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The Exclusive Economic Zone between Libya and Turkey

The Memorandum of Understanding for maritime cooperation between Turkey and Libya of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj was definitively voted by the Turkish Parliament on December 5 last.

The President of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, also officially stated that the Turkish-Libyan MoU is fully consistent with the letter of the Skhirat Agreements of 2015 and 2017, which regulate the relations between Libya and Cyrenaica.

This statement is not useless because, as we shall see, Egypt also challenges the political way in which the Turkish-Libyan MoU was reached and its legitimacy and compliance with the international agreements that define the establishment and functions of Libya’s Government of National Accord led by al-Sarraj.

Besides economic issues – which will be later analyzed in detail- the collaboration between Turkey and Libya envisages also the possibility of a direct commitment of the Turkish Armed Forces “at the simple request” of the Libyan government.

As early as Gaddafi’s time, Turkey was already present with its companies and investment to the tune of over 26 million US dollars, mainly in the real estate sector.

As can be easily imagined, the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime diminished the Turkish interest in Libya, but the bilateral relations between Libya and Turkey continued, also with the contract awarded to a Turkish company to extend Tripoli’s coastal road and with many building reconstructions, always decided by al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).

At military level, Turkey has so far supported Tripoli (and not only the Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of al-Sarraj’s government) with drones, intelligence Service instructors and artillery.

Ateconomic level, however, the two Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), namely the Turkish EEZ and the Libyan one border each other and hence President Erdogan spoke of joint oil exploration and joint maritime control actions between Tripoli’s Libya and Turkey.

This means – quite overtly – to eliminate Greece, Greek Cyprus, Egypt (which supports General Haftar of Cyrenaica) and, finally, Israel from Central and Eastern Mediterranean.

Not to mention Italy, which would be banned from a large part of the shipping lines and also of the oil and submarine connections between Sicily and the Libyan coast.

For much less, Craxi’s government and the then Finance Minister, Franco Reviglio, ordered the military secret Service, SISMI- led by the extraordinary Admiral Martini – to keep the Tunisian crisis developments under control and to put Ben Ali, as leader of Tunisia, against the candidate of the French intelligence Services that disdainfully refused any support. Nevertheless, Italy won.

Currently, however, Italy no longer has politicians with the same guts as in the past.

Obviously, Turkey is not particularly interested in the specific survival of al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), but it intends to use these agreements as a binding precedent for the whole of Libya, whoever rules in Tripoli or in Benghazi.

To what extent can al-Sarraj resist a military advance by General Khalifa Haftar?

Certainly not so much, especially because the forces of Wagner’s Russian contractors operate – with advanced weapons and methods -together with the Benghazi Army.

Without an international intervention in his favour – which, however, would even further split Libya in two -al-Sarraj is not bound to last long.

Apart from Turkey, however, Tripoli has no friends capable of evaluating what Machiavelli called the “effective reality of things”.

Wagner’s Russian contractors are about 1,000 and they currently operate in Eastern and Western Libya, in the area controlled only by General Haftar’s forces. This will certainly lead to a new escalation of the conflict and to its polarization. The more or less foolish Westerners will side with al-Sarraj and Tripoli, while all the others (Turkey, i.e. NATO second army, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar, which is reconnecting to Saudi Arabia) will side with General Haftar, with a view to reconquering the first oil depot in Africa and the port of almost immediate access to the EU.

The Berlin Conference on Libya is scheduled for 2020. There is daily talk by European Foreign Ministers about a “peaceful solution” and the ideas of the EU countries that still operate in Libya are non-existent, except for the business as usual approach and the simplistic and purely electoral refusal to get caught up and bogged down in the Libyan chaos.

If this were to happen, however, some European countries should quell social and – in some cases – economic tensions capable of making all their governments collapse.

Years of silly pacifism and of soldiers on “peace-keeping” missions,operating as Red Cross nurses,have left their mark. Currently Germany is militarily non-existent and France is doing just a little better. As far as Italy is concerned, better not to talk about it.

Hence, if the United Nations’ lethargy and the European stupidity persist – and there is no reason to think otherwise -General Haftar is bound to win.

However, who could be the real tough nut to crack against General Haftar, in his triumphant march westwards and towards  Tripolitania?

Certainly not the GNA’s official militias or the other local “brigades” in favour of al-Sarraj, but now only Misrata’s militias. They defend al-Sarraj, but they also hold him in their hands.

Misrata’s militias are led by the current deputy of al-Sarraj, Ahmed Maitig, and all the militias and brigades survive with their illicit trade and trafficking. In fact, the illegal migration flows from Libya leave from the beaches of Misrata and Gasr Garabulli, with people traffickers who pay their fee to Misrata’s ones, while the other 300 militias have devoted themselves to various illegal activities: oil smuggling, kidnappings, money laundering and the most traditional robberies.

