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Conflict Developments in North Africa Part II

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

The War Within the War: How a Dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean Could Derail the Peace Process in Libya


By: Anton Witchell Chibber

On 27 November 2019, the Turkish government signed a new maritime deal with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), sparking an escalation of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. In consequence, historical disputes between the region's powers over territorial and economic rights have become inextricably linked with the conflict in Libya. Differences between Egypt and Turkey on this matter, who back separate actors in the Libyan theatre, could have untold consequences for the fragile peace struck between the GNA and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The GNA-Turkey Maritime Agreement

In January 2020, the Turkish Parliament approved the use of military intervention to support the besieged GNA in Tripoli against the advance of General Haftar’s LNA. The Turkish intervention – which included ground troops, drones, and Turkish-backed Syrian National Army fighters – forced Haftar’s forces into a retreat, resulting in a stalemate on the frontlines of Sirte and Jufra.

However, analysts did not miss the coincidental timing between Turkey's security cooperation deal with the GNA and the signing of a new maritime agreement on 27 November 2019. In the deal, the GNA recognised a new maritime boundary, which provides Turkey with jurisdiction and drilling rights over waters rich with reserves of liquid natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was a huge strategic win for Turkish officials, whose earlier maritime boundary delimitation plans with the al-Qadhafi and Mubarak governments fell through as a result of the Arab Spring. Importantly, it feeds into Recep Tayyip Erdogan's wider 'Blue Homeland' (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, which seeks to restore Turkish supremacy to the region. However, with significant dependence on energy imports from countries such as Russia and Iran, which cost Turkey $41 billion last year, the deal can also be perceived as a means to enhance Turkey's energy security.

Greece, Cyprus and Turkey: Old Conflict, New Context

Of course, this has put Turkey in direct confrontation with its neighbours – predominantly as the maritime deal, according to Greece, infringes on their sovereign waters. Much contention rests around the 1983 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allows signatory states to extend their territorial waters for a maximum of 12 nautical miles. However, states can claim a further 200 nautical mile area as their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), wherein they have the right to exploit any resources they find within those delimitations. This includes fishing, mining and drilling rights. However, Turkey has neither signed nor acceded the Convention of Agreement – and as such, does not believe that the maritime corridor agreed with the GNA, which cuts into Greece’s EEZ and continental shelf, is a violation of international law.

Aside from the Turkey-GNA deal, Ankara has argued that only a country’s mainland – and not its islands — can generate a full EEZ of 200 nautical miles. To the chagrin of Greece, Turkey consistently ignores the EEZ zones around Rhodes and Crete and has granted licenses for Turkish Petroleum to drill in their surrounding waters. Much frustration is also generated by the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which sits 580 kilometres from the Greek mainland and 2 kilometres off the Turkish south coast, thus preventing Turkey from legal entry into the northern East Med Basin. Turkey has continued to send research vessels, including the Oruc Ries, to survey potential hydrocarbon exploration deposits within its surrounding waters in an area known as the ‘Kastellorizo Triangle’.

Massive gas deposits found by international firms off the coast of Cyprus have also super-charged tensions between Greece and Turkey, adding a new layer of complexity to historical divisions. Since 1974 – when Turkish forces occupied an enclave to the island's north in response to a Greek-supported coup – Turkey has backed the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRoNC), whilst Greece has backed the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus (RoC). Whilst under international law, the RoC has its own continental shelf and EEZ, since Ankara does not legally recognise the RoC as a state, it has sent vessels to conduct drilling and seismic operations in RoC-claimed waters. By doing so, Turkish officials argue that they are ensuring that the Turkish Cypriots in the north are receiving a fair share of future gas revenue.

Why Does This Matter to Egypt?

Turkey's recent explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean have also cut into a maritime area legally demarcated between the RoC and Egypt in a bilateral EEZ agreement signed in 2003. However, Ankara's actions provoke broader anxieties surrounding Egypt's long-term energy security. For one, Egypt has become the HQ for the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) – a regional cooperation platform which includes Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Italy and Egypt – and aims to establish commercial and economic partnerships in Eastern Mediterranean gas investments. Having recently made substantial natural gas discoveries in the Zohr field in the Eastern Mediterranean, and with plans to develop a major $7-9 billion underwater gas pipeline between Egypt, Cyprus and Crete by 2025, Turkey's deal with the GNA threatens to undermine the EMGF's plans, as the pipeline would have to cross the Turkey-GNA EEZ.

