On 27 November 2019, the Libyan Government of National Unity signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey on Mediterranean maritime sovereignty. No sooner had the details of the memorandum been made public than it was rejected by figures from the camp of retired general Khalifa Haftar as well as a number of Mediterranean countries, most prominently Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel. Despite both sides claiming that the Presidential Council does have the power to sign a memorandum of this kind and that it poses no threat to the economic and security interests of neighbouring countries, denunciations continue.
The Memorandum of Understanding
The memorandum’s preamble states that both sides “have decided to work to fairly and justly delineate [their] maritime areas [in accordance with] the powers provided for by international law.” The remaining sections of the agreement concern the delineation of the “coastal waters and the pure economic zone” in accordance with specific geographical coordinates, registering these borders with the UN, how to solve disputes concerning them and how to review and amend them. The map attached to the memorandum shows the borders of the two countries’ respective areas of maritime sovereignty.
As far as the delineation of maritime borders between the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean is concerned, the memorandum is far from unprecedented. Egypt and Cyprus signed a similar agreement in 2013, after which both countries (along with Israel and Greece) began searching for gas and oil in large areas of the Mediterranean. In recent years many other agreements have been signed, and others – including Tunisia – are expected to sign their own agreements in the near future.
Libyan Parties’ Positions
The signing of the memorandum has met with very different responses from different political bodies and entities within Libya, with the division largely aligning with divisions between supporters of Khalifa Haftar on the one hand and supporters of the Government of National Unity on the other. Ahmad Al Mismari, the official spokesman of Haftar’s forces, announced their “rejection of the agreement signed between Turkey and Sarraj”, warning that “military force will be deployed to prevent any violation of Libyan sovereignty” – despite the fact that the agreement, far from violating Libyan sovereignty, enshrines it in an international agreement. Members of the Tobruk parliament expressed similar sentiments and called for “withdrawal of international recognition of Sarraj’s government”. On the other side, the GNU Presidential Council quickly ratified the memorandum and ordered the relevant bodies to implement it, and members of the Tripoli Assembly declared that it “cannot be considered to infringe upon or throw away Libya’s sovereignty and independence, and does not constitute a violation of international law.“
The powers of the GNU’s Presidential Council have been one of the major points of controversy regarding the memorandum. While the opposition contend that the Presidential Council does not have the power to accept memoranda of this kind, its supporters argue that it represents the internationally-recognised legitimate government, meaning that it has the right to conclude treaties and agreements in the name of the Libyan state. Article 8 Paragraph 2H of the 2015 Skhirat Agreement stipulates that “concluding international agreements and treaties” is one of the Council’s functions, “on the condition that they are ratified by the Parliament”. Article 8 Paragraph 9 states that one of the functions of the GNU Council of Ministers is to “negotiate international agreements and treaties”. The ongoing schism between two parliaments, one in Tobruk and one in Tripoli – as well as the expiry of both parliaments’ terms – provide another bone of contention with regard to the interpretation of the memorandum and how far it accords with the legal stipulations of the Libyan Political Settlement. But this controversy notwithstanding, approaching the memorandum from a legal perspective is not very useful in a Libyan scene governed by complex local, regional and international considerations where actors have little concern for constitutional niceties.
Exacerbation of the Regional Crisis in Libya
The signing of the memorandum of understanding with Turkey has added a new element to the ongoing conflict in Libya. As far as the GNU is concerned, Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli from April 2019 represents an existential threat: the former general’s stated aim is to wipe out pro-GNU forces, overturn the Skhirat Agreement and put an end to a Presidential Council that has lost legitimacy and “protects terrorist groups”. Although Sarraj has presented no real opposition to Haftar’s control of the eastern region, Jafra, the oil crescent and the south – as well as some Western cities – the latter has shown himself unwilling to accept any partnership or political solution. And while the GNU’s forces successfully absorbed the initial shock of last spring’s offensive, checked its advance around the capital’s southern outskirts and managed to reclaim the strategically important city of Gharyan, Tripoli and its infrastructure remain under constant threat of shelling. Likewise, cities like Misrata and Zawiya have been targeted by airstrikes for the first time since the fall of Gaddhafi.