In Libya, however, oil is still the business of the future, considering that it still has oil reserves to the tune of 48.4 billion barrels, which still make Libya rank first among African oil countries.

Furthermore, the militias of Zintan – the second largest Libyan militant organization in size – are those that killed Gaddafi, thanks to the French weapons launched against them in the Gebel Nafusa Mountain region.

Those militias – later defeated by “Lybia Dawn”in 2014, in a war for economic dominance over the Tripolitanian trade and trafficking -have reconnected to General Haftar.

Moreover, the United States with its African Command still has a support base for intelligence and special operations in Benghazi.

Currently, however, the US African continental command is moving away from all Libyan areas and is now present only on the Eastern and Southern borders of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

General Haftar has a force of about 2,500 soldiers, former members of Gaddafi’s regular Forces and of Saiqa, Gaddafi’ special forces.

Besides Misrata’s troops, the forces siding with al-Sarraj include the Rada Special Force, 1,500 soldiers having mainly police tasks and, finally, the Nawasi Brigade, i.e. 700 “radical”Islamists – just to use the silly Western terminology.

Also militias from Chad (1,000 soldiers) and from Darfur (500) side with General Haftar.

Maitig, the Head of Misrata’s militia, has recently visited France, with a view to repairing relations between France, an open supporter of General Haftar, and Tripoli’s GNA.

Obviously, at the time, Italy was asleep.

Italy is the country that has no longer had a foreign policy for several years.

At the NATO Summit held in London late November Italy was excluded from the meeting on Libya.

Obviously, Prime Minister Conte maintains that this is not important, but he is clearly lying.

After Brexit, Italy remains an inevitable point of reference for the EU transatlantic dialogue.

However, nowadays, explaining such a simple concept to Italian politicians is already a problem.

Nevertheless, the economic rather than political Memorandum of Understanding,signed between Turkey and Libya on November 28, 2019, is a Turkish longa manus in Libya that will be very hard to limit.

Certainly, Italy’s current awkward geopolitics will adapt masochistically to support also its opponents, as has happened so far in Libya and in other parts of the world.

It is also very likely that Turkey may create a blackmail market for illegal immigration also in Libya, as it has already done at the Syrian-Turkish border,as well as to block the “Balkan route” of irregular migrants to the Austrian and German borders.

As many of the most authoritative analysts maintain, General Haftar’s “conquest of Tripoli” could trigger a new great Libyan conflict and certainly not quell the current one.

Let us analyze the current situation of the Italian agreements with one or the other Libyan government.

On March 12, 2019 an agreement was signed between Federpesca and the Libyan Investment Authority of Benghazi, with a view to enabling a fixed number of Italian fishing vessels, all based in Mazara del Vallo, to fish in all Libyan waters.

The agreement became operational on July 15, 2019, but it was considered illegal by the government of al-Sarraj, who thinks thatthe agreement between Federpesca and the Tobruk government agency is contrary to the Skhirat agreements and the subsequent UN rules on the Libyan issue. It thinks so in line with Article 8 of the Skhirat Treaty and Agreements.

Libya, however, believes that the Gulf of Sirte, as a “traditional bay”, is under its full sovereignty – a claim so far opposed by the United States, Italy and all the other EU Member States. The strategic significance of this dispute is clear and needs no particular elaboration.

In 2005, Libya proclaimed a 62-mile fishing protection zone from the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte, which is below the midline with Italy and, hence, does not lend itself to any claims or disputes.

In 2009 – hence still under Gaddafi’s regime -Libya further proclaimed an EEZ enabling the Libyan State to fully use all the EEZ natural resources, including fish.

The size of this Libyan EEZ, however, was not defined, thus leaving the formal law to customs and possible bilateral agreements with neighbouring States.

Conversely, Turkey had not yet a real EEZ, except for the one delimited autonomously with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

In principle, however, the Libyan EEZ has a size of 200 miles like all the others and, hence, there is the need for a specific agreement with Italy – for fisheries and for all the other matters.

In 2018, Libya also defined its Search and Rescue area (SAR).

Malta has a very large SAR area, which overlaps – in two large areas – with the Italian one and borders directly on the Libyan SAR area, right on the closing line of the Gulf of Sirte.

It should be recalled that Libya has never ratified the UN  Convention on the Law of the Sea and hence refers only to customary law on the matter.

Nevertheless,the recent agreement between al-Sarraj and Turkey is a game-changer.

