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Turkey’s dual Libya objectives

Moscow’s cooperation with Ankara in seeking a Libya peace deal implies Russian acceptance of Turkey’s controversial East Med maritime border claims

Russia and Turkey, previous backers of opposing sides in the Libya conflict, have clearly decided that—if they could jointly achieve peace in the country—both would be assured of a lasting stake there. This would be a blow to the European powers most closely associated with Libya, Italy and France, which have persistently tried and failed to bring the fighting to an end. 

Both countries have strong energy links with Libya which they would like to expand. Now there is a possibility that Russian and Turkish firms will put Libya’s oil and gas reserves in their sights. Russia has said in the past that it is interested in working jointly with Turkey on energy exploration and development. 

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the link-up with Russia in pursuing peace in Libya has another huge dividend. Moscow’s involvement in the initiative is an unmistakable sign that President Vladimir Putin accepts Turkey’s maritime agreement with Libya. This creates two vast contiguous blocks of the Eastern Mediterranean, from the Turkish coast in the north to Libya in the south, with a joint maritime border between the two. The northern part, claimed by Turkey, encompasses some Greek island and parts of Cyprus’ economic exclusion zone (EEZ). 

Moscow’s involvement is an unmistakable sign that Putin accepts Turkey’s maritime agreement with Libya

The Turkish move greatly complicates efforts to achieve harmony between Eastern Mediterranean gas producers and potential producers. More to the point, it could potentially further complicate already ambitious-looking plans for a planned pipeline (costing $6bn, scheduled for completion in 2025) to export gas from the region to Europe. 

In early January, the leaders of Cyprus, Greece and Israel committed themselves to the scheme. While all three states, along with Egypt, the European Union and the US have rejected the Turkey-Libya maritime agreement as being illegal, Erdogan will feel emboldened by having Russia at his side. Waving aside international criticism of the pact with Libya, he said “Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey’s consent”. 

Some analysts believe that Erdogan’s East Med maritime border claims were designed specifically to try to block the pipeline plan. But the Turkish government has put forward other reasons to seek to justify the country’s right to reach the maritime deal with the Tripoli government and the agreement that allows Turkish troops to be based in Libya. 

Anti-terror justification

Burhanettin Duran, a columnist in a pro-Erdogan newspaper Daily Sabah, writes that “Libya is one of Turkey’s maritime neighbours, which means that instability, terrorism, mass migration and human trafficking in the country falls in direct relation to Turkey. Limiting the definition of national security to terrorists across our land borders alone is simply out of sync with the contemporary notion of national security.” He adds that the criticism directed at Ankara stems from the other states in the region “not wanting Turkey to strengthen its hand in the Eastern Mediterranean”. 

Turkey's move greatly complicates efforts to achieve harmony between East Med gas producers

The international community will not be persuaded by these arguments. Nor will it shift from its view that Turkey is acting in contravention of international maritime laws and agreements. But that does not mean that Turkey is about to budge. 

Assuming the current Erdogan-Putin deal on Libya policy holds, the Turkish leader will feel no pressure to think again about his current dual objectives—to get a foothold in Libya and win Moscow’s support for the move. For as long as Cyprus remains divided and Turkey is excluded from the East Med energy club, Ankara will do whatever is necessary to stop Cypriots and others exporting gas by pipeline to Europe. Whether Erdogan needs to do so, when the high cost of producing gas in the East Med’s deep waters may make the pipeline a non-starter anyway in a currently depressed European and global gas price environment, is another story. 

Source: Petroleum Economist
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