This post was published in Defence 24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.
WARSAW, (BM) – Turkish activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya led to an escalation of tensions between this country and France, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. It is even said openly about the possibility of war.
The conflict is caused by a dispute over gas deposits and domination in North Africa. In the background, Russia’s activity is also visible, for which, like for Turkey, the EastMed project is a threat. She is also interested in conflict within NATO. The inefficiency of the European Union and the relative passivity of the USA are also conducive to escalation.
A dozen or so countries from four continents are already directly or indirectly involved in the East-Mediterranean-Libyan conflict, so it is a global conflict.
At the center is the problem of energy competition related to the exploitation of neighboring Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian gas fields, which Turkey claims. American, Italian and French companies are involved in exploration, which determines the interest of these countries.
In addition, the EU-backed EastMed gas pipeline project, which is to pump gas from these fields to Europe via Greece, as well as Italy, is in competition with Turkish-Russian interests related to TurkStream.
The other piece of the puzzle is Turkish activity in Libya, where Ankara and Qatar support the jihadist militia and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Tripoli (GNA). This poses a threat to the interests of at least 3 countries, i.e. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France.
The first two perceive the Muslim Brotherhood as their enemy No. 1, while for France, Turkish activity in northern Africa threatens its interests in the Sahel, including uranium mines in Niger, neighboring Libya.
In addition, there are conflicting agreements on the demarcation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) concluded between Greece and Turkey respectively with competing power centers in Tobruk and Tripoli. The picture is complemented by the incoherent policy of Italy, which, by rivaling France, supports Tripoli but at the same time supports Greece and Cyprus in the matter of EEZ and EastMed.
On the other hand, Russia is fighting a sophisticated game, fighting for its own influence in North Africa, killing trade fairs with Turkey covering a broader theater of operations, interested in conflict within NATO and torpedoing the EastMed project. Faced with the indolence of the EU and NATO and the absence of the United States, she may also assume the role of a mediator and conflict freezer.
The dispute over Cypriot gas deposits has been going on for several years, but the escalation took place in 2019 when Turkey began sending its drilling vessels to the territorial waters of Cyprus. The European Union then responded with the threat of sanctions, but it has so far proved to be a paper tiger in this respect. In February 2020, only two natural persons were sanctioned.
Turkey not only did not limit its actions violating the sovereignty of two EU Member States, but intensified them. The new chapter of escalation began because on November 28, 2019, when Turkey signed the EEZ demarcation agreement with the Libyan Tripoli government (GNA), which was also accompanied by records of the military support of Tripoli by Turkey.
This agreement was considered illegal by both the competitive center of power in Libya, i.e. the parliament elected in 2014 (HoR) based in Tobruk (which in accordance with the agreement establishing the GNA should ratify each international agreement) and Greece, Cyprus, and in principle most of the international community.
This agreement also resulted in Greece undertaking diplomatic activity to sign alternative EEZ agreements with Mediterranean countries in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
168 countries are now UNCLOS parties, including all European countries. However, Turkey, Syria and Israel did not sign this convention in the Mediterranean.
The convention establishes, inter alia, the right to designate EEZ up to 200 nautical miles including the coastline of the islands. This universally accepted principle is being questioned by Turkey and its agreement with Trypolis ignores the existence of Cyprus and Crete.
As a consequence of the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli, Turkey intensified its activities in Libya, supporting the GNA counteroffensive against Gen. Chalifa Haftar supporting the HoR and his Libyan National Army (LNA).
In June, the LNA forces were displaced from their position under Trypolis, and the front moved under the Sirte-Dżofra line. Further march for now was stopped by the threat of military intervention of Egypt. However, there is little indication that Turkey would give up further expansion. At the same time, Ankara has intensified its activities in the eastern Mediterranean.
It is primarily about the granting of a state license by Turkey to the Turkish company TPAO at the beginning of June for drilling in 24 locations around Cyprus. The map later presented by the Turkish authorities showed that the region of planned drilling literally encircles Cyprus.
Greece has responded by intensifying diplomatic activities. In May, the heads of diplomacy of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France and the United Arab Emirates condemned Turkey’s deal with the GNA, its illegal activities in the Mediterranean and Turkish military involvement in Libya, which they considered a threat to the stability of North Africa and Europe.
