22 January 2020

Turkey, Libya and ... the Mediterranean illusion!

Claudiu Nebunu

Turkey complicated Mediterranean Sea’s strategic equation by signing, at the end of November 2019, the maritime boundary and military cooperation agreements with Tripoli/Libya’s government. Through the maritime borders’ delimitation with the Administration internationally recognized by Tripoli and the commitment in a new bilateral military cooperation format, Ankara is obviously out of the regional isolation and got a stronger juridical position to oppose limits Greece established with Cyprus and Egypt, which is important for the commitments on natural gases exploitation development from East Mediterranean Sea. What’s Turkey’s intention and which are the challenges of such a stance?

Image source: Mediafax

On what is happening...

At the end of November last year (concretely November 27th), Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Fayez al-Sarraj, who leads the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, signed two Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the “Restriction on Marine Jurisdiction” and “Security and military cooperation”. Ankara constantly increased its military support for Tripoli against its rival, the government based in Tobruk, supported by the Libyan National Army, which has military support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia. As retaliation to these agreements, the LNA commander, Marshal Khalifa Harfar, has intensified attacks on Tripoli to overthrow the government, determining the Sarraj Administration to activate its military agreement with Ankara. In the meantime, Egypt promised to stop any foreign power from controlling Libya, due to national security reasons.

Ankara thinks the maritime boundary agreement signed with the UN recognized Administration from Tripoli gives it the legal position to oppose the maritime limits of the region, which are included in Greece’s cooperation with Egypt and Cyprus. According to Ankara, following the impartiality principles of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the jurisprudence it is based on, Turkey has the right to have a larger maritime area thanks to its large number of maritime shores.

Also, the new Ankara-Tripoli agreement maximizes the maritime area for Turkey, denying any claim by Greek islands for an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which offers sovereign rights over energy resources it contains. The agreement, already ratified by the Turkish Parliament, establishes a maritime border between Turkey and Libya. It divides the entire maritime area exclusively between the two countries, an area that stretches from Turkey’s Mugla coastal province to eastern Derna and Butnan districts of Libya on the opposite coast, currently not controlled by GNA.

The boundary is seen as excessive, as it ignores the Crete Island in Greece, which lies between these coasts. Article 121 of UNCLOS stipulates that shores of the islands generate continental shelf and EEZ, like any coastal terrestrial formation, except those that "cannot support human habitation or economic life of their own." But Crete, with a population of about 650,000, is entitled to an EEZ, where Greece plans to explore offshore oil and gas, in the southern part.

Turkey's concern to declare and expand its maritime border with Libya wants to pressure the international community and its eastern Mediterranean neighbours to consider a fair solution for region's maritime borders and for the development and commercialization of its energy resources. Apart from maritime borders, Ankara's arguments are related to Turkey’s exclusion from the gas sale in Eastern Mediterranean and the exclusion of Turkish Cypriots from Northern Cyprus from developing offshore natural gas of Cyprus, despite the constitutional co-ownership of country's resources.

Ankara had limited abilities to defend these interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, due to a group composed of Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel. This grouping of the current natural gas producers in the region has created a set of interconnected security partnerships, supported by US, France and Italy, each of these countries having significant economic investments in East-Mediterranean gas. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and UAE, Turkey's regional rivals, have deepened their strategic relations on this group, as part of the wider geopolitical competition with Ankara, which includes UAE and Egypt's military support for Libya's LNA.

Turkey sent four exploration and drilling vessels, along with their naval escorts, to Eastern Mediterranean waters, but this initiative only strengthened the Western and Gulf support for Turkey's rivals. The EU adopted a mechanism for sanctioning people and entities involved in Turkish drilling operations off Cypriot waters, and France and Italy conducted naval exercises with Cyprus. The United States has deepened its defence relationship with Greece and plans to raise the arms embargo against Cyprus by 2020.

Ataturk’s memory back in people’s minds...

After the complicated elimination process of the "terror corridor" and securing the southern borders with Syria through the military operations "Euphrates Shield", "Olive branch" and "Peace spring", Turkey seems to continue the worrying actions series towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East status-quo. The memorandums of understanding on security arrangements and restriction of maritime jurisdiction areas signed with Libya, in November last year, were followed by actions related to the Qatar-Cyprus North Libya, in December. The developments seem to be a set of reminiscences of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's famous observation, made within the Sakarya battle against the Greeks (August 23-September 13, 1921, in the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922, also called the Asia Minor War).  According to him, "there is no defending a line, but rather a whole area", an idea which leads to the highlight of an extensive defence Turkish zone, from Qatar to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, through the centre of Cyprus.

