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Between Ankara and Athens, the eastern Mediterranean is simmering with tensions

File Photo of a Turkish Navy frigate escorting urkish drilling vessel Yavuz in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in August 2019.
File Photo of a Turkish Navy frigate escorting urkish drilling vessel Yavuz in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in August 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Turkey’s parliament on Thursday approved troop deployments in Libya with an eye to Ankara’s power projection in the eastern Mediterranean. It came on the day Ankara’s arch rival Athens signed a gas pipeline deal that bypasses Turkey. Tensions are brewing in the hydrocarbon-rich water lapping the shores of Europe, Africa and the Middle East – and they could be difficult to douse.

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The capitals of arch rivals Turkey and Greece were buzzing Thursday with competing geostrategic power games for the eastern Mediterranean.  As Turkish lawmakers gathered in parliament to back a bill allowing troop deployments in Libya, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis welcomed the leaders of Israel and Cyprus to the official Maximos Mansion in Athens to sign a trilateral undersea gas pipeline deal.

By the end of the day, the leaders of Turkey and Greece got their way in the hydrocarbon-rich waters lapping the shores of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

At an emergency parliamentary session Thursday, Turkish lawmakers authorised troop deployments to Libya by 325 to 184 votes.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand miles away across the contested Aegean Sea, Mitsotakis, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades signed an agreement in Athens for a pipeline connecting Israel’s offshore oil fields to Greece and Italy, bypassing Turkey.

Thursday’s historic events in Greece and Turkey have clear advantages for all parties. The problem, however, is that Athens and Ankara are vying for influence and resources in a hotly contested area, with the risk of regional rivalries drawing in proxies, non-state actors as well as states bristling with firepower.    

The contest for resources and influence in the eastern Mediterranean has been simmering over the past few years with the discovery of large natural gas reserves. But it has been largely overlooked by an international community focused on other regional conflicts, from civil wars in Syria and Yemen to the fallout of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Gulf and beyond.

As a new decade dawns, the historic hostility between Greece and Turkey, fed and nurtured since Ottoman times, threatens to grab centre stage, challenging diplomatic fixes between two NATO members and potentially drawing in Russia, Israel, Egypt and rival local powers in Libya.

A planned pipeline and a warlord at Tripoli’s gates

Eastern Mediterranean tensions grabbed the headlines back in March 2019, when the “Energy Triangle” of Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed an intergovernmental agreement for a €6-billion EastMed pipeline at a ceremony in Jerusalem attended by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The top US diplomat’s presence sent a signal of Washington’s commitment to Europe’s energy security, since the planned pipeline aims to provide an estimated 10 percent of Europe’s natural gas, reducing its dependence on Russian gas.

But Ankara did not take well to its exclusion from a zone it considers within its sphere of influence. Turkey already faces EU sanctions over ships searching for oil and gas off Cyprus, whose government in Nicosia is not recognised by Ankara.

A miffed Turkey, the heavyweight military power in the region, was ready for a strategic rebuttal.
Eight months after the Jerusalem agreement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed maritime and security agreements with Libya’s Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The Turkey-Libya deals saw a demarcation of new maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Reporting on the details of the deals, which were not publicly released, the Financial Times noted that the new maritime boundary “runs close to the Greek island of Crete and could jeopardise plans for a gas pipeline to deliver eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe”.

But beyond a territory grab, Ankara was also looking for a geostrategic quid pro quo.

The agreements were signed while Sarraj’s government was battling fighters loyal to a renegade rival regime in eastern Libya led by Khalifa Haftar. The war for Tripoli continues, with more than 1,000 people killed since Haftar launched a surprise offensive to seize the Libyan capital in April last year.

“Turkey signed a security pact with the Tripoli government under which Turkey acquires the right to prospect and exploit energy deposits in a big chunk of the Mediterranean. This pact was extremely controversial. Greece and Cyprus protested that Libya had drawn the maritime borders far too generously. But Erdogan believes if he supports the Tripoli government militarily, Tripoli will support his maritime interests,” explained FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer, reporting from Ankara.

