Turkey Makes Another Risky Move in the Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey will likely increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean as it is set to begin drilling off the coast of Libya and asserting what it assumes its economic rights in the region.

What Exactly is Going On?

Turkey has submitted a request to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to start drilling in areas outlined in a maritime delimitation memorandum of understanding between the two sides. Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said seismic surveys would take place in the Eastern Mediterranean, including in areas identified in the memorandum.

The two sides signed the memorandum in November of last year. They also signed another memorandum for security cooperation. The two pacts prized rapprochement between Ankara and the GNA and marked a turning point in the conflict over Libya.

The legality of the two pacts is questionable, especially with the eastern Libya parliament saying that the GNA does not have the legal right to sign deals with other governments. However, the memos have increased security cooperation between Turkey and Tripoli and are now opening the door for more Turkish economic presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Getting Ready to Drill

Donmez said the process to license drilling in the region by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation had already begun. The first seismic survey activity would begin, he said, as soon as it is completed.

The official Turkish news agency, Anadolu, quoted him as adding that Turkey had already made preparations in this regard.

“Turkey is committed to its plans both in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea,” he said.

Donmez revealed that drilling activities in areas outlined in the maritime boundary delimitation memo between Ankara and the GNA would begin in July.

Growing Eastern Mediterranean Tensions

Turkey submitted the drilling request to the GNA two days only after five nations, namely Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, France and the United Arab Emirates criticized Turkish drilling off the coast of Cyprus.

The five countries said in a joint statement that Turkish drilling violated international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. They described Turkish drilling off the coast of Cyprus as “illegitimate.”

Turkey will be raising tensions in the region, even more by drilling in other areas in the light of the maritime boundary delimitation memo with the GNA. This tension will increase the militarization of the Eastern Mediterranean, with regional states Egypt, Greece and Cyprus acting to protect their rights against Turkish encroachments, analysts said.

“Natural gas is becoming the focal point of growing tensions in the region,” said Ayman Abdel Wahab, a researcher at Egyptian think tank, Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies. “Turkish involvement in Libya and the conflict between Turkey, on one hand, and Greece and Cyprus, on the other, are all interconnected.”

Turkey’s Risky Move

The drilling request by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation is probably the end goal of Turkey’s involvement in Libya.Turkey has come out empty-handed of all the major natural gas discoveries made in the territorial waters of some regional states in the past years.

Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus have discovered sizable amounts of natural gas off their coasts, amid expectations that the region will be the world’s next energy hub.

This has apparently watered the mouths of decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey has used the security cooperation memo with the GNA to increase military support to the Tripoli-based government, including by sending thousands of mercenaries from Syria.

Turkish support is upending the course of battles between the Islamist militias allied to the GNA, on one hand, and the Libyan National Army, which has its own regional sponsors and is trying to overrun Libyan capital Tripoli, on the other.

The Worst is Yet to Come

Expected Turkish drilling in the region will widen the scope of tension in it and put Ankara on a collision course with other countries, analysts said. This is especially true with regional states getting ready for confrontation or defensive action.

In January this year, France sent warships to the Eastern Mediterranean for joint drills with Greek and Cypriot vessels. Greece is also taking measures, including by sending naval units to the Cypriot coast to guard against Turkish encroachments, amid intensified Turkish drilling. Egypt is also boosting its navy to protect its economic interests in the Mediterranean. On May 15, Egypt launched a locally built corvette.

The Gowind class corvette was built in cooperation with France, a sign of growing strategic and military cooperation between the two nations. An advanced German submarine joined the Egyptian navy a few days earlier, giving insights into the ongoing modernization of the Egyptian navy in the face of growing regional threats.

Turkish regional moves, analysts said, would provoke other regional states and open the door for confrontation.

“Turkish practices are very dangerous, leading to major instability in this region,” said Ahmed Qandil, another researcher from Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “There is an urgent need for dialogue on the best means of deterring Ankara and preventing it from causing further unrest.”