The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Dramatic gains on the battlefield by the forces loyal to the Turkish-backed “Government of National Accord” in western Libya have given Erdogan a victory, which may endanger the future of the eastern Mediterranean. Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel must coordinate their policies in response. A tripartite Greek-Cypriot-Israeli summit should be held urgently to annul the GNA-Libyan EEZ agreement, to present an alternative map of the Mediterranean, and to encourage a robust reaction of the EU. The US must be persuaded to pressure Turkey revoke the EEZ MoU (while still letting Erdogan take pride in saving the GNA from ruin).

Recent Developments and their Implications

Within the last few months four major developments not only intensified the civil war in Libya, but turned it into a deadly struggle for the future of the eastern Mediterranean as a whole: 

  1. In November 2017 in Ankara, the “Government of National Accord”, led by Prime Minister Fa’iz al-Sarraj, signed two agreements with Erdogan. One provides for Turkish military support for the GNA (which effectively rules only in Tripoli and adjacent areas) in its war with Khalifa Haftar’s Benghazi-based “Libyan National Army”. The other claims to delineate a border in the eastern Mediterranean between the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Turkey and Libya. The latter is designed to break up the EMGF (Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum), and deny Cyprus, Egypt and Israel access to the European market. 
  2. On March 31, 2020, the EU Council launched a CSDP (Common Security and Defense Policy) military operation in the Mediterranean – codenamed IRINI (Greek for “peace”) – to be carried out by the EUNAVFOR (EU naval forces). Its declared purpose is to implement the UN arms embargo on arms to the warring sides; but since the LNA relies on an overland line of supply from Egypt, the actual meaning would be to prevent Turkish shipping of arms to the GNA. The French Navy has already taken such action – in line with the promise Macron made to Mitsotakis during the latter’s visit in Paris in January 2020. 
  3. In late April 2020, Haftar abandoned the “Berlin process” and all efforts to find a political solution. He announced the Skhirat Agreement of 2015 null and void, and openly declared himself as the legitimate ruler of Libya. Backed by a somewhat unwieldy coalition of Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France, and even the Asad regime in Syria, his forces have laying siege to the GNA in Tripoli: attempts by France, Italy (at odds with each other) and in January 2020, Germany to bring about a compromise all came to naught again and again.
  4. Haftar’s announcement came despite (or because of) the serious setbacks suffered by his forces: most significantly, the loss of the al-Watiyah Air Base, south of Tripoli, in mid-May 2020. This was a dramatic achievement for the Turkish intervention in support of the GNA (drones, air defense, and the transfer to Tripoli of Islamist and Turkmen Syrian militias). 

The Factors which may Determine the Outcome

The GNA now refuses to accept any political process that would give the “war criminal,” Haftar, a legitimate role. The stakes are ever higher, and the future of the Mediterranean may now hinge upon the military outcome. Will Erdogan’s ambitious and aggressive strategy succeed, with all that this would entail for the future of the eastern Mediterranean region? Will a long and bloody stalemate ensue? Or can a different political outcome still be possible, despite the mutual hatred, which may leave Sarraj in power in power in Tripoli (thus giving Turkey the right to claim “success”) but can still ensure that the EEZ deal will be undone?

This now depends on five factors: 

  1. The ability of Haftar’s forces (backed mainly by Egypt) to maintain control over much of the country, despite the setbacks, and contain the GNA counter-attack (called “The Volcano of Anger”) so as to deny the Turkish intervention its ultimate goal of destroying the LNA. The role played by Russian “Wagner” mercenaries (and now by pro-Assad Syrian “volunteers”) may be troubling; but the consequences of total collapse of the LNA would be severe. 
  2. The ability of the relevant Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum nations to coordinate their policies effectively. The key players are Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel (Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are members, but not quite relevant). Tripartite summits should be convened as soon as possible. Italy has long been relatively friendly towards the GNA, but suspicious of Erdogan’s designs: by assuming operational command of Operation IRINI Rome may be indicating a willingness to act to curb Turkish ambitions.  
  3. The commitment of the European Union, although beset by coronavirus concerns, to stand up to Erdogan; to exact a painful price for the actions taken against an EU member, namely Cyprus; to sustain naval action controlling the sea lanes to Libya; and to back the alternative map of EEZ borders that Italy, Greece and Egypt plan to present.
  4. An unequivocal stand by the Trump Administration. The US can offer Erdogan, on one hand, support on his legitimate concerns, such as combatting the pandemic, which has spread dramatically in Turkey; stabilizing the situation in Idlib, which threatens to send hundreds of thousands fleeing northwards; or even leave Sarraj in power in Tripoli: but Washington (including Congress) must sternly warn Ankara against actions which destabilize the eastern Mediterranean and endanger vital interests of key U.S. allies. Israel’s main contribution can and should be to make discreet but intensive efforts in Washington (specifically, in Congress) so as to focus attention on this crucial question – and generate real pressure on Turkey, which is highly vulnerable economically, to abandon the Libyan EEZ adventure. True, the gas pipeline may be a pipe dream, given present energy prices: but the alignment of the EMGF, and specifically, the partnerships with Egypt and Jordan as well as Greece and Cyprus, is of great strategic importance for Israel, well beyond its economic implications.
  5. A recognition by Putin that despite the complex calculations about competing gas projects, Russia’s first priority should be to contain Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions – and thus work closely not only with Haftar but also with Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (with the latter two Russia has meaningful historical, cultural and religious affinities). All this, while seeking to avoid a resumption of the military confrontation between Russian and Turkish proxies in Libya.

Policy Recommendations

In order to bring about a de-escalation, and possibly revive the political process (on the basis of coexistence and de-centralization), there should and can be an alignment of European, Russian, perhaps Chinese (given the role of the Mediterranean in the BRI) and certainly American positions. It should be the role of the key EMGF counties to help generate such an alignment. 

Thus, pressure can be brought to bear on Erdogan to play a constructive role. This is not beyond the realm of the possible, given the vulnerability of the Turkish economy. While Erdogan may well be able to point to the survival of the GNA as an impressive achievement of his intervention, he would need to let go of the dangerous and destabilizing delineation of the EEZ border: the counter-map, reportedly being prepared by Egypt, Greece and Italy, should be upheld – as the international norms require.

Israel’s role must, by necessity, be diplomatic and discreet. It should focus upon three avenues of action:

  1. Forging a common position of all EMGF countries. As soon as possible, a tripartite summit meeting should be organized with Greece and Cyprus: it should also serve as an opportunity to bring the new ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs – with continuity in the PM office and the Ministry of Energy – up to speed on the strategic importance of the alignment. Close attention to the needs of Egypt (and Jordan) in this context may even help alleviate tensions over other issues. 
  2. Working in Washington (with both the Administration and Congress) to overcome the understandable qualms about Haftar – neither a paragon of moral probity nor a military genius – and nevertheless act firmly, using the leverage the US has already established, to ensure that Turkey would be forced to abandon the Ankara MoU’s of November 2019. 
  3. Placing this issue on the (already crowded) agenda with Putin, whose basic sentiments are quite close to those of Israel: and seeking to ensure that the demand to annul the EEZ map would be part of any renewed effort to broker a ceasefire and a resumption of negotiations, along the lines of Putin’s agreement with Erdogan, and the Berlin Conference in January 2020. 

Meanwhile, amidst many other challenges, the IDF – navy, air force and intelligence – as well as Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment as a whole should start preparing for the darker scenario of having to face an overt Turkish bid to fully control the eastern Mediterranean sea lanes of communication.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

Photo: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem