by Seth Frantzman*
One of the governments in Libya controls only a small percentage of the country and the capital of Tripoli, but in need of Turkish support it signed a bizarre deal with Ankara over who controls the Mediterranean. Turkey says the deal that it signed is historic and that it has “proven its capabilities to the world in a manner that is compatible with international law but also signaled its future intentions in the region.” Greece is outraged, threatening to take the dispute to international bodies and complain to NATO. It has larger ramifications also for Egypt, Cyprus and Israel as Turkey seeks a vast swath of sea to control as an economic zone.
Turkey met with Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Presidential Council of Libya’s Government of the National Accord in Tripoli. Sarraj was in Istanbul, but it is understood that his weak government has been in discussions with Turkey for some time about an agreement that would give Turkey access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean. Turkey’s Daily Sabah says this deal is “mutually beneficial.”
Turkey is seeking regional power not seen since the Ottoman Empire more than 100 years ago.
The real story is buried in the report. Turkey is trying to assert itself across the swath of Iraq, Syria and now all the way to Libya, with its eyes set on having power not seen since the Ottoman Empire more than 100 years ago. The reports claim that Turkey now sees its control of the Mediterranean from the “three-dimensional viewpoint” and this “maximizes the country’s maritime boundaries and shows that Turkey’s border districts of Marmaris, Fethiye and Kas are actually neighbors with Libya’s Derna, Tobruk and Bardiya districts.”
Turkey calls this the “blue motherland,” or “Mavi Vatan” in Turkish. It has launched major naval exercises in the last year to show off its power. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has referred to this “motherland” as the 462,000 square kilometer area from the Black Sea to Aegean. Turkey openly says in its media, which is all pro-government, that it is deploying naval assets as a “show of force” and that it is angered by drilling being conducted by other states. In short, it will begin more drilling and more pushing out its boundaries. Future deals are in the cards.
The Mediterranean policy is part of increased pressure on Cyprus that Turkey has brought and also Ankara’s view of the Tripoli government of Libya as a key part of its agenda. For instance Fahrettin Altun, the communications director for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tweeted that “security and military cooperation” is a key part of support for one of Libya’s governments.
Libya has been in a civil war since 2011. In the last year the forces of Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt and the UAE, have been laying siege to Sarraj’s government. The deal Sarraj signed potentially gives Turkey rights to areas off the coast of Libya that the Sarraj government doesn’t even control. Yet the Sarraj government has gone to Turkey as the “UN-backed” government of Libya because even though it controls a minority of the country, it has worked with the UN and tends to receive official discussions from Western powers. Turkey has supplied drones and military vehicles to the Tripoli government. The country is seen as a proxy war between Turkey and Egypt as well as the Gulf countries. Turkey opposes Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, who was pushed out of office in 2013. Libya is “ground zero” for this proxy fight of drones and other hardware.
Now it is revealed that the drones and other support were part of a much larger Turkish goal. Turkey wants the economic access and strategic corridor linking its coastline to Libya. This is no small amount of water because it bypasses Cyprus and Greece across 800 km. of open water to an area of Libya controlled by Haftar’s forces. In essence, Turkey swept in to strong-arm Libya’s government because the government is weak and Turkey knows that the government can sign away areas it doesn’t even control, while Haftar won’t recognize the deal anyway.
This is Turkey’s strategy everywhere. Give the world a fait accompli, whether by bombing in northern Iraq, invading Syria or sending troops to Qatar in 2017. Turkey is expanding every day and threatening other countries, whether insulting France or comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, as it did at the UN. For Turkey, there is no restraint, but the country also works quietly behind the scenes to engineer things like this Mediterranean deal. The deal has major ramifications also for discussions between Israel, Greece, Italy and Cyprus, and also any discussions of an EastMed pipeline. Turkey is throwing down a gauntlet over the pipeline concept, saying in essence: “No, we control this area between Turkey and Libya, and we now cut the Mediterranean in half.”
Greece will ask NATO members to support Athens in the dispute now. This sets up a larger problem in the seas of Cyprus. Kyriakos Mitsotakis says NATO must not remain indifferent to this violation of international law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said that Turkey had not signed a Law of the Sea with respect to the recent claims and that the current deal with Libya would be frowned upon by other signatories. Greece hopes that Libya’s decision will not be approved by Libya’s parliament and that Greece had demanded the details of the agreement or it would expel Turkey’s ambassador.
Greece is now also working with Egypt to delineate its own exclusive economic zones. There are larger games afoot. Italy, which was once the colonial power of Libya after the 1911 war with the Ottomans, may look askance at the deal. Libya’s Haftar government in the east of the country does not accept the deal. The US has been seeking a peace deal quietly in Libya and the Russians are also involved in Libya.
Turkey has other cards to play. Every time NATO or the EU or anyone pressures Turkey, Ankara will threaten to “flood” Europe with refugees and migrants. Turkey threatened European countries against critiquing its invasion of Syria in October and most European countries have toed the line. Turkey has also sought to use its power in NATO to veto plans for the Baltics in return for NATO support for its Syria operations. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has appeared to support Turkey’s role in Syria and praised Turkey’s spending in NATO. That means Greece has an uphill struggle. It is on the front line with refugees coming from Turkey. Greece has announced new, tougher policies on refugees; the last thing it wants is another million people coming from Turkey.
Turkey’s model in the region is to exploit weak states.
Turkey has learned that in dealing with the US, Europe or NATO and the UN that the way to get things done is to act first, and that in all likelihood, it will get support and respect after. The UN has gone to Turkey to study plans for occupation of northern Syria. The US is studying Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s from Russia. Turkey has sought to drill off Cyprus, claiming that Northern Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in the 1970s, can give it rights to do so. Cyprus rejected the idea, but Turkey moved forward anyway in October. The US critiqued Turkey, but words are less important than drilling rigs. Turkey knows how the international community works: if you are the first to drill and build facts on the ground, as China did in the South China Sea, then you will eventually get what you want.
Turkey’s model in the Mediterranean is to exploit either weak states like Libya or unrecognized states like Northern Cyprus, to move forward. It does the same thing in Iraq and Syria. With its new S-400s, it may be able to wrangle a deal with Moscow over Libya. Greece, US and other countries will have to do something if they really care.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.