February 7, 2020
IntelBrief: Energy Geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Battle for Libya
Just last week, France agreed to send war frigates to the eastern Mediterranean, a decision welcomed by Greece and decried by Turkey. The relationship between Paris and Athens has been strengthened over the issue of access to energy reserves, with the two countries pursuing a more comprehensive framework for strategic defense. The French deployment of warships can just as easily be seen as a signal to Turkey, which has stationed its own navy in the Mediterranean, ostensibly as a show of force. France and Turkey find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict in Libya, and French President Emmanuel Macron has publicly castigated Turkish leader Tayyip Recep Erdogan for Ankara’s increasing involvement in Libya.
The potential for an energy bonanza in the eastern Mediterranean has led to increased tensions throughout the region, from southeastern Europe to North Africa. Vast deposits of natural gas have been discovered off the island of Cyprus, a country divided since the mid-1970s between a Greek Cypriot majority and a Turkish Cypriot minority. The internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government has moved forward with exploring the surrounding waters for energy deposits, bringing in the French energy giant Total and Italy’s ENI to continue searching for natural gas. The discovery of large deposits of hydrocarbon reserves in 2009 exacerbated existing but somewhat dormant tensions between countries in the eastern Mediterranean. The fight for energy exploration and production licenses has highlighted the commercial element to this geopolitical struggle.
An agreement between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) sets out new maritime boundaries and has contributed to an increase in the friction between Greece and Turkey. The newly forged deal with Libya represents just one in a series of commercial, legal, and diplomatic spats over maritime boundaries and potential supply and shipping routes. Turkey’s claims, under the agreement, infringe upon existing claims by Greece and Cyprus. The ‘EastMed’ pipeline project has led to opposing blocs, with Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt on one side, and Turkey, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (only recognized by Turkey) and Libya’s GNA on the other. The project is intended to deliver Israeli gas to southern Europe through Greece and Cyprus.
Libya has been caught in the middle, serving as a battleground for foreign interference and external military intervention. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar has enjoyed the support of the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and France, despite his forces’ penchant for indiscriminate killings and war crimes. The role played by the UAE has been particularly pernicious, with Abu Dhabi supplying drones and fixed-wing aircraft to Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA). The Emiratis, Russians, and others have flooded Libya with weaponry in blatant violation of the United Nations arms embargo, which some have referred to as ‘toothless.’ The LNA has waged a scorched-earth campaign to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli, killing thousands, including hundreds of civilians in the process. Libya's infrastructure is being destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. Turkey continues to support the besieged GNA by providing military support and helping orchestrate Syrian mercenaries to the battlefield. Erdogan’s most significant contribution will be, if he can achieve it, helping to bring a temporary respite in the fighting for long enough that a cease-fire or peace deal can be negotiated, In the meantime, he will continue seeking to exploit Libya’s energy resources.
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