Turkish offshore gas deal with Libya upsets Mediterranean boundaries

Selcan Hacaoglu and Firat Kozok December 06, 2019

ANKARA (Bloomberg) - Turkey and Libya officially approved a contentious maritime deal that may fuel an energy showdown in the gas-rich waters of the eastern Mediterranean, where both countries are at odds with Greece.

The Nov. 27 preliminary agreement demarcates an 18.6-nautical mile (35-kilometer) line that will form the maritime boundary separating what will be the two countries’ respective exclusive economic zones. Libya’s presidential council and Turkey’s parliament approved the memorandum of understanding, Anadolu Agency said Friday. It is now expected to be filed with the United Nations.

“This agreement also amounts to a political message that Turkey can’t be sidelined in the eastern Mediterranean and nothing can be really achieved in the region without Turkey’s participation,” Cagatay Erciyes, a senior foreign ministry official in charge of maritime and aviation boundary affairs, said on Thursday.

Greece, Cyprus and Egypt see the deal as a brazen Turkish bid for dominance in the contested waters. Libya is also in conflict with Greece over off-shore exploration licenses Athens issued for waters south of Crete, which is located between Turkey and Libya. Turkey, which has dispatched warships to accompany its drilling ships off the divided island of Cyprus, will issue more such permits for the Mediterranean following the deal with Libya, Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said on Wednesday.

“Erdogan’s strategy has been to intensify tensions to such an extent as to force serious concessions from Greek Cyprus during future negotiations on the status of the island and how its natural gas wealth will be distributed,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East and North Africa director at risk analyst Verisk Maplecroft. “Standing up strongly for Turkish Cypriots constitutes part of Erdogan’s nationalist credentials but also forms a key part of Turkey’s political identity and will remain a priority national interest.”

Turkey's claimed economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean
Turkey's claimed economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean

Greece said the agreement violated continental-shelf and economic exclusive zones of its own islands, including Crete. But Erciyes said that Greek islands were “lying on the wrong side of the median line between mainlands,” arguing that the islands’ minimal coastal lengths comparing to Turkey’s mainland should not generate continental-shelf or economic exclusive zone. Erciyes shared a map of Turkey’s claimed exclusive economic zone, including reference points to the latest agreement with Libya marked as “E” and “F.”

The eastern Mediterranean has become a gas hot spot with big finds for Cyprus, Israel and Egypt in recent years. Turkey -- which captured northern Cyprus in the wake of a 1974 coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece -- vehemently opposes the Cypriot drilling without an agreement on sharing any proceeds with Turkish Cypriots. Egypt, whose relations worsened with Turkey after its elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was overthrown in 2013, also denounced the deal with Libya.

Turkish drilling ships Fatih and Yavuz are currently operating off divided Cyprus in waters declared by Turkey as its own economic exclusive zone and under agreements with the northern Turkish Cypriot state, which is recognized only by Turkey. The European Union has said it is weighing sanctions against Turkey over its oil and natural-gas exploration off Cyprus, and Cyprus wants the International Court of Justice to resolve its dispute with Turkey.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out any concessions on the deal with Libya. “As long as the legitimate government in Libya stands firm on its feet, this new step will achieve its goal,” he said Thursday.

Ankara last week also signed a defense agreement aimed at strengthening forces controlled by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government in Tripoli, with the capital under attack from eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey’s main opposition party CHP backed the agreement but Haluk Koc, a senior CHP lawmaker, said Turkey was taking a political risk due to the “fragile” situation of Sarraj in Libya.

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