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Turkey looks to pull ahead of EastMed rivals in Libya

Can Greece use its position in the European Union to tempt Libya away from Ankara’s fold?
ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

A series of state visits by leaders of Libya’s new National Unity Government to Athens and Ankara last week laid bare the difficulty Greece faces in swaying the North African country away from its Mediterranean rival Turkey. 

Speaking at a joint press conference with his Libyan counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took credit for rescuing Libya’s UN-backed government, claiming that help “came from Turkey alone.”

“Henceforth, our priority is to extend the authority and sovereignty of the Government of National Unity to the entire country,” he added.

The National Unity Government was sworn in on March 15 and tasked with preparing the country for elections in December. It replaced the previous UN-recognized Government of National Accord, which fought a civil war with the forces of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who received backing from Russia, Egypt, the UAE and France.

Hifter’s forces were routed from their siege of Tripoli by the UN-backed government and its Turkish allies last summer.

Since then, Turkey has carved out a leading position for itself in the unstable North African country. The close ties it enjoyed with the GNA have carried over to the new UN-backed government.

Libyan Prime Minister Hamid Abdul Dbeibeh was accompanied on his trip to Ankara by 14 ministers, five deputy prime ministers and military officials. They participated in the first meeting of a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council with their Turkish counterparts.

Guma Al-Gamaty, head of the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a former special envoy for the GNA, stated that Dbeibeh’s visit shows Turkey is an indispensable partner for Libya, saying, “It is a very special relationship. It is a strategic one and it is bonded by history and culture.”

During the visit Dbeibeh reaffirmed Libya’s commitment to a contentious 2019 maritime agreement between Ankara and the GNA. Turkey’s rival Greece claims the deal is illegitimate under the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea because it disregards Athens’ rights to exclusive economic zones via islands in the Mediterranean. Turkey is not a signatory to the treaty.

Dbeibeh’s high-profile Ankara trip contrasted with a quieter visit to Athens the following day by Mohamed Al-Menfi, head of the National Unity Government’s Presidential Council.

Dimitris Kairidis, a parliamentarian for Greece’s governing New Democracy Party, told Al-Monitor that Athens’ message to Menfi was, “If the Libyans want full relations with the EU they must do something about Turkey and the maritime deal.”

Greece’s attempt to leverage its EU membership to draw the National Unity Government away from Turkey comes just as the country’s Mediterranean partners France and Egypt may be accommodating a longer-term presence by Ankara in Libya.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Dbeibeh in February and expressed support for the National Unity Government. Turkey and Egypt have recently reengaged in diplomatic contact after years of animosity.

The new cease-fire has brought a delicate stability to Egypt’s western desert borders. The reminder of Hifter’s failed military campaign and new security challenges linked to Ethiopia's controversial Nile dam are also reasons Egypt might be content with the status quo holding in the North African country.

The French also seem to be shifting course. Paris' early backing of Hifter and repeated calls for the removal of Turkish troops from Libya made it very unpopular with GNA supporters who now hold positions in the National Unity Government.

France has reopened its embassy in Tripoli and appears focused on repairing its image with power brokers in the capital.

Gamaty says Tripoli will not sacrifice its partnership with Ankara for the promise support in Brussels from one of the EU’s poorest member states.

“We know very well the EU is divided. Italy, Germany and France are not going to listen to Greece, which is far from the most powerful member. Each country is pursuing their own interests,” he stated.

Kairidis concedes that EU leverage is at times limited, but says the Libyans should not discount Athens' veto power as an EU member. “We could block funding and the Libyans can’t afford to have bad relations with the EU in trade or the economy.”

This dynamic may explain why the two sides are playing nice in public. Following Menfi’s meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Athens announced that Greece and Libya would begin talks on demarcating their maritime borders. 

However, sources close to both governments told Al-Monitor those talks will go nowhere anytime soon.

According to Gamaty, under the 5+5 Geneva format, which established a permanent cease-fire in Libya, the new government is not able to change any agreements made by the GNA until elections are held.

“I can assure you the current Libyan government cannot do any agreement with Greece, period,” he stated.

Kairidis described the situation as “basically frozen” until after the country’s new elections.

“This is a weak and fragile government put together with the purpose of holding elections. The situation will clarify more after the new elections,” he added.

But the situation in Libya is so tenuous many say elections are unlikely to take place this year at all. And Gamaty is confident elections will not change Turkey’s position on the 2019 maritime accord. 

“No Libyan government, present or future, will sacrifice the special relationship with Turkey,” he stated. “If future governments have to do an agreement with Greece, it has to be with the understanding and support of other countries in the region, like Turkey and Egypt.”

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