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Turkey and Libya’s Maritime Deal: Partnership or Poisoned Chalice?

Turkey libya deal
The Libyan House of Representatives holds an emergency session in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on January 4, 2020, to discuss Turkey’s prospective military intervention in support of the UN-recognised Tripoli-based government. Photo: Abdullah DOMA / AFP ©AFP ⁃ Abdullah DOMA

In early December 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a deal to formalize their maritime border, creating an exclusive economic zone that spans the Mediterranean. Since being ratified by both countries’ internationally recognized parliaments, the deal has opened a Pandora’s box in a region facing the dual curse of a race to exploit the newly discovered hydrocarbons under the seabed and the dark cloud of geopolitical animosity.

A Mediterranean opportunity

The 35-kilometre maritime border between the two nations may seem insignificant, but it fills in a key part of the Mediterranean’s complex puzzle of naval boundaries, riling neighbours at a time of heightened competition over rights to hydrocarbon fields.

Unsurprisingly, Libya’s eastern-based parliament loyal to General Khalifa Haftar voted unanimously against the deal signed by the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. However, according to international law, the deal holds up.

With the deal, Libya and Turkey have agreed to a form an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern shore to Libya’s northern coast. This zone stretches across the middle of the Mediterranean, not only staking claim to a broad swathe of the hydrocarbon reserves thought to be located under the seabed but also drawing up restrictive control of the seabed transit of these hydrocarbons from gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean to key markets in Europe.

The Eastern Mediterranean basin is estimated to contain natural gas worth $700 billion, according to the US Geological Survey, and Turkey has already said that it and Libya may contract international firms in the hunt for hydrocarbons.

Exploiting the deal

The deal stakes a clear claim on both countries’ rights to exploit resources below the seabed in its portion of the economic zone. Exploitation rights have been a growing flashpoint in the Mediterranean in recent years. With powerful nations eager for their piece of this resource pie alongside often long-standing tensions over where sea borders lie and whether countries even have a right to claim sovereignty, moves toward exploitation have not gone uncontested.

Libya has in the past clashed with Greece over exploitation rights in waters near the Greek island of Crete. The Libya-Turkey deal provides Tripoli with a powerful ally in defending its claims. Greece has since expelled the Libyan ambassador over Tripoli’s part in the deal.

Turkey libya gas deal
Sources: Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), The Jerusalem Post, Stratfor, Limes, alaraby.co.uk. @Fanack ©Fanack ⁃ Fanack

Turkey, too, has been at the centre of these tensions. In recent years, Ankara has deployed naval vessels to stop other Mediterranean nations from exploring for hydrocarbons in waters it claims for itself or the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey even dispatched a military drone to Northern Cyprus to watch over the two drilling vessels that Ankara has used to drill potential gas fields.

With the recent deal, Turkey has established a solid international legal claim for much of the area it hopes to stake out as its own hydrocarbon fields.

Greece has complained that the deal infringes on its own maritime claims, but Turkish officials have been bullish, styling themselves as the lynchpin in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has been pushing for this deal with Libya since 2018, but Tripoli was previously reluctant to wade into regional geopolitics. However, with Haftar’s Russian-backed forces knocking on Tripoli’s door, the GNA was left with little choice but to agree to Turkey in exchange for military assistance that may guarantee its survival.

From Turkey’s point of view, its benefit from the deal lies not just in what it gains in the form of exploitation rights; it also lies in what Ankara can stop.

The energy behind the politics

The broader relevance of the deal is arguably tied to energy politics at the regional level. The threat that Turkish (and Libyan) control over future access to a key route to hydrocarbon markets has Eastern Mediterranean states riled up.

Both Egypt and Israel (neither of whom has enjoyed rosy relations with Turkey in recent years) decried the Turkish-Libyan move, with Egypt even claiming it is illegal. The two countries are actively looking to export gas they are and will be exploiting from their own Mediterranean fields to Europe. A Turkish block on this export route leaves few options to get these hydrocarbons to the most viable market. Israel was counting on the Israel-Cyprus-Greece-Italy pipeline project to do this. But if Turkey renders the project unviable, Israel is in less of a fix as it has already begun exporting liquified natural gas to Egypt for re-export.

Additionally, despite Turkey and Israel’s difficult political ties, they have maintained strong trade relations, which are likely to ensure that Israel’s gas keeps flowing regardless of the political or military outcome to these recent events. Following the Turkey-Libya deal, three of the countries in the four-nation, 1,900-kilometre pipeline project signed an agreement, no doubt anxious to rally their diplomatic and economic forces.

Cairo has more to lose. Closely allied with the military strongman Haftar, Egypt is on the opposing side of the Libyan conflict to Turkey. Given Turkey’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – the sworn enemy of Cairo’s ruling regime – Egypt is poorly placed to win generous terms from Turkey if the country ever enters negotiations over pipeline access in the Mediterranean.

While Egypt seems unlikely to engage in military action more serious than the previous clashes instigated by its Mediterranean neighbours, the Turkey-Libya deal is likely to pressure Cairo to double down on its support to Haftar, no doubt prolonging the conflict and Libya’s suffering. The deal has also put Egypt in a potential economic bind, adding yet more pressure to an already-tense region. If Turkey is forced to drastically up its military commitment to Libya to combat Egypt’s support (beyond the recently agreed bill to deploy troops to Libya), then Ankara may come to regret its rush to secure its maritime rights.

A poisoned chalice?

The Turkey-Libya deal exploits the current hydrocarbon mania among Eastern Mediterranean powers, locking in key security and geopolitical arrangements for both countries. Turkey has bolstered its position against long-standing adversaries like Greece and Cyprus, while the GNA has won a powerful military backer for its internal armed struggle. Yet while hydrocarbons were once considered a boon for the Eastern Mediterranean, they have once again brought geopolitical squabbles to the surface. Turkey and Libya look to be only the most recent chapter in this ongoing saga.

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