The Libya-Turkey Memorandum of Understanding: Local and Regional Repercussions

On 27 November 2019, the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey on Mediterranean maritime sovereignty. As soon as the memorandum was made public, it was rejected by retired General Khalifa Haftar’s camp as well as a number of Mediterranean countries, most prominently Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. Repercussions of the announcement continue despite Libyan and Turkish assurances that the GNA’s Presidential Council has the power to sign a memorandum of this kind and that it poses no threat to the economic and security interests of neighboring states.

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.1

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 GNA, on the other. Ahmad Al Mismari, the official spokesman of Haftar’s forces, announced the “rejection of the agreement signed between Turkey and Sarraj” and warned that “military force will be deployed to prevent any violation of Libyan sovereignty”2. This, despite the fact that the agreement, far from violating Libyan sovereignty, enshrines it in an international agreement. Members of the eastern Tobruk parliament expressed similar sentiments and called for “withdrawal of international recognition of Sarraj’s government.”3 On the other side, the GNA’s 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 sacrifice Libya’s sovereignty and independence, and does not constitute a violation of international law.”4

The prerogatives of the GNA’s Presidential Council have been among the major points of contention regarding the memorandum. While the opposition contends that the Presidential Council does not have the power to accept memoranda of this kind, its supporters argue that it represents the internationally recognized 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 GNA’s Council of Ministers is to “negotiate international agreements and treaties.”5 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 its degree of accord with the legal stipulations of the Libyan Political Settlement of 2015. 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 GNA is concerned, Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli since April 2019 represents an existential threat: the former general’s stated aim is to wipe out pro-GNA forces, overturn the Skhirat Agreement, and put an end to what he considers to be 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 on the Mediterranean, 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 GNA’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 Qadhafi.

The GNA’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 United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Russia, and France. It also knows full well that the extensive foreign interventions in his favor have nothing to do with the signing of the memorandum and are not a response to it. The impact of this support has been obvious since the Battle of Tripoli began, with Emirati drones and armored vehicles and Egyptian and French weaponry and expert advisors playing a prominent role. There have also been several reports over the last few weeks about the participation of Russian mercenaries and Sudanese Janjaweed militiamen in Tripoli,6 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 recognizes the Presidential Council and the GNA 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 armored vehicles and other military equipment began arriving in Tripoli without any official comment from the GNA (although GNA-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 GNA to down one of Haftar’s fighter jets in Zawiya and a drone in Misrata.

Although foreign involvement has been a distinctive feature of the Libyan scene after 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 GNA’s Interior Minister, 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 GNA asks for them7; his comments have coincided with the arrival of more weapons shipments to all sides in the conflict.8 At the same time, Haftar and his supporters have mobilized to seize Tripoli and pre-empt any outcome of the Berlin Conference on Libya of November 2019, with the man himself exhorting his troops to advance to the heart of the city.9

Turkish Calculations

In addition to 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 meters 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 others 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.10

Moreover, 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 drill ships 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].”11

Conclusion

The signing of the Libyan-Turkish memorandum of understanding on maritime sovereignty in the Eastern Mediterranean has coincided with increased tensions both within and outside Libya. Haftar’s forces are mobilizing on Tripoli’s southern outskirts in a new attempt to seize the capital while both the western and eastern regions enjoy 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 the Middle East and North Africa region is a major actor on the Libyan scene. All these factors are driving toward a likely further escalation within both Libya itself and the Mediterranean more broadly.

An earlier version of this paper waspublished on December 17, 2019 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar.

1 For the full text, see: “Aghdab Duwal Al-Juwar… Watha’iq Musarraba Takshifu Tafasil al-Ittifaq at-Turki al-Libi”, Al Hurra, 05/12/2019 (accessed on 07/12/2019 at https://arbne.ws/36nByzp).
2 “Al-Mismari: Narfudu Ittifaq as-Sarraj ma’ al-Atrak wa-Sanatassada lahu bi-Kull Quwwa ‘Askariyya”, Russia Today, 04/12/2019 (accessed on 11/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2shoQ6v).
3 “Bayan Majlis an-Nuwwab Raqm 15 li-Sanat 2019 bi-Sha’n at-Tadakhhulat at-Turkiyya”, Libyan Parliament Website, 10/12/2019 (accessed on 11/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2YEqjQm).
4 C.f. “al-Ittifaq as-Siyasi al-Libi al-Muwaqqa’ bi-Tarikh 17 Disimber 2015”, UN Support Mission in Libya Website, 18/01/2016 (accessed on 11/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2LP2ZtY).
5 C.f. Benoît Vitkine & Frédéric Bobin, “La Libye: Nouveau théâtre d’intervention des mercenaires russes,” Le Monde, 22/11/2019 (accessed on 11/12/2019, at https://bit.ly/34bopYk).
6 Michele Nichols, “Jordan, UAE, Turkey, Sudan accused of violating sanctions on Libya – U.N. report”, Reuters, 11/11/2019 (accessed on 18/12/2019 at https://reut.rs/36MyJry).
7 “Erdogan: Hammuna Kasb al-Asdiqa’ wa-Musta’iddun li’l-Hiwar ma’ al-Yunan”, Anadolu Agency, 09/12/2019 (accessed on 12/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2PcSTVO).
8 Mahmoud Muhammad, “Misr Tad’amu Haftar bi-Mudarra’at Jadida wa-Mas’ulun bi-Tarablus Yutalibun Hukumat al-Wifaq bi’r-Radd”, Al Jazeera, 12/12/2019 (accessed on 12/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/36rKCTB).
9 Ayman Al Warafli, “Khalifa Haftar Yad’u Quwwatihi li’t-Taqaddum bittijah Qalb Tarablus,” Reuters, 12/12/2019 (accessed on 13/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2Eejag5). On the Berlin Conference, see Karim Mezran and Federica Saini Fasanotti, “Another conference, another incomplete solution for Libya,” The Atlantic Council, 21/11/2019 (accessed on 24/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/35UTNwb).
10 Ali Hussein Bakir, “Kanz fi Ma’ al-Mutawassit: Man Yarbahu Harb al-Ghaz al-Qadima?” Al Jazeera, 05/06/2018 (accessed on 13/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/341ekgF).
11 “Erdogan: Yahiqqu li-Turkiya Irsal Quwwat ‘Askariyya li-Libiya Idha Talabat Hukumutuha”, Alaraby Aljadeed, 10/12/2019 (accessed on 13/12/2019 at https://bit.ly/2tehLUE).