Turkey-Libya energy accord riles Mediterranean waters

Egypt and Greece are calling on Turkey and Libya to scrap an energy exploration agreement that critics say violates exclusive economic zones off the Mediterranean coast.

Shaking hands outside an airplane
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shakes hands with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, upon arrival in Tripoli on October 3, 2022. The two nations signed a memorandum of understanding that includes a controversial provision to jointly explore energy reservoirs in the Mediterranean Sea. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The competition over hydrocarbons pits Mediterranean neighbors against each other
  • Turkey is unlikely to back down, putting it at odds with Egypt and the European Union
  • Russia, whose mercenaries are active in Libya, hopes to capitalize on the tensions

On October 3, Libya and Turkey signed yet another memorandum of understanding (MoU) regarding future bilateral scientific, technical, legal, administrative and trade cooperation on land and sea in the realm of hydrocarbons. Reinforcing this, a group of high-level Turkish officials – including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu – passed through Tripoli.

What the MoU means in Libya

The agreement continues the process that began in November 2019, when Tripoli was under siege with Fayez al-Serraj as prime minister. Today, the Government of National Accord (GNA) no longer exists, and in its place, in March 2021, the Government of National Unity (GNU), chaired by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, took office. Then, with the old MoU, signed under the authority of the GNA, maritime borders between Libya and Turkey in the Mediterranean Sea were defined bilaterally, parallel with security and military cooperation agreements. With the latest signing of the MoU, now by the GNU, those agreements have entered the implementation phase in which Turkey will play a leading role with its fleet of four drilling vessels to search for hydrocarbon deposits.

The new MoU was styled as a “win-win” deal for both administrations by Foreign Minister Cavosoglu. However, other nations were not of the same view, calling the Mediterranean waters exploration agreement illegal and a “threat to regional stability,” according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, backed by his Greek colleague Nikos Dendias.

The European response was not long in coming, via a statement from the European Parliament that the Turkey-Libya maritime deal “must be scrapped as it foresees illegal drilling activities in the exclusive economic zones of other countries, including those of Cyprus and Greece. The text was adopted by 47 votes in favor, nine against with five abstentions.

Due to the current Russian-Ukrainian war, securing energy supplies has never been more vital for Europe and potentially more profitable for Greece, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan,  and of course, Libya and Turkey. Underwater explosive damage to the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, built to transport natural gas from Russia to Europe, has focused attention on the natural gas transported from Libya to Europe via Greenstream. The pipeline has been operative since 2004, covers 520 kilometers at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and can transport 11 billion cubic meters annually. It also could, sooner or later, become the target of terrorist attacks. That is why Italy has pledged to protect the line with its navy.

The oil fields inside Libya are a different discussion. These have already been blocked more than once by Libyan militia groups, such as the Petroleum Facilities Guard in the pay of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar or the hybrid paramilitary Russian Wagner Group. At least since 2019, the Russian group has been present on Libyan territory with its men, also assisting Mr. Haftar.

Political dominance in Libya has been a source of conflict for years between the two regions of Tripolitania, where the newly seated GNU is based, and Cyrenaica, where the remnants of the House of Representatives (HoR) take up headquarters. The HoR is presided over by Aguila Saleh, who recently proposed his own National Stability Government (NSG), headed by former GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.


Facts & figures

The riches of the Mediterranean Sea

Mediterranean energy conflict

International reactions

By signing exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreements with Ankara, Tripoli has increased the area of its maritime control south of Crete by about 16,700 square kilometers, a result not accepted by Athens. It sees its maritime space threatened by Turkish patrols, which the Greeks cannot accept. For its part, Egypt is uncomfortable with this further rapprochement between Libya and Turkey, nor with the Turkish naval presence near its shores.

All this while the United States, and especially Europe, remain essentially silent, maintaining a mostly passive approach. Italy’s stance is particularly surprising. Rome has very little to gain in the face of increasingly entrenched Turkish activity in Tripolitania. Energy company ENI’s presence in Libya and the migratory flows rising after a pause caused by the Covid-19 outbreak make the stakes for Italy high.

Turkey has built a network of 37 military bases across Africa.

