December 10, 2019 | Policy Brief

Turkey-Libya Maritime Border Deal Escalates Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

December 10, 2019 | Policy Brief

Turkey-Libya Maritime Border Deal Escalates Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey signed an agreement with Libya on November 27 in an attempt to redraw maritime boundaries in the volatile eastern Mediterranean. Signed just ahead of last week’s tense NATO summit in London, the Turkey-Libya deal will fuel further tensions by threatening Greek, Cypriot, and Egyptian control of their territorial waters.

Ankara signed the November 27 agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli. The deal seeks to create a maritime corridor between the two countries, stretching from southwest Turkey to northeast Libya. This corridor would cut through a zone currently claimed by Greece and Cyprus, which are planning a future gas pipeline connecting eastern Mediterranean gas fields to markets in Europe – a project that would help the continent reduce dependency on Russian gas. Ankara’s attempt to dictate new boundaries directly challenges the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece.

The Turkish government’s provocative step drew immediate condemnation from Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece, which have all previously accused Turkey of expanding its territorial claims in the Mediterranean to exploit energy resources. Greece expelled the Libyan ambassador and called for sanctions, while the European Union’s foreign policy chief stated that the agreement is “problematic” and “poses major concerns.” Similarly, the U.S. ambassador to Greece warned that Turkey’s move is “detracting from the situation of stability that the United States has sought to encourage.” Even Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, criticized the deal, as its deputy leader cautioned that Ankara “needs to prioritize diplomacy instead of brute force and break out of its isolation.”

Against mounting criticism, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson defended the agreement, saying it adhered to “international jurisprudence and international law including the relevant articles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” though the intended boundaries blatantly ignore Cypriot, Greek, and Egyptian territorial rights.

Tensions among Ankara, Athens, and Nicosia were already high due to Turkey’s exploration and drilling for gas within Cypriot territorial waters. Since a 1974 coup attempt led by Greek army officers, Turkey has occupied the northern part of the island, where Turkish Cypriots maintain a self-proclaimed independent state recognized only by Ankara. After the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus discovered natural gas within its EEZ, Turkey has repeatedly attempted to drill in Cypriot territorial waters. The Turkish government claims its drilling is necessary to ensure equal shares for Turkish Cypriots in gas revenues, but its incursions into Cypriot and Greek waters have escalated tensions with Athens and Nicosia, forced the European Union to consider imposing sanctions, and left Ankara with few allies in the region.

Last week’s Turkey-GNA deal addressed matters beyond territorial waters. Ankara also announced the two had signed a security and military cooperation agreement during their meeting, which may be Tripoli’s main incentive to go along with Turkey’s aggressive scheme. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Monday that he might deploy Turkish troops to Libya “[t]he moment there is such an invitation from the Libyan people and administration.”

The GNA’s rival government in Libya’s eastern city of Tobruk criticized the deal for granting the Turkish government the rights to use Libyan airspace and waters and to build military bases within Libya, labeling the agreement a “flagrant breach” of Libya’s security. Ankara has previously provided the GNA military assistance in its fight against the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, which receives backing from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Last Monday, these three countries revealed plans to withdraw recognition from the GNA and its Presidential Council.

While Erdogan’s controversial redrawing of maritime boundaries may bolster his nationalist credentials at home, the move will further isolate Turkey abroad. The Turkish president’s move will exacerbate tensions in an already turbulent region and undercut U.S. and European attempts at stabilization. In response, Washington should continue to promote cooperation based on international law, while reminding Erdogan that his attempted fait accompli may hurt not only Turkey but also its partners in Libya by delegitimizing them further.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Aykan and CMPP, subscribe HERE. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Arab Politics Egypt Libya Military and Political Power Turkey