The GNU’s Presidential Council knows that Haftar draws much of his power from the material, financial, logistical, political and media support he receives from his regional and international allies: the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Russia and France. It also knows full well that the extensive foreign interventions in his favour have nothing to do with the signing of the memorandum and are not a response to it. The impact of this support has been manifest since the Battle of Tripoli began, with Emirati drones and APCs and Egyptian and French weaponry and expert advisors playing a prominent role. There have also been several reports over the last few weeks pointing to the participation of Russian mercenaries and Janjaweed militiamen in Tripoli, some details of which have been openly confirmed by Mismari.
As a result, when the Battle for Tripoli began the Presidential Council scrambled to find potential regional backers to create a relative balance with the other side. Within the first few days of the offensive Sarraj had travelled to Turkey and met with Erdogan, who declared that his country recognises the Presidential Council and the GNU as the sole legitimate authority in Libya and expressed a willingness to help repel the attack on Tripoli. Although neither side gave details on the support that Turkey was planning to provide, in subsequent weeks Turkish APCs and other military equipment began arriving in Tripoli without any official comment from the GNU (although GNU-linked media outlets did report on their arrival on the Libyan coast). In the last few weeks there have been indications that more Turkish materiel has arrived, including highly developed ground-to-air missiles that have allowed the GNU to down a fighter controlled by Haftar in Zawiya and a drone in Misrata.
Although foreign involvement has been a distinctive feature of the Libyan scene since the Revolution first broke out in February 2011, regional and international competition over the country has intensified since the recent offensive on the capital, to the extent that the GNU’s Interior Ministry, Fathi Bashagha, recently described the attacking forces as “a multi-national force”. Things are only likely to escalate in the near future. Under an early security memorandum, Erdogan declared that his country is prepared to put boots on the ground in Libya if the GNU asks for them; his comments have coincided with the arrival of more weapons shipments to all sides in the conflict. At the same time, Haftar and his supporters’ have mobilised to seize Tripoli and pre-empt any outcome of the Berlin Conference, with the man himself exhorting his troops to advance to the heart of the city.
As well as the ongoing conflict in Libya, the size of the projected oil and gas deposits involved represent the main reason for the exaggerated sensitivity with which other eastern Mediterranean countries – particularly Egypt and Greece – have responded to this memorandum, with Greece going so far as to expel the Libyan ambassador. According to a 2010 report by the US Geological Survey, there are as many as 107 billion barrels of crude oil and 122 trillion cubic metres of gas under the east Mediterranean seabed. This sort of volume would be enough to breathe new life into Mediterranean countries’ economies and modify their energy balances for many years to come. To these projected deposits can be added other deposits discovered over the last few years, some of which have begun to be extracted: the Cypriot Aphrodite field, the Egyptian-run fields in the Nile Delta, and the fields exploited by Israel off the Palestinian coastline.
As well as the broader economic implications, Turkey and other Eastern Mediterranean powers have concluded that their share in these deposits will help to determine their future geostrategic role in the region. All indicators suggest that this tug of war is only likely to intensify in the coming days, given Turkish officials’ announcement that drillships have been sent to the maritime areas covered by the memorandum and exploratory efforts have begun – presenting Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel with a fait accompli disregarding their interests (as well as those of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine). Statements made by Turkish officials after the signing of the memorandum show that the regional struggle for influence was at the forefront of Turkish calculations and that they believe it has foiled regional and international plans to isolate Turkey and limit its regional influence. Erdogan has stated that “Egypt, Greek Cyprus, Greece and Israel all try at different times to impose their sovereignty over the region in isolation from Turkey”, and that the memorandum “has foiled certain conspiracies against [Turkey].”
The signing of the Libyan-Turkish memorandum on maritime sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean has coincided with increased tensions both within and outside Libya. On Tripoli’s southern outskirts Haftar’s forces are mobilising in a new attempt to seize the capital and both the western and eastern regions, enjoying both significant regional support and direct participation from foreign armed groups. Regionally, the struggle for influence and for control over the lion’s share of oil and gas deposits between states overlooking the eastern Mediterranean is intensifying. At the same time, Russian military influence in MENA a major actor on the Libyan scene. All these factors are driving towards a likely further escalation within both Libya itself and the Mediterranean more broadly.
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