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ANALYSIS - Strategic, legal aspects of Turkey-Libya deal

Turkey 'checkmates' in Mediterranean Sea chess by taking legal and economic initiative in region with game changing Libya deal, which will change energy geopolitics in East Med.

Mesut Hakki Casin  | 13.12.2019 - Update : 14.12.2019
ANALYSIS - Strategic, legal aspects of Turkey-Libya deal

The writer is a fellow academic at Faculty of Law in Yeditepe University in Istanbul. 


Advancements in drilling technology over the past quarter-century bred maritime boundary disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the rising demand for hydrocarbon resources. Contrary to territorial waters, establishing continental shelf limits and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) within overlapping maritime zones has been particularly problematic in the region.

Technically speaking, "maritime zone notifications" are unilateral declarations of contiguous zones, EEZ boundaries or coastal state territorial zones -- within maritime zones unconnected to other neighboring states. In contrast, "maritime boundary delimitations" correspond to the restrictions put in place via an agreement to determine relevant boundaries between states, in case of overlapping maritime zones or multiple claims to the area.

There are no such thorough agreements between the coastal states in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus considers itself the sole authority on the island, while Greece, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Israel all declared EEZs in the Eastern Mediterranean region. But it is important to note that the EEZ agreements, between the EU and the U.S.-supported Greek-Cypriot duo and the coastal states, have no legitimacy due to the unlawful nature of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum -- which disregards the rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), protected by international law.

The natural gas reserves in the region are estimated to be around 122 trillion cubic meters in total. In addition to the natural gas production in Israel and Egypt, the drilling activities in Cyprus significantly raised the status of the island for outsider states while simultaneously posing a question of regional strategic security. The Turkey-Libya deal herein resulted in the collapse of, the quite unlawful, political strategies.  

Competition among great powers in region, risks of military conflict escalation 

Rising energy demand in the EU raises Brussels’ political and economic interests in the region. The EU also supports the unjustified EEZ claims of Southern Cyprus and Greece. On the other hand, the political impotence caused by the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring, as well as the newly formed blocs among countries with the current competition of global powers, have triggered an arms race and rise of tensions in the region rather than allowing for economic cooperation. Israel, Greece and Southern Cyprus are taking steps towards collaboration in economy, energy, defense and foreign policy issues. Saudi Arabia is officially a part of Southern Cyprus-Greece-Egypt bloc -- formed by the U.S. and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean -- against Turkey. The Saudi regime, for the first time in history, sent a minister-level diplomat to Southern Cyprus, giving a signal of “unity against Turkey”. 

Considering the possible contribution of the discovery of energy resources within these maritime zones on these nations’ economies and geopolitical positions, the option of “gunboat diplomacy” seems to remain in the forefront, rather than respecting international law in the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. and EU’s efforts in balancing Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea and the improvements in China's relations with the Mediterranean countries via the “Modern Silk Road Project”, put further pressure on the Cyprus Island. The Mediterranean Region is getting sucked into the center of an “undeclared war” as the U.S. and EU conduct more drills with the Gulf States and the Israel-Greece-Southern Cyprus trio to balance Russia, China and Iran. In other words, the rivalry to establish dominance in the region is turning into a Cold-War like conflict among the countries.

John McCarrick, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of State's Energy Resources Bureau, said in an interview on Nov. 29 that the U.S. is against the pipeline projects “TurkStream” and “Nord Stream II”, which are planning to transfer natural gas from Russia to Turkey and Germany -- through Turkey and the Baltic Sea. Turkey purchased the S-400 Russian missile system after Washington allowed Greece, but not Turkey, to get access to the Patriot missiles. While Greece happens to have Russian S-300 missiles in its inventories, it was surprising for many that Turkey, a NATO member, purchased Russian missile systems. Adopting a punitive approach towards Turkey, the U.S. agreed to lift a 32-year-long arms embargo on Southern Cyprus. Also, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Turkey's activities of drilling for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean was “unacceptable”. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on Washington to exercise authority to solve the problem. In the meantime, the EU supported the unlawful attempts of Southern Cyprus to sub-divide the region and conduct drillings via various companies and partners. Tensions rose as the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades reported Turkey, which started drillings in the Cyprus Island, to the UN, while the U.S. and EU supported the gas pipeline agreements among Southern Cyprus and some European countries and Israel against Turkey. Turkey, on the other hand, chose to go its way, conducting drillings in the region under the protection of its naval forces, after not getting much support from either the EU or U.S.

Legal background of Turkey-Libya deal

The Turkey-Libya Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreement was signed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayiz es-Serrac on Nov. 27. The agreement is approved by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and the UN will be informed of the agreement following the approval of Libya. Turkey, with the Libya deal, took a game-changing initiative that will historically have a major impact on the energy geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean. The hypothesis that Turkey could not have an agreement with the other states in the region is also proven wrong, and besides, doors to new agreements with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel are now open with the Libya deal. This also reaffirmed Turkey’s strong position in the game and proved that in legal and practical terms, it is not possible to ignore Turkey’s existence in the region.

