Dendias and Haftar (La nPresse)

Maritime Boundaries and the Libyan Conflict

After sealing an agreement with Italy on June 9 that ended a decades-long pending issue over the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) between Greece and Italy, Athens next seemed to be turning its attention to the Aegean front. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias had a quite busy week with official visits to Paris, Jerusalem and Cairo. The last stop of the Greek Minister was expected to be the most crucial one, however the outcomes have been rather disappointing.

Setting Expectations Too High

Following the June 9 deal with Italy, a peculiar sentiment of success was being carefully cultivated by the Greek media. Even though the agreement between the two countries is of historical importance and a remarkable step forward for the Greek-Italian maritime boundaries and their bilateral relations, the Greek media have tried to make a comparison with the ever-escalating Greek-Turkish dispute in the Aegean Sea.

Despite the fact that there is no geographical link between the two areas, there has been a coordinated effort from specific sources in Athens to highlight that the agreement is supposedly a warning to Ankara and could drastically limit the Turkish provocations and demands in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Obviously, the Greek-Italian deal is totally irrelevant to the Turkish claims in the Aegean and the only reason behind the attempt of the aforementioned Greek sources to make this connection, has been to serve internal political interests. At the same time, in order to further consolidate and enhance this narrative, many circles have been indicating that the upcoming visit of the Greek Foreign Minister to Cairo would bring similar results, securing the delimitation of the maritime boundaries between Greece and Egypt. This would be indeed a strategic move that could change the balance between Athens and Ankara, establishing that Greece is ready to fully practice her rights under International Law, sidelining the Turkish unfounded pressures.

The Significance of a Potential Greek-Egyptian Agreement

As opposed to the Greek-Italian agreement, a potential EEZ demarcation between Athens and Cairo would have a considerable geostrategic impact in the wider region. First and foremost, Greece would make clear her will to expand her rights eastwards, always according to the provisions of the International Law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This would be an actual and clear message to Ankara, that is so far implementing a power projection policy and trying to create de facto events across the Mediterranean through an opportunistic and provocative foreign policy backed by military means.

There have been points of discord between Greece and Egypt that have allegedly blocked the negotiations from moving forward so far. The main disagreement involves the small Greek island of Kastelorizo, and the accompanying islets Ro and Stroggyli. Both lie in the Greek East border in the rear proximity of the Turkish south coast of Antalya. Cairo has been disputing the EEZ rights of those small islands and this has reasonably been a no-go for the Greek policy, since such a compromise could “legitimize” some of the Turkish claims. From the Greek side, there have been reports about a potential partial agreement between the two countries, where the areas of dispute would be left aside in order to be further discussed in the future.

Even a partial, and seemingly easy, agreement with Egypt with regards to the maritime boundaries would be a timely response to Ankara, with further geopolitical connotations. The wider area where Athens and Cairo could establish a part of their Exclusive Economic Zones, is certainly overlapping the corridor that Turkey and GNA have designated as Turkish and Libyan Continental shelf, according to the Maritime Boundary Treaty between Ankara and Tripoli which was signed in late 2019. This Treaty hardly recognizes any EEZ rights for the Greek islands, ignoring international treaties and conventions. To the contrary, a potential agreement between Greece and Egypt would be much more robust, considering that it would be drafted in a transparent framework according to the International Law and also it would be signed by two sovereign states, as opposed to the pact between Turkey and the Government of National Accord.

A Tasteless Meeting and Separate Focal Points for Both Sides

Dendias met President al-Sisi and the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry in Cairo on June 18. The agenda of the meeting utterly failed to meer the Greek expectations, as the issues around the Exclusive Economic Zones have hardly been discussed. In his official statement the Greek Minister mentioned that the EEZ talks have resumed, without providing any further information, a clear indication that we should not be expecting any significant developments in this field soon. Egyptian media covering the meeting have also barely mentioned any progress on this subject matter. We should stress here, that any moves from the Greek side are time-critical, considering that Turkey has already disclosed their plans of starting drilling activities in the Turkish-Libyan self-declared continental shelf by September, an action that will bring the Turkish drilling vessels, and probably accompanying Turkish naval forces, in the immediate proximity or even within the Greek territorial waters.

On the other hand, discussions over the Libyan conflict are a top priority issue for the Egyptian leadership and basically monopolized the meeting. The Greek Minister greeted the Egyptian initiative for a ceasefire in Libya, in accordance with the Cairo declaration of June 6. The Cairo declaration has caused mixed reactions among the International Community, as many major actors have been skeptical towards the Egyptian proposal, the impartiality of which is under question. So far the UN-led process and the Berlin conference have been the main points of reference around the Libya peace efforts.

The Turkish-Egyptian Standoff in Libya

Cairo is particularly worried about the latest developments in the Libyan front. The heavy Turkish involvement in the conflict has turned the balance in favor of the GNA forces, obliging the Libyan National Army to strategically withdraw westwards, after facing several tactical defeats and losing key military bases. The Libyan-Egyptian border spans a territory of over 1,000 kilometres. Now, Cairo is not only facing the limited, yet ongoing, insurgency in the Northern Sinai, but also risks the infiltration of terrorist cells from Eastern Libya. Such a development would further destabilize the country, and also create an asymmetrical threat when combined with the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political life of Egypt. We should note here that both GNA and Turkey are strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and a potential spillover of the Libyan conflict in Egypt could possibly trigger a chain reaction in the country, with an unpredictable impact on the political and security apparatus.

In this context al-Sisi stated on June 20 that Egypt holds a legitimate right to military intervene in Libya, setting any further GNA progress towards the strategic city of Sirte, as a red line. At the same time, Turkey is determined to keep pushing its aggressive agenda in the Mediterranean, as it forms a vital part of the Turkish energy and regional security strategy. Therefore, we should only anticipate that Ankara will continue getting more and more involved in Libya. On the other hand, the Egyptian reaction will heavily rely upon the stance of Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar’s additional backers, namely Russia, KSA and UAE, as rising skepticism is being noticed from the side of Moscow and the aforementioned Gulf states towards the LNA comamnder. Given al-Sisi’s statements and intentions we highly doubt that Egypt would be willing to get involved in a wide-scale operation in Libya without any back-up from the rest of the major players.