Turkey’s relationship with the UN-backed Libyan government continues to worry the West, all the more so as the prospects for peace in the North African country seem to grow brighter. Libya’s two main warring factions, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) signed a ceasefire agreement at the United Nations in Geneva on 23 October. The agreement called for frontline forces to return to their bases and for the withdrawal of all foreign forces and mercenaries within three months. Observers and analysts now wonder whether it is realistic to expect foreign powers, Turkey in particular, to step out of Libya. Assessing that requires placing Turkey and Libya within the regional and international context.
Turkish relations with the West have declined quickly. In November 2019, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said it was important to bring Turkey “back in the fold” as Ankara appeared to be drifting away from NATO with its arms deal with Russia and military incursions into Syria. Fast forward a year later and the US and EU are quick to criticize Turkey’s aggressive and militaristic foreign policy. Turkey is militarily active in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and more recently in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The confrontation with Greece and Cyprus on maritime borders and natural gas resources has reached a new level of tension exemplified by the accidental collision between a Turkish and a Greek frigates in the Eastern Mediterranean in August this year. The relations with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel are openly adversarial. US President Donald Trump boasted about his good relationship with President Erdogan (“I get along with him and he listens”), but a change of leadership at the White House would isolate President Erdogan further.
The EU took advantage of a recent diplomatic mission to Libya to remind the world of its opposition to Turkey’s relationship with the government in Tripoli. Yet Turkish interests in Libya are not as ingrained as they may seem. Libya stands out as a relatively new strategic interest in the history of the Turkish Republic. When the Turkish parliament voted in favour of the military intervention in Libya in January 2020, the mandate passed with the support of President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) but the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the conservative Good Party (IYI) voted against. This contrasted with the votes to extend the missions in Syria and Iraq against Kurdish forces, at the beginning of October, which CHP and IYI supported.
Some analysts have interpreted these parliamentary votes as an indication of Libya not being traditionally perceived as a primary concern by Turkish political forces at large but rather as a new and secondary front. Indeed, faced with mounting economic pressures at home and the opening of a new military confrontation on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenia, the question should now be what it would take for Turkey to re-consider its engagement in Libya.
Turkey’s military support for the government in Tripoli is as much about regional energy issues as it is about ideology or geopolitics. At the same time as agreeing to a life-saving defence deal for the Libyan GNA, Ankara also obtained a maritime treaty with Libya on 28 November 2019 in an attempt to boost its claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. The deal created an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that cuts across Greek and Cypriot maritime territory and interests, in so doing breaking international law. It came in the wake of an initiative in January 2019 by Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine to create the “Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum”. The EastMed Gas Forum, which was established as an international body on 16 January 2020, seeks to transform the Eastern Mediterranean into a major energy hub, exporting pipeline gas to European markets from Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus. The Turkish-Libyan agreement is an attempt to block this by drawing a line in the sea.
But even without Turkey’s attempts to derail it, the EastMed pipeline is probably a pipedream. The declining price of gas in the region (pipeline gas rather than the cheaper Liquified Natural Gas – LNG) together with the high costs of drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean make the project economically unviable. Demand is plummeting as the COVID-19 pandemic and a global economic recession are accelerating Europe’s transition to renewable energy. Already, drilling activity around Cyprus and Lebanon has come to a standstill. On top of this, at the beginning of the year market prices for LNG dropped below long-term contract prices. Turkey’s LNG imports from the US increased by 455.84% (y/y) in February 2020 exceeding pipeline gas imports for the first time, while imported gas from Russia fell by 72% (y/y) in March 2020. Increasing the share of LNG imports from the US is likely to ease relations and renew the partnership between Ankara and Washington.
This suggests that the Eastern Mediterranean dispute is more about sovereignty and pride than genuine hopes to establish new global energy markets. Yet a more localized approach might see the gas fields in the region solve several neighbourhood problems. Lebanon and Cyprus continue to struggle with supply and high costs respectively that could start to be addressed if the EastMed Gas Forum wasn’t focused on exporting to Europe. Recognising Turkish Cypriots interests in the local energy resources might also be a starting point.
By engaging the regional powers in the Eastern Mediterranean on their local problems, we may see that the grand geopolitical manoeuvres subside. They may also see Turkey’s own interest and involvement in Libya wane, helping it to be brought back in the fold.