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Turkey- Libya Maritime Agreement: A Further Threat to East Mediterranean Stability?

BY Melissa Rossi



Turkey- Libya Maritime Agreement:  A Further Threat to East Mediterranean Stability?

On 8 January 2020 the Foreign Ministers of France, Greece, Egypt and the Republic of Cyprus issued a joint statement in Cairo where they declared ‘null and void’ the Libya-Turkey maritime agreement and called for the ‘full respect of the sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the Mediterranean.’ The Libya-Turkey agreement claims rights over an area of the eastern Mediterranean that overlap the territorial waters of Greece.

To put this into context, in November 2019, the Republic of Turkey signed a maritime deal with the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) under Fayez al-Sarraj, which would extend Turkey’s maritime rights from its southwest coast to the Libyan Derna-Tobruk coast. The agreement further heightens tensions in the region since it does not consider Greece’s internationally recognised territorial waters, proximate to Crete. It is important to note that Turkey has also become a military ally of the GNA and has recently sent a first-wave of paramilitary forces to support Tripoli against the eastern forces of General Khalifa Haftar, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The Libya-Turkey maritime agreement is yet another defiant act by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vis-à-vis its Mediterranean neighbours. Beginning in May 2019, Ankara sent drilling ships into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another sovereign state and European Union (EU) member, namely the Republic of Cyprus, claiming that the contested waters are part of Turkey’s continental shelf, while also declaring that other contested waters around Cyprus are part of the territorial waters of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a republic that no state recognises except Turkey. Currently, the EU has imposed economic sanctions on Turkey for its drilling activities in Cyprus’ EEZ, while Cyprus has petitioned the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to protect its maritime rights.

Tensions have risen sharply between Turkey and neighbouring states in the Eastern Mediterranean since the discovery of large oil and gas reserves over the past decade. As a result, countries such as Egypt, Israel, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus have formed a clique in this new gas and oil regional landscape. The energy potential in the East Mediterranean is indeed tremendous. Cyprus’ Aphrodite gas field, discovered in 2011, has the potential for yielding 129 BCM of natural gas, whereas the potential is the same or even greater in other fields discovered in Israel (Tamar, Leviathan) and Egypt (Zohr).

On 2 January 2020, the leaders of Israel, Cyprus and Greece officially signed an agreement to build an almost 2000 Km East Mediterranean pipeline that would transport gas from Israel and Cyprus, to Greece and ultimately to Italy—bypassing Turkish pipelines. Although the deal is economically costly (estimates revolve around €6 billion euro) its energy generation potential and geopolitical importance are staggering.

By supporting the GNA government, Turkey has also managed to seal a maritime deal that would halt the passage of the East Mediterranean pipeline close to Crete. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the GNA remains under attack by the contesting LNA forces, though a fragile ceasefire has been reached on 12 January 2020. If the GNA does fall, so does Turkey’s maritime deal. Perhaps, President Erdogan has considered this possibility and has chosen all the same to use this situation to exert pressure on his east Mediterranean counterparts, rather than truly investing and believing in the effectiveness of the uncertain maritime deal with Libya. Only time and further unraveling developments in this volatile region will tell.

Melissa Rossi is an EGIC fellow from the Brazilian Naval War College in Rio de Janeiro​