An unexpected and puzzling diplomatic agreement has stirred tensions and clarified shifting alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This past week, Libya’s Tripoli-based GNA signed a puzzling diplomatic agreement with Turkey regarding determining maritime borders between the two countries. They also signed a deal to expand their military cooperation, as Turkey has been the main international power arming the UN-recognised GNA during the ongoing fighting. The accord was announced by Turkey, and comes at a time of growing tensions between Ankara and Athens / Cairo / Nicosia over energy drilling rights in the Mediterranean. That is, as Turkey conducts exploration near the coast of Turkish Cyprus, the EU is preparing financial sanctions against Turkey in response, and Greece recently signed over exploration rights to an international consortium off the coast of Crete. Turkey’s move was meant to head off these efforts and cement its claim to these resources.
In the background, there are also internal NATO tensions as Turkey seems to be conditioning its support for a defence plan involving the Baltic states on receiving NATO backing for its operations against Kurdish militants in Syria.
Turkey, in recent years, has searched for allies, finding itself increasingly isolated as it seeks to assert greater regional influence. Libya’s GNA also finds itself somewhat isolated. Despite having official UN and EU recognition, it watched as many regional powers shifted their favor to Haftar and the Tobruk government, especially since Haftar positioned himself as an anti-Islamist (and portrays the GNA as pro-Islamist), and when it seemed clear he was set to take Tripoli in April.
Greece and Egypt, whose territorial waters are situated between Libya and Turkey, rejected the agreement. According to Greece’s foreign minister, it “ignores something that is blatantly obvious, which is that between those two countries there is…Crete…. Consequently, such an attempt borders on the absurd.” Egypt, which has long been at odds with Turkey, also condemned the deal. The two countries currently back the respective sides in Libya’s ongoing conflict.
Meanwhile, Cyprus, whose territorial waters also run between Libya and Turkey, was likewise opposed. Turkey, which occupies northern Cyprus, does not recognise Cyprus as a state nor its rights to its territorial waters and resources there. According to Turkish media, the Turkish-Libyan agreement came as a way for Turkey to preempt a Greek-Cypriot-Egyptian mechanism in the Mediterranean that would have effectively shut Turkey out from having a share of natural resources. The paper claims this was a Greek effort to isolate Turkey regionally. Turkey, having rushed to cement its agreement with Libya, upended those plans.
To be sure, Turkey’s arguments regarding maritime borders and economic zones are not entirely baseless. It essentially argues that some of the islands lying between itself and Libya lack a continental shelf, and are therefore not entitled to economic zones. It further argues that it should have a share of these resources, and since it lies diagonally to the Mediterranean, it sets maritime borders and economic zones differently.
While Turkey seeks any kind of international backing for its claims territorial claims, Libya’s GNA seeks access to crucial military support in the continued fighting. It may also be reading the diplomatic winds and trying to shore up much needed support ahead of possible international diplomatic conference that would force some kind of compromise. The two sides saw an opportunity for mutual benefit, or, as more than one observer suggests, Turkey conditioned its continued support on Tripoli’s backing for this maneuver. It is interesting that in light of the UN arms embargo, and at a time when Turkey is relatively isolated, it chooses to pursue such open military support of the GNA. This could be a blow to international efforts, especially the much talked about Berlin summit, to bring a diplomatic end to the fighting. For this, Germany and other powers will have to get Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other, as well as Russia, to stop fuelling the respective parties.
With this in mind, it becomes slightly clearer why Turkey would risk stoking tensions, and why the GNA would go along with such a move, that could bring EU and regional pressure against it. The two sides are essentially desperate.
Greece has already summoned the Libyan Ambassador for clarifications, the same day that the Greek foreign minister flew to discuss the matter with his Egyptian counterpart, according to Egyptian news.
Although not likely a key factor, no doubt Ankara is likely jockeying for a better day after position, as far as winning lucrative energy, infrastructure and construction projects, much as are all the other international powers involved. Turkey likely assessed that such an agreement in place would help it cement its position.
However, we want to point out two other, more minor but interesting developments no less from the same day.
The first regards broader regional developments. The Tobruk government’s foreign minister, Abdul Hadi Al-Howeej, in a somewhat strange interview with an Israeli newspaper, floated the idea that Libya (under Haftar’s control) would seek to normalise relations with Israel, once Palestinian rights are addressed. The statement in itself is not so strange – many Arab and Muslim countries have moved toward normalisation with Israel in recent years, most notably the Gulf states, while Egypt and Jordan maintain full peace treaties.
However, why now? Some analysts, such as Emadeddin Badi, suggest that the Tobruk government’s outreach to Israel could be connected to the growing Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli energy alliance regarding eastern Mediterranean gas resources. Jalel Harchaoui, in Al Monitor, also discussed this option, suggesting that the Turkish move was directly related to Turkey’s isolation from the Eastern Med Gas Forum, which includes Greece, Cyprus and Israel, along with Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Italy. Libya’s Tobruk government, which has strong ties to Egypt and Jordan already, is therefore, possibly seeking to firmly insert itself into this growing Mediterranean divide. An isolated Turkey is on one side of this divide, and since Turkey supports Tripoli’s GNA, it only makes sense that Tobruk and Haftar want to firmly attach themselves to the Greek-Egyptian-Israeli side of this alliance. And Haftar already has ties to Egypt and Jordan.
One other headline was also buried in all these developments. While Athens summoned Libya’s (GNA) ambassador to show its disapproval, it also held meetings the same day with Aref al-Nayed, the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE, a leading Islamic scholar, and someone we have mentioned here recently as trying to position himself to take power as a consensus figure. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Greece would meet with Nayed on this matter. Perhaps this means Nayed is succeeding in positioning himself as the de-facto political consensus figure for the LNA side. Perhaps it signals something bigger however – as the military conflict seems to be stalled with no clear winner in sight, perhaps the regional powers are starting to view Nayed as the political figure who can take off from where Haftar stopped.
It might be a reach, but its worth following. In any case, this Turkish move just clarified some important understandings of who is on whose side in the Libyan conflict and where things could be headed in the coming months.