Turkey’s move in the last week of November to establish a new EEZ for trade with Libya is a late and direct response to its exclusion from the Cairo-based Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, a regional energy structure that includes Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus and aims to dominate gas production in the East Mediterranean. The Ankara-Tripoli agreement will significantly escalate the situation in Libya and move the EU further from Turkey.
The 2015 Zohr gas field discovery by the Italian giant Eni made Egypt develop a strategic objective to use its existing liquified natural gas (LNG) plants to transform Cairo into a regional hub for gas exports from East Mediterranean to Europe. The Zohr field doubled Egypt’s gas reserves and encouraged Cairo to start talks with Cyprus and Greece to use Egypt as an export gas hub for Europe.
The problem emerged from the Turkish contradiction over the Exclusive Economic Zones in East Mediterranean. In particular, while Turkey does not recognize the internationally accepted EEZ for the Greek Aegean islands, it does recognize the Cyprus EZZ, which benefits the internationally unrecognized Turkish-Cypriot state, along with the Greek Cyprus—the legal guardian of the entire island.
Turkey acted aggressively to prevent any drilling activities near the coast of Northern Cyprus that do not come with a profit-sharing agreement. In 2018, the Turkish navy blocked Eni’s drilling ships from exploring for gas across the Cyprus coast, a move that made the East Mediterranean powers—indeed including Israel—more anxious about Turkey. As a result, these countries started changing the geopolitics of East Mediterranean by re-drawing their maritime borders and taking Egypt up on its offer to export the gas to Europe using Egypt’s LNG facilities.
Feeling isolated in a hostile region, Turkey’s leadership had to act quickly to ensure a seat at the table for future negotiations over gas in the Mediterranean.
Feeling isolated in a hostile region, Turkey’s leadership had to act quickly to ensure a seat at the table for future negotiations over gas in the Mediterranean. Turkey has always looked at the embattled Tripoli-based government as its needed-Mediterranean ally. However, Prime Minister Al-Sarraj could not provide Turkey with the maritime borders agreement earlier because Tripoli would subsequently lose Cairo, Athens, and the EU. Losing these regional and international players would come at a high price for a Tripoli that is still struggling to withstand General Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) offensive to take over the capital beginning in April of this year.
The international community manifested an inability to halt Haftar’s offensive or at least neutralize Egypt’s and the UAE’s support. Ankara, too, minimized its military support for Al-Sarraj, which endangered Tripoli’s position against General Haftar’s forces. These factors made Tripoli extraordinarily vulnerable and desperate for an ally that could genuinely assist against Haftar’s offensive. Ankara has offered the needed military assistance for Tripoli in return for a maritime border agreement that brings Turkey back to the gas game.
Because of the Ankara-Tripoli Maritime Agreement, there have been severe diplomatic, political, and military ramifications. In particular, Egypt threw all its political and military weight behind General Haftar to secure its interests. Egypt’s Navy imposed a maritime control drill over the economic zones in the Mediterranean. Politically, President al-Sisi described the Tripoli-based government as ”hostage to the militias.”
Additionally, Egypt’s Speaker of the House announced that Cairo recognizes the Tobruk-based house of representatives as the only legitimate entity to represent Libya, which goes against Egypt’s long-standing position of maintaining official relations with the Tripoli-based government. The Egyptian public support for the Tobruk-based government coincided with Haftar’s Libyan National Army increasing advances into Tripoli. These moves suggest that Egypt and its allies aim at providing the military and diplomatic support for Haftar to quickly finish the Tripoli battle and bring down the al-Sarraj government before the proposed Berlin conference aimed at halting the military operations in Libya.
Meanwhile, Greece and Cyprus utilized their EU status and launched a diplomatic counteroffensive to isolate Turkey and kill the agreement and its legal consequences internationally. The EU sided with its member-states and stated that the Tripoli-Ankara agreement “does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third states.” This EU response, as well as, the strong chances of Haftar’s takeover Tripoli soon, accelerated Ankara’s efforts to ratify the agreement with Tripoli at the UN to at least use the deal as a bargaining chip with the East Mediterranean powers.
The Mediterranean powers understand that Ankara’s end game in the agreement with Tripoli is to negotiate a share of the Mediterranean gas.
The Mediterranean powers understand that Ankara’s end game in the agreement with Tripoli is to negotiate a share of the Mediterranean gas, which is a red line for Egypt, Greece, Israel, and Cyprus. The two EU states—Greece and Cyprus—hold the legal higher ground in their dispute with Turkey, and they will likely keep isolating Turkey politically and diplomatically.
On the ground in Libya, the conflict between Egypt and Turkey over Tripoli may escalate. Egypt has intensified its support for General Haftar to take over Tripoli and crush al-Sarraj’s government and the legal backlash of such action. Meanwhile, Turkey still hopes that its military assistance will keep al-Sarraj’s government long enough as a bargaining chip in its struggle against the four countries.