Aksel Isaksson is a third-year War Studies & History student with interests in statecraft, foreign policy, and geopolitical risk. In this article, he examines the implications of increasing Turkish involvement in the Libyan civil war and eastern Mediterranean energy exploration.
In the shadow of the United States (US)-Iran confrontation, which has dominated global reporting in early 2020, another conflict is brewing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions extend beyond its military engagements in Syria. The country’s involvement in two parallel Mediterranean conflicts – the Libyan civil war and eastern Mediterranean energy exploration – is illustrative of an assertive Turkish pattern of behaviour. Turkey’s strategy to favourably rebalance its adjacent neighbourhood risks provoking confrontation with Russia, the European Union (EU), and Middle Eastern states. This article explores the conditions in Libya that have led to Turkish involvement, the implications of a Turkish security alliance with Libya’s internationally recognised government, and the link between Libya and Turkey’s maritime claim to the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean. In doing so the article argues that it is imprudent for the international community to overlook Turkey’s geopolitical manoeuvring in the Mediterranean.
Following the death of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, Libya fractured into what is essentially a failed state at present. The Government of National Accord (GNA), recognised by the United Nations (UN), is based in Tripoli and controls the surrounding area. The GNA is challenged by several militia groups throughout the country. Most notably, General Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based militia. Since April 2019, Haftar’s forces have pursued a rapid offensive. On January 6, 2020, Haftar’s forces captured the port city of Sirte and now directly threaten Tripoli as well. These factions are supported by external actors with economic and strategic interests in Libya. For Turkey, the Khashoggi murder and the Syrian offensive have led to poor relations with Saudi Arabia and the US, leaving Turkey isolated and searching for new regional partnerships. To recover its large pre-2011 economic investments in Libya and receive support for its maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey backs the GNA. Meanwhile, Haftar’s forces are assisted by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which supply weapons and air support. More crucially, the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, has integrated with Haftar’s forces, threatening a Russo-Turkish proxy war. In recent month’s Turkey has enhanced its involvement in this unstable theatre.
In December 2019 Turkey and the GNA secured a defence agreement. The agreement reportedly covered ‘training, consultancy, experience transfer, planning and material support’ from Turkey as well as an initiative for the establishment of a joint office for defence and security cooperation between the two actors. Foreign assistance to fighting factions is controversial considering a UN arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011. However, Erdogan has insisted that sending Turkish forces to assist the GNA does not violate the embargo. Still, Turkey has supplied the GNA with heavy weaponry since at least spring 2019, including drones. Although, this assistance is requested by the government in Tripoli, it appears to some commentators that the swiftly negotiated defence pact curtails a de facto Turkish invasion of Libyan territory. After all, the survival of the GNA government is a crucial foreign policy objective for Erdogan. In late 2019, Turkey and the GNA signed a maritime agreement that aimed to redefine the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the Mediterranean and facilitate Turkish oil exploration around Cyprus. The defeat of the Tripoli government would end this deal. Meanwhile, implementation of the Turkey-GNA maritime agreement would essentially cut off potential energy exports from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. As such, the agreement presents dilemmas for other regional actors. Particularly, Russia, which opposes Turkey’s position in Libya but simultaneously favours Turkey’s aggressive Mediterranean policy, which limits non-Russian gas supplies to Europe.
The bilateral maritime agreement carves up a sizeable portion of the Mediterranean, including natural gas reserves. The Turkish and Libyan territorial claims are a direct challenge the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, of which Turkey is not a member. The agreement disrupts the construction of the proposed EastMed pipeline, which would transport gas from Egyptian, Israeli, and Cypriot waters via Crete to Greece and Italy. However, France, Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus have issued a joint statement claiming that Erdogan’s territorial claims are not legally binding since they overlap with territorial claims of other states. Yunus Emre Acikgonul, a Turkish expert in maritime law, adds that “the Turkish claim is not aligned with the established principles of international law.” However, the November 2019 deal, still signals growing geopolitical tension in the region and an attempt by Turkey to assert its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. The bilateral agreement with the GNA remains the only quasi-legal justification for Turkey’s claim. Therefore, failure in Libya would be costly, beyond the loss of a strategic partner and investment opportunities. The result of the ongoing Libyan civil war will also determine Turkish success in the Mediterranean energy dispute.
The future of these intertwined conflicts remains uncertain. Turkey is unlikely to accept a resolution to the conflict that does not secure the Tripoli government, since this would terminate the maritime agreement with Libya and crush Turkish ambitions to help rebuild Libya’s army, public institutions, and infrastructure – projects reportedly worth around 20 billion USD. Meanwhile, Russia has been promised similar economic sweeteners by the Tobruk government for its continued support. Beyond this, Egypt and the UAE, are enticed to continue their support for Haftar. Incentives include preventing the dominance of the GNA government, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, to which the UAE and Egypt are hostile. Furthermore, the survival of the Tobruk government secures a buffer zone for Egypt against Libya’s internal instability. Meanwhile, Turkey continues its posturing in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s aggressive naval presence has reportedly dissuaded the Italian oil and gas company, Eni, from pursuing drilling around Cyprus. In response, the EU is preparing sanctions against Turkey for operating in Cypriot waters. In parallel, a recently proposed ceasefire in Libya, negotiated by Putin and Erdogan in Istanbul in early January, appears unstable as Haftar refuses to comply and reports suggest a return to violence in the last week. As such, the prudence of Turkey’s two front geopolitical conflict appears increasingly questionable.
Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions and attempt to reshape the MENA region in its favour are on display in these two intertwined Mediterranean disputes. Erdogan’s actions risk provoking a confrontation with several influential actors, including the EU, Russia, and major Arab states. Conversely, if successful, Turkey may be able to establish itself as a dominant regional power with major influence from Libya to Syria. However, it remains to be seen if Turkey can emerge victorious from this two-front conflict in two geopolitically contentious theatres, or if it has overreached by stretching itself across the MENA region in an attempt to compete for influence on par with global powers like Russia and the US. Regardless of the outcome, Turkey’s assertiveness in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean merits closer scrutiny and should concern policymakers around the world.
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