Similarly, Turkey presents a serious obstacle to the EuroAfrica Interconnector – a 2000MW 1396 kilometre subsea HVDC cable ‘electricity highway’ connecting the national electricity grids of Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. Having signed electricity interconnection deals with Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Egypt hopes to become a regional energy hub between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Moreover, with European leaders’ keen to reduce their dependence on Russian gas and to diversify their electrical energy supply, Cairo sees the current moment as a golden opportunity to break into the European energy market.

Left out of EMGF negotiations, the Turkish Foreign Ministry has described the Forum as an ‘anti-Ankara bloc’ and an ‘alliance of evil’, confining Turkey to the narrow corridors of the Aegean and Mediterranean coast. Turkish officials, such as Vice-President Fuat Oktay, have made it clear that ‘Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus cannot be excluded from the energy equation in the region’.

However, Ankara’s actions have only brought Egypt and its Mediterranean allies closer. In 2019, Egypt took part in military exercises held on Crete with Greek and Cypriot forces. On 6 August 2020, Egypt and Greece signed their own EEZ agreement, cutting through the same territory claimed in the Libya-GNA deal – provoking outrage in Ankara. In response, Turkey's surveying activity has increased, as have concerns about military escalation. Both powers have conducted small-scale military exercises in the contested waters of the Aegean. Tensions reached an apex on 12 August when a Greek warship collided with a Turkish naval escort.

How is This Connected to the Conflict in Libya?

On 23 October 2020, a permanent ceasefire was agreed between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), supported by Egypt, and the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey. As the permanent ceasefire has called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters within three months and a freeze on all foreign security agreements, time will tell whether states with vested interests in Libya’s future will agree to the terms.

For Egypt and Turkey, they see each other – and their proxies – as obstacles to their long-term energy security objectives. This could prove to be a sticking point in any peace negotiations in Libya. Up to now, Ankara has stated that it will continue to provide support to Tripoli if the GNA asks for their support – and has affirmed cooperation in education, health, humanitarian aid and counselling; however, Erdogan will want to ensure that any concessions he has gained in agreements with the GNA are not lost. Egypt, on the other hand, alongside beneficiaries of the EMGF and EuroAfrica Interconnector, will be just as determined to make sure that Turkey’s maritime concessions are taken away.

To complicate matters, Turkey and Egypt's differences run much deeper than energy concerns. In Libya, an ideological division is being played out over the place and future of political Islam. For Erdogan, and his AK Party, which has been greatly inspired by the political ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, his regime has established ties to like-minded groups who hold some sway within the Sarraj GNA government – links which Erdogan is keen not to lose. Of course, Egypt’s President al-Sisi, who took power in a coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, still views the organisation as a national security threat. As Egypt shares a 1,115-kilometre border with Libya, the al-Sisi regime fears that a GNA victory could enable Islamic terror groups to stage attacks from Libyan territory into Egypt and destabilise his regime. This makes Haftar a logical bedfellow, who has vowed to eradicate political Islam in Libya.

If the ceasefire breaks down and conflict resumes on Libya’s frontlines, this would risk dragging Egypt further into the conflict. Egyptian officials have stated that the advance of pro-GNA and Turkish forces past Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, or past Jufra airbase in central Libya, would result in their direct military intervention. Yet, relations between Cairo and Ankara remain at a nadir. Earlier this month, Egypt's Foreign Ministry stated that Turkey was not among the countries with which Cairo might cooperate to reach peace in Libya. Even if Libya's rival factions can find a compromise, their backers must find a means to resolve their differences – including in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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About the Author:

Anton Witchell-Chibber is a contributing analyst at Dyami. He has a postgraduate degree in Conflict Studies & Human Rights from Utrecht University and has specialist knowledge on Chinese foreign policy and sectarian conflict in fragile states.

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