Turkey-Libya Deal Risks Destabilizing the Region

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


After its recent interventions in Syria and Iraq, Turkey is preparing to extend its influence across the Mediterranean into Libya. According to recently leaked documents outlining a November 27 memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Turkey and the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya, Turkey has in one fell swoop redrawn the maritime borders in its neighborhood, and in the process drawn the ire of Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. In addition and, it appears, in exchange for tacit approval of the deal, the Turkish president outlined a far-reaching security and military cooperation agreement with the GNA that could in principle see Turkish forces deployed on Libyan soil.

Writing approvingly about the agreement, Daily Sabah‘s Merve Şebnem Oruç presents the Turkey-Libya deal as one that would bring all the countries in the Eastern Mediterranean to the table, adding that “The deal with Libya is not to raise tensions in the region but a move to protect Turkey and Libya’s interests and a start to bring all other coastal states to the table for talks on their rights. But that doesn’t mean Turkey will stop at this point. As President Erdoğan said, both countries can carry out joint exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea…. The maliciousness toward Turkey that aims to limit the Turkish EEZ to the Gulf of Antalya cannot be tolerated, of course. Turkey’s position is very clear: The dispute has to be solved with comprehensive negotiations which will benefit all coastal states as well as Turkish and Greek Cypriots.”

However, news of the deal has sparked angry responses from government officials as well as regional observers. In an editorial published last week, the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram warned,“Turkey’s actions could trigger uncalculated regional confrontations, increase political polarization and provide armed militias inside Libya with help from foreign parties that do not want the conflict to end, but rather wish to increase polarization to serve Ankara’s interests, opening a gateway to controlling areas teeming with anarchy. Turkey’s policies in some African countries are key to understanding Turkey’s recent moves. An effective role by the global community and major world powers is key to reining in Erdogan’s government, stopping its provocations of major regional countries to prevent matters from spiraling out of control.”

Concerns about a significant pushback against Turkey’s increasing appetite for military deployments and antagonizing its neighbors are also evident in this op-ed by Hurriyet Daily News’ Serkan Demirtaş who fears that Turkey’s allies may be running out of patience: “At a time when Turkey is already in a messy relationship with the U.S., Russia and European powers on Syria, opening a new political and military front in Libya would further strain ties with the said nations. Erdoğan has deliberately singled out Russia, as he said he will have a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days specifically on Libya…. A Turkish decision to send troops will surely draw a reaction from the international community which is against any sort of foreign intervention. Plus, Libya is not Syria and the deployment of troops on the other side of the Mediterranean would not be interpreted as a measure to address legitimate security concerns of Turkey.”

Reflecting on the meaning of the MoU, Seth Frantzman argues in a column for the Jerusalem Post that, while surprising at first, the agreement is consistent with Turkey’s recent actions and accurately reflects Mr. Erdogan’s “long-term strategy… to dominate the eastern Mediterranean, and also reach around to Qatar and Somalia so it has a footprint in the Gulf and east Africa, as well as carving out statelets in northern Syria and Cyprus to pressure the EU and Syria. It wants to showcase its warplanes and special forces with raids on the PKK in Iraq and show that wherever Turkey wants bases it can have them in weak neighboring states. All this comes with an emerging special relationship with Russia, the purchase of S-400s from Moscow, and a trade relationship with Iran designed to keep Iran and Turkey on the same page.”

Even though the Turkish parliament has already approved one part of the agreement dealing with the redrawing of the maritime borders, the MoU has received an icy reception in the Libyan parliament, where, according to an Asharq Alawsat report by Sawsan Abu Hussein and Khalid Mahmoud, “The head of Libya’s parliament, Aguila Saleh, has launched a regional tour to rally support against the memoranda of understanding signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj…. Saleh, for his part, said: ‘The signing of this agreement without ratification by the Libyan House of Representatives aims to cede the sovereignty of the Libyan State and its legitimate rights to the Republic of Turkey to enable it to invest in this area, which is null and void by all standards’…. Saleh also urged the United Nations not to acknowledge the legality of the document, as the Libyan parliament does not recognize it.”

A Saudi Gazette editorial, also touching on the subject, argues that the actions of the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord, even though likely made under duress, should not go unpunished by the international community: “On the face of it, Libya with its already well-established largely onshore oil resources, has no need to join in such a controversial claim. But it seems clear that PC leader Fayez Al-Serraj was pressured into the deal, and it is easy to understand why. Serraj heads the Government of National Accord (GNA) which exists around Tripoli and of the West of the country largely thanks to the support of Muslim Brotherhood militias and opportunist armed gangs…. But Serraj may have backed himself into trouble. Both the EU and Washington have damned the MoU, each insisting it is provocative and unacceptable…. The international community could finally be starting to think twice about their recognition of Serraj and his lawless militiamen.”

Meanwhile, Egyptian dailies, including Al Masry Al Youm, report that at the opening session of the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development held in Egypt this week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attempted to obviate the need for a Turkish security and military guarantee by promising to propose “a comprehensive political solution to the Libyan crisis in the coming months, aiming to eliminate terrorist hideouts used for transferring militants, ammunition and arms to neighboring countries in the region…. Egypt will be ready to provide African countries, notably the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, with expertise and military equipment, ammunition and arms, Sisi added, explaining that terrorist groups have continued their activities in part because they have received huge military and financial support.“

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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