Turkey and Libya: a war for Mediterranean gas?
The start of the geopolitical year 2020 is worrying, and not only because of events in Iran and Iraq. The growing importance of Turkey’s role in the Near and Middle East should not leave one indifferent; the country’s plans in the Levant Sea are notable due to this maritime region’s rich natural gas resources which already play a major role in the geopolitics of energy.
On 31st December 2019, gas from the Leviathan field off the coast of Israel began production. It will ramp up in the coming months and thus exceed the production of the other deposit – Tamar – which has produced since 2014. Israel, which was surrounded by oil-producing countries, suddenly saw its energy policy turned upside down; its coal-fired power plants will be replaced by gas-fired plants.
Since December 2017, the Egypt’s offshore Zohr gas field has produced - and brings enormous relief to - the country’s energy supply. But this area is so rich in gas that it will become necessary to export this sought-after energy, especially considering that, as a non-pollutant, gas is the future of energy and the energy of the future. This is why, in 2013, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Didier Reynders, raised the question in an academic way to avoid this abundance becoming a further source of conflict. In response, Egmond, the Royal Institute for International Relations of Belgium, organised a series of meetings at which I had the privilege of making a contribution. The resulting report addresses the various challenges and opportunities of energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine region, in order to examine how the management of new energy resources could act as a vehicle for cooperation rather than conflict between the countries concerned. This has produced positive results: the countries most involved – Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian territories – have created an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in order to strengthen cooperation and promote exploitation natural gas reserves in the region. The next ministerial meeting of this Forum is planned for Cairo during the second half of January 2020; however, there is no doubt that it will take place in a tense atmosphere because of the attitude of Turkey.
Turkey wants its share of the Levant Sea’s gas reserves, from which it considers itself excluded by the application of the United Nations 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (Convention known as “de Montego Bay”). This Convention grants coastal states the possibility of declaring an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), amounting in practice to shifting the borders of a country on the high seas. It has thus made it possible to create a multitude of new borders which have changed the game in the geopolitics of energy, given that often these maritime territories conceal hydrocarbons. This is the case of the Levant Sea, which will soon become the “new Norway” of the south-eastern EU, with new, much-needed gas supplies flowing to member states.
However, Turkey cannot tolerate its exclusion from this new gas group. This is the reason for its December 2019 announcement that it had signed a maritime space-sharing agreement with Libya. Ignoring for the moment the legal specificities of the Convention, this is geographically problematic: between Turkey and Libya lies Crete and other Greek islands, and also Cyprus, making Maritime continuity between Turkey and Libya impossible. Unlike the EU, United States, Russia, Egypt, Israel, and even the governments of eastern Libya of General Haftar, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his sudden ally Fayez el-Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli national agreement government, seem to be the only ones to think that there is a maritime continuity within the meaning of the Convention on the law of the sea between Turkey and Libya. In reality, the only link between these two countries is historical, with Libya part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912.
The European Council of 12th December 2019, recalling its previous conclusions on Turkey, confirms that Turkish drilling activities in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus are illegal and that, “the memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Libya on the delimitation of maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean Sea violates the sovereign rights of third States, is contrary to the law of the sea and cannot have legal consequences for third States. The European Council unequivocally reaffirms its solidarity with Greece and Cyprus with regard to these actions by Turkey.”
This desire by Turkey to appropriate part of the natural gas from the Levant Sea explains its decision taken on 2nd January 2020 to intervene militarily in Libya, and the deployment of troops in the region on 6th January 2020. This manoeuvre threatens to precipitate a broader crisis in the eastern Mediterranean which, in turn, could, on the one hand, complicate Turkey’s relations with Moscow, and with Washington and the main NATO allies on the other. Not to mention that Turkey has neither signed nor ratified the Convention it evokes to justify military intervention in Libya.
Although we do not want to agree with Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that NATO, of which Turkey is a member, is moribund, there is potentially something to understand when considering this crisis.
*Prof Samuel Furfari, engineer and Visiting Professor at ESCP Business School, has devoted his professional life to energy, and particularly to energy policy. He recently retired as a senior European civil servant at the European Commission where he has worked in this field since 1982. He is an Advisor to the European Energy Forum (a body of Members of the European Parliament) and is called upon by the media as an energy expert on a regular basis. He has published seven books, some of which are translated into Spanish and Portuguese and English.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of ESCP Business School.