Turkey signs a military cooperation agreement with Libya

Turkey signed two memoranda of understanding with Libya on Nov. 27, one for military cooperation, the other for the delineation of the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean.

These two memoranda may change several paradigms in the eastern Mediterranean and could further complicate the Libyan crisis.

This article will focus only on the military cooperation agreement.

Libya has become a country controlled by several regional armed groups, but three among them are relatively more important.

One is located in Tripoli and called the Government of National Accord (GNA). It is theoretically united with its rival Tobruk government, but in reality they are at odds with each other. It controls only 6 percent of Libya’s territory, mainly the province of Tripoli. It is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported mainly by Turkey and Qatar.

The second government, called the House of Representative (HoR), is located in Tobruk. It is made up of Libyan members of parliament who are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. It controls almost three-quarters of the country’s 1.7 million square km of territory and is supported by Egypt, France, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It also has the support of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who launched a military operation to seize Tripoli in April.

The third government is active in the south, on the borders with Sudan, Chad and Niger and controls 18 percent of Libya’s territory.

Turkey has refrained from exaggerating the importance of its agreement with Libya. Referring to a statement by an unnamed Turkish official, Turkish media reported that there was no question of sending combat troops to Libya, but that Ankara might send trainers or advisors if the Libyan authorities made a formal request.

Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan crisis may tilt the military balance in favour of the Tripoli government, but it is difficult to foretell to what extent. Haftar’s forces have besieged Tripoli for months, but the GNA has so far fought them off. After Turkey signed the agreement with Tripoli government, Haftar announced that he would consider Turkish troops in Libya a legitimate target.

The most important recent development in the Libyan crisis is Russia’s involvement on the Tobruk government’s side. The New York Times reported in early November that Russia had sent regular army troops to Libya in addition to the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries already fighting on Haftar’s side.

It is an embarrassing situation for Turkey to be on opposing sides with Russia in the land of a third country. Russia would probably do its best to avoid antagonising Ankara, because it is conducting a successful campaign to distance Turkey from NATO. Libya is also important for Russia, but Moscow has more at stake keeping Turkey on its side.

The Libyan crisis is moving towards a more complex stage. If Haftar subdues the Tripoli government, Turkey may lose the advantage it had gained by signing the maritime boundaries agreement, because the general may denounce it. He may do so despite the fact that the agreement enlarges Libya’s maritime boundaries.

The same could go for Egypt as well. The maritime boundaries agreement signed between Egypt, Greek Cypriots and Greece assumes the islands of Cyprus and Crete have their own continental shelves. Therefore, their maritime boundary is the median line between the Egyptian shoreline and the southern limits of the continental shelves of Crete and Cyprus.

This maritime boundary naturally runs further north when it is assumed that Crete and Cyprus have no continental shelves, as is the case in Turkey-Libya agreement. By moving the median line further north, Egypt would gain 40,000 square miles of maritime territory. It remains to be seen whether Cairo will stick to the agreement that it signed with the Greek Cypriots and Greece or ask for a revision after noting the advantages the Turkey-Libya agreement accords to Egypt.

Turkey made a creative move by signing the two accords with Libya. It was a move long overdue, but it is a bet with uncertain consequences.


© Ahval English

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