In the latest in a series of provocative actions linked to the exploration of oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey recently carried out naval exercises in an area of the sea that Greece also considers its own territorial waters. In doing so, Turkey confronts an energy cartel named the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which includes Egypt, Israel, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and the Palestinian Authority.
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
The European Union is seeking to mediate, and French President Emmanuel Macron said that the situation is so worrying that France will strengthen its naval contingent in the eastern Mediterranean. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
At the beginning of August, Egypt and Greece signed an agreement — one that Turkey declared “null and void,” not surprisingly — to delimit their exclusive economic zones (EEZs, which are the sea areas in which a state exercises its authority) to allow private individuals to exploit marine and submarine resources. These agreements are regulated bilaterally by the states, even if there is an international framework. The aim was to limit Turkish ambitions in the area and respond to a clear provocation on Ankara’s part: its 2019 signing of a memorandum in Istanbul with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli on exclusive economic zones and military cooperation.
The Libyan pawn
The Libya-Turkey agreement — which the EMFG does not accept, charging that it violates the Montego Bay Convention of 1982 — had two main objectives: to define the Turkish and Libyan EEZs, respectively, to exploit energy resources; and to allow Turkey to provide military assistance to the GNA in the current Libyan civil war. Ankara’s broader aim is to preempt any possible EMGF project in the area as long as Turkey remains excluded from the group. If the EMGF countries — which in some cases have very tense relations with Ankara — continue to exclude Turkey (or even move to block Turkey from accessing a gas field within its own EEZ, based on an interpretation of the Montego Bay Convention), Turkey could use it as pretext to adopt a more aggressive strategy. In such a scenario, Ankara could put forward international legal obstacles to prevent gas from being released into the region, making it less cost-effective to extract it.
The agreement sparked the ire of the GNA’s rival in Libya, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who commands the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army and initiated a siege on Tripoli in April. He has been backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates since 2014. They see Libya not only as an optimal platform for expanding their economic aims, but also as a game board for an ideological confrontation with Turkey and Qatar — political representations of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a sworn enemy for Egypt and the dynasties of Gulf.
Libya, in this sense, represents an extraordinary possibility for Abu Dhabi to see its medium-power aims realized, as well as for Cairo to expand its area of influence westward. In fact, Libya’s eastern, coastal region of Cyrenaica has always been a land of trade and deep tribal ties with Egypt. Lately, Cairo has aimed to play a central role in crisis scenarios in the broader Mediterranean, where the problems of the Palestinians intersect with those of the Syrians and Libyans, and where the energy resources are enormous interests that go well beyond the Mediterranean basin.
In this context, France seeks to play a leading role: Paris has for some time taken positions opposed to Ankara (on Turkey’s NATO membership, natural gas, migrants, and Libya), and recent months it has strongly supported initiatives by Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus against Turkey. Earlier this year, it asked to become a member of the EMGF, while the United States asked to become a permanent observer. France sees these steps as an opportunity to strengthen its strategy in the Mediterranean. More broadly, though, Europe does not currently have a real strategy to contain Turkey.
The fundamental role of the U.S.
The United States considers this area one of great strategic interest, especially for containing Chinese and Russian interference through regional alignments and allies. The policy objective is to keep the main maritime trade routes — first of all the Suez Canal — safe. In this sense, the goal is to minimize the opportunities for confrontation between the countries of the region, especially with two NATO members involved, Turkey and Greece, and potentially now France.
The void left by the United States in the political dynamics of the Mediterranean has been filled, to a growing extent, by China and Russia. The two powers are able to maneuver well in the region, taking advantage of the increasing systemic disorder and growing tensions between states. America should act to prevent this.
Washington should start with Libya, pushing the peace process diplomatically and — if the Libyans request it — also militarily through the United Nations, which could organize an international contingent to establish security and create the conditions to revise the November 2019 Turkey-GNA memorandum. This is a fundamental starting point, because only with a stable Libya will the current dynamics among the regional powers wane.
At the same time, the U.S. should leverage the allies of the EMGF to arrive at more flexible positions towards Turkey, recognizing its legitimate interests to become a EMGF partner and to have the chance to engage in joint resource exploitation and revenue sharing (and recognizing its terrible economic situation). In exchange, Turkey should contain its regional ambitions, bearing in mind that an armed conflict between these Mediterranean powers would be catastrophic.