Ideological battles over Muslim Brotherhood 

Ideology also played into Erdogan’s deals with the internationally recognised Libyan government in Tripoli. Sarraj and his local Libyan allies are widely regarded as pro-Muslim Brotherhood and therefore pro-Turkey and Qatar.

"Sarraj himself is not Muslim Brotherhood, so to speak, but he does allow Muslim Brotherhood-backed forces to join his coalition and that is deeply problematic," explained Mitchell Belfer of the Rome-based Euro-Gulf Information Centre in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister radio station RFI (Radio France Internationale).

Meanwhile, Haftar is virulently anti-Muslim Brotherhood and his eastern Tobruk-based forces are supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt.

“From a strategic point of view, Turkey is moving closer to Egypt's western borders. Libya is the scene of an indirect conflict between Cairo, which supports Haftar, and Ankara, which supports Sarraj militarily. Relations between Egypt and Turkey have been very tense since the Egyptian army overthrew [the country’s only democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood] president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013,” said Bachir Abdel-Fattah from the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in an interview with FRANCE 24 Arabic.

Egypt was one of the first countries to condemn the Turkish parliamentary vote allowing troop deployments in Libya, with a statement calling on the international community to urgently respond to the move.

Greece, Cyprus and the US soon followed, with President Donald Trump warning Erdogan against any “foreign interference” in Libya. In a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Trump "pointed out that foreign interference is complicating the situation in Libya", said a White House statement.

‘International silence’ forcing Tripoli into Turkey’s arms

But the international community’s at best disunited, at worst disingenuous response to Haftar’s deadly assault on the Libyan capital and the country’s UN-recognised government in Tripoli left Sarraj little choice.

“Despite being the internationally recognised government of Libya, that recognition has failed to materialise into tangible, or even rhetorical, support during Haftar’s prolonged assault on Tripoli,” noted Tarek Megerisi and Asli Aydintasbas in a commentary for the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya, “Haftar’s backers massively stepped up their support with shipments of advanced arms and air strikes. This was met with familiar international silence, even as Tripoli came under relentless barrage and Russian private military contractors intervened on Haftar’s side. All this only heightened the pressure on the GNA to act,” wrote Megerisi and Aydintasbas.

Waiting for Putin

While France’s support for Haftar has met with criticism, Russia has been able to arm and equip the Libyan warlord unfettered by domestic opposition.

Responding to Thursday’s vote, Russian lawmaker Dmitry Novikov said a Turkish presence in Libya would “only deteriorate the situation”.

But Moscow and Ankara have been at odds before, backing opposing sides in the Syrian war while still managing to work together under the Astana peace process.

Thursday’s emergency parliamentary session – which was held five days earlier than scheduled – could well have been rushed through ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey next week, according to Mortimer.

“Putin and Erdogan will undoubtedly talk about Libya as well as Syria. I think Erdogan wants to get his Libyan preparations as far advanced as possible before he meets Putin,” said Mortimer.

In Tripoli, Sarraj’s beleaguered administration now hopes that Turkey will be able to establish a diplomatic platform with Russia, like the Astana Process on Syria, to tackle the Libyan crisis.

But when it comes to armed conflicts, the situation on the ground can overturn or disrupt strategy goals formulated in distant capitals. Erdogan’s move to militarily back the internationally recognised government in Tripoli was made with an eye on the lucrative hydrocarbon contracts in the oil-rich North African nation – and he now has a vested interest in the survival of the Sarraj government.  

“When the Libyan civil war ends, the Libyan government is going to hand out contracts for the country’s oil and natural gas fields and Turkey would like to get a large slice of that action,” said Mortimer. “However, all of this depends on the Tripoli government surviving. Haftar says he doesn’t recognise the security pact that the Tripoli government signed with Erdogan. So if the [Haftar] rebels win, Turkey won’t get the energy contracts and it won’t get the chance to exploit the minerals in that large piece of the Mediterranean.”

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