Turkey-Libya deal likely to sharpen maritime disagreements

The maritime agreement Turkey signed with Libya last month has ratcheted up tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, yet analysts say it is non-binding and mainly intended to improve Turkey’s negotiating position in the chase for the area’s natural resources. 

U.S. officials have called the Turkey-Libya deal provocative, as Turkey claims areas previously claimed by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey has submitted the deal to the United Nations for registration, while Greece has dismissed it as non-existent. 

Yunus Emre Açıkgönül, former Turkish diplomat and expert on international maritime law, tended toward Athens’ view. 

“They cannot just define the boundaries by themselves without the agreement of other affected third parties. This is a very basic rule of international maritime boundary law,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “This agreement is not binding on other countries...It is very aggressive, excessive, and without legal basis.”

Açıkgönül pointed out that with the Libya deal Turkey expanded its claim in the Eastern Mediterranean from 150,000 square kilometres to 190,000 square kilometres, which is more than triple the maritime area Greece allots to Turkey. Countries in maritime boundary disputes often begin by making an extreme claim, much like a seller starts with a high price. 

“I think the Turks are interested in negotiating a better deal,” Steven A. Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval in a podcast. “They would be putting themselves in a better position if they weren’t seen as needlessly aggressive on a variety of issues around the region.” 

Setting aside the aggressiveness of the deal itself, in the past year Turkey has sent several drillships and military vessels to the waters around Cyprus. Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey would “of course” use military force if any other nation conducted drilling in the waters it claims. Days later Turkey landed an armed drone on the Turkish Cypriot side of the island, spurring Greece to buy its own armed drones.

For Cook, this move underscored the extraordinary military imbalance between Turkey, the second largest military in NATO, and tiny Cyprus. 

“Turkey has the ability to manufacture its own weapons systems and Cyprus literally doesn’t have a boat to go out there and look at what the Turks are doing,” he said. “All of the actors there would love to have Turkey involved in it, but for Turkey’s needlessly aggressive posture.”

One of the reasons Cyprus is so limited military is a U.S. arms embargo in place since 1987. As part of a defence bill the Senate passed this week, the United States lifted that embargo, and could soon begin making deals with Nicosia. Turkey has vowed escalation if the United States starts shipping arms to Cyprus. 

To some extent, Cook understands the Turkish perspective on the eastern Mediterranean, pointing to growing natural gas and security cooperation between Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, and an increasing Russian presence, highlighted by Moscow committing this week to invest $500 million in the port at Tartus, Syria. 

“The Turks fear they will be constrained in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Cook. “Anybody fairly looking at the map can see that.” 

Both analysts suspected Turkey saw a friendly government in Tripoli and decided to make a deal that would increase its potential Mediterranean footprint, promising something significant in return. Indeed, after meeting Government of National Accord leader Fayez al

Sarraj in Istanbul on Sunday, Erdoğan said Turkey would be willing to send troops to Libya if Sarraj requested them. 

Cook saw this move as driven by domestic politics, pointing to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) losses in local elections earlier this year, the new party led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the expected party of former economic tzar Ali Babacan.  

“You have a potential fracturing of the party,” said Cook. “Erdoğan is desperate to demonstrate himself as a leader, something that I think resonates across the political spectrum but particularly with his core constituency.” 

A key reason Turkey’s maritime dealings are being driven by domestic concerns rather than international law, according to Açıkgönül, is the foreign ministry’s dismissal of some 500 diplomats after the 2016 coup attempt, accusing them of links to exiled cleric Fethullah Gilen, whom Ankara sees as behind the failed putsch. 

“The Turkish foreign ministry purged a lot of diplomats and many of those were international law experts,” Açıkgönül said, adding that the Libya deal may have suffered as a result. “People who are guiding this process are not lawyers or legal experts.”

In recent decades, there have been some 400 overlapping maritime claims around the world, and about half have been resolved thus far, mostly via bilateral or trilateral agreements without external mediation of judgement, according to Açıkgönül. He can’t see this happening anytime soon in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

“When I look at the picture right now, what’s happening politically, militarily, strategically, I see very little possibility that there will be an agreement,” he said. 

The second alternative is taking the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for which both parties, or all parties if it is more than two, need to give consent.  

Açıkgönül pointed to a long-running maritime dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia, which was finally decided by the ICJ in 2012. Even in that case, Colombia did not consent to the court, but was rather compelled to accept the court’s involvement due to its commitment to the Bogota Pact, a previously signed treaty between Latin American states. 

Turkey could not be so compelled, as it has signed no similar pact. Açıkgönül recalled how in 1978 Greece sought to take Turkey to the ICJ over a dispute in the Aegean, but was rejected because it was determined Turkey had not given consent. 

“It’s very very exceptional that both parties would like to go to the court,” he said. “That’s the problem.” 

© Ahval English

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