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.



Oil Wealth in Libya and the Importance of Material Benefits for Political Islam in Domestic Politics

The “oil curse,” the popular term given to structural constraints in democratization of oil-rich countries in the MENA region, emphasizes the significance of large oil revenues and oil-led development of these countries in creating rentier economies.

Accordingly, the struggle for power and wealth exclusively focuses on the role of the political leadership that distributes selective benefits to certain political and social groups in exchange for political acquiescence.

The dependence of prominent state bureaucrats, military officials, regional administrators or tribal leaders, and businessmen on the allocation of revenues and resources that are strictly controlled by the political leadership and its extended network of family/tribe members have been historically evident in maintaining Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule in Libya.

In fact, the power struggle to control Libya’s oil wealth has continued to be a reason for the domestic turmoil since the fall of Libyan dictator Gaddafi in 2011.

Sarraj’s GNA has been controlling the National Oil Company (NOC), the only marketer of Libyan crude oil abroad and the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli, the only legal mechanism for oil revenues’ flow into Libya and for accessing current reserves.

In January 2020, however, Haftar-led armed forces forced a blockade, shutting down Libya’s key oil and gas transport and production infrastructure in the east and in the south with the aim of cutting off vital funds to Sarraj’s GNA.

Additionally, in March 2020 when the Benghazi Central Bank (loyal to Haftar) announced that the Benghazi government should seek alternative sources of funding to finance its budget, making coercing Prime Minister Sarraj to cede control of the Central Bank of Libya an important goal for Haftar’s military offense in April 2020.

As a result, Turkey’s military intervention in defending the GNA and other legitimate Libyan institutions, along with the Libyan Political Agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 2259, has been implicitly supporting Sarraj’s control over oil revenues and existing reserves by the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli.

In other words, securing control over the Central Bank of Libya has

been essential not only for the GNA’s leader Sarraj’s survival, but also for boosting financial means of oil wealth given mutual economic interests between the GNA in Libya and Turkey.

In fact, a MoU was signed between the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey and the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli on August 31, 2020 that aimed to foster bilateral economic relations and strengthen financial cooperation between the two countries.

On the other hand, the rise of political Islam in domestic politics across the MENA region has contributed to the power struggle over oil wealth or other state-controlled economic initiatives.

The mobilization of urban poor in the region (i.e. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Turkey) has been the key driving force for these political groups’ march to popular electoral power (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood).

For example, the AKP’s repeated electoral success can be explained by establishing, maintaining, and developing a set of extensive networks of privileges, in addition to the dependency of allocating resources for private sector firms and voters.

Therefore, economic interests and/or oil wealth have been essential in the survival of political leaders as they sustain control over selective distribution of material benefits to their supporters.

Similarly, regional trade and opportunities for investment to expand economic benefits for vested interests between political groups and dependent businesses have increased geopolitical rivalry for influence over the ongoing military conflict in Libya.

Within this framework, it would be misleading to consider the AKP government’s support to Sarraj’s GNA strictly in terms of their common ideological background, the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the contrary, Turkey’s major motivations in Libya can be summarized in (i) protecting its sovereign rights in the boundary delimitation of the Eastern Mediterranean, (ii) diversifying its energy supplies, and (iii) increasing its trade and investment in the MENA region.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

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.

While energy sources and economic interests also play an important role, territorial issues (including Turkey’s CS) and related security threats in the broader MENA region, have predominantly taken over Ankara’s foreign policy agenda.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Turkey’s trade relations and investment opportunities in the MENA region have been expanding despite political tensions particularly with Israel and Egypt. In other words, neither material interests nor ideological factors are enough to determine Turkey’s role in Libya.

The overlap between material interests and political Islam has been evident in Turkey’s distant diplomatic relations with Israel and Egypt given the dominant role of President Erdogan in Turkey’s regional policy and its subsequent isolation.

Consequently, two issues stand out for policy recommendations regarding the Libyan conflict: Turkey’s sovereign rights in boundary delimitation of the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s isolation in its regional policy.

The dispute over maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean is not a priority for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Russia who are supporting Haftar forces in the Libyan conflict.

However, in addition to Libya’s energy resources, Egypt’s proven offshore fields, its existing LNG infrastructure, and potential hydrocarbon resources in the disputed CS between Libya, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey highlight conflicting economic interests and associated geopolitical tension in securing rights over maritime jurisdiction areas.

