiny of all others.”[iii] The American will “exist only in himself, and for himself alone.” He will elevate the role of the federal government to “take charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fates.” It becomes “absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood …” The purpose of the government, and the bureaucracy that underlies it is to “willingly work for their happiness, but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that [emphasis added]; it provides for their security; foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances, can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?”[iv]


In short, Tocqueville is warning not against the rule of tyrants, but of “schoolmasters.”[v] The schoolmaster “does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”[vi]


How can this happen? People have two conflicting desires, the “need to be led and the wish to remain free.” We foolishly try to satisfy both at the same time. We demand that the federal government continue to centralize more power and control over the most intimate parts of individual and social life, in tutelage to our schoolmaster, while consoling ourselves “by thinking that [we] had chosen [our] schoolmasters” in our national elections. We become deluded in believing that we have “guaranteed the freedom of individuals well enough when [we] deliver it to the national power.”[vii]


A “schoolmaster” form of absolute federal power – commonly known today as the “nanny state” – has profound implications on the character of the American polity. It would be hard to argue that we are not in danger of falling into the soft despotism that Tocqueville warned about before the Civil War. If his warnings are true, then as Americans shed their sense of rugged individualism and self reliance, we would expect to see more dropping out of the workforce, finding it easier to accept wealth transfers from those who still continue to produce. We may find the expansive reach of government into all aspects of private life, from what we consume to our very own health. Even the nature of private and business relations will become matters of the state. Perhaps we will see a growing sense of narcissistic entitlement seep into the public culture and consciousness, eating away at the very mores that Tocqueville lauded as uniquely responsible for our republican democracy. Media, corporate and government elites will align to maintain a hold on that public consciousness (and power over the federal government), fundamentally altering the narrative of “American exceptionalism” so that we consider our nation just one of many, no better and often worse.


To the more immediate topic at hand, a nation fixed irrevocably in childhood will begin to face significant obstacles to maintaining the military power and strength necessary to keep its status as a world super power. It would not cease to exist or become absorbed by another country. Instead, it would slowly decline to a position of near irrelevancy, unable and unwilling to affect events on the global stage beyond the perfunctory speech and endless diplomacy. To be a super power is very hard work, and requires not only sacrifice and commitment, but a sincere belief in the mission and purpose of maintaining that status. It requires a nation of adults.


There are many potential military “game changers” today, from nuclear rogue states to far reaching anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-satellite weapons, swarm boats, electro-magnetic pulse weapons and cyber attacks that could all be destabilizing and devastating. Changes in military hardware and the strategies and tactics used by our adversaries who employ them are nothing new however. Nor is the ability to adapt to those changes, even after suffering a defeat. Victory in war has more to do with popular will than it does with hardware. Some new “out of the box” strategy, tactic or toy will always be adapted to eventually. Defeat on the battlefield, or even in war, is “transitory” as Clausewitz notes, with the adversary often just biding time until political events can cause him to rectify the situation.


The American military is reflective of its population, and as our national character changes, the military will change accordingly, over time and albeit slowly. Nations that choose the path of decline do not maintain a dominant military force. Its power, much like the “habits of mind” that Tocqueville wrote of, will erode if not nurtured and sustained.


So, to answer the question of how might the U.S. find itself sacked like ancient Rome should be one of introspection and self-evaluation. I posited a few of the many indicators that, if the great Frenchman’s warnings are true, we should begin to see, perhaps in our own lifetime. No doubt there are others. But the point remains that we probably need not fear potential barbarians at our gates, but turn our attention instead to the barbarians we may become.

Robert “Jake” Bebber is an information warfare officer. He holds a doctorate in public policy from the University of Central Florida. He lives in Millersville, Maryland with his wife, Dana and their son, Vincent. The views expressed here are his own, and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or the U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at jbebber@gmail.com


[i] De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. trans. Harvey C. Mandfield and Debra Winthrop. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2000), 274.

[ii] Op cit, p. 661

[iii] Consider the growth in the use of social media, where the veneer of a Facebook wall post or Tweet has replaced actual human interaction.

[iv] Op cit, p. 662-663.

[v] Op cit p. 662.

[vi] Op cit. p. 663

[vii] Op cit p. 664

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.