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Turkey’s Latest Power Grab Has Europe On Edge

Conflicts in the Middle East attract an entanglement of interventions, any of which could turn the region into a powder keg, and Turkish intervention in Libyan civil conflict adds a new dimension. Turkey’s parliament approved a bill to deploy Turkish troops to Libya to assist and advise the forces of Government of National Accord against the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Greece, Israel and Cyprus denounced the Turkish decision as provocative and destabilizing for the region. Behind these military and diplomatic maneuvers lie a struggle for energy and political power.

Fahreetin Altun, Republic of Turkey’s communication director, announced the aim on Twitter: “Turkey will work toward defending the international law, achieving security, and preserving peace in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. We will prevent any effort to exploit the conflict in the region. At the same time, we are also ready to cooperate on establishing stability.” A UN agreement formed Libya’s Government of National Accord in 2015, supported by the United States and the European Union.

Avoiding containment: Turkey and Libya sign an agreement on maritime boundaries, responding to plans by Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Greece to develop natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean (Source: Anadolu Agency)

Yet oil is at the center of this conflict as the Turkish government pursues aggressive foreign policy against a coalition of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish policy began with a signed agreement on Mediterranean maritime boundaries with Libya – a response to Cyprus forming the coalition to develop the Eastern Mediterranean energy sector. Turkish authorities described its agreement as a means to prevent the coalition's attempt to encircle Turkey. Greece, Israel and Cyprus denounced the Turkish-Libyan agreement as provocative, suggesting it undermines international efforts to stabilize the region. Those countries also signed a pipeline deal for shipping natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. Turkey’s diplomatic move was also a response to attempts to exclude Turkey from Mediterranean gas exploration. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an insisted that no project can proceed without Turkey’s consent following its deal with Libya. Related: Oil Market Falls Deeper Into Abyss

Cyprus regards Turkey’s attempt to explore gas in the Eastern Mediterranean as provocative. The European Union has threatened sanctions, and the US Secretary of State has described Turkey’s activities as “illegal.” Even so, Fatih Donmez, Turkey’s energy minister, declared such activities will “continue with determination.” Hence, the government views intervention in Libya as the only way to achieve Turkish goals for the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish troops will work to secure the government of Libya against General Haftar’s forces. Turkey also sought to guarantee its seat in the international conference on Libya held in Berlin in January.

Turkey seeks to use its military power to force other countries in the region to accept its demands, as it did with two interventions in Syria. However, the consequences of sending Turkish troops to Libya could be more disruptive for domestic politics than the interventions in Syria for four reasons.

First, the 2016 attempted coup resulted in a rise of nationalism and anti-Americanism in Turkey after public opinion assumed the soldiers who joined were linked to NATO and the US-supported cleric Fethullah Gülen, a notion reinforced by the Turkish government.

Second, the government had revised its vision on Syrian policy, focusing on destroying the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group that had garnered sympathy from the West for their steadfast defense of Northern Syria against the Islamic State. A majority of Turkish citizens supported the interventions, accepting these as war against the terrorist group PKK, after documents suggested that Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned PKK leader, formulated the democratic-self administration program of Syrian Democratic Forces during peace negotiations in 2013. Threats of US sanctions also helped Turkish leaders win domestic support.

All political parties in the Turkish assembly, except the People’s Democratic Party, supported the policies in Syria. However, Turkey’s gains remain unclear. Furthermore, the intervention had costs: 180 lives lost in Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring. Defense spending expanded, representing 12.9 percent of the total budget, and the unemployment rate increased to 14 percent, with the currency flailing and inflation exceeding 11 percent in December.

Third, the nationalist atmosphere posed negative consequences for the Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as the Erdo?an government. Turkish nationalists blame the government’s refugee policies for the country’s economic problems, and Erdo?an had announced a plan to send refugees to the safe zone in Syria. Many Turks did not see that settlement plan as viable, and Turkey’s many political parties were not keen to take another risk as the government attracted international condemnation for its actions in Syria.

The Republican People’s Party, the Good Party and the People’s Democratic Party rejected the bill to deploy Turkish troops in Libya. The opposition labeled the new adventure in Libya as a neo-Ottomanist policy. The Future Party, led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu – the key person behind Turkey’s Syrian policy – also opposed the decision to send troops to Libya.

Steady increase: Turkey ranks among the world’s top nations for military strength (Source: Macrotrends, SIPRI, Global Firepower)

The opposition parties support diplomacy and dialogue, and the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party in the assembly, holds a view similar to that of NATO, claiming that supporting one side during internal conflicts can promote instability. The Good Party and People’s Democratic Party also suggest that the government’s aggressive policies during the Syrian War and Arab Spring, supported by leaders linked with the Muslim Brotherhood, resulted in Turkey’s isolation and destroyed good relations with Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran.

Fourth, critics questioned the creation of new alliances in Libya. While Turkey, Iran and Russia close in on a deal for Syria, Russian support to the regime in Idlib triggered another refugee crisis. Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of more people may head for the Turkish border, and Turkey has not signaled how it will handle this challenge.

The Idlib crisis and Turkey’s intervention in Libya may put Turkey and Russia at opposite sides once again. A ceasefire for Libya brokered by Russia and Turkey began 12 January. If international conferences do not achieve peace, Turkey could destroy its relationship with Russia and result in total isolation for Turkey in the region. Related: U.S. Rig Count Drops As Oil Price Slide Accelerates

All in all, the Turkish gambit has two goals. First, it desires to keep the GNA in power in Libya to secure advantages in the Eastern Mediterranean and increase economic activities in North Africa by using the nation as an entryway. By sending troops to Libya, Turkey secures a seat at international conferences deciding the country’s fate. Turkey uses its military power for diplomatic advantages, but at the risk of losing respect in the international arena. Among the outcomes in the Berlin conference is a call for termination of all military movements by, or in direct support of, the conflict parties in Libya. Countries that do not abide by the arms embargo could face sanctions, which could be a useful tool for Erdo?an in the domestic arena.

The more important goal for the Erdo?an government is restoring popularity at home. Economic problems, rising of secularism among young generations and authoritarian tactics contributed to the government’s losses in 2019 municipal elections, especially in Istanbul. Moreover, the Justice and Development Party is in crisis, as former party leaders create new political parties: the Future Party of Davuto?lu and another to be announced under the leadership of Ali Babacan, former economic minister. Erdo?an may sense his only option is to rely on threats from other countries, instigating nationalism, to restore his popularity.

The international arena, in that sense, should work to find new solutions to develop diplomacy and dialogue throughout the Middle East and discourage interventions. Imposing sanctions on Turkey only increase nationalism, an appeal to historical glory under Ottoman rule legitimizing anti-democratic and anti-liberal governance.

By Yale Global

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on February 01 2020 said:
    Turkey’s Libyan connection is an offshoot of the crisis between Turkey on the one hand and Cyprus, Greece and Israel over the Eastern Mediterranean gas discoveries. Behind these two conflicts lie a struggle for energy and political power.

    Turkey has three main objectives in the energy scene in the European Union (EU) and the Eastern Mediterranean. The first is to consolidate its position as the energy hub of the EU bolstered by both the Turk Stream gas pipeline which will bring Russian gas supplies under the Black Sea to southeastern Europe via Turkey and the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) bringing Caspian gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey and then to the EU via the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP).

    The second objective is to ensure that the Turkish Cypriots get a fair share from natural gas discoveries offshore Cyprus estimated by some accounts to be worth $44.8 bn.

    The third objective is to prevent the construction of EastMed gas pipeline by Israel, Greece and Cyprus to bring Israeli and Cypriot natural gas under the Mediterranean to the EU via the Greek mainland. Turkey opposes it because it will compete with the Turk Stream and also with the SGC

    And to confirm its solid opposition to the EastMed, Turkey is planning to build its own undersea gas pipeline connecting its mainland with Northern Cyprus. The proposed pipeline’s length is 80 kilometers and it should start pumping gas by 2025. Its main goal is to lower the Turkish Cypriots’ energy bill by exporting gas from north to south, but the pipeline’s reverse-flow feature also allows the export of natural gas to the mainland.

    Turkey’s dual-use pipeline could compete with the EastMed pipeline as it would connect the Eastern Mediterranean with customers in Europe. Its main advantage is the relatively low construction costs. It is much shorter than EastMed and could connect to largely existing infrastructure on the mainland. However, the EastMed estimated to stretch over a distance of 1900 km and costing an estimated $7 bn may never see the light of day.

    Still, the Eastern Mediterranean gas producers will have to eventually reach an accommodation with Turkey if they want a peaceful and lucrative development of their gas riches. Reaching an accommodation with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean may have the additional bonus of easing Turkey’s Libyan connection.

    Moreover, in a spirit of rapprochement, Turkey’s proposed North-South gas pipeline could replace the EastMed gas pipeline. This will consolidate Turkey as the EU energy hub and will also carry Israeli and Cyprus gas supplies to the EU via Turkey.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Lee James on February 01 2020 said:
    Thank you for this article on Turkey and Libya. I've always wondered why Libya seems so important to Turkey. The politics around this make the Middle East all the more complex -- it's "oil" plus a lot of other things . . . .

    Still, I can't help but wonder if the world would be a more peaceful place if we could produce clean energy close by to where we use it.

    As it is, oil and gas pipelines involve a lot of hostile people and geography. Oil is highly grab-able and transportable, but the water and land it travels over is not friendly, either politically or environmentally. We need to reduce world conflict and free dumping of pollutants. Is clean energy a way that we can realize less conflict?
  • Rico Maxwel on March 08 2020 said:
    Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of more people may head for the Turkish border

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