Israel did not participate in the meeting, although it is also a party vitally interested in the EastMed project, because the Israeli Leviathan gas field next to the Cypriot fields would be covered by this plan. Israel, however, currently does not want to be directly involved in the conflict in the Mediterranean Sea, and although its relations with Turkey are terrible, for years it does not want to enter the path of direct confrontation.
In addition, for Israel, the key issue now is the annexation of 30% of the West Bank and combines talks on support for the activities of countries such as Greece with the approval of the annexation by Europe and Arab countries.
This was evident from the topics of talks during the visit of the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Israel in mid-June, which, however, have not yet brought any visible specifics. Just like a week later visit by the head of Cyprus’s diplomacy to Israel.
The EastMedu project, i.e. a gas pipeline pumping gas from Cypriot and Israeli deposits, and potentially also Egyptian, to Greece and further to southern Europe was established in 2013 and has received the support of the European Union. In January 2020, this plan was specified in an agreement signed in Athens by Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The gas pipeline is to be 1900 km long and has a capacity of 10 billion cubic meters of gas (with the possibility of increasing to 20 billion) per year, at a cost of USD 7 billion. It is to be built by 2025. At the same time, Greece has agreed with Italy to build an extension of EastMed to Italy.
EastMed is, of course, a threat to joint Turkish-Russian plans related to TurkStream, which Gazprom wants to deliver gas not only to Turkey but also through its subsequent branches to Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Northern Macedonia and Italy.
That is why Russia is playing a very sophisticated game in the face of the whole conflict and appearances often cover real Russian intentions. Officially, Russia as a UNCLOS site supports the Cypriot-Greek approach to demarcating EEZ. In addition, Russian mercenaries are fighting on the side of the LNA in the civil war in Libya.
But Russia certainly has never been interested in Haftar entering Tripoli and Turkey being completely forced out of Libya. However, the Russians planned to isolate Haftar from other allies so that he was closely dependent on her and then entangle him in the system of their fairs with Turkey covering not only Libya but also Syria and other issues.
However, this failed because in January Haftar refused to sign the agreement developed by Putin and Erdogan. In addition, he blocked oil and gas extraction, which affected Gazprom’s interests. Then the Russians decided that he was not the right man to bet on. The “Wagnerians” were withdrawn from the front near Trypolis, which facilitated the counter-offensive of GNA and Turkey.
Of course, the Russians do not intend to let Libya go, but in Russian analyzes it is increasingly said that supporting Tobruk, one should focus on someone else. The Russians are also beginning to openly promote the scenario of the actual division of Libya.
Therefore, it can be expected that if Russia and Turkey manage to marginalize other players interested in this conflict, the influence and control of raw materials will be divided between these two countries and both will have their military bases there.
This will allow torpedoing the Eastmed project, controlling the influx of African migrants to Europe and conducting subsequent fairs in connection with expansion into Africa. It is in their mutual interest despite the competition.
Even the Turkish expansion in Africa may be beneficial for the Russians, as it may induce countries defending their interests there, especially France, to seek agreement with Moscow.
French Total, Italian Eni and American Exxon are involved in the Cypriot exploitation project, which also determines the participation of France, Italy and the US in this conflict, although in varying degrees in each case.
The most engaged in the confrontation with Turkey is France, which President Emanuel Macron openly accuses Turkey of being a threat to security in the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, and also that her activity is evidence of what Macron called “brain death” a few months ago FOR THIS’.
Of course, the conflict of interest between France and Turkey is not just the problem of EastMed, or even French interests in eastern Libya, but it covers a number of other aspects, including the problem with Turkey’s increasingly aggressive policy in Africa. Considering that the neighboring Niger is the uranium mine supplying the French nuclear program, this is a strategic issue for France.
On June 10, there was a confrontation off the coast of Libya between the French frigate Courbet and Turkish warships, which carried out laser tracking three times, indicating readiness to attack, in connection with the attempted inspection by the French on a Turkish ship smuggling arms into Libya despite the UN embargo. Following this incident, France, in the absence of a NATO response, stated that it was withdrawing from NATO’s operation in the Mediterranean.
Macron’s words about NATO’s “brain death” were widely criticized but in the face of the Alliance’s powerlessness against Turkish provocations, they are unfortunately not completely unfounded. In addition, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly declared support for Turkish activities in Libya as allegedly stopping Russian expansion in this region.
Unfortunately, this approach only deepens the division in NATO and causes countries such as France or Greece to try to get along with Russia as the only entity that can influence Turkey. For the Kremlin, however, this is an ideal situation, a dissonance in NATO is in itself desirable, especially since it cannot be ruled out that it will end in war. However, entering the role of a mediator gives her full opportunity to safeguard her own interests.
