East Med agreement and Middle East crisis

7 February 2020 (Wall Street International)* — Signing of the inter-governmental agreement on the construction of the East Med pipeline to transport natural gas and connect the deposits of the Eastern Mediterranean to the European market via Cyprus and Greece on January 2nd has been described as “historic”.

By opening a corridor for the procurement of gas East Med is expected to contribute decisively to safeguarding the energy sufficiency and security of EU member-states. According to the certain estimates Greece may benefit from the revenues from the production, transport, and distribution of gas in new regions.

Moreover, the pipeline will provide natural gas to Greek regions that do not have access to the national network such as Crete, the Peloponnese, and Western Greece. It is expected that this “colossal project” would not only change the energy terrain in Southeastern Europe, but that it also could create new diplomatic and geostrategic realities, especially if Italy decides to actively participate.

Nevertheless, the new terrain and emerging alliances have triggered the intense annoyance of Ankara. It is no coincidence that when the three-way agreement was being signed, Ankara was ratcheting up tensions in the Aegean and the Turkish Parliament was approving the dispatch of a military force to Libya.

Erdogan’s reaction was followed by Trump’s warning that the US is opposed to “foreign involvement” in Libya, while the EU was concerned and Macron and Putin were backing diplomatic efforts within the UN and German mediation. For its part, neighboring Egypt, which backed General Haftar, opposed it from the outset, seeing the Turkish involvement in Libya as a threat to the Arab world and its security.

Italy’s ambivalent stance and Greek positions

A new international conference on Libya was being prepared by Italy one year after the November 2018 conference in Palermo, Sicily. A new meeting was needed to clarify the positions of the various players who have a reason to be interested in developments in this fragmented African country.

Italian diplomats found it important to ensure Turkey’s involvement this time and Rome received assurances from Ankara that it will support UN envoy Ghassan Salamé’s efforts to create a diplomatic framework that, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry, was in position “to balance and set limits on France’s initiatives”.

In line with Italian perspective, Paris wanted to prevent any sort of stabilization that maintains Italian superiority in Libyan oil and that was the logic followed in 2011 by then President Sarkozy when he first launched the bombing to overthrow Gaddafi. The same one they attribute to all the French moves in the North African country.

Italy hoped to be able to repeat achievement in Palermo, when they had persuaded both Haftar and Al Sarraj to join and hold talks during the conference. Nevertheless, Turkey’s tendency to legