For Ankara, Libya is a strategic treasure. Libya opens for Turkey a sphere of influence that the Ottoman Empire was not far from just 100 years ago. This can allow Turkey to build a permanent military and political presence that can be used to pressure regional opponents not very far from Libya, namely Greece, Egypt, and Greek Cyprus. Libya is also the main port of illegal immigration to Southern Europe, a serious issue that has exploded after the collapse of Gaddafi regime. Smuggling people from countries of the Coast and Middle Africa has become a large source of income for the gangs and militias that have actual control over the west and south of Libya. By controlling these lines, Turkey can reinforce its use of the card of refugees and immigrants to threaten Europe. In addition, Libya is another port to Africa, especially the Islamic countries of the Coast and Western Africa.
These geopolitical goals of Turkey’s intervention in Libya are motivated by yet another more pressing goal; benefiting from Libya’s energy profile and linking it to the dispute over the eastern Mediterranean gas. This was obvious in the agreement between Ankara and Sarraj government, which established for Turkey’s military intervention under the pretext of protecting the “internationally recognized government”, extending the conflict in Libya at the same time to be governed by the mechanisms of conflict over the eastern Mediterranean gas. Thus, Turkey has linked the Libyan profile to the Blue Homeland/Mavi Vatan strategy which was previously limited to the asserting Turkey’s military and economic dominance over its surrounding waters in the Black Sea, the straits, the Marmara Sea, and the Mediterranean, including exploration in the fields disputed over with Cyprus in the name of defending Greek Cyprus.
What are the geo-economics determinants of Turkey’s energy policies in the region?
Turkey is a poor country in terms of energy resources, as it imports 90% of its oil needs from nearby countries, mainly Iran, Iraq, KSA, and Russia. In producing power, which is increasingly needed due to population and economic reasons, Turkey depends on natural gas at up to 40%, yet it imports 99% of the natural gas from Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran. Thus, Turkey is completely dependent on imported energy, making it more prone to economic crises resulting from fluctuations in the international energy market. Ankara’s attempts to decrease this “dependence” on imports by finding alternative renewable and nuclear energy and synthetic fuel were not able to achieve such a goal.
In spite of this dependence, Turkey aimed at becoming a key energy market by concluding deals for importing oil and gas to meet its internal needs, and making use of its geographic location to transfer gas from energy producers (Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq) to energy consumers in Europe. This latter dimension shows in Turkey’s participation in the construction of many gas pipelines, mainly projects like the South Caucasus Pipeline/Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum Pipeline, the Turkey-Greece Interconnector, and the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline. These projects are just a part of the southern gas pathway, which is expected to be connected to another project, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. Ankara is also involved in another gas pipeline from Russia, Turk Stream, across the Black Sea.
These developed and under development pipelines are expected to diversify Turkey’s gas importation resources, in addition to its huge returns to the Turkish economy and its effect to decrease the strategic impact of dependence on energy importation. Besides these economic returns, which are transforming Turkey into an energy hub in the Middle East and Southern Europe, Ankara works on turning energy into a pressure card against the European powers, just as it uses such profiles as immigrants and jihadists recently expelled from Syria and Iraq. This way, Ankara turns energy dependence into a tool to negotiate economic and political gains, in the Middle East, especially in Syria, and currently Libya, and in such profiles as the Western support for Kurds in Syria, or normalization of the political influence of Ankara amongst Turkish communities abroad.
However, the escalated competition over the east Mediterranean gas, with Turkey’s regional competitors, especially Greece, Egypt, and Israel, having enough gas reservoirs to compete with the Turkish pipelines through energy pipelines such as Midstream, launched recently between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece; led Ankara to change its energy strategy by adding “production” to being a passage.
This has complicated the regional game, with Ankara ignoring the fact that there are no natural gas reservoirs within the boundaries of its economic area. There is also the complication of the conflict between the Turkish Cyprus, which is not internationally recognized, and the Greek Cyprus, with the latter and Greece and Egypt to confront the offensive behavior of Turkey, leading to exclude Turkey from the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) created by an Egyptian initiative in January 2019. Turkey replied with offensive diplomacy in the form of explorations within Cyprus’s waters under the protection of the Turkish navy and successive military trainings aiming at defending Turkey’s “rights” to explore, which increased the rate of “militarization” in the eastern Mediterranean. In the absence of a regional framework to settle conflicts over boundaries or resources, the region is ready to be on fire at any moment.
How did Ankara-Wefaq agreement expand Turkey’s Blue Homeland strategy?
The Blue Homeland strategy is a semi-official doctrine that explains Turkey’s foreign policy after Ankara has abandoned the “Zero Problems” policy for a more offensive policy, clashing with its neighbors and with its partners in Europe and NATO. This strategy converges with the Neo-Ottomanism doctrine, which is a matter of great dispute between observers of Turkish affairs due to its vagueness and contradicted uses, in stressing Turkey’s capacity to morph into an independent international force in the face of Atlantic politics, insisting more on the priority of the Turkish nationalism over any other regional or ideological affiliation. In this context, this strategy sees a possibility of making alliances with other non-Atlantic forces outside NATO, such as Russia. This strategy derives its name from Turkey’s geopolitical location being the main force in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, which it shares with Russia. According to developers of this framework, most notably Cem Gurdeniz, the former head of the Turkish navy and an affiliate to the national movement allied with Erdogan, Ankara has an inherent right to explore oil and gas within its historical political influence, the eastern Mediterranean, with no restriction by or recognition of the international reality or maritime boundary demarcation laws; with Turkey still rejecting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982).
