Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) receives Libyan President Fayez al-Sarraj at Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on March 20, 2019. (Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Turkey-Libya Maritime Deal Triggers Mediterranean Tensions

Ankara to send military aid to Libya in support of Tripoli government

On Monday, the Turkish government called on its parliament to hold an emergency meeting next Thursday to authorize a troop deployment to Libya.

A deal struck between the internationally recognized government in Libya and the Turkish government is raising tensions in the Mediterranean. The Tripoli-based government requested military support from Ankara to help it in its battle against a rival regime. Last November, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government signed a defense pact with Ankara to supply it with weapons, share intelligence and provide training to its forces.

Hasan Awwad, a Middle East expert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, told The Media Line that there are two reasons behind the emergency meeting on Thursday that the Turkish government called for. For one, a planned summit next Thursday in Athens may hasten the arrival of Turkey’s military. The other reason is the intense fighting around Libya’s capital.

“Israel, Greece and Cyprus are going a sign a major gas pipeline deal and Ankara is worried. They feel that they have a share in the gas in the Mediterranean and they are determined to protect it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel will sign a “historic” deal that will allow for the construction of a subsea pipeline to send gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

The contentious Turkish-Libyan maritime and military deal infuriated Turkey’s neighbor and rival, Greece.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Sunday that Athens wanted to be included in a UN-sponsored meeting in January on the Libya conflict.

Dr. Ali Bakeer, a Middle East analyst, told The Media Line that Turkey was the first country to appoint an ambassador to Tripoli after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Ankara also took the lead in acknowledging the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. Bakeer says that Turkish businesses are heavily involved in the North African nation, and this could be another factor in its involvement there.

“Turkey has tens of billions of dollars in economic interests with Libya, therefore, Ankara has an interest in the stability of the country. Once this goal is achieved, Turkey will be ahead of other countries in this field,” Bakeer said.

The UN-backed government has been fighting an offensive by the Libyan National Army controlled by rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, whose forces are in control of the country’s oil-rich east.

Gen. Haftar launched an offensive to seize Tripoli in April. The UN says more than 1,000 people have been killed and 120,000 displaced since the offensive began.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attempted to justify his country’s involvement in Libya by invoking historical ties; parts of Libya were once controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

Onur Erim, president of the Dragoman Strategies think tank in Ankara, told The Media Line that Turkey has every right to be involved in Libya.

“If the French, Russians, and others are in Libya and no one is questioning this, why does it bother anyone when Turkey steps on the ground, a land that the Ottomans ruled for over 400 years?” Erim asked.

Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line that Erdoğan was flexing his country’s muscles in familiar settings.

“As the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey sees all this region as its natural playground while seeing other entities like Russia and the United States as complete outsiders.”

Yanarocak added that Ankara had achieved a lot by signing the deal.

“By doing so, Turkey cuts the maritime geographical contiguity between Israel-Cyprus and Greece.”

Tension has been rising between Athens and Ankara over drilling for natural gas off the coast of the divided island of Cyprus. Greece says the agreement violates international law; Turkey rejects that accusation, saying it is protecting its rights in the Mediterranean.

Ankara maintains that several islands and islets near its coasts that are claimed by Greece under longstanding postwar treaties are actually “gray zones.”

Ömer Özkizilcik, a security expert at the SETA Foundation, a think tank in Ankara, told The Media Line that the agreement is beneficial to both sides.

“The maritime deal guarantees Libya a much bigger share in the Mediterranean and prevents any East Med project from happening as the pipeline needs to cross either the Turkish or Libyan continental shelf.”

Turkey fears energy talks among Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt may leave it in the dark, and that’s why it feels it needs to move.

Libya’s warring factions are backed by different countries, which provide them with military supplies despite a UN arms embargo.

The GNA based in the capital, Tripoli, is backed by most Western nations as well as Turkey and Qatar, while the parliament based in the east of Libya, in the city of Tobruk, Khalifa Haftar’s center of power, is supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France.

The UN said this month that Turkey, Jordan and the UAE have repeatedly violated an arms embargo on Libya.

Recent reports claim that Haftar has recruited Russian mercenaries, an accusation Moscow denies. The UN has also accused him of recruiting fighters from Sudan.

Turkey’s increasing involvement in Libya may strain its ties with Russia, however Bakeer says Ankara may lean on the US if that happens.

“Depending on whether Erdoğan will be able to convince Putin to withdraw mercenaries from Libya and what Moscow can get in return, will decide how the Turkish involvement in Libya will affect the relations with Moscow. Ankara might turn to the USA to seek a balance if things go badly.”

Özkizilcik says the two countries are collaborating on several issues, which makes it difficult for either one to abandon the relationship.

“Turkey and Russia are all but friends and allies. Both nations have a pragmatic approach to each other and know how to separate different issues from each other. While both nations cooperate on energy, trade and the political process in Syria, they are working against each other in Ukraine, the Black Sea and Libya.”

Another country that is watching Turkey’s growing influence with concern is Egypt. The two countries have been at odds since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ‘s coup in 2014. Ankara never recognized Sisi as the legitimate president of Egypt.

“The recent deployment to Libya may increase tensions even further,” said Özkizilcik, but he did not expect a face-off between the two. “A direct confrontation is unlikely as Turkey enjoys legal superiority in Libya and overall military strength.”

On Monday, France and Egypt called for “the greatest restraint” by Libyan as well as international authorities to avoid an escalation of the conflict in Libya, a statement from President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.

Macron held talks late Sunday with his Egyptian counterpart, Sisi, the statement said, and both agreed that warring Libyan powers need to negotiate a political solution under the auspices of the United Nations.

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