The Syrian channel is the maritime area between Cyprus and the Middle East, off the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli coasts. Since the 2014 Crimea crisis, there have been numerous media reports about Russian military activity, including live-fire events, in the foreign Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and international airspace first in the Black sea and second within this area. The Syrian channel is close to several areas of tension or conflict (Operation Inherent Resolve in Irak and Syria, Situation in Syria, between Israel and Palestine, occupation of the northern part of Cyprus, no Peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel). It explains why NATO and non-NATO navies used to sail and/or to flight within this area. Even if a large part of the Syrian channel is under the legal regime of freedom of navigation and overflight, Russia seems to undertake specific aerial and naval activities in order to constraint maneuvers of NATO navies.
Military uses of maritime spaces and international airspace
Since the signature of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, the legal regime regarding the use of maritime spaces and airspaces for military purposes is clear. In Economic exclusive zones (EEZ), all States enjoy the freedoms referred to in article 87 of navigation and overflight (article 58 UNCLOS). This means that for military aircrafts and warships, there is no difference between high seas and EEZ. They may conduct military exercises and training.
Through territorial seas, the rule is that a warship should enjoy the right of innocent passage. This passage shall be continuous and expeditious and should not to be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State : no threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, no exercise or practice with weapons, no collection of information, no launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft or military device, etc. Coastal States do not have to require prior notification or authorization for warships to enter territorial sea.
Even if the Syrian channel is not so large, there is enough international airspace to fly and EEZ to sail freely. Military exercises may be conducted in that zone.
Freedom of navigation/overflight and safety
In territorial waters, the right of innocent passage invoked by warships could also be suspended temporarily in specified areas by the coastal State “if such suspension is essential for the protection of its security, including weapons exercises” (article 25, UNCLOS). The suspension would have to be duly published by the coastal State.
If warships and military aircrafts may use freely EEZ, high seas and international airspace, it seems normal to develop procedures of safety in order to avoid maritime and aerial incidents. For the airspace, annex 15 of the Chicago convention on international civil aviation defines a tool called “notice to airmen” (NOTAM). A NOTAM is “a notice distributed by means of telecommunication containing information concerning the establishment, condition or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel concerned with flight operations”. A NOTAM is used to share information for safety reasons and for the time of the use of the airspace. For military purposes, it is important to inform civil aviation and other armed forces that such area of the airspace and at such altitude is needed for missile strike or air/air exercise.
For safety reasons, the International maritime organization has decided in 1991 to adopt on 6 November 1991 the Resolution A.706(17) regarding the world-wide navigational warning service. Due to this resolution, geographical sea areas (NAVAREA) are established in order to coordinate the transmission of radio navigational warnings. In such an area, these navigational warnings are broadcasted messages containing urgent information relevant to safe navigation, including information concerning special operations which might affect the safety of shipping, e.g. naval exercises, missile firings, etc. This kind of warning have to remain in force until the event is completed. For each NAVAREA, a country is designated to broadcast these safety messages. The Syrian channel is within the NAVAREA III area coordinated by Spain.
After many incidents involving Russian and US warships or aircrafts in the 1960s and 1970s, the USA and the USSR prompted further discussions on a mechanism to better manage bilateral military relations. In order to avoid an escalation and the possibility that either side could resort to the use of force, negotiations led to the creation of the US-Soviet 1972 Incidents at sea (INCSEA) agreement. Twelve NATO Allies (including United Kingdom, France, Greece) have now an INCSEA Agreement with Russia. Key elements of these documents are exercising military professionalism by avoiding the risk of collision, keeping safe distance and speed and restricting operations in areas with heavy naval traffic. INCSEAs introduced methods for communicating intentions.
Abuse of safety warnings?
Despite the creation of these different tools, a significant increase of maritime and aerial incidents between NATO and Russian assets have been observed since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, especially in the Black sea and Mediterranean. Russia seems to use and abuse of the aforementioned tools. Within the Syrian Channel, there is a quasi-permanent NAVAREA III warning. It was especially the case in February 2022. From 1st to 28 February two NAVAREA messages (0047/22 and 0057/22 Eastern Mediterranean Sea) were in force for firing exercises in the major part of the Syrian channel at a time the Russian was preparing the invasion in Ukraine.
It is the same with NOTAM. From 1st to 28 February 2023, Russia noticed that within the Flight Information Region (FIR) of Nicosia, numerous NOTAM were issued for navy firing exercises and missile, gun or rocket firing with the establishment of a lateral and vertical buffer zone.
Even if NOTAM or NAVAREA warnings are only a source of information for airmen and seafarers for safety purpose, they have the effect of constraining aircraft and ship maneuvers. There is no possibility to control the effectiveness of this kind of “booking”. Indeed, it is not certain that Russian units were conducting firing exercises during 28 days off Cyprus coast. However the message sent to NATO units is that if they enter a buffer zone or an area covered by NOTAM and/or a NAVAREA warning, it could be considered as an hostile intent or an hostile act by Russian units.
Despite INCSEAs agreements, there are often reports of near-collision or short-notice avoidance actions linked with Russian warships or military aircrafts. Considering it happens often and within several seas (Baltic Sea, North Sea before 24 February 2022, Mediterranean), correlated to NOTAM/NAVAREA actions, Russia seems to abuse these safety tools in order to “occupy” or “territorialize” the Syrian channel close to its military interests in Syria.