Despite the MoU on one hand and the risky choice of Mr. Bashagha on the other, Ankara has not closed the lines of communication with the Cyrenaic side. It maintains high-level relations with Mr. Saleh, as evidenced by his visit last August to Turkey for a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

What about Russia?

The approach to Cyrenaica certainly needs to be analyzed without losing sight of Russian moves on the African chessboard, especially in North Africa, which may overlap with the Turkish actions. Significantly, Turkey has built a network of 37 military bases across Africa. These serve for systematic control of the chessboard and for trade, mainly related to the production of Bayraktar TB2 drones – weapons capable of changing the fate of a conflict, as already happened during the aggressive siege of Tripoli perpetrated by Haftar’s forces (LNA) between 2019 and 2020.

The Turkish drones have contributed significantly to turning back the LNA’s siege. The same drones have already been exported to 24 nations. The technology and export revenues were Russian President Vladimir Putin’s likely target when, during a July 19 meeting in Tehran with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, he reportedly suggested that a Baykar factory be built in Russia.

After numerous protests from the international community against the Wagner Group’s presence in Libya, the Kremlin has lately said it was willing to reopen its embassy in Tripoli , closed since 2013, and its consulate in Benghazi. It appears that negotiations with Mr. Dbeibeh are already underway.

Regarding the Wagner Group, which is operational in half of the African continent, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has always maintained that Wagner is not an arm of Russian foreign and defense/security policy and is in Africa only for commercial reasons. The facts have repeatedly contradicted Mr. Lavrov’s statement.

Russia does not have a Mediterranean fleet like the U.S. Sixth Fleet, and control of bases/ports on the Mediterranean would require substantial investment from the Kremlin. The port of Tartus in Syria is insufficient to support a permanent Russian Mediterranean presence.

The presence of mercenaries, not officially accountable to the Moscow government, leaves broad tactical freedom to the Kremlin, which historically has a much easier time influencing rogue nations than established countries with settled systems of government. Still, an increase in its presence in African territory – not just that facing the Mediterranean – presents a clear threat to Turkey, with which Moscow will need to come to terms sooner or later. At present, however, Moscow does not feel particularly threatened by a Turkey engaged more at sea than on land.

The European Union will continue to support Greece, just as NATO will remain neutral in the face of its members’ conflicting positions regarding the exclusive economic zones.

Significantly, the relations between the two countries, difficult during the war in Syria between 2014 and 2015, have evolved in the face of problems with Europe and NATO and the possibility of future projects related to energy production. Lately, President Erdogan has also made some deft moves concerning the Ukrainian crisis. He enforced the provisions of the Montreux Convention in regulating the entry of Russian warships into the Black Sea and mediated successfully, more than once, with Mr. Putin to ease the grain blockade.

Returning to Russia: its presence in the Mediterranean benefits from improved relations with several countries in the region. It is Egypt and Cyprus, where 20 percent of the population of its financial center Limassol is Russian and whose direct investments are worth 97 billion euros, or more than four times the island’s gross domestic product. And it is Greece, off whose coast Russian oil tankers continue to pass. Beyond that, of course, there is another target, perhaps the one in which Russia has succeeded best: exacerbating divisions within the Mediterranean and exploiting the contentious EEZ issues.



Turkey abandons the MoU

Though it is an impractical scenario at the moment, such a step would go a long way toward relaxing the Mediterranean atmosphere and favor Turkey itself, giving it status as a peacemaker (which is the last thing Russia wants).

Turkey continues on its path

This is the most realistic scenario, as no legal solutions appear now, given the involved parties’ unwillingness to negotiate. What is certain is that the European Union will continue to support Greece, just as NATO will remain neutral in the face of its members’ conflicting positions regarding the EEZs. Egypt will likely react in the face of Turkish assertiveness in exploring Mediterranean waters. Subsequently, Russia would take advantage of this tension to further extend its influence in Africa, especially on its Mediterranean coast. Turkey will also not hesitate to use its diplomatic role in the current Ukrainian crisis to make demands in the Mediterranean, hoping for restrained reactions from neighboring nations to Turkey’s hydrocarbon ambitions in the sea.

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