Greece and Turkey's face-off in the Libyan quagmire

The second Libyan civil war has entered a crucial phase in recent weeks, as the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its allies have made significant gains on the Tripoli front and managed to capture the city of Sirte, almost without firing a single bullet. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a dangerous bet by deciding to turn Turkey into Tripoli government's military and political patron. The signing of two memoranda of understanding between the Turkish government and Government of National Accord (GNA), one on maritime borders and the other one on military cooperation, have forced Greece to intervene in the Libyan crisis and declare allegiance with the Libyan House of Representatives (HoR) and the LNA.

The Greek government considers the Turkey-Libya maritime borders memorandum a blatant violation of international law and an attack on Greece's sovereign rights.

Until late November, when the Turkey-GNA memoranda were signed, Greece kept a neutral position over Libya, and it did not show any appetite to take sides in favour of any of the warring factions. The previous Greek government made a very modest try in late 2016 to broker a settlement between GNA and Egypt, and the Greek former Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias met with Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. However, that half-baked diplomatic effort fell flat, and Libya disappeared again from Greece's diplomatic radar.

However, Erdoğan's move to create a fait accompli in the Mediterranean alarmed the Greek government and has triggered a major policy shift in Athens. 

Greece has now become HoR and LNA's most vocal supporter in the West, siding with its Arab allies Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Greek parliament hosted HoR speaker Agila Saleh in Athens, while the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited the leader of LNA, Khalifa Haftar, in Benghazi in December, marking the first visit of a Greek official to eastern Libya since the start of the war. The bilateral ties were further developed since then; Haftar visited Athens on Thursday and met both with Dendias and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

The Greek government has made the cancellation of the Turkey-GNA maritime deal a major priority of the Greek foreign and national security policy and notified its European partners that it aims to block any political resolution of the European Union regarding the Libyan crisis unless the controversial agreement is cancelled. Ahead of the Berlin Conference, which aims to establish a permanent ceasefire in Libya, the Greek premier has made clear to his German counterpart Angela Merkel that Athens is annoyed for not being invited and it will not stand idle while its sovereign rights are violated by an illegal agreement.

Despite the escalation of tensions between Athens and Ankara over Erdoğan's plans for the Mediterranean, there's been a revival of talks between the two governments that could eventually lead to official negotiations over the delimitation of the sea borders in the Aegean and the extension of each country's exclusive economic zone. However, such negotiations have failed in the past and are destined to fail again since Turkey maintains that the Greek islands do not constitute Greek sovereign rights on the continental shelf. This major dispute could eventually be a matter to be solved by the International Court of Justice(ICJ) in The Hague, but Turkey's arguments over the ownership of dozens of small islands and islets in Aegean makes things much more complicated.

The Turkish president's announcement of oil exploration actions by Turkey in areas in the Mediterranean that are claimed by Greece has raised alarms in Athens and the Greek government is conducting political and military plans on how to respond to potential Turkish actions. 

During his recent visit to Washington, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reiterated Greece's 'red lines' to the U.S. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. security officials. According to Greek officials, the Trump administration seemed to comprehend how severe the situation is becoming between Greece and Turkey. 

The Greek premier insists that Athens wants to avoid a confrontation with Ankara and will do whatever it can to prevent an escalation. However, the Greek government is reportedly determined to react accordingly in case Turkey chooses to act within Greece's territorial waters.

The Greek government hopes that a major crisis with Turkey can be avoided if the disputed Turkey-Libya maritime deal is eventually cancelled through the Libyan peace negotiations. Though, it is clear that one of the major objectives of Turkey's intervention in the Libyan crisis is the establishment of the maritime status quo that is described in the memorandum. 

The Turkish president has made clear in his latest op-ed that peace is not possible in Libya unless Turkey's interests are preserved. It, therefore, remains to be seen if the Libyan quagmire will drive Turkey and Greece into a head-on confrontation or it will eventually trigger some serious negotiations over a final settlement between the two countries.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.