ISTANBUL — Turkey is raising the stakes in the dispute over its agreements with the internationally recognised government in Libya to force other players to accept a role for Ankara in the exploration of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could send troops to Libya to help Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, and his forces fight the self-styled Libyan National Army of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose troops are backed by Russia.
Sarraj and Erdogan clinched a natural gas drilling accord in November, a step Ankara said aimed to defend its rights in the region. However, it also infuriated EU members Greece and Cyprus.
Tensions are running high in the region because Turkey feels left out of an initiative by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel to exploit underwater gas reserves. In response, Ankara started gas explorations off the coast of Cyprus.
The European Union has readied sanctions against Turkey. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was quoted by the Euractiv news website as saying that Turkey’s actions were “unacceptable.”
The issue could further complicate relations between the European Union and Turkey, already burdened over Cyprus, which has been divided into Greek and Turkish parts since 1974, Turkey’s growing authoritarianism and threats by Ankara to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe.
EU foreign ministers talked about the Turkish-Libyan agreement and rallied behind Greece and Cyprus at a meeting December 10. “It is clear that this document raises major concern,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting, Euronews reported. “We expressed our solidarity to Greece and Cyprus and we will continue doing that.”
Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs, a pan-European think-tank, said Turkey’s actions were designed to spur the European Union into action.
“This is more a message to the EU than anything else,” Aydintasbas said by e-mail. “Ankara wants to force [the European’s] hand into finding a political solution in a situation where they want to remain on the sidelines.”
“I think Turkey wants to force negotiations on the energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said. “By taking a slightly belligerent stance, it seems like Ankara is telling Europe ‘Do something about this situation’ — either rekindle Cyprus unification talks or start talks to divide up the hydrocarbons.”
Speaking with state broadcaster TRT Haber, Erdogan said the accord with Sarraj made joint Turkish-Libyan gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean possible and would allow Turkey to drill on Libya’s continental shelf, with Tripoli’s approval.
He said the deal was in line with international law, an assertion strongly rejected by Greece. The area where Turkey and Libya have drawn their maritime borders is not far south of the Greek island of Crete. The government in Athens asked the UN Security Council to take up the issue and expelled the Libyan ambassador.
Erdogan, however, said he was not worried.
“With this new agreement between Turkey and Libya, we can hold joint exploration operations in these exclusive economic zones that we determined. There is no problem,” Erdogan said. He added that Turkey would step up its own gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Turkish leader also said that the accord with Libya created a territorial bloc that prevented other players in the region from building an underwater pipeline to bring gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets.
“Other international actors cannot carry out exploration operations in these areas Turkey drew (up) with this accord without getting permission. Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel cannot establish a gas transmission line without first getting permission from Turkey,” he said.
Turkey wants to strengthen its military role in the Libyan conflict. Sarraj has turned to Turkey for military assistance as Haftar’s troops attacked Tripoli. Ankara supplied drones and military vehicles for troops fighting on Sarraj’s side, despite a UN arms embargo.
Erdogan said the military accord granted Turkey the right to deploy troops in Libya if the Tripoli government asked. This would not violate the UN embargo, he added.
“In the event of such a call coming, it is Turkey’s decision what kind of initiative it will take here. We will not seek the permission of anyone on this,” Erdogan said.
Turkey’s approach could create tensions in its relations with Russia because the two countries are supporting opposition forces in Libya. Erdogan told TRT he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would reconsider Moscow’s support for Haftar.
Erdogan wants to raise the issue in a telephone call with Putin in the coming days, Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu reported. Putin is to visit Turkey January 8. The two countries have been cooperating closely in the Syrian conflict and Turkey angered its Western partners by buying a Russian missile defence system.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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