Following the establishment of the new Turkish-Libyan EEZ zone, Egypt has resorted to Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement, which lays down that “the Libyan government or the Cabinet, not the Prime Minister, has the power and authority to sign international agreements”.

The Turkish-Libyan bilateral Memorandum also establishes 18.6 nautical miles of a continental shelf and a border line of the Exclusive Economic Zone between Libya and Turkey.

Before this agreement between Turkey and Libya, Greek Cyprus had reached agreementswith the Lebanon and Egypt, for the delimitation of maritime areas that are currently of primary interest for oil and gas extraction.

Greece, however, points out that – with this EEZ redesign -Libya recovers as many as 39,000 square kilometers of the EEZ, which were previously held by Greece.

Greece, in fact, wanted to exploit the problematic conditions in Libya to have an EEZ four times the size of the Lebanon.

After this MoU between Libya and Turkey, however, the Greek islands could no longer enjoy a continental shelf and an Exclusive Economic Zone within the Athens area.

Hence, from a maritime viewpoint, Greece is separated from Crete, Rhodes, Kastellorizo and all the other Greek islands of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt is not particularly damaged by the Libyan-Turkish MoU. Indeed, it can be used by Egypt as a precedent for the forthcoming redesign of the Egyptian EEZ towards the Greek Sea and the South-Eastern Greek islands.

Nevertheless Al-Sisi, who is not a naive leader, stated he would  give up his EEZ rights over the Greek Sea and Greek Cyprus obviously in exchange for international support from Greece and, indirectly, from Italy.

At the beginning of December 2019, President Erdogan stated he would never stop his marine exploration for discovering oil and gas in front of Cyprus and, above all, in front of the Cypriot EEZ in Turkish Cyprus, the Turkish ethnicState which declared its  independence in 1983 and had been established after the 1974 Turkish invasion.

Turkey has not declared the criteria followed to delimit the Turkish-Libyan waters defined by the bilateral MoU.

As is well-known, al-Sarraj’s Libya delimited its EEZ and SAR in a vast area which, when Gaddafi declared it in 1986, caused him the first US bombing.

So far Turkey has taken mere response measures to counter the activism of Cyprus, which had already defined its EEZ with Egypt (in 2003), with the Lebanon (in 2007) and with Israel in 2010.

The price of the new Libyan-Turkish EEZ is paid not only by Greece, but also by Cyprus, since the new bilateral EEZ, which faces Cyrenaica’s coast and the territorial waters of Rhodes and Karpathos, stretches from the promontory west of Antalya to the stretch of Libyan coast going from the Cyrenaic border with Egypt up to Derna.

As already seen, also the island of Kastellorizo is inside the new EEZ.

Against this background, the Italian government has decided to follow the geopolitics based on the famous saying of SaintPhilip Neri, “state buoni se potete”, thus favouring the right of Cyprus, but hoping in a more “constructive” Turkish attitude – albeit we do not understand on what basis.

The opposite is true. The Turkish attitude is the really constructive one, while Italy’s foreign policy – if any – is pure flatus vocis.

The Italian Navy, however, sent the frigate “Federico Martinengo” in an operation for patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Certainly, the Turkish presence in the Libyan territorial waters presupposes a possible transformation of the Libyam internal conflict, considering that the new EEZ implies the sending  “of all the Turkish troops that will be requested by Tripoli”, at the request of al-Sarraj’s government.

There is also the possibility – barely perceived in international documents – of a presence of Israeli intelligence Service troops and operators during the actions of General Haftar’s GNA against Tripoli.

Furthermore, General Haftar did not even apologize to Italy for the drone – a Reaper of the 32ndflight formation of the Italian Air Force – shot down by its troops on November 20, 2019 near Tarhouna, while he immediately apologized to the United States for the shooting down of the MQ9 Reaper a few kilometers from Tripoli.

This is what happens when you are irrelevant and you count for nothing.

Hence we are witnessing Turkey’s entry into the Libyan military field. Turkey supports al-Serraj and the Islamism of Muslim Brotherhood that keeps him in power – the Islamism that the foolish Westerners call “moderate”.

We will also witness the extreme escalation of the clash between Tripoli and General Haftar, also thanks to the possible Turkish maritime operations in Cyrenaica, as well as the immediate and absolute expulsion of Italy and its interests from Libya and the  repositioning of the United States, and probably of Israel, in an agreement – that we imagine to be wider than the Libyan system alone – with Turkey, Russia, Egypt and, probably, Saudi Arabia, the States supportingGeneral Haftar’s forces and Abdullah al-Thani’s corresponding government.

What about Italy? Nothing, of course.

Giancarlo Elia Valori