The agreement concluded by Ankara with Sarraj government in Tripoli, in November 2019, including two frameworks for military and security cooperation and maritime boundary demarcation, is a Turkish circumvention over the seclusion imposed on Ankara by the emergent alliance in the east Mediterranean. The agreement has also expanded Turkey’s Blue Homeland domain to include Libyan coasts and to engulf the Greek islands off eastern Libya, which were ignored in boundary demarcation by the architect of the agreement, Jihad Yayci, who is an extension of Gurdeniz thought. For al-Wefaq government, the agreement establishes for extending the Turkish intervention in Libya’s affairs, which depended on supporting the Islamic movement and militias since 2013 to become official. Therefore, the mechanisms of the conflict in Libya has become tied to Turkey’s interests, energy strategy, and mechanisms of interaction with both NATO and Russia, in addition to its involvement in the conflict over Syria.
In return for the military support received by al-Wefaq government during the latest months, which succeeded in thwarting the attack of the National Army on Tripoli, Turkish construction companies went back to working in Libya, especially those working on power plant construction. In addition, Ankara has announced its readiness to take charge of the reconstruction operations in the areas under control of its allies. There are also reports referring to deposits in millions of dollars from the Central Bank of Libya, which is under control of al-Wefaq government, to Turkish banks to cover the military support costs, including salary payments for mercenaries and purchase of military equipment. Most importantly, Ankara has confirmed its readiness, through the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, to start exploration of oil and gas in the Libyan coasts included within the demarcation agreement. However, the stoppage of the progress of the Turkey-backed al-Wefaq militias at “Sirte – Al-Jafra” line means that Turkey’s ambitions in Libya’s oil and gas, within and outside the demarcation agreement will not be subject only to Ankara’s alliance with Sarraj government and Misrata cartels.
How far can Turkey benefit from Libya’s oil and gas?
Not only the maritime boundaries agreement between Greece and Italy, and the similar agreement shortly to be concluded between Italy and Egypt, make effecting Ankara-Sarraj agreement complicated, but the main issue with the latter agreement is that the concerned Libyan coasts lie under the control of the National Army and the Parliament government; and without taking over the eastern coast, the value of the agreement does not exceed the ink of the signatures of its parties.
That is why it is important for Ankara that al-Wefaq militias, along with Syrian mercenaries, reach and seize control over that area, which necessarily means crossing the red line defined by both Mosco and Cairo, “City of Sirte, Al Jafra Base”, which is the western gate of the Libyan oil crescent. Controlling this area means controlling a coast of 350 km containing oil ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Brega, and Binghazi, where 11 oil pipelines and 3 natural gas pipelines cross the Mediterranean to South Europe. Achieving this means that Turkey has to seek complete triumph in the Libyan conflict, which cannot be reached without the following:
- Changing the structure of the fighting forces into highly trained and highly prepared regular forces; and
- Changing the mode of Turkish intervention into land and maybe air intervention, which means entering in a direct clash with the National Army and maybe the Egyptian Army, according to the recent Cairo declarations on 20 June, and facing objections from inside Europe and NATO. So, calculations of this battle mean that the cost of Turkey’s intervention becomes higher than what was expected; because if the conflict in Libya enters a stage of direct military regional conflict, all economic gains by Turkey, near and future, will be lost.
While it is necessary to take into consideration Turkey’s ambitions in Libya’s oil and gas, it is also important not to exaggerate Turkey’s ability to devour Libya’s energy capacities. Turkey is already watching battles of the oil crescent, with the National Army pushing away guards of al-Wefaq’s oil facilities, and a number of companies in eastern Libya operating the oil crescent’s ports away from the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli. So far, it seems that Turkey’s construction sector is the biggest beneficiary of Ankara’s relations with al-Wefaq and Misrata cartels. To go further, Turkey will have to enter in a direct clash with the eastern Mediterranean alliance. In addition, there are already Russian and French objections to effecting the boundary demarcation agreement in actuality. It is also obvious that Turkey lacks the technical capacities to compete with the previous contracts obtained by Russian, Italian, and British companies in the period prior to the outbreak of the Libyan civil war.
Although Turkey has imposed itself as a solid party in the conflict in Libya, Turkey is also aware of the limitations of its military capacities, in the Libyan context, in addition to the fragmentation of al-Wefaq alliance. So, Turkey could find itself compelled to negotiate the possibility of cooperation with Russia and the rest of the European parties to secure its above-mentioned strategic goals and to have a share in the oil sector. Until then, Libya will remain a pressure card to be used against and to blackmail, and maybe to compel, opponents to cooperate with Turkey.