Greek defense minister Nikos Panagiotopulos said that the conflict could turn into a war straight at the beginning of June, declaring that Greece would not violate its sovereign rights to EEZ.
It is worth adding that Turkey has long been violating the Greek airspace on a massive scale. Only in 2019, there were a total of about 5,000 such incidents. This year it happened that this number reached even 90 per day.
For now, however, France is limited only to angry declarations, and Greece to an intensive diplomatic campaign. In June, Greece signed two EEZ demarcation agreements – with Italy and HoR based on UNCLOS.
In the first case it shows a kind of throwing of Rome, which on the one hand supports (though not very vigorously) Tripoli (including in connection with the competition with France for deposits in Libya) and on the other hand cooperates with Greece in the EastMed project, which is closely related to the situation in Libya.
However, Turkey is pursuing a policy of fait accompli, not paying attention to international law, and is quite effective in this respect. This is, among others as a result of the European Union’s lack of unity, expressed by the Berlin conference at the beginning of the year on Libya, to which Germany did not invite either Greece or Cyprus.
Meanwhile, Russia has recently stated that Greece has the right to participate in negotiations on Libya, as they also concern its interests. As in the case of support for Haftar in Libya, also in this case Russia’s goal is not to take Greece’s side in the dispute with Turkey, but to position itself as a mediator or use this issue as another bargaining chip in the trade fair with Turkey for the division of influence.
On July 1, France announced that it would try to impose severe sanctions on Turkey. This will be another test of the effectiveness and solidarity of the EU.
If Europe fails this test, the likelihood of an armed conflict in the Mediterranean with France, Greece and Egypt on one side and Turkey on the other will increase. There will not be many options for opponents of Turkish expansion. Such a scenario will be even more favorable for Russia, as it may supply weapons to both sides.
Turkey has already purchased the S-400 system from Russia, which is also in itself a violation of NATO’s coherence. On the other hand, Egypt, which in 2015 concluded a USD 3.5 billion arms contract with Russia, is currently planning to buy the K-300P Bastion-P coastal missile defense system from it. The role of Egypt in this conflict is, moreover, crucial and it can also count on support from the Arab League so much that it will have rather only a political and possibly material nature.
Egypt has also recently signed an arms contract with Italy worth 10 million euros and covering the supply of, among others six frigates, including two Bergamini-class FREMM rocket frigates. This contract shows once again that Italy is not very attached to supporting the Turkish-Tripolitan side in this conflict.
Only that support for Egypt provokes protests both in Italy and in Europe and the USA due to allegations of human rights violations by the authorities of that country. If they are effective, only Russia will remain with Egypt. The role of Egypt is at the same time crucial because already according to the Global Firepower ranking its war fleet is ranked 7th in the world, and the Turkish one only in 20th.
Another problem is the relative passivity of the US in this theater of operations, despite the fact that in January Congress adopted the Act on US support for the EastMed project, US participation in the exploration of Cypriot and Israeli deposits, and the lifting of the embargo on the sale of weapons to Cyprus in force since 1987. It was the result of joint lobbying of Exxon and pro-Israeli and Progreni circles. It’s just that there is much evidence of Trump’s submission to Erdogan’s persuasion, and even a kind of turkophilia (these conclusions are also confirmed by Bolton’s recently published book).
In conclusion, the goals of Russia and Turkey in this conflict are only seemingly contradictory. EastMed is a threat to both countries, and they are both interested in destabilizing the internal situation in Europe by stimulating the influx of migrants from Africa to Europe.
To this end, they must eliminate competitors, share control over Libya, which will allow both countries to establish their military bases on its coast (Turkey plans it in Misrata). It is worth recalling that Russia already has one Mediterranean base (in Syria).
However, Turkey has been unsuccessfully trying to establish a base in Tunisia so far, which would at least partially offset Egypt’s logistical advantage in the event of a direct Turkish-Egypt confrontation in Libya. Because in Tunisia the Muslim Brotherhood is also co-ruling, and in 2017 both countries signed a military cooperation agreement, so Erdogan, who visited Tunis in mid-June, hoped that this country would engage in the Libyan conflict.
However, this met with strong resistance from a significant part of the parliament and president Kais Saied, and two weeks later the head of Greek diplomacy came to Tunis, offering support in relations Tunisia – European Union.
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