Turkey is meshing together two Mediterranean crises in a desperate bid to reshape the region in its own favor, with potentially nasty implications both for the ongoing civil war in Libya and future energy development in the eastern Mediterranean.
This month, Turkey’s unusual outreach to the internationally recognized government of Libya has resulted in a formal agreement for Ankara to provide military support, including arms and possibly troops, in its bid to hold off an offensive from Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country. The military agreement came just weeks after Turkey and that same Government of National Accord reached an unusual agreement to essentially carve up much of the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean between them—threatening to cut out Greece and Cyprus from the coming bonanza.
Turkey’s pledge of military support, which Libya formally accepted last week, comes at a critical time in the battle between the United Nations-recognized government and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, which just renewed its assault on the city of Misrata and again demanded that Turkish-backed militias withdraw from the capital city of Tripoli. Both the United States and the European Union expressed concern at the escalation in Libya, and especially international involvement on both sides—which includes ongoing violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.
Turkey’s double-barreled approach to Libya is a response to its growing diplomatic isolation in the region. Turkey has fallen out with the United States over its incursion into northern Syria and is still at odds with Saudi Arabia over the murder of a journalist in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. Turkey is on the opposite side of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia in Libya. It is battling Egypt for influence around the Red Sea and sees a constellation of states such as Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt teaming up to exploit the region’s energy leaving Turkey in the cold.
From Ankara’s perspective, the pair of agreements with Libya potentially offer a way to shape the region’s future in its own favor—or at least prevent what it sees as the unacceptable rise in influence of rivals like Russia and Egypt in the Mediterranean.
“Turkey’s recent agreement with Libya’s legitimate government about maritime delimitation line and defense cooperation deal is crucial for protecting Turkey’s and Libya’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean region,” said a Monday column in the government-friendly Daily Sabah newspaper.
The link between military support for Libya and Turkey’s geopolitical position in the region was the declaration, formalized earlier this month, of a new maritime boundary line between Turkey and Libya. As a result of that bilateral agreement, Turkey is laying claim to a huge chunk of the eastern Mediterranean—an area that includes large reservoirs of natural gas that Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and even Lebanon are racing to exploit.
For several years, Turkey has pushed back against efforts by Cyprus to exploit those gas discoveries by harassing drill ships operating there with Turkish naval vessels and sending its own drilling ships into Cypriot waters. By laying legal claim to a big chunk of the Mediterranean—especially between Greece and Egypt—even if only on paper, Ankara hopes to forestall those other countries’ claims to the resources. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday insisted he won’t back down from his new Libyan deals, despite the protests from other countries.
The energy question in the eastern Mediterranean is taking on new urgency from Ankara’s point of view. The United States passed legislation last week that will boost U.S. support for energy development in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as greater security assistance for Greece and Cyprus.
Perhaps more importantly, after years of talking about it, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus are getting closer to a deal on a pipeline that would carry natural gas right through those disputed waters, via Crete, to Greece and Italy. On Sunday, the three countries said they could formalize an intergovernmental agreement on the EastMed pipeline as soon as Jan. 2, though crucially Italy hasn’t yet indicated that it will sign the accord.
The project would be the culmination of the so-called Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, and Greece signed earlier this year—pointedly excluding Turkey from the club.
“I think that Turkey is really concerned about this ‘Club Med.’ I think it was a strategic mistake on those countries’ part—if you need regional cooperation, you don’t just include your buddies,” said Brenda Shaffer, an energy expert at Georgetown University. “I think Turkey wants to be part of the picture.”
Ankara sees the new agreement as a way to fence off disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean and possibly prevent other countries from taking advantage of the region’s resources without counting on Turkey.
“I would say it is a masterful stroke by Ankara, because from its point of view, there was this axis of adversaries in the eastern Mediterranean building a maritime wall,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If the new maritime boundary is accepted, and if Libya’s legitimate government survives, “it would allow Turkey to block that maritime wall.”
