Turkey biting off more than it can chew in Mediterranean and Libya

Ankara is pitting itself against several regional states through its actions in the Mediterranean and its offer to become more involved in Libya’s conflict.

Turkey’s memorandum of understanding on Mediterranean maritime jurisdictions with Libya’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) late last month infuriated Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece, all of which stress the deal violates international law.

“The deal between Ankara and Tripoli carves out a slanting sea corridor of maritime boundaries at the closest points between Libya and Turkey, potentially clearing the way for oil and gas search there,” Reuters said.

Turkey has already angered regional states and the European Union by sending drilling ships inside Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Ankara insists it has the right to drill offshore of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity only recognised by Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stressed last week that Turkey would “of course” use military force if any other nation conducted drilling in the waters his country claims.

The Jerusalem Post reported the Turkish Navy forced an Israeli research vessel of the coast of Cyprus to turn back two weeks ago. Turkish warships last year blocked a drilling ship leased to Italian energy company Eni southeast of Cyprus, despite being authorised by internationally recognised government of the island. Cyprus, France, and Italy began a joint naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean this month.

Levent Özgül, a Turkish defence analyst and Partner at BlueMelange Consultancy, pointed out that, unlike Turkey, “the allied forces in the Mediterranean are economically stable and fully supported by international law”.

France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the Gulf states, Russia, the United States, Britain, Israel and even Qatar, which has a licensed company operating in the Cypriot EEZ, all have plans that conflict with Turkey’s goals in areas across the eastern Mediterranean, Özgül told Ahval.

These, he said, “include offshore Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus’ EEZ, the Israel-Lebanon Leviathan basin, Crete and offshore Crete, along with the Herodotus basin and offshore and onshore Libya.”

Turkey’s deployment of drones to northern Cyprus is also an “important message to the EU that Turkey is serious,” he said.

Özgül anticipates military confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean and identified “Libya and Crete as the most obvious sites for Turkey, rather than fighting with Israel in Cyprus’s EEZ.”

“But the capabilities of the Turkish Navy and Air Force are too limited to exercise this kind of overseas operation,” he said.

The Turkish military, he said, lacks an aircraft carrier, modern fighter jets as well as “area defence missile systems like the Aegis or Aster-30 and long-range fighter jets capable of conducting combat air patrols far from Turkey’s shores”. The country’s air tanker fleet is also ageing and its drones are short-range, he said.

On top of that, Turkey “doesn’t have any long-range air-to-ship missiles like the Harpoon or Exocet.”

“It only possesses 30-35 km range Penguin anti-ship missiles and domestically-built SOM missiles,” Özgül said. “These are all bottlenecks for Turkey.”

Turkey also signed an agreement with the GNA under which the Tripoli government can request Turkey to deploy troops.

The deal came as General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that is besieging Tripoli, announced he was launching what he called the decisive and final battle for the capital. Turkey has supplied Tripoli with armed drones and armoured vehicles to help the GNA fend off the attack. 

Mohamed Eljarh of Libya Outlook, a research and consulting firm based in eastern Libya, believes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is serious and should not be underestimated.

“Libya is now part of the Turkish foreign policy strategy to expand its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean, the region, and the world,” Eljarh told Ahval.

Pro-government media in Turkey and Libya are preparing public opinion for the possibility of greater Turkish involvement in the conflict, he said.

“With its military capabilities, greater Turkish military involvement in Libya would be significant and would most certainly tip the balance of power in favour of the GNA unless Haftar’s foreign backers increase their support,” Eljarh said.

Haftar’s sees the anger of regional and international powers at the deal between Turkey and the GNA as a golden opportunity to escalate his military operations against Tripoli, he said.

Haftar can do so “without risking condemnation from the EU, due to European opposition and anger over the MoU, or the United Nations Security Council, given that Russia and France are ready to water down any statement or resolution that would lead to direct condemnation of Haftar for the escalation in violence,” Eljarh said.

“Second, Haftar seems to be taking the Turkish threats seriously, and he understands that the only way to stop the Turks from coming is to capture Tripoli,” he said.

But, he said, the only thing that could stop Erdoğan “from going to Libya is the real threat of force, or even war, from countries threatened by the MoU, such as Greece and Cyprus supported by France, Egypt, and Italy … Only then would Erdoğan abandon the ‘edge of the abyss’ approach in favour of a more pragmatic one.”

Tom Cooper, a military aviation expert, pointed out that Turkey already has personnel in Libya operating the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

“Indeed, the recent series of nocturnal air strikes on GNA air bases – all flown by Emirati-operated UCAVs and AT-802U planes – were specifically targeting Turkish control stations for UCAVs,” Cooper said. He said that on Dec. 13, the LNA also targeted a cargo aircraft that had arrived from Turkey.

“The real question is if Erdoğan is going to deploy additional troops to Libya,” Cooper said. “I do consider this within realms of ‘possible’, but also ‘unlikely’.”

As in Syria, he said, Erdoğan had a preference for using “surrogates to avoid exposing Turkish troops to casualties … This is leading to the conclusion that the option of Turkey providing additional military hardware to its allies in Libya is far more likely, indeed certain.”

Even if Turkey does deploy troops in Tripoli, Cooper does not see any serious short-term ramifications.

“Both sides, Turks and Emiratis, have already suffered casualties, including fatalities,” he said. As long “as the number of casualties remains minimal, nothing is going to change.”

Cooper also doubts that Haftar will make much progress in his latest push to capture Tripoli.

“Even if commanded by Russian officers, Haftar’s LNA remains a disparate mixture of forces, and he controls very little of Libya’s population, despite controlling more than two-thirds of the country,” he said.

Therefore, “it is extremely unlikely that anything will significantly change on the frontlines.”