By Elis Gjevori
The vital role Turkey has played in Libya and against warlord Khalifa Haftar has given Ankara a louder voice when it comes to the battle for supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Towards the end of 2019, it looked as if the internationally-recognised government of Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA), would be overrun by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s militias, and with it, a new dictator might emerge, in effect ending the country’s tentative democratic experiment.
Yet, by the first half of 2020, the Libyan kaleidoscope was shaken by Turkey. As a result, the self-proclaimed general, and would-be conqueror of Tripoli, is now in retreat towards his eastern strongholds, his power diminished.
Turkey, as a consequence, has seen its strategic position in Libya improve dramatically and it has become a “game setter,” says maritime observer, Yoruk Isik, speaking to TRT World.
First, there was the legitimising act through parliamentary approval, where the GNA officially requested Turkish assistance in November of last year and which Ankara duly provided.
Alongside the military assistance, a maritime agreement between the two states greatly expanded both countries’ exclusive economic zones, and it meant that Turkey could ensure that no Eastern Mediterranean energy settlement would take place without Ankara at the negotiating table.
In contrast to this, Haftar’s backers, which include France, Russia, Egypt and the UAE, have operated clandestinely.
Turkey’s commitment militarily and politically to the GNA has resulted in the country setting the regional pace with other actors now reacting to Ankara’s decisions, says Isik.
The global health pandemic has also taken energy exploration as a viable effort off the table in the near future.
“Because of the coronavirus, the market has been flooded with gas and whatever gas was going to be extracted around Cyprus was going to be expensive. There is no way that gas will be extracted anytime soon,” says Isik.
The previous rush to drill and explore in the Eastern Mediterranean may now see regional countries returning to the negotiating table after what Turkey originally considered as an effort to sideline it from the region.
Greece signed agreements with Israel, Egypt and Greek Cyprus “as if Turkey had no rights in that context” says Uluc Ozulker, a Turkish career diplomat, now retired, and former ambassador to Libya. He says they were trying to confine Turkey to six miles of territorial waters and beyond that limit “Greece assumed it could possess the territory.”
“The foreign interference that was begun by the US and Russia has become tremendously important for Turkey in the region,” adds Ozulker, speaking to TRT World.
The ongoing conflict in Syria, and the situation in Libya, are interlinked, according to the former ambassador. The Eastern Mediterranean question is just one important piece in what has become a regional three-dimensional chessboard.
“In the Middle East, there is no longer any stability, Turkey needs to settle these problems as soon as possible,” says the ambassador referring particularly to the Syrian and Libyan conflict.
Securing the stability in Turkey’s neighbourhood has also meant securing Turkey’s access to its territorial waters.
Blue Homeland Doctrine
As a peninsula state, Turkey has more than 8,333 kilometres of coastline and the country has more than 462,000 square kilometres of potential maritime jurisdictional area, says retired Turkish Admiral Cem Gurdeniz.
Speaking to TRT World Gurdeniz, who spent twenty-eight years in the navy and headed the Plans and Policy Division in the Turkish Naval Forces Headquarters outlines a vision he came up with firstly in 2006 which has become known in the Turkish political lexicon as the “Mavi Vatan” or “Blue Homeland” naval doctrine.
The main strategic aim is that Turkey should not be hemmed in the Mediterranean and the Aegean sea which could impact the country’s trade, defence and security.
The majority of Turkey’s trade today is carried out by sea and ensuring freedom of navigation has become a top national security priority for Turkey’s establishment.
Memories of the naval blockades by the Italians, Greeks and other European powers that ultimately choked the Ottoman state between 1911 lasting until 1923, serves as a reminder of what happens when control over the sea is ceded, says Gurdeniz.
“They [Greeks] think the Aegean belongs to them, they live in a fantasy world. The current status of Aegean sea is that 50 percent is international waters, it’s no-man’s-land,” adds Gurdeniz.
“Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration thought it could carve out 150,000 square kilometres of the sea from Turkey. They thought that the Turks are land people not sea faring people and that the EU and the US would force Turkey to accept it. No, we will not permit such a thing.”
“The Rubicon has been crossed,” he says.