Therefore, it is essential that regional dialogue be based on the principle of equity in international law when it comes to delimitation of maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Moreover, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which launched in January 2019 in Egypt, highlighted Turkey’s isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

The forum includes seven members – Egypt, Israel, Greece, Republic of Cyprus (the SCGA), Jordan, Italy, and the Palestinian Authority.

One year later, in January 2020, France officially requested to join the forum, and the United States has also expressed its desire to join the organization as a permanent observer. However, in May 2020, Italy shunned the joint declaration that supported the internationally recognized GNA in Libya.

The declaration, made by the Republic of Cyprus, France, Greece, Egypt, and the UAE, condemned Turkey’s policy actions regarding its CS claims and military interference.

Therefore, the recent military escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean has exposed Turkey’s isolation, which in turn increased the strategic importance of the GNA in Libya in defending Turkey’s position on the demarcation of maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Accordingly, major policy recommendations for taking initial steps towards conflict resolution in Libya are as follows:

Turkey should have full diplomatic engagement in its relations with Israel and Egypt to help initiate a regional diplomatic dialogue for the contested maritime jurisdiction areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thus, a rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt could trigger common interests and cooperation to stabilize Libya.

The EU members should not take sides when it comes to the dispute in maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece in order to achieve EU members’ common interests.

For example, did the EU ask Italy to respect Malta’s EEZ/CS rights or consider one party’s off-shore activities illegal in the case of the CS dispute between Italy and Malta?

In other words, EU members should isolate their political acts under the principle of solidarity for EU external affairs, thereby limiting the effects of the EU’s incompetence in boundary delimitation of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In this regard, before the Foreign Affairs Council’s next meetings, briefings about international agreements or the ICJ decisions on similar cases about specific conditions of islands in maritime border delimitation should be made to the EU Council’s relevant officers to provide more information about how specific considerations are applied according to the law of the sea.

Germany’s recent efforts for mediation between Turkey and Greece should continue and should be supported by other European coastal states on the Mediterranean.

Military exercises are a growing risk as there are risks in the so-called “unilateral acts” in defending CS rights in overlapping zones in the aftermath of bilateral agreements on maritime borders between Turkey and the internationally recognized GNA in Libya as well as between Greece and Egypt.

The ongoing glut in LNG markets and the recent decline in natural gas demand during the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in lower LNG prices. As a result, major energy companies’ exploration and production plans have been delayed for two years in the Eastern Mediterranean offshore hydrocarbon fields.

Moreover, Turkey’s recent discovery of natural gas resources in the Black Sea supports its efforts to reduce its energy import dependency.

Therefore, there is a window of opportunity to postpone the exploration and development of the offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean until diplomatic dialogue between Greece and Turkey starts.

An economic incentive for postponing drilling activities in the disputed waters of the Eastern Mediterranean can be the existing oil and gas resources in Libya, Egypt, and Israel.

Current multinational energy companies in these countries can have exploratory meetings with the GNA in Libya, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Greece about developing a regional gas market based on mutual economic interests in diversifying energy supplies and increasing trade and investment in the MENA region.

Turkey and Greece should focus on compartmentalizing their disagreements between the CS/EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean and other issues in the Aegean Sea.

If this compartmentalization is achieved through diplomatic negotiations, Turkey and Greece should take the dispute over the CS/EEZ to the ICJ or international arbitration based on the UN Charter, Article 33.

If the recommendations above can be initiated and put on a diplomatic track, Turkey’s limited military intervention would be helpful in strengthening the GNA’s army and preventing the involvement of private contractors and mercenaries from Syria and other countries in Libya so that a political process based on the Berlin Conference conclusions can begin.

Furthermore, as stated by NATO Heads of State and Governments at the 2018 Brussels Summit and confirmed during a phone call between NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and President Erdogan in May 2020, NATO is prepared to help Libya in the sectors of defense and security institution building, in response to a request by the GNA Prime Minister to assist the GNA in strengthening its security institutions (NATO News 2020). In light of NATO’s evolving energy security agenda, allies have vested interests in the MENA region where they can find a common ground to promote the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement reached in Skhirat, Morocco.

Therefore, Turkey’s ongoing efforts in supporting GNA defense and security can be handed over to a NATO mission that would enable Haftar’s forces to withdraw from Sirte and Al-Jufra and the demilitarization of this strategic region, which is important for the economic viability of Libya’s oil sector.


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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