The effects of Atatürk’s statement increase the motivation and urgency of Turkey to to expand the geopolitical defence zone, in particular to counteract global confrontations’ effects reaching significant proportions on all fronts. This geopolitical zone is limited on one side by the Mediterranean shield, which covers the west and south of Crete, and at the other by Headquarters of the Turkish-Qatar Joint Force Command, which covers the Hormuz Strait of the Persian Gulf, which is important to the entire world, especially for energy markets. At the southern tip of this area, there is the Turkish-Somali Force Command in Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, on Indian Ocean’s coast.

After the MoU officially designated Libya and Turkey as maritime neighbours, headquarters of the Qatar Command ("Khalid Ibn Walid") was inaugurated on December 14th. These actions were followed by another move linking the most sensitive part of Qatar bridge to Libya: the deployment, on December 16, of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs / drones) from Dalaman Air Naval Base (Southwest of Turkey), at the Geçitkale airport from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (RTCN). The drones deployment, produced in Turkey (Bayraktar TB2), not only had a strong impact on the Cyprus, but has bothered the entire international community closely following developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. As soon as they arrived in RTCN, the Turkish drones also performed the first missions in the region, not only to protect Turkish vessels conducting drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also to retaliate the Greek F-16 aircraft flights, which took off from Crete and breached the RTCN airspace near Akincilar village, on October 17th. During the same days, Greece continued to show its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, by participating with F-16 aircraft in the "Atsalino Velos Exercise", organized by the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus, the first of its kind in the last 20 years.

Relations between Turkey and Libya’s recognized government are not only related to maritime boundaries restriction. With the adoption of these memoranda, several the cooperation between the two countries has many other phases. One of these is the establishment of a joint defence and security cooperation office in Turkey and Libya. Also, the goal is to increase the cooperation between countries’ armed forces, by exchanging personnel, materials, equipment, consultancy, technical knowledge and experience. As their property remains Turkey, there will be an allotment of land, sea and air vehicles, equipment, weapons, as well as buildings and land (training bases). Also, at the invitation of the receiving side, military planning activities, exchanges of experience, training and education will be organized in fields related to land, maritime and air activities of two countries’ armed forces.

These developments seem to be enough to reveal the new steps that Turkey wants to make in the geopolitical defence zone it has extended from the Persian Gulf to the middle of Mediterranean Sea.

Some observations on MoU’s legitimacy

Local and regional actors have expressed their concern on the Turkish-Libyan MoU, particularly on the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. For a better insight of it, some observations are required:

  • General, on the agreement:
  1. the agreement defines continental shelf’s limits and the exclusive Turkish and Libyan economic zones of the Mediterranean, without considering Greece and Cyprus’s sovereign rights over these waters;
  2. Article 4 of the Agreement provides that Libya and Turkey shall be entitled to some of the natural resources of the mutual EEZ, if they have agreed on the joint exploitation of those resources. It is noteworthy that the agreement allows Turkey to carry out direct military intervention in Libya’s waters, linked with the other MoU on military cooperation that these countries have signed concurrently with the maritime agreement;
  3. Turkey has exploited the situation in Libya to convince GNA to issue claims on Greek waters in the Mediterranean through the maritime agreement. Furthermore, Article 5 of the Agreement provides that either side may propose revisions or amendments to this Agreement, except Articles 1 and 2. Therefore, Turkey can make sure that GNA complies with Agreement’s provisions and does not seek to denounce it in future.
  • On the international right:

1. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the main legislation governing the maritime area of ​​a country. In Article 56, the Convention establishes the EEZ depth at a maximum of 200 nautical miles, an area wherein a coastal state has unique sovereign economic rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage natural resources.

2. Following the international law, maritime boundaries cannot be defined unilaterally by a coastal state, because the positions and views of other states sharing a maritime border with that state must also be considered. These provisions’ final purpose is to prevent international conflicts between states regarding the delimitation of maritime borders. Article 74 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that the delimitation of maritime boundaries must be made on the basis of international to get a fair solution. In addition, Article 121 clearly states that islands have the legal right to an EEZ. International law also provides that signing land and maritime border agreements is a matter of national sovereignty and that such agreement cannot be concluded if either of the States Parties is experiencing a period of war, internal armed conflict or exceptional internal circumstances, except for natural disasters.

