Europe & Eurasia Libya Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy
MENASource October 28, 2020

For Turkey, the Libyan conflict and the eastern Mediterranean are inextricably linked

By Ahmed Helal

On September 3, the United Nations warned that war-torn Libya is at a “decisive turning point,” with weapons from foreign backers pouring into both sides of the conflict. The main foreign protagonists in the Libyan conflict are split into two camps. In one camp is Russia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, who have been the principal financial and military backers of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). In the opposing camp is Turkey and Qatar, who back the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

The proxy confrontation playing out in Libya between these foreign powers has intensified a regional competition for resources in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, where several overlapping claims for maritime jurisdiction by Turkey, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus have fueled escalating tensions that have elicited mediation efforts by NATO and the European Union (EU).

In November 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed agreements for military cooperation and the demarcation of maritime boundaries, under which Turkey began supplying the GNA with arms and foreign fighters to stem the LNA’s fourteen-month campaign to capture Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Turkey’s intervention has proven decisive in the Libyan conflict, enabling the GNA to re-establish control over key Libyan territories. Turkey has used its maritime boundary agreement with the GNA to renew its pursuit of rights to conduct exploration and drilling activities in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s claims in the eastern Mediterranean infringe on what Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus insist are their own maritime boundaries. In early August, Egypt and Greece signed an agreement designating an exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean between the two countries in an area containing promising oil and gas reserves. The Greek-Egyptian agreement is intended to nullify Turkey’s own maritime agreement with the GNA and to challenge Turkey’s growing regional ambitions.

The Israel factor

Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus are among Turkey’s growing number of adversaries in the region and are members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Headquartered in Egypt, the EMGF is a regional cooperation platform for developing energy resources in the Mediterranean that has excluded Turkey from its membership since its inception in January. Turkey has labeled the EMGF, which also counts Israel as a member, as an “alliance of evil” and believes that it seeks to curtail Turkey’s access to the energy riches of its “blue homeland.” Turkey is dependent on energy imports, which amounted to $41 billion in 2019. Gaining more energy autonomy has been a strategic goal of Turkish policymakers and would also help to reduce Turkey’s chronic goods-trade deficit, which averaged 6.6 percent of GDP per year from 2010-2019.

The EMGF has helped forge common ground between Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt. Israel has sought markets for large gas fields that lie in its territorial waters and began exporting gas to Egypt in January under a fifteen-year contract, highlighting the role of energy cooperation in promoting closer ties between the two countries. In January, Israel also signed an agreement with Greece and Cyprus to build the $6 billion EastMed subsea gas pipeline that is expected to carry gas from Israeli and Cypriot waters to Europe’s gas network by passing through the Greek island of Crete. Turkey opposes the project as it competes with its own plans to serve as a regional energy hub. Given Turkey’s frayed ties with Israel, the latter’s membership in the EMGF and its increasing cooperation with Turkey’s key geopolitical rivals are highly provocative for Ankara. Therefore, Turkey’s support for the GNA in Libya is unlikely to wane, considering that Turkey will be keen to consolidate its position as a powerbroker in Libya as a springboard for securing its position in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece and Egypt

Greece and Egypt are locked in a set of lingering disputes with Turkey that underpin their joint efforts to counter Turkey’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey and Greece have an unresolved decades-long tussle over their maritime boundaries. A related dispute centers on the divided island of Cyprus, where Turkey supports the northern part run by a Turkish Cypriot administration while Greece supports the Republic of Cyprus. Therefore, Turkey’s decision to intensify its offshore drilling activities in what are internationally recognized as Cypriot waters has angered both Greece and Cyprus and elicited condemnation from the EU—especially France—and EMGF countries.

Meanwhile, relations between Egypt and Turkey have worsened sharply since 2011, when Turkey, along with Qatar, emerged as key supporters of the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government that came to power in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. Egypt’s current government, a staunch opponent of political Islam, is deeply suspicious of the “Qatar-Turkey axis,” which has supported Islamist movements in Tunisia, Libya, and other countries affected by the Arab Spring. Egypt, which shares a 1,200 km border with Libya, sees Qatari-Turkish military cooperation in Libya—most recently in the form of a tripartite military cooperation agreement between the GNA, Turkey, and Qatar—as an effort to promote political Islam on Cairo’s doorstep.

Turkey’s determined push to expand its influence in the eastern Mediterranean also threatens Egypt’s own ambitions to become a regional energy hub for natural gas exports. Having made significant gas discoveries in its territorial waters, including the Zohr field—the biggest find yet in the eastern Mediterranean—Egypt hopes to leverage its existing liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminals to sell gas to Europe. Egypt’s leading role in the formation of the EMGF has helped burnish its credentials as a regional energy hub and is consistent with its opposition to Turkish influence in the region.

The power struggle between Turkey and Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean is further complicated by the boycott that Qatar has been subjected to by the Arab Quartet—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain—since mid-2017. Among the Arab Quartet’s demands for ending the boycott is that Qatar scale back its ties with Turkey, who maintains a military base on Qatari soil. The UAE and Egypt share a deep mistrust of Turkey’s Islamist leanings and oppose Ankara’s interventions in Syria and Libya.

The October 21 announcement of a permanent ceasefire accord between Libya’s  warring parties has raised hopes that the country’s long-running civil war may be drawing to a close. However, in the absence of progress on the mediation of competing sovereign claims to the eastern Mediterranean, Libya’s peace process will risk being derailed by the proxy confrontation in the Libyan theater between regional rivals Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE.

While the EU’s focus may be on Greece and Cyprus and its member states’ differences with Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean, the EU’s diplomatic efforts cannot ignore developments in Libya, where Turkey is entrenched and has positioned itself as the leading foreign player in the reconstruction of the oil-rich state. Therefore, in conjunction with its efforts to de-escalate tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the EU must reinforce the UN’s push for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya within three months, as stipulated in the recently concluded Libyan ceasefire accord. Turkey’s importance to the EU on migration policy, counterterrorism, and trade also means that the EU must balance its member states’ strategic aim of reducing dependence on Russian energy—through developing the eastern Mediterranean—with maintaining stable cooperation with Turkey.

The US position on the Libyan conflict has lacked consistency, complicating its ability to weigh on the confrontation between EU member states and Turkey. The Trump administration initially saw the LNA’s leader, Khalifa Haftar, as a bulwark against Islamist elements of the GNA, but reversed its support for the renegade general when he allowed Russia to establish a stronghold in Libya through its provision of mercenaries and weaponry to the LNA. The onus for supporting the UN-led peace process in Libya has therefore been placed largely on the EU. A fragile peace process in Libya is vulnerable to the power struggle between Turkey on one hand and Egypt and the UAE on the other. Both Turkey and Egypt view the eastern Mediterranean as the key to their long-term energy security and economic diversification, ensuring that foreign influence in Libya will continue to obstruct a lasting agreement on the eastern Mediterranean.

Ahmed Helal is an independent economic and political analyst who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Image: Troops loyal to Libya's internationally recognized government prepare themselves before heading to Sirte, in Tripoli, Libya, Libya July 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ayman Sahely/File Photo