The maritime boundary delimitation issue in the Eastern Mediterranean has unique factors that need consideration as the boundaries are set. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) proposes a fair and lawful distribution of maritime resources and delimitation of maritime zone boundaries. While the geographic conditions of the region lie at the core of the EEZ disputes within the Eastern Mediterranean, it is particularly the policies carried of the nations which have conflicts with the fundamental principles of the Convention, such as the principles of “justice”, “non-encroachment” and “equitable geographical distribution”. The international legal regime of EEZs were arranged in Articles 55-57 of Part V of the 1982 UNCLOS. According to Article 57 of the Convention: "The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.” Due to the distance between the countries being less than 400 nautical miles in the region, the EEZ boundaries can only be determined via agreements concluded between multiple states, and besides, islands can’t have complete control over EEZs, therefore they can’t declare sovereignty. The International Court of Justice indicated that the delimitations will be made according to common law, respecting the “justice” principles and taking into account all “related situations”, with an “agreement”.

Greece acknowledges as a single coastline, its territories within the area between the Crete Region and the Meyisti island. Turkey, on the other hand, argues that continental shelves and EEZ boundaries must be determined between the mainland states Libya, Egypt and Turkey, primarily. Southern Cyprus’ claim of mainland status in the Mediterranean Sea and the agreements built on that assumption are not valid according to international law. Also, according to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Southern Cyprus can’t ignore the equal rights of Northern Cyprus and unilaterally make decisions on behalf of the Turkish people living on the island. Turkey and TRNC made objections to the agreements, reporting that the agreement made between Cyprus and Egypt is violating the continental shelf boundaries of Turkey and that Southern Cyprus is seriously violating the TRNC’s equality rights and that these violations are against the principle of just distribution. This is because the coastal geography and structure play a very important role in the delimitation of maritime zones. It’s, more often than not, the deciding factor, and it’s built on two basic principles; “The Principal of the Domination of the Land over the Sea” and “the coastal state shall establish this domination via its coasts”. This fundamental principle has been highlighted in all related judicial decisions (Malta-Libya case, Aegean Sea Continental Shelf case, Guinea-Bissau case).

The strategic significance of the Turkey-Libya deal

The deal’s primary contribution was that it guaranteed the re-drawing of the EEZ and continental shelf zone boundaries within the Eastern Mediterranean, as it is the second maritime boundary delimitation agreement -- following the agreement concluded with the TRNC -- signed in the Eastern Mediterranean with a riparian state, while Greece’s agreements with Egypt and Southern Cyprus have lost their legitimacy for the most part.

As summarized above, according to the “non-encroachment” principle, it would be against the law to grant to Greece only the maritime zones that are near the shores of Turkey (whose coasts are the longest in magnitude in the Eastern Mediterranean). Turkey scored a historic victory with the Libya deal, penetrating through the so-called EEZ line, which was seriously violating the rights of the TRNC and the 533 nautical mile-long Anatolian coast in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Western direction. The third critical achievement was the establishment of Libya as a Turkish maritime neighbor, and vice-versa, via the principle of the “creation of diagonal lines”, due to the tilted geographical position of Turkey on the world map. This situation will allow Turkey (and not Greece) to conclude similar agreements with Egypt and Israel in the future.

Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis is hoping to gain the support of the White House in his US visit and strengthen his hand on the Egypt-Greece EEZ boundary delimitation agreement. The EU asserted that it will stand by the Greece-Cyprus duo regarding the current issue and invited Turkey to act in correspondence with the European Neighborhood Policy, and highlighted that the agreement text should be published. Southern Cyprus, on the other hand, announced that it’s preparing an appeal to the International Court of Justice. But according to Article 59 of the UNCLOS, "the conflict should be resolved based on equity and in the light of all the relevant circumstances, taking into account the respective importance of the interests involved to the parties as well as to the international community as a whole." in cases of conflicting interests among states. Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, on his way to the 2019 NATO summit in London, responded a question on Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. “Both Greece and Turkey are valued allies and both contribute to our shared security. There are some disagreements and I welcome that there are bilateral contacts are trying to address these differences,” Stoltenberg said, adding that NATO is not a part of these bilateral talks. He also said that one of the reasons NATO has succeeded is that it does not participate “in all the difficult issues” of the region. This is an indication that the Greeks are spinning their wheels if anything.

In conclusion, Turkey is holding the magic key to a brand new chapter in the Mediterranean region, and we can expect that Turkey will continue the process peacefully and in line with the UNCLOS spirit, starting the dialogue which will enable the fair distribution of resources in the region among all states.

* Translated by Can Atalay

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