Therefore, the Turkey-Libya agreement on maritime borders’ restriction clearly breaks several principles of public and maritime international law:

• The House of Representatives of Libya (Tobruk Parliament), as a structure with constitutional authority to approve such agreements, denied the agreement. Aguila Saleh, the President of the House, sent a letter to UN’s Secretary-General, stating that the agreement was rejected and considered null by the House;

• the Sarraj government is not authorized to conclude such an agreement, as Libya and Turkey do not have a common geographical border, given that the Greek island of Crete is a natural geographical obstacle between the two countries;

• Libya is not allowed to sign the agreement following the international law, which bans states from entering such agreements if they face exceptional or emergency circumstances, in particular war or internal armed conflict;

• The Sarrraj government did not coordinate with Cairo before signing the agreement with Turkey. This violates international maritime law because there is a contiguous maritime border between Egypt and Libya, on one hand, and a maritime border between Turkey and Egypt, on the other;

• Although Turkey has not acceded the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the provisions apply to all states, including Turkey.

Despite the fact that the agreement between Turkey and the GNA clearly violates international law, including principles and objectives of UN Charter, Turkey nevertheless requested that the memorandum be registered with the UN secretariat. This international institution replied that registering international agreements is a formality that does not prevent other concerned states (Egypt, Cyprus and Greece, in this case) from making political and legal objections before UN in order to defend their rights economic sovereigns over their exclusive economic zones, in this case in the Mediterranean.


The Turkish-Libyan agreement implementation on the delimitation of EEZ in the Mediterranean could affect the entire region. First of all, it has legal effects for the Libyan state, if the Sarraj government collapses. Turkey managed to get the agreement signed by GNA. But while the Sarraj government enjoys international legal personality on behalf of the Libyan state, it will also be responsible internationally for any compensation due, regardless of whether the Libyan parliament has approved the agreement.

Secondly, direct or indirect military confrontations may take place in the Mediterranean. Egypt and Russia conducted joint naval exercises in the first week of December, followed by ten days of joint Turkish-American naval exercises off the western coast of Cyprus, which coincided with Israeli and Russian-Syrian exercises. The "simultaneity" of these exercises and the concerns triggered by signing agreements reveal the magnitude of such divergences between states, especially those related to gas resources exploitation. In the second week of December, Turkey sent a fourth exploration vessel to the waters near the Cypriot coast, and Erdoğan announced its intention on not recalling any of these vessels, despite protests in Europe. As a result, the likelihood of a maritime conflict between Turkey, on one hand, and Greece and Egypt, on the other, besides that of a land conflict if Turkey dislocates forces on Libyan territory, along the agreement of military cooperation signed with the Sarraj government.

Possible developments

  1. A repealed maritime agreement following legal actions: In such scenario, Greece and Cyprus (especially Greece, which is severely affected) are requested by UN General Assembly to send the maritime agreement between Turkey and GAN to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion in terms of the international law and case law. This scenario would be determined by regional and international efforts, mobilized through UN, to cancel the agreement, thus reducing Turkey's role in Libya. However, there are many obstacles here, the most important being that it would take time for the International Court of Justice to present its advisory opinion, and some countries will try to block this result.
  2. GNA collapse: LNA manages to mobilize international and regional support to overthrow GNA, after Libya withdraws from the agreement, because the Sarraj government did not have the authority to sign such an agreement and the Libyan parliament refused to approve it. Turkey may also seek compensation from Libya in this case, following the principles of international responsibility, given that the Sarraj government has been internationally recognized. This scenario will have effects on the conflict between LNA and GNA forces.
  3. The agreement remains in force (most likely scenario): Turkey continues to use it both in relations with the countries of eastern Mediterranean (Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel) and as a negotiating tool in negotiations with EU on various issues. The maritime agreement is part of Turkey's de facto force policy. Erdogan is trying to use it as a tool to pressure other countries in eastern Mediterranean, disrupting existing cooperation agreements for the exploitation of oil and gas resources and for the construction of the gas pipeline that will pass through Crete to Europe. Also, the Turkish president is using the issue as a lever for migration to EU and to threat Egypt's national security at the western border.

Time will show if Ankara will actually implement Ataturk's idea of ​​defending an area in coordinates set by current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan...

Translated by Andreea Soare