Greece has attempted to expand its hold over the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean through its network of islands, attempting to generate large continental shelf from its islands both inhabited and uninhabited.
For Turkey, the strategic consequences of allowing Greece to grab chunks of the sea have proved to be a red line.
The proximity of Greek islands to Turkey’s mainland in the Aegean sea, “act as a geopolitical containment of Turkey,” says associate professor Muzaffer Senel, an expert on Cyprus and Turkey’s foreign policy.
What that means is that the Eastern Mediterranean is one of Turkey’s last remaining open seas in which it can exercise absolute freedom of navigation.
The agreement that Turkey signed with Fayez al Sarraj, head of the GNA in Libya, has brought both countries closer while strengthening their bargaining position at the negotiating table. In Sarraj, Turkey has found a democratic partner with whom it can make a deal.
Libyan forces, with Turkish assistance, are now on the outskirts of the strategic city of Sirte, which Haftar’s militias captured in January of this year. That said, Turkey’s ability to turn the tables wouldn’t have been possible without its naval capabilities.
“Libya is a remedy for the anti-Turkey bloc that was emerging in the eyes of the Turkish state in the Eastern Mediterranean,” says Senel.
“To protect the ‘Blue Homeland’ the agreement with Libya symbolises two things for Ankara: firstly the protection of the country’s sovereign right over its maritime Exclusive Economic Zone and protecting the Turkish Cypriots,” added Senel.
“What the member countries of the Eastern Mediterranean need to do is come together around the table to resolve the complex interlinked issues.”
Turkey has turbocharged its commitment to expand its naval military power and since 2007 has invested greatly in indigenous production.
More recently, in a sign of growing confidence in its naval capabilities, a local Turkish media outlet citing local sources suggested that a more long term presence may be needed in Libya in coordination with the GNA.
“There are some rumours that Turkey will build a base in Libya including a naval base in Libya in Misrata, if this happens it will really expand the power of Turkey’s navy. This is a possibility; the GNA made an agreement with Turkey which includes such facilities,” says Isik, referring to the security agreement between Turkey and Libya.
Such suggestions could also be attempts to jump-start negotiations in the region with Isik arguing that Turkey’s priority is to ensure that “Libya is a friendly country.”
“Now we have to wait and see how determined the other actors are,” he added.
Russia at the doors
While Russia is involved in Libya, its footprint there is not yet comparable to the one in the Syrian theatre, with Isik describing it as a “commercial operation” spearheaded by the Wagner Group, a private mercenary group with connections to the Kremlin.
Russian actions came to the fore in May when it emerged that fighter jets had been sent to Libya, drawing a sharp rebuke from US officials wary of an expanding Russian presence.
“Russian foreign policy is in many ways a continuation of the Soviet foreign policy,” says Isik, adding that Russia has wanted a naval base in the Libyan city of Sirte, or to the east of it, for some time.
Turkey’s capabilities in Libya have been greatly enhanced by its operations in Syria. As Turkey has turned the tide, there is evidence on the ground of the culmination of these lessons.
As the threat of warlord Haftar has retreated further into the east, there is unlikely to be a military solution to the current crisis and there are signs that negotiations could make a comeback.
The most recent setbacks have left Haftar “considerably weakened and isolated,” says Umberto Profazio, a Middle East analyst speaking to TRT World.
Haftar’s failures in the west of Libya and the mounting of “considerable opposition in eastern Libya,” has seen the rise of the president of the House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh, as the “privileged interlocutor of the main powers for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table in Libya,” says Profazio.
The HoR is the would-be rival government based in Tobruk and is less than 150 km from the Egyptian border.
Ankara, for its part, has suggested that Aguila Saleh, a politician that has previously held elected office, should rise to the challenge and enter into negotiations with Tripoli.
Haftar’s backers, in particular Egypt, are now pushing for a ceasefire. A declaration that some have called a “false resolution” since it fails to take into account all the human atrocities that have been committed by the warlord and his militants.
“The Cairo Declaration was an indication of Egypt’s return to a leading role in the negotiations, following months in which Cairo took the backseat facing the more interventionist stance of the United Arab Emirates,” says Profazio.