Manoeuvring Regional and Domestic Dynamics

By Pınar Ipek

Turkey’s assertive foreign policy over its sovereign rights in maritime jurisdiction areas in the Eastern Mediterranean is the immediate reason for Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan conflict.



On November 27, 2019, Turkey and the UN-recognized government in Tripoli (the Government of National Accord, GNA) signed two separate memorandums of understanding (MoU): one on delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean and the other on military cooperation.

The implications of these MoUs have been observed rapidly in the ever-changing power dynamics and landscape in the Libyan armed conflict between the Sarraj’s Government (GNA), based in the capital Tripoli, and General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) based in eastern Libya.

The MoU on the maritime border in the Eastern Mediterranean between Libya and Turkey was even supported by main opposition parties during the ratification of the agreement in the Turkish parliament on December 5, 2019.

However, following the ratification of the security accord on December 19, 2019, by Sarraj’s government, a debate among political parties ensued opposing President Erdogan’s strategy to use military force in the geopolitics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The voting to ratify the security agreement in the Turkish parliament was starkly different compared to when major opposition parties supported the maritime border agreement with Libya.

Political groups’ division over Turkey’s deployment of limited military support for Sarraj’s GNA has reflected not only the disagreements in domestic politics, but also the dynamics of struggle over power and wealth among states, economic interest groups, multinational energy companies, and transnational political movements or radical groups across the region.

Focusing on Turkey’s hydrocarbon resources policy in the Eastern Mediterranean, this paper highlights the ideational forces and material interests that have been shaping Ankara’s motivation in Libya.

It argues that the dispute over the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Eastern Mediterranean is the ultimate driving force for Turkey’s cooperation with the GNA in Libya.

In addition, Turkey’s economic interests in the MENA region and the importance of material benefits for political Islam in domestic politics across the region have been influencing regional struggles over oil wealth and power.

Turkey’s Sovereign Rights in the Boundary Delimitation of the East Mediterranean Sea

Turkey’s agreement with Libya is part of the delimitation of Turkey’s western borders of maritime jurisdiction areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This diplomatic move complements Ankara’s long-time foreign policy over its sovereign rights in its continental shelf (CS) and related acts to protect these rights.

The major contestation over maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean stems from the littoral states’ different legal interpretations regarding Cyprus and some other islands’ CS and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in specific geographic circumstances – semi-enclosed seas.

Turkey is not a signatory state of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) because it has reservations over the role of islands in maritime boundary delimitation. Turkey’s official discourse regarding maritime borders underlines two arguments.

First, delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas should be based on the principle of equity in international law.

Second, the islands in the Aegean and the East Mediterranean Seas should have no effect or a semi-effect during delimitation in light of international agreements or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decisions about similar cases regarding islands in maritime border delimitation.

Within this context, Turkey’s position regarding the delimitation of the Eastern Mediterranean has two pillars: (i) Turkey’s sovereign rights on its CS and related acts to protect these rights; (ii) the protection of the equal rights of Turkish Cypriots, who are co-owners of the Cyprus Island, over the hydrocarbon resources of the island.

According to Turkey’s position, the so-called EEZ agreements by the Republic of Cyprus (SCGA) with Egypt (2003), Lebanon (2007) and Israel (2010) are unilateral acts violating the principle of equity for other littoral states in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey raises the view that special geographic circumstances and other factors about islands (i.e. proportionality and proximity) have to be taken into account during delimitation in order to reach an equitable settlement among all states with opposite or adjacent coasts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thus, Turkey’s diplomatic move to sign the agreement with the GNA in Libya should be considered against this background on the contested maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the potential hydrocarbon resources that are covered in the agreed maritime borders between Turkey and Libya allow Turkey to reduce its energy import dependency.

Turkey’s Economic Interests in Libya and the Mena Region

The key statistics on Turkey’s trade deficit and energy import dependency highlight two key policy challenges for the Turkish policy elite and have implications on Turkey’s actions in Libya.

One challenge is increasing the share of Turkish exports and decreasing the share of imported energy resources in Turkey’s trade deficit.

The second challenge is diversifying Turkey’s energy supply sources by country to lessen any geopolitical risks stemming from Turkey’s asymmetric interdependence with Russia in natural gas imports and growing uncertainty about Iran’s role in proxy wars in the Middle East.

Libya holds the largest amount of proven crude oil reserves in Africa and mostly exports its crude oil and natural gas to European markets.

At the end of 2014, Libya had proven crude oil reserves of 48 billion barrels, accounting for the ninth-largest amount in the world crude oil market.

In the same year, Libya’s proven natural gas reserves were 53 trillion cubic feet, making it the fifth-largest natural gas reserve holder in Africa. However, new discoveries are expected to increase Libya’s proven natural gas reserves considerably, according to assessments that were made before 2011.

In short, Libya’s oil wealth has been an integral part of its bilateral economic relations in the MENA region.

Accordingly, Libya fits into President Erdogan’s regional economic policy that principally focuses on expanding Turkey’s export markets in the MENA region.

Although there is a significant shift in Turkey’s foreign policy from one popularly known as “the zero problems policy” using conflict-resolution and peace building tools, Turkey’s regional economic relations as “a trading state” is still important.

While EU countries continue to be Turkey’s major export market, Turkey has a large trade deficit with the EU and a trade surplus with the MENA region.

While exports to the Middle East have slightly declined since 2013, Turkey’s overall exports to the MENA region have been higher than its imports. The Maghreb countries remain smaller export markets at 6% compared to the Middle East countries’ 19% share in Turkey’s total exports in 2019.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s growing interests in establishing its own regional trade network between the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa regions have facilitated its diplomatic efforts to increase its investment in and exports to other Maghreb countries.

For example, in January 2020, Foreign Minister Çavusoglu and President Erdogan visited Algeria right after each other, paving the way for Turkish firms to increase their presence through 3.5 billion dollars of investment, ranking Turkey as one of the country’s top foreign investors.

Similar visits by Turkish President Erdogan to Tunisia in December 2019 and by the Turkish Foreign Minister to Malta in August 2020 have demonstrated Ankara’s regional strategy in seeking support not only for its military intervention on behalf of the GNA in Libya, but also for business cooperation, such as the return of Maltese and Turkish companies to Libya and resumption of air flights between Libya and Malta and Turkey.

In fact, Libya has been a key country for direct Turkish foreign investment when taking into consideration Turkish firms’ contracts before 2011, which were roughly worth 15 billion USD.

The economic benefits of Turkey’s relations with Libya are important at a time when Turkey’s economy has been slowing down. GNA leader Sarraj has pledged to honour the contracts awarded to Turkish firms.

In addition, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Çavusoglu stated that “Turkish firms’ business activities were cut short in Libya due to the war.

There are projects and investments that need to be completed. We, therefore, also discussed the economic aspects of our relations,” during the Turkish delegation visit on June 17, 2020.

Furthermore, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Dönmez said that Ankara was planning on cooperating with the National Oil Corporation and international firms in Libya for oil and gas exploration in light of the cooperation agreement in the energy sector with the GNA.

In fact, Turkey had determined seven licensed areas in the Eastern Mediterranean for oil exploration and drilling under this agreement and plans to start drilling in fall 2020.

Consequently, Turkey’s economic interests in Libya and in the broader MENA region are complementary to the strategic maritime border delimitation agreement between the two countries.


Pınar Ipek is associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, at TOBB Economics and Technology University in Ankara, Turkey. Her research interests include energy security, geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon resources, the EU’s energy policy, and energy transition in developing countries.



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