Could Turkey-Libya maritime pact lead to an energy showdown in the Med?

Could Turkey-Libya maritime pact lead to an energy showdown in the Med?
Comment: Regional agendas swirl in the wings of a Turkey-Libya maritime agreement, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
5 min read
09 Dec, 2019
The agreement asserts Turkish rights in the hydrocarbon-rich Mediterranean sea [Getty]
While the international press has paid even less attention than usual to Libya in recent weeks, the North African country's conflict has some significant developments.

Thanks to growing Russian support, the Libyan National Army (LNA) finds itself enjoying a "technological edge", with Russian weaponry adding momentum to Khalifa Haftar's side. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), for its part, is struggling to stand on its feet. As such, the possibility of the LNA usurping control of Tripoli is a scenario that shouldn't be ignored.

Turkey, which views a potential Haftar victory in Libya as a grave threat to its interests, recently made a major move which will have ramifications not only for the Libyan civil war, but also the wider Mediterranean region.

On 5 December, Turkey's parliament ratified a pact with the GNA. The bilateral memorandum lays out Turkish-Libyan maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, asserting Turkish rights in the hydrocarbon-rich body of water and also clarifying the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus' rights to the subsea resources.

The Turkey-Libya pact enjoys high levels of support at home, with 85 percent of Turks reportedly backing it. Such domestic considerations cannot be overlooked in any analysis of Turkey's foreign policy agenda at this time. Naturally, internal politics factor into President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision-making with respect to Ankara's strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in the aftermath of defeats in the 2019 Turkish local elections. 

From Athens' perspective, the Turkey-GNA accord is a challenge to Greece's mineral rights

Unsurprisingly, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel have strongly objected to the pact. Athens sees the Turkish-Libyan maritime deal - which sets up a special economic zone that gives Turkey and Libya exclusive mineral rights - as a violation of Greek rights in the south Aegean Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

As Greek officials put it, the pact constitutes a "blatant violation of international law". Athens' position is that Turkey and Libya should not have a maritime border because of Greece's geographic position, which, as Athens maintains, is between them.

From Athens' perspective, the Turkey-GNA accord is a challenge to Greece's mineral rights south of the island of Crete.

Disputes over Cyprus and sovereign rights in resource-rich parts of the Mediterranean are not new issues in Turkish-Greek relations.

Yet in recent months Ankara and Athens' conflicting agendas in this body of water have resulted in an intensification of tensions in bilateral affairs. Ratification of the Turkey-GNA pact followed unilateral drilling by the Greek Cypriot administration, and last month the European Union approved a mechanism to sanction Turkey for "illegal" drilling in Cypriot waters.

The extent to which the Ankara-Tripoli accord infuriated Greece's government was underscored by Athens' decision to expel the Libyan ambassador to Greece on 6 December, a move quickly condemned by the governments in Tripoli and Ankara. While in Italy, Turkey's chief diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu blasted the expulsion of Libya's ambassador to Greece, maintaining that it was "not a mature behaviour in diplomacy."

On 1 December, Greece's foreign minister Nikos Dendias travelled to Cairo to discuss exclusive economic zones between his country and Egypt, which would of course challenge the Turkey-GNA accord.

Meanwhile Athens has also looked to other capitals in NATO for support against Ankara's recent moves that Greece sees as a violation of its own sovereign rights. The extent to which Athens can garner greater support internationally for its position against Ankara and the GNA's accord will likely matter significantly for Greece. 

Libya, a bifurcated and war-torn country, finds itself split in this battle for subsea gas and oil reserves

Egypt has its own agenda in countering Turkey, mainly due to disagreements in Cairo-Ankara relations that date back to the coup of 2013, which Turkey's government strongly opposed. Thus, Cairo is naturally keen to work with Greece and others in the region in order to counter an "illegal" accord, as Egypt's government sees it.

Furthermore, with Cairo strongly supporting Haftar in the Libyan civil war, the Egyptian leadership does not welcome any agreement which would serve to boost the perceived legitimacy of the GNA at Haftar's expense.

Libya, a bifurcated and war-torn country, finds itself split in this battle for subsea gas and oil reserves.

The GNA is working with Turkey as an energy partner, while the House of Representatives (HoR) is clearly on the side of the Cyprus-Greece-Egypt energy triad. The Tobruk-based and Haftar-allied HoR sees the Turkey-GNA accord as a major threat.

The HoR fears that the pact will open the door to a possible establishment of Turkish military bases on Libyan land. A shared fear of Turkey's efforts to shore up its control of the Mediterrranean will likely bring Haftar and Israel even closer following years of 
coordination between the two in Libya's civil war.

Where are all of these developments heading?

Depending on how far Turkey is willing to go to defend its interests through the flexing of military muscles, an already complicated situation has the potential to escalate.

One legitimate concern is that the struggle for drilling rights is increasing the risk of a major energy showdown in the eastern Mediterranean that, in a worse-case scenario, could lead to a military confrontation. 

But such an outcome is far from inevitable or necessary.

In order for all of the countries in the eastern Mediterranean to benefit from the gas and oil wealth of the body of water, diplomatic engagement is required.

If compromises can be made with all parties demonstrating a commitment to dialogue and flexibility, such an escalation in the eastern Mediterranean could be averted. 

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.