Why the Turkey-Libya deal is a geopolitical gambit in East Med

Why the Turkey-Libya deal is a geopolitical gambit in East Med

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On the occasion of the Turkey-Libya Agreement, natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and the allocation of these resources are once again on the political agenda.

BY CENK KAAN SALIHOĞLU, Daily Sabah

It is open to any country to conclude bilateral and multilateral agreements, provided that their scope does not violate or at least affect the international and national law of third-party countries. The agreement signed by the Turkish government and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) backed by the United Nations aims for military and security cooperation and the demarcation of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of both states in the common waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. The rights of other states are not violated in the process. This agreement is merely a bilateral matter and not a general concern of the international community of states. Nevertheless, criticism is being voiced.

In particular, it is stated that Turkey and Libya do not have common waters or at least are not neighboring states and that an agreement is therefore ineffective. Above all, the criticism comes primarily from Greece and its regional energy and security policy allies, Greek Cyprus and Israel, but also from the European Union.

However, at the macro level, the criticism is not wondrous. The aforementioned states are planning an offshore pipeline called EastMed, which is planned to transport the natural gas from the Levante basin via Greek Cyprus, Crete and the Peloponnese to Italy and from there to Europe by 2025. It is, therefore, not surprising that the EU is interested in this project as well and has, therefore, pledged almost 35 million euros (TL 254.7 million) in funding. The underlying reason, in fact, is the geographic proximity of the Levante basin to the EU sales market and a potentially increasing European independence from Russian natural gas – which the U.S. also advocates and therefore supports the project.

The disputed concern

The problem, however, is that the EastMed pipeline is supposed to pass through a disputed sea area, which, according to the so-called “Map of Seville” drawn up at the University of Seville on behalf of the EU in the early 2000s, was granted exclusively to Greece and Greek Cyprus as an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The entire island territory, including the Turkish north, was merely assigned to the Greek Cypriot government. However, this is contradicted by the fact that on the one hand, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is de facto independent of the south and on the other hand, that the demarcation of the sea is reprehensible under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Due to Article 57 of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, states are allowed to declare the sea area up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline of the mainland as their own EEZ at the unilateral, bilateral and multilateral level, whereby the size of the state territory is decisive for the extent of the EEZ in the case of a competing demarcation. The concepts of the mainland and the size of the state territory are crucial in this context. The Greek islands of Crete, Karpathos, Rhodes and Castellorizo, which lie along the EastMed route, have been attributed up to 200 nautical miles of EEZ in the “Map of Seville,” although the latter is among the smallest islands in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the sea area of Turkey was limited to the coastal waters only.

Thus, it was possible to assign the entire sea area west of Cyprus to Greece and to secure the route of the offshore pipeline. Yet, it is undisputed that Turkey is entitled to this area under maritime law due to the size of the Anatolian mainland and its extensive coast of 1,600 kilometeres (about 994 miles) along the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

With the agreement between Turkey and Libya, therefore, the proportional allocation in the westernmost part of the disputed sea area was officially implemented in accordance with maritime law. The size of the countries and their geographical proximity to one other are the main reasons for conformity.

In this respect, no direct neighborhood is necessary for sea delimitation. What is questionable about Greece’s criticism to this effect is why the allied and favorite South Cyprus concluded such an agreement with Egypt in 2003, when the neighborhood criterion was decisive. The distance from southern Cyprus to Egypt is not much greater than that between Turkey and Libya. Nevertheless, from now on, the agreement will not allow Turkey to be excluded from the EastMed project and from the East Med Gas Forum as its umbrella organization which aims to increase regional energy cooperation without Turkey.

Anyway, the main argument in favor of cooperation between the trilateral alliance and Turkey could be the use of the existing network of the so-called Trans Anatolian Pipeline to Europe and hence the associated cost reduction in the implementation of the $8 billion project. However, Turkey’s poor diplomatic relations with the putschist regime in Cairo and the Greek Cypriot government, due to its irreconcilable stance in the Cyprus conflict, and with Israel, due to the Mavi Marmara attack in 2010 as well as its expansive settlement policy, have so far stood in the way of this.

Moreover, the presumption of Greece and the EU on the status of the dispossessed islands in the Aegean and on the refugee issue cannot be ignored in this context. Yet, due to the maritime delimitation within the framework of the agreement, political and economic consultation on the EastMed project is indispensable from now on. Against this background, it is clear that behind the criticism of the above-mentioned agreement is ultimately the disappointment about Turkey’s geopolitical gambit in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s regional rights

Does Turkey have a fundamental right to participate in the EastMed? The answer is clearly yes. The reason for this is quite plausible. Turkey is exploring for natural gas in its EEZ west of Cyprus. However, this overlaps with the self-proclaimed exclusive economic zone of southern Cyprus in the southwest of the island, which South Nicosia claims for itself and has therefore commissioned large energy companies for exploration.

Notwithstanding, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, this sea area up to the medial Egyptian maritime border is exclusively entitled to Turkey. Furthermore, the Republic of Cyprus refuses to share the discovered natural gas reserves in its waters in the south with the constitutionally (but not yet politically) equated Cypriot Turks, who are guaranteed by Turkey. With the Turkey-Libya Agreement, the Turkish government has obtained a legal basis for enforcing a fair allocation of resources and the termination of illegitimate licensing of southern Cyprus to energy companies. The same applies to Athens’ expansion policy, which had claimed the Turkish sea area southeast of Crete, which is particularly rich in raw materials, and the Libyan waters in northern Africa in the wake of the civil war following the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011.

With the signed agreement, Greece’s illegal maritime policy was inhibited. As a consequence, Greece deported the Libyan ambassador as persona non grata and the Greek foreign minister traveled to Libya to meet putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar who is attempting to gain authoritarian control over the whole of Libya and is therefore not recognized by the U.N.

With the Turkey-Libya agreement, which also provides for military cooperation with the U.N.-backed Libyan government under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to end the civil war in Libya and thus contributes to averting international terrorism, the Turkish government succeeded in making a foreign and security policy move in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Furthermore, with the approval of the Council of Ministers in North Cyprus, it has stationed unmanned aircraft at Geçitkale Airport in TRNC to accompany its natural gas drilling ships in their activities around the country. This was preceded, among others, by the fact that Greek Cyprus had threatened Turkey with arresting the crews of its drillships around Cyprus and its government had beforehand granted permission to the United States, Israel and France to set up a military base in the south of the island, thus paving the way for the militarization of Cyprus which poses a threat to the national security of Turkey and is hence an open provocation.

The fact that these aforementioned steps were taken shortly after the necessary Operation Peace Spring in Syria at the end of 2019 is remarkable and underlines Turkey’s determination to defend its own national interests and rights in the Eastern Mediterranean as part of its increasingly proactive foreign and security policy.

*Doing master’s thesis on the geopolitical and economic facets of the EastMed Pipeline project at Friedrich Alexander University (FAU) in Erlangen


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