Experts: Eastern Mediterranean deal with Libya signals Turkey's future deeds in region

President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an (R) and Fayez al-Sarraj (L), the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), pose during their meeting in Istanbul, Nov. 27, 2019. (AFP)

The Turkey-Libya deal carries historical importance since it not only secures both countries' rights in the region but also suggest further similar moves that might change the fate of the entire basin

Turkey signed a mutually beneficial deal with Libya over the Eastern Mediterranean last week to secure both countries' rights in the region. According to experts, with this historical move in one of the most debated regions in the world, Turkey has not only proven its capabilities to the world in a manner that is compatible with international law but also signaled its future intentions in the region, as similar moves are likely occur over time.

"Despite political disagreements (with some regional countries), this deal might result in the signing of further deals," said Mustafa Başkara, an academic from Ankara Social Sciences University, underlining that a very active diplomatic process is ahead for Turkey.

"Until now, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) were not a highly discussed topic by Turkey but from now on, we will see it as one of the main agenda topics for the country," he said.

Infographic by Büşra Öztürk

Turkey and Libya signed two separate deals Wednesday following a meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the head of the Presidential Council of Libya's U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al Sarraj, in Istanbul. One of the deals was critically important as it enabled Turkey to secure its rights in the Mediterranean while preventing any fait accompli by other regional states.

In Başkara's opinion, coming to terms with Turkey would be beneficial for other regional countries as well. For instance, Egypt has been put in a disadvantageous position right now by signing a deal with Greece, since an agreement with Turkey would benefit the country more.

According to Cem Gürdeniz, a retired admiral, it cannot be expected from Turkey to make a deal with Greece in the region at this point. However, Gürdeniz said, if political developments pave the way for the recovery of the ties, there can be some deals with Egypt and even Syria in the future.

"Currently, Turkey has not declared an EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, bilateral states have been taking (similar) steps for years, especially the Greek Cypriot Administration, Israel and Lebanon," Başkara said, adding that the latest developments have led Turkey to make such a move.

"We (as Turkey,) were assuming that our natural right to the continental shelf was enough for us to secure our rights in the region. We were assuming that it was not necessary to declare the exclusive economic zone since it would not have a major effect. However, developments that took place in the last eight years have led Turkey to make this move," he said.

In Gürdeniz's opinion, with this deal, Turkey now has legitimate grounds to declare its own EEZ in the region.

Although there are varying estimates, most figures suggest that the Eastern Mediterranean region has over 70 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or approximately 1.5% of the overall natural gas reserves in the world. Most of this natural gas is found in the fields of the island of Cyprus' Glaucus, the Aphrodite and Calypso areas, Israel's Leviathan and Egypt's Zohr.

"This is the first real step that Tukey has taken in the Eastern Mediterranean," said İslam Safa Kaya, an academic from Kırıkkale University. "With such a maneuver, Turkey also became able to cut Greece's connection with Greek Cyprus. We have been talking about such a move for years and finally, it happened," he said.

Kaya explained that declaring an exclusive economic zone would determine the victor powers in the region since it means a country's claim to the seas.

"A territorial field means a field country while territorial waters mean a sea country. Turkey does not have a country over the seas yet. Greece does not have it either. The one which declares it first would be the victor. Currently, with this deal, Turkey is in the advanced position," he stressed.

New perspective to shorelines

This deal brings a new perspective to Turkey's shoreline. With a three-dimensional viewpoint, it maximizes the country's maritime boundaries and shows that Turkey's border districts of Marmaris, Fethiye and Kaş are actually neighbors with Libya's Derna, Tobruk and Bardiya districts.

"In 2009, Admiral Cihat Yaycı came up with the idea for the first time and now, the Turkey-Libya deal has been signed in accordance with this idea. This deal became one of the major cornerstones in protecting the 'Blue Motherland' (maritime boundaries of Turkey) as well as presenting (Turkey's case) to the international community in a lawful way," Gürdeniz said.

