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Why is Turkey sending forces to Libya? The answer is gas

The scramble for gas in the eastern Mediterranean underlies why Ankara is sending forces into a conflict that has nothing to do with Turkish national security
A semi-submersible drilling rig passes under the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul (AFP)

At a special session on 2 January, Turkish MPs passed a bill to send Turkish troops and military equipment to Libya, including new generation of Bayraktar TB2 drones. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had sought parliamentary authorisation to support Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) against field marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), a heterogeneous force backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

Having retreated to Tripoli and suffered heavy losses over the past eight months, the beleaguered GNA supposedly “invited” Turkey to come to the rescue. 

Expanding territorial claims

Erdogan had earlier paid a visit to the new Tunisian president, Kais Saied, to inform him of his decision to support the GNA. The Turkish leader told reporters that plans for a ceasefire and bringing the warring factions back to the negotiating table were also discussed.

But the question is, why would Ankara want to send forces to a non-neighbouring country embroiled in conflict since the 2011 Franco-British intervention - clashes that have nothing to do with Turkish national security? 

Gas exploration and exploitation blocks are located in the waters south of Cyprus, and by laying claim to these waters, Turkey is hoping for a piece of the potential pie

The answer lies in the region’s resource-rich seabed. Erdogan’s latest military escapade is not about fulfilling dreams of neo-Ottoman grandeur, nor, in parallel to such ultranationalist leanings, diverting attention from Turkey’s troubled economy. The operation is chiefly about expanding Ankara’s territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean and securing access to the region’s natural gas deposits. 

On 27 November, Sarraj and Erdogan redrew the boundaries of a maritime corridor, cutting through zones claimed by Greece and Cyprus that allegedly encroach upon Libya’s continental shelf.

Gas exploration and exploitation blocks are located in the waters south of Cyprus, and by laying claim to these waters, Turkey is hoping for a piece of the potential pie. 

The European Council condemned Ankara, stating that the Turkey-Libya agreement infringed upon the sovereign rights of Greece and did not comply with the “law of the sea”. The council reaffirmed its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus on the matter.

Rich in resources

The affair dates back to 1974 when Turkish forces invaded the northern half of Cyprus. But the Greek Republic of Cyprus is the only entity on the island that is internationally recognised. Today, a predominantly Turkish population lives in the northern third, and a predominantly Greek population in the rest. 

Thus, Ankara’s resolve to redefine the island’s exclusive economic zone is really a question of energy exploration in Cypriot waters.

Sizeable deposits of gas have been identified in the area in recent years, including the Calypso field. Nicosia has signed contracts with Shell, Noble and Israel’s Delek. Revenue from the Aphrodite gas field alone is expected to exceed $9bn over the next 18 years.

A Turkish Navy warship patrols next to Turkey’s drilling ship, dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus (Turkish Defence Ministry/AFP)
A Turkish Navy warship patrols next to Turkey’s drilling ship, dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus (Turkish Defence Ministry/AFP)

With few economic resources other than tourism and cultivation of native grapes, Cyprus intends to make the most of the energy windfall.

At the same time, keen to reduce its reliance on Russian supplies, the EU sees this potential energy source in a favourable light. It slapped sanctions on Turkey last July for gas exploration activities off Cyprus, cutting funds allotted to Turkey for 2020 by nearly 146 million euros ($162m).

The US Congress has also sided with the Republic of Cyprus in the territorial and energy exploration rights dispute, voting to lift a 1987 embargo on the sale of arms to Nicosia and condemning Ankara for its offshore drilling activities, further straining fraught US-Turkey relations. 

Nicosia, meanwhile, has purchased four Israeli drones to improve surveillance of the area. Maritime military exercises are becoming a common sight in this part of the Mediterranean, where, in response to Turkey’s equally frequent provocations, nations are flexing their naval muscles - all against a backdrop of great economic expectations.

Israel-Cyprus relations

In November 2018, Greece, Egypt and the Republic of Cyprus carried out a week-long naval exercise off the coast of Crete.

According to the Greek defence minister, “the gas deposits in Crete, especially those deposits south of the island, are already under contract for exploitation. They are critical to developing the natural gas sector in Greece, in terms of both extraction and transport. A gas pipeline linking fields in Egypt, Israel and Cyprus to those in Greece will give the European Union natural and energy resource autonomy.”

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Since gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean were discovered in 2010, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus have strengthened bilateral relations, with a view to harnessing the fossil energy in their respective zones.

In 2018, the two countries, joined by Greece and Italy, ruffled Turkey’s feathers by agreeing on plans for a 2,200-kilometre pipeline, called the EastMed, to transport gas from Israel through Cyprus and Greece into Italy, where it could be transported to the rest of Europe.

The origin of Israel’s natural gas production, extracted in part from Palestinian fields, is also a bone of contention for Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. 

Not only would the whole operation be carried out under the sympathetic eye of the EU, EastMed would also be a direct competitor to TurkStream, the gas pipeline project connecting Russia to Turkey by way of the Black Sea.

Ongoing power struggle

Meanwhile, as Ankara was signing its maritime border agreement with Tripoli, the Turkish navy forced the Israeli research vessel, Bat Galim, out of Cypriot waters. Channel 13 news in Israel reported that an official from the Israeli embassy in Ankara was informed by Turkish authorities that the EastMed gas pipeline needed Turkey’s approval to go ahead.

Previous warnings had been given by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who has said that natural gas operations conducted on the continental shelf without Turkey’s authorisation were strictly forbidden, and that if they occurred, “we will, of course, block them”.

Given the current economic stakes in the region, the prospect of achieving peace, economic growth and reunification in Cyprus appears more remote than ever

In response to this warning - or perhaps as a mere scheduling coincidence - France, Italy and Cyprus conducted a joint naval exercise in Cypriot waters on 12 December.

“The exercise is a joint message of cooperation, determination and solidarity. We intend to freely exercise our sovereign rights and to maintain a climate of stability and security in the eastern Mediterranean,” the Cypriot Ministry of Defence noted.

Since then, the power struggle has shown no signs of letting up. The day of the vote by Turkish MPs, Israel, Cyprus and Greece signed an agreement on the EastMed gas pipeline. The Greek financial daily, Kathimerini, wrote: “Athens is hurrying to finalise the EastMed project to counter any attempt by neighbouring Turkey to stop the project from going ahead.” 

Thus, Cyprus is turning a page in its turbulent history - but given the current economic stakes in the region, the prospect of achieving peace, economic growth and reunification in Cyprus appear more remote than ever.

In addition, for extraction operations to be commercially viable, private companies operating around the island must discover large quantities of natural gas, and there is no guarantee of this. As one University of Nicosia professor put it, “unless a major discovery is made, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing”.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This story originally appeared in the MEE French edition and was translated by Heather Allen. This version has been edited and condensed.

Jean Michel Morel
Jean Michel Morel est collaborateur à la revue ORIENTXXI et écrivain (son dernier roman, Retour à Kobané, a été publié en 2018 par les éditions A-Eurysthée).