The first problem for Ankara is that the maritime agreement it sees as vital to preventing encirclement by its neighbors was signed with Libya’s Government of National Accord, which continues to face an armed assault on its survival. For the agreement to survive, so does that government—which means both Turkey on one side and Egypt and the UAE on the other will likely redouble their support for the warring factions in Libya.
“It all hinges on what happens in Libya. If that government falls, the maritime treaty is out,” Cagaptay said. “So now, Libya is an even more serious theater for proxy competition.”
A potentially bigger problem for Ankara, legal experts say, is that the maritime boundary agreement with Libya is at odds with international law and unlikely to be observed by any of the other countries in the region.
“The Turkish claim is not aligned with the established principles of international law,” said Yunus Emre Acikgonul, a former Turkish diplomat and expert in maritime boundary law. The Turkish government’s claims that this creative legal approach grants them a wide swath of water don’t hold up to scrutiny, he said.
“You cannot gain maritime area through a novel approach, faits accomplis, or just because you acted first. There are principles in international law, and this agreement blatantly contradicts the established case law.”
In particular, a bilateral agreement that infringes on other states’ rights—in this case, essentially writing Crete out of the map almost entirely—is at odds with international law. “Parties cannot delimit overlapping boundaries unilaterally, at the exclusion of other affected states,” Acikgonul said.
And there are other problems: The divided Libyan government includes a parliament in rebel-held Tobruk, which won’t ratify an agreement the other government signed. Without legislative approval, the maritime agreement cannot enter into force, he said.
Whether the Turkish government really believes its own dubious legal claim or is just using it for political purposes, it’s likely to be counterproductive. “This agreement does not strengthen Turkey’s position, but rather further isolates it from neighboring countries and international fora,” he said.
Ultimately, Acikgonul said, the questionable maritime claim is fruit of both a Turkish foreign ministry purged of most of its legal experts after the 2016 coup attempt—as he himself was—and the continued drift in Turkish policymaking toward satisfying Erdogan’s desire for a political victory that will resonate with his nationalist base at home.
“The agreement also indicates that Turkey’s decision-making process has been shifting on a more adventurous and nationalistic axis,” he said.
Still, other countries in the region are taking Turkey’s legal gambit—already rejected by the European Union as incompatible with international law—seriously enough to push back in earnest. The Greek foreign minister just went to visit the other Libyan government and is on his way to Egypt. Meanwhile, Cyprus wants the other Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum countries to launch a diplomatic offensive against Turkey’s audacious new claims, and on Monday it enlisted Jordan’s help in that campaign.
A diplomatic solution is the most likely, because both Turkey and Greece would stand to lose in any judicial process. Greece has excessive maritime claims of its own near Turkey’s coast, and any verdict Turkey agreed to would amount to recognizing Cyprus as a state—something it refuses to do.
Meanwhile, the scramble to tap the region’s energy riches continues. Turkey continues to send drilling ships to explore in blocks that Cyprus has already licensed to European companies, and it just dispatched a military drone to northern Cyprus to fly over its ships. Some companies, such as Italy’s Eni, have called off operations rather than stare down Turkish naval vessels. Others, such as ExxonMobil, which is drilling in a different area, have pressed ahead despite Turkish saber-rattling. The EU has prepared, but not yet unleashed, sanctions against Turkey for drilling in Cypriot waters.
Looking ahead, there is a real risk that the battle to extract natural gas from the seabed could end up igniting actual conflict among the eastern Mediterranean neighbors rather than fueling rapprochement.
The fact that the driving force behind the new maritime boundary seems to have come not from the denuded foreign ministry but rather from the Turkish navy suggests that the military is playing a bigger role in shaping Turkey’s approach to its Mediterranean problems. Turkey’s foreign minister recently made clear that Ankara would use force, if necessary, to deter others from drilling for gas in waters it considers its own.
“I don’t think either side will escalate intentionally, but if there is a dogfight where Cyprus or Turkey loses a ship or a plane, that could result in escalation that cannot be prevented,” Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.
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