Kaya, on the other hand, emphasized that although this is a good beginning, it is not enough. "We hope to have similar deals with other countries in the region as well," he said.

The reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean carry great importance, especially for Europe – the continent with the least natural gas reserves in the world – which is desperate to remove its dependence on Russia on the issue. So far, only of 3.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean, and yet, this alone became enough for Europe to increase its hope, which led it to support the Greek Cypriot Administration in its search.

However, Europe is not alone in its search for alternative natural gas resources as Turkey also has a major dependence on foreign states – particularly Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan – when it comes to energy and seeks substitutes for it.

Yet, as a difference from Europe's ambitions, Turkey has the longest shoreline in the Eastern Mediterranean, making it a natural candidate for seeking reserves in the region in accordance with international law. The presence of the Turkish Cypriot government in Northern Cyprus also strengthens Turkey's hands as the country defends the rights of the Turkish Cypriots in the region and insists that their consent is needed for any type of drilling activities.

For Kaya, this deal is also crucial because it is made with a country with global recognition, unlike Northern Cyprus.

"Libya is a state that is recognized by the U.N. and international law. Turkey has taken such a state by its side. It is a very crucial historical move," Kaya underlined.

Despite the fact that Turkey has the longest shoreline in the region, when it comes to the drilling activities, no country has felt the need to consult or engage in dialogue with Ankara on the issue. Still, until very recently, Ankara expressed willingness to establish dialogue channels with the various regional countries, and yet all its attempts fell flat with no response. Egypt even organized the East Mediterranean Gas Forum this year, inviting all the regional countries, except for Turkey.

Before the coup took place in Egypt, Ankara and Cairo planned to have joint naval maneuvers in the region. However, following the coup, as bilateral ties worsened, these plans were removed from the agenda as Turkey was replaced with Greece in the joint activities of Egypt.

As a matter of fact, the effect of wretched bilateral ties emerges as a common pattern when it comes to Turkey's journey in the Eastern Mediterranean. For instance, since the beginning of the 2000s, the regional countries began making deals with the Greek Cypriot Administration, a country that Ankara does not recognize as a state, on the exclusive economic zones, which are all defined as unlawful by Turkey and were brought up to the U.N.

According to Talha Şeker, a researcher at the Association of Middle East and Africa Researchers, since 2009, the Eastern Mediterranean is becoming a scene for both cooperation and rivalry of regional and international actors.

"Turkey, as every other regional power, is trying to make use of the opportunities in the region," Şeker said, underlining that these types of moves are necessary when new energy routes are being determined in the region.

Şeker also expressed that the aim of the regional and international actors in the region is to share the natural gas reserves before Libya reaches political stability.

Libya's borders saved from Greece

The experts state that this deal secures both Turkey's and Libya's maritime borders in face of Greece's unilateral "expansionist" policies, such as claiming that the island of Crete also has an exclusive economic zone, and by doing so is extorting one-third of the area that belongs to Libya in the region.

"Following this deal, Greece's maximalist actions that are infringing the rights of its neighbors will be limited," Gürdeniz said.

For Başkara, however, until now, Greece was benefiting from the gaps emerging due to Libya's political turmoil, which will no longer be possible.

"Libya made a decision and decided that it will determine its own borders and not let countries like Greece cross its borders," he said.

Libya has remained dogged by turmoil since 2011 when a NATO-backed uprising led to the ouster and death of former President Moammar Gadhafi after more than four decades in power.

Since then, Libya's stark political divisions have yielded two rival seats of power, one in Tobruk and another in Tripoli, and a host of heavily-armed militia groups. The military, pushed by Khalifa Haftar's army, allied with a parallel eastern administration based in Benghazi, marking a dangerous escalation of a power struggle that has dragged on since Gadhafi's overthrow. Haftar is not recognized by the international community, as the elected parliament of the country is centered in Tripoli.

