Turkey’s two-pronged gambit in Libya
Turkey appears to be playing a high-risk game that encompasses both Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The key step was Turkey’s skillful grabbing of the opportunity to sign two important agreements with the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). One was the delineation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between Turkey and Libya. Ankara justified this act under the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which authorizes states with opposite or adjacent coastlines to delineate their EEZs. Using this right, Turkey and Libya on Nov. 27 last year signed an agreement to do just that, allowing them to establish a corridor between their maritime jurisdiction areas.
This bilateral agreement clashes with the basic parameters of the previously agreed EEZs between Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel. Their partition doesn’t give Turkey any EEZ except its territorial waters, even though it has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the Libyan-Turkish partition, Egypt and Israel would be entitled to gain additional EEZs from Cyprus.
When Israel did not join the five countries — Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France and the UAE — to sign a communique criticizing Turkey’s attitude, Ankara perceived this as a signal that Tel Aviv was eager to sign a separate agreement to delineate its EEZ. Israel denied this and said an agreement with Turkey was not on its agenda, adding that it did not sign the communique because it was not part of such a joint action. However, it pointed out that it would be pleased to see its relations with Turkey normalized.
Meanwhile, the corridor established by the Turkish-Libyan deal could impede the implementation of a pipeline project that was supposed to carry Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
The second agreement concerned military cooperation between Turkey and the GNA. This agreement was to save the latter from possible collapse. In fact, when Turkey started sending military equipment and advisers to Libya in line with this agreement, the military balance on the ground started to shift in the GNA’s favor. Turkey’s drones have proved to be particularly effective.
Turkey’s military assistance became like a lifejacket for the moribund GNA and the tide is now turning.
One of the reasons for Turkey’s support of the GNA is that its Tripoli parliament is composed mainly of Muslim Brotherhood-inclined members. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has been strongly inspired by the Brotherhood’s practices, so there is strong solidarity between it and the Tripoli government.
Khalifa Haftar’s Libya National Army, which is supported by the likes of Egypt, Russia and France, had been steadily moving toward Tripoli since April last year. But, following the arrival of Turkish military personnel and equipment, Haftar’s advance slowed and eventually stopped.
Alarmed by this move, France in March persuaded the European Council to organize a naval operation in the Mediterranean, dubbed Operation Irini, which aimed to stop Turkey’s arms supply.
Despite Haftar’s efforts, Turkish-supported GNA forces seized the strategically important Al-Watiya air base south of Tripoli on May 18. Turkey’s military assistance became like a lifejacket for the moribund GNA and the tide is now turning to its advantage.
Turkey is sending armed Syrian opposition fighters, who are cornered in Idlib, to Libya. Thus, it is offering them an exit from the swamp where they are bogged down, while also using them to help ensure Turkey’s interests prevail in Libya.
Turkey’s military arrangement with Libya may also provide it with other benefits if the crisis is resolved the way it prefers — such as having a bigger say in the country’s future, a share of the country’s oil benefits, and allowing Turkish companies to gain more reconstruction contracts in post-crisis Libya.
The Libyan chessboard is less complicated than Syria as there are fewer foreign actors operating in the country. Unlike in Syria, Turkey caught a favorable wind by siding with the GNA, but this does not mean that success is guaranteed as it is still slippery ground. The flip side is that Turkey is siding with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has little support around the world.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar