Is a Secret War Being Fought in the Mediterranean?

By Arie Egozi

Foreign Affairs

Tel Aviv. The increasing volume of rumours that a secret war being fought in the Mediterranean is gaining traction. And a definite answer cannot be expected in near term. Last week, an explosion rocked an oil tanker off the coast of Syria, causing a small fire in one of its engines, state media said. The fire on the ship – off the coast of Syria’s Mediterranean port of Baniyas – was extinguished by the crew quickly with no casualties, it said.

“The technical fault took place in one of the engines of the oil tanker near the coast, it caused a small fire and a plume of smoke,” Syrian state media said. Local radio station FM Sham said earlier that an explosion had hit a tanker during maintenance work after it had caught fire a few days earlier while offloading its oil cargo.

Baniyas houses a refinery which, along with another in Homs, covers a significant part of the country’s demand for diesel, heating fuel, gasoline and other petroleum products, according to industry experts.

Syria has grown more dependent on Iranian oil shipments in recent years, but tightening Western sanctions on Iran, Syria and their allies, as well as a foreign currency crunch, have made it more difficult to get enough supply.

The recent explosion comes amid reports of IDF strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian outposts in Syria in recent weeks. Last Tuesday, an alleged Israeli airstrike targeted a site near Latakia and Tartus along Syria’s Mediterranean coast, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA.

Three weeks ago the confused reports on a drone attack on an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean on its way to Syria, added to the tension in the area. Iran first confirmed the attack and then claimed that such an attack never happened.

Syrian state media, citing the country’s oil ministry, claimed that an “attack by a drone” last week had caused a large fire on the oil tanker in the eastern Mediterranean, near the port of Baniyas. Some of the reports claimed that three people aboard the ship were killed.

The current report comes when Israel is closely following the new route used by Iran to transfer weapon system to the Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria. This route is protected according to some reports by the Russian Navy when it reaches the Mediterranean sea. According to some defence sources, Israel has intensified its aerial attacks on target in Syria where shipments of Iranian weapons have reached by the new safe route protected by Russia. One such attack was carried out last weekend.

The Iranian ships sail in the Red sea and then arrive at the Mediterranean after crossing the Suez canal. Israeli defence sources say that the ships according to their documents carry oil but there are indications that “oil is not the only cargo.” Israel finds itself in a situation where nothing can be done to stop this new route from Iran to Syria.

Professor Uzi Rabi, an expert on Iran said that the tension between Washington and Moscow helps Russia to protect this route. “Moscow achieves here two targets – telling Washington that the US is very limited in its actions in the Middle East and supporting Iran in the negotiations with the US about a new nuclear deal.”

Since 2014, the Black Sea fleet has been reinforced to keep the Mediterranean group. The latest frigates, corvettes and submarines armed with Kalibr missiles can target the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. Israeli defense sources say that this fleet can protect merchant ships “Over and under water.” The Israeli sources added that it seems that the Russian plan is to escort ships sailing from Iran to Syria and those have been “painted red” to avoid any Israeli action against them, as allegedly happened recently, when the Saviz cargo ship that was converted by Iran to serve as an intelligence ship, was allegedly attacked by Israel in the Red Sea.

The “Escort service” Russian navy gives to the Iranian ships has forced Israel to allegedly act in the Red Sea. But the presence of the Israeli navy in that sea is dramatically smaller than in the Mediterranean. According to Israeli defence sources, this enabled Iran to deliver some big weapon shipment to Syria recently. These shipments have been attacked by the Israeli air force on April 22.


-The writer is an International Roving Correspondent of the publication.