In Şeker's opinion, back in 1974, the biggest support and money for Turkey's Cyprus operation came from Libya, which was reciprocated by Turkish businessman in the form of investment to the Mediterranean country. Today, we see a similar process, Şeker underlined, since Turkey is planning to invest in various sectors, from weaponry to construction, in Libya.

Turkey's journey in the region

As a mostly "lone" actor in the region, Turkey has attempted to secure its rights in the region, first in early 2000s then in 2006 when the country launched Operation Mediterranean Shield to protect its rights. Since then, more than 20 illegal drilling activities have been stopped by Turkey.

In October, the country's Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez announced Ankara's strong stance in the region, underlining that Turkey will not "back down" in its cause. The statement came following the sending of the country's drilling ship, Yavuz, to the region, a move that was heavily criticized by the EU, with a threat of sanctions, by the U.S., the U.N. and Greek Cyprus.

Yet, the threats and criticism did not stop Ankara in pursuing its aim and now, Turkey, as a guarantor nation for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), is carrying out hydrocarbon exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean with two drilling vessels, Fatih and Yavuz, along with the Oruç Reis and Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa seismic vessels in the same region.

According to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, while a country is able to stretch its territorial waters only 12 nautical miles out to sea, when it comes to the exclusive economic zone, where it has the rights to fishing, mining and drilling, the area can extend for an additional 200 miles. However, if the maritime distance between the two countries is less than 424 miles, a bilateral deal is needed to determine a mutually agreed dividing line of their respective exclusive economic zones.

Greece, on the other hand, claims that the islands also have their exclusive economic zones, and with this claim, it reduces Turkey's zone remarkably.

"According to maritime law, the fields have priority over waters. If your shoreline is long, then you have to have a maritime border that is in accordance with that," said Başkara, hinting at Turkey's rights in the region.

Başkara also clarified that according to international law, if there are two neighboring countries, a line between them is first drawn, followed by the islands in between them, which are then taken into consideration.

"Thus, Turkey states that islands like Crete should not be taken under the consideration while drawing the line of the exclusive economic zone, just as international law states," Başkara said, pointing to Greece's wrongdoings in the region.

Criticism by Greece, Greek Cypriot Administration

Although Turkey has merely pursued its international right by making a deal with Libya, it has still received major criticism, specifically by Greece and Greek Cypriots.

The Greek Cypriot Administration's foreign ministry claimed Friday that a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two countries has no legal validity and can't undermine the rights of the island of Cyprus or other coastal states. It said Turkey's "distortion" of international law doesn't afford it any legal rights and demonstrates that Ankara is alone in its views.

Reacting to the deal, Greece claimed that the move was against international maritime law as well as the principles of good-neighborly ties. According to German media service dpa, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias summoned Turkey's Athens Envoy Burak Özügergin, demanding an explanation for the case. Greek media outlets, on the other hand, questioned if this move was enough and suggested that a policy shift in the country's stance in Libya might be necessary. The Greek daily Proto Thema said Friday the summoning of the Turkish envoy was not enough and supporting Haftar's forces should be considered a political move to strengthen Greek's hands in the region. Meanwhile, Haftar forces also denounced the agreement on Thursday.

Experts claim that these critical moves will continue from Greece and some other states in the region in the upcoming period.

"Greece would urge the EU to impose sanctions. So would the Greek Cypriot Administration as well. However, in order for these measures to be valid, Greece first has to make a deal with Haftar, determining their maritime zones, a counter move to Turkey's deal," Kaya said, underlining that whoever wins in Libya will determine the ultimate winner in the region as well.

Kaya also underlined that while Turkey is siding with one state, Libya, Greece and the Greek Cypriot Administration are backed by 25 EU states.

"Yet, this does not change the fact that Turkey is right," he said.

*Şeyma Nazlı Gürbüz / Daily Sabah

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