The fall of Tripoli could undermine European energy security and unleash a new refugee wave on already overwhelmed countries
The Eastern Mediterranean region has emerged as the focal point for Turkey's foreign policy. Ankara's involvement isn't limited to keeping its navy around the island of Cyprus to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots. The country has already deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Geçitkale, Northern Cyprus, and there is talk of setting up a naval base on the island.
Over the weekend, the Turkish Parliament ratified two agreements with Libya. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his administration would consider providing military support to the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) upon request. On Friday, GNA Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj requested assistance from Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Algeria to repel an offensive by Khalifa Haftar's forces. Haftar, who commands the so-called "Libyan National Army," had mobilized his forces in 10 western provinces on Dec. 12 for the purpose of capturing the capital Tripoli. According to local reports, the situation in Tripoli, which escalated to a critical level, will determine the fate of the GNA.
The Turkish approach to Libya reflects the view that the two countries are "maritime neighbors." In other words, the Turks see the Libyan conflict as a matter of border security – and, by extension, protecting Turkish interests through the demarcation of maritime jurisdictions, in Cyprus, and over hydrocarbon reserves. Accordingly, the potential deployment of Turkish troops to Libya is considered part and parcel of Ankara's strategic offensive in the Eastern Mediterranean. Defending Tripoli, in this sense, is also crucial for the future allocation of maritime jurisdictions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The State of Play in East Med
As Ankara moves to back up its relations with Northern Cyprus and Libya with military power, there are many looming questions about the new balance of power and potential confrontations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The United States and the European Union have thrown their weight behind Greece and the Greek Cypriots – and their maximalist ambitions.
Israel and Egypt, at least for now, are on that side. The Turkey-Libya deal, however, does entail advantages for Egypt and even Israel. Israel's hope of building a natural gas pipeline to Europe, too, hinges on an agreement with Turkey, which just declared its own exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, Turkey finds the European Union's approach to the Eastern Mediterranean completely unfair, recalling that the latter admitted the Greek Cypriots as a full member despite blocking the Annan Plan back in 2004. Washington's support for Greece and the Greek Cypriots, according to the Turks, is yet another step towards undermining the Turkey-U.S. alliance. Going forward, the Turkish government will continue to remind both stakeholders of its legitimate interests.
Russia's critical role
The million-dollar question here relates to the position of Russia, which backs Khalifa Haftar's forces in Libya. The United States recently lifted a decades-old arms embargo against the Greek Cypriots, on the condition that that government will deny Russian military vessels port access. Washington, however, appears to be impartial in the Libya dispute. Experts also claim that Moscow won't limit its involvement in Libya to supporting Haftar through private military companies. In other words, both Turkey and Russia are preparing to play a more active role in the Libyan theater.
In a meeting in Malaysia, President Erdoğan told reporters that his administration won't turn a blind eye to Russia "serving as Haftar's mercenaries through the Wagner Group." Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed "Putin's chef" for his close ties to the Kremlin, manages that company.
The obvious question is whether Turkey and Russia are headed for a confrontation in Libya. My sense is that the probability of that clash is overestimated. If anything, deeper engagement by Ankara and Moscow in Libya could lead to reconciliation and closer cooperation. If Erdoğan and Putin could work together in Syria, they can encourage other stakeholders in Libya to work together.
This is good news for Turkey because France, Germany and Italy will find themselves compelled to work with the Turks in order to stay relevant in the Libyan theater. The situation in Libya, a leading exporter of petroleum, natural gas and illegal immigrants to Europe, is of vital importance to those countries. In other words, the fall of Tripoli would be a nightmare for the European Union. Turkey, in turn, is fully aware of the Eastern Med's strategic significance for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. By playing an active role there, Turks believe, they can work with the Russians as well as European stakeholders on a more rational footing.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.