Analysis: Will Turkey's increased role in Libya reduce or inflame conflict?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Greece’s foreign minister flew to Abu Dhabi, Libya, Egypt and Cyprus in the wake of Turkey threatening to send military aid to Tripoli in Libya to aid one side of the country’s civil war. His trip spotlighted a growing competition between Turkey and Qatar on one hand; and Greece, Israel, Egypt and competition over two sides of an eight-year civil conflict in Libya. The rising tensions have growing ramifications for the Mediterranean as Turkey seeks to leverage its success in Syria and S-400 purchases from Russia to conduct a sea-grab off Libya. Russia also wants to capitalize on its October 2019 Syria deal with Turkey to talk about a Libya deal next. This potentially links Idlib, Tel Abyad, and Tripoli to a Russia-Turkey detente that increasingly sees the two countries seeking larger roles in the Middle East.
Now Greece's Nikolaos Dendias is seeking a wider alliance with states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel that either share energy interests or have supported the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. It is now not surprising to see Riyadh making more statements about Cyprus and other countries in the Mediterranean. Russia is also playing a larger role. "It was thanks to our insistence that the organizers retreated from their original plan to convene a meeting without the Libyan parties and invited the Libyan leaders to the conference," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on January 19, he was speaking about Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord Fayez Sarraj and Commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar.
How did we get here?
Until late November the linkage between natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean and simmering Middle East conflicts seemed as two distinct subjects. Since the early 2000s Cyprus, Egypt and Israel worked amicably on demarcating exclusive economic zones and natural gas drilling off their coasts. Turkey pressed ahead with its own desired maritime frontier that asserts claims to a vast area of the Mediterranean it says it should have because the continental shelf underwater extends from Turkey, not neighboring Greek islands. Turkey asserted its claims by sending drilling ships off Cyprus in October to areas where Italy’s Eni would like to explore. Meanwhile Israel is supposed to begin exporting gas to Egypt from two large gas fields in 2020. Turkey’s claims, and those of Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus would severely curtail Cyprus and Greece access to exclusive economic zones.
The Libyan civil war normally wouldn’t impact natural gas exploration since Libya’s warring factions, the Government of the National Accord in Tripoli and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, are busy fighting each other. Turkey, which has been supporting the GNA with drones and armored vehicles, got Tripoli to demarcate a small maritime boundary that legitimizes Ankara’s vast claims between Greece and Cyprus. In exchange Turkey supported expanded military and security cooperation in December. Turkey now has sent not only forces, and Syrian rebels it paid to fight, but also is involved in training Sarraj's fighters. Turkey sought to increase its role at the Berlin summit on Libya in January and to pressure the international community to isolate Haftar.
This has rapidly set in motion a new crises that links most of the countries in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Libya’s Haftar is supported by Russia, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar are key allies of Tripoli. Tripoli would like more support from Washington and European governments. For Greece and Cyprus now, the Turkish moves encourage them to grow closer to Egypt, and by way of Egypt to Haftar. That is why Greece’s foreign minister flew to meet Haftar in Banghazi on Sunday, December 22 and called Turkey’s deal “null.” Turkey has sent drones to Northern Cyprus while Nicosia has courted Jerusalem and Cairo. Israeli military relations with Cyprus have grown recently, including joint exercises. Greek and Turkish media now talk Turkish F-16s heading to Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus. The US is ending an arms embargo for Cyprus, which Ankara calls “escalation.”
The new conflict could accelerate discussions about an East Med pipeline that Israel has pushed alongside an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum which was founded in January with Italy, Greece, Cyprus Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The hurdle for the East Med pipeline was that seemed more talk than reality while Russia and Turkey successfully completed portions of the TurkStream pipeline that will link Russia to eastern Europe via Turkey. A deal was signed on January 2 for the East Med pipeline, despite Turkey’s claims that would cut the pipeline’s route.
What began as a maritime boundary dispute is now a puzzle piece in a much larger conflict over the future of the Middle East. Turkey may expand its military support to Tripoli, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a ceremony Sunday December 22 announcing new Turkish submarine development. This would be a major commitment for Ankara above its role in Syria, Iraq and its bases in Qatar, Somalia and its recent lease of a Sudanese island. It’s part of a major Turkish policy shift. It increases the split between Turkey-Qatar on one side and other Gulf states and Egypt on the other. Greece’s diplomatic movie and expulsion of the GNA Libya ambassador is evidence of the major pushback. Once again, as in Syria, Russia seeks to swoop in and play negotiator in Libya.
The Libya crises has ramifications for north Africa because stability in Libya will anchor more stability in the Sahel where an ISIS affiliate recently killed 71 Niger soldiers. Libya is also a gateway for migration to Europe. The track record for Russia-Turkey brokered deals in Syria has been continuing conflict, as illustrated by the offensive this week in Syria’s Idlib that drove 25,000 from their homes. Turkey’s interests in Tripoli appear to be driven by economics as well as a desire to pushback against Egypt, the UAE, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Turkey’s moves have only driven its adversaries closer together and given an opening for Moscow to play arbiter of another Middle East conflict.