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Why Libya’s maritime accord with Turkey has ignited anger

Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj on 7 December 2017 [Cüneyt Karadağ/Anadolu Agency]
Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya Fayez Al-Sarraj on 7 December 2017 [Cüneyt Karadağ/Anadolu Agency]

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) signed on 27 November two documents with Turkey. One deals with security while the other draws out the maritime boundaries between the two countries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. While the first document went almost unnoticed the second one created confusion and triggered huge uproar and condemnations. Greece condemned the document and expelled the Libyan ambassador. Egypt and Cyprus expressed their outrage but have refrained so far from any punitive action against the GNA.

The Cypriot foreign ministry said in a statement that the “Memorandum of Understanding the two countries signed has no legal validity and can’t undermine the rights of Cyprus.” Egypt on the other hand disputed the legality of the document by saying that the Libyan Political Accord, that founded the GNA, does not give the Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj the “right to sign” such documents.

Hundreds of Libyans took to social media condemning the GNA for selling out to Turkey. Trying to calm the anger, the GNA insisted the memoranda does not carry any binding legal force unless ratified by both countries’ respective legislators. At the same time the government in Tripoli refused to publish any of the documents hoping that the domestic uproar would die down, apparently forgetting that Ankara might publish them.

That is exactly what happened on 5 December. The president quickly had the maritime treaty ratified by his parliament and it turned out to be a treaty delineating the sea borders between Libya and Turkey putting the GNA in an even more embarrassing position. This only compounded domestic anger at the GNA. Eastern Libya’s interim government – not recognised by the United Nations – condemned what it called an illegal treaty.

The speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, is expected in Athens today to reassure the Greek government that his parliament will not ratify the treaty. He also hopes to persuade his hosts to go one step further by withdrawing their recognition of the GNA. However, Athens is unlikely to go that far.

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The pact creates as much confusion as legal controversy. When implemented it will give Turkey maritime rights it never had before as both Greece and Cyprus are disputing all Turkish claims in the area. With it, Ankara gets a green light to draw its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), literally shutting Cyprus and Greece out of the western Mediterranean while limiting their EEZ claims. Greece claims that its island, Crete, is in the middle of what will be the new EEZ shared between Libya and Turkey.

However, the treaty does not “infringe any Libyan rights in the region,” said to be rich in oil and gas. A Libyan foreign ministry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEMO that “the treaty also does not infringe Egypt’s EEZ and this is why Egypt’s earlier anger has all but died out.”

Why the fuss then if the treaty preserves Libya’s maritime rights? I put the question to a well-placed source within the GNA who does not want to be named. My source said “the timing is the main problem because of the war in Tripoli.” The GNA has been locked in a military battle with General Khalifa Hafta’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) since April. Mr. Haftar appears to be, slowly, gaining the upper hand thanks to support from Egypt and United Arab Emirates. Recently, Russian mercenaries have been reported to be fighting alongside Haftar’s troops.

Haftar’s forces kill migrants in Libya - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Haftar’s forces kill migrants in Libya – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

My source explains “signing such a significant pact at this time means the GNA got something in return from Ankara.” That is the subject of the second memorandum of understanding, the security memorandum, which neither Ankara nor the GNA has so far published. Many believe the GNA received an important incentive from Turkey to go along with it.

While President Racep Tayyip Erdoğan has publicly supplied arms and ammunition to the GNA in the current war he went a step further this week. On 11 December he openly stated his willingness to “send a sufficient number of troops” to Tripoli if the GNA requested it. Mr. Erdoğan has never disguised his support for the GNA in Tripoli but making his position public is rather surprising. However, my source does not think the Turkish leader will really send “troops to Libya.” Making such a public statement has a deterrent effect countering Haftar’s backers.

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For the treaty itself my source points out that neither Libya nor Turkey are members of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both sides claim as their legal frame of reference for entering into this pact. The source said, “while Libya played a part in the development of the UN convention it never ratified it.” When pressed as to why Libya failed to ratify the convention after all these years my source responded: “Because it could limit Libya’s EEZ in other parts of the Mediterranean Sea.”

It is obvious why the GNA chose to enter into this deal with Turkey now. The embattled Tripoli government fears losing the war against Mr. Haftar. Indeed, the GNA’s foreign minister Mohamed Syala has for the first time acknowledged the possibility of Tripoli falling to Haftar’s troops. When asked about the possibility of Tripoli falling, in an interview in Rome on 7 December, he said, “it is a real possibility.” He again emphasised the new Russian involvement in the conflict as the single event that is tipping the balance in Haftar’s favour.

But Libya’s interests with Greece and Cyprus, in the long term, are much more important than with Turkey. Neither country has ever meddled in Libya’s internal affairs and both are members of the European Union. Besides, the GNA’s legitimacy is seriously disputed inside Libya itself and for this reason it should not undertake any serious issues like signing long-term treaties like the one it signed with Ankara.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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