OPINION: Turkey’s decision to provide military support to Libya’s internationally recognised government in Tripoli has angered both its Eastern Mediterranean neighbours and major world powers while threatening to widen the ongoing civil war in North Africa’s leading oil exporter.
The move is likely to further isolate Turkey, which has also earned the wrath of the European Union (EU) for blocking exploration efforts by fellow-member Cyprus seeking to use newly-discovered gas reserves to supply Europe.
Pressing domestic problems appear to be behind Turkey’s motives. Libya offers enormous business opportunities thanks to its oil and gas reserves and reconstruction needs, which Turkish companies can exploit.
Plus, it could offer a way out for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose domestic popularity has plummeted.
Other powers vying for influence in Libya have made it clear they will not let Ankara have an easy ride.
The US, Russia, Greece, Egypt, Israel all united in denouncing a motion passed last Thursday by Turkey’s parliament authorising the government to send troops to prop up Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which has a pact with Ankara on military co-operation as well as an agreement on maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"Foreign interference is complicating the situation,” US President Donald Trump said.
Turkey’s gambit comes as the Tripoli-based government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj is fighting to end a besiege of the capital by forces loyal to a rival administration based in the oil-rich eastern part of the country.
The Libyan conflict has split the international community.
The rival eastern administration, led by commander General Khalifa Haftar, is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia, while Sarraj’s government has Turkey, Qatar and Italy on its side.
Sarraj had no choice but to find a powerful ally, securing a deal with Erdogan to send military experts and personnel to prevent Tripoli from falling.
The pact also seeks to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. Greece and Cyprus, which have long had maritime and territorial disputes with Turkey, say the deal violates the international law of the sea.
Turkey disputes the rights of the legitimate Greek-administration of Cyprus to develop gas finds without an agreement with the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Ankara argues the shortest route for a gas pipeline from the region to Europe would cut through its territorial waters.
It has used warships to prevent exploration drilling by Cyprus. Italy’s Eni was forced in 2018 to abandon the appraisal of a gas discovery after its drillship was challenged by the Turkish navy.
On the same day as the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of its army, Israel, Cyprus and Greece signed an agreement to push forward with the EastMed pipeline project, The 1900-kilometer-long pipeline is intended to transport gas from Israel and Cyprus to Greece and other European countries.
Ankara was not invited to join the project. Turkey's agreement with Libya is designed to deliver Ankara from its isolated role among its Mediterranean neighbours. Turkey has been in an economic crisis since the summer of 2018. Erdogan’s popularity is in free-fall amid a currency and economic crises that have eroded his support among the populous.
In municipal elections in March 2019, he suffered humiliating defeats, the first of his long and successful political career.
Turkey’s military support to Libya, thus, aims to save a beleaguered government that offers it potentially enormous economic rewards that can help revive flagging economic fortunes.
The agreement signed with Libya in November encompassed more than just military co-operation. It redrew Libyan maritime borders to Ankara's advantage, theoretically enabling Turkey to have a share of the gas reserves discovered off the southern coast of Cyprus in the past decade.
But in doing so, Ankara has also created a formidable array of rivals whose strategic and economic interests will likely frustrate Turkey’s ambitions to become the dominant force in the key emerging energy hub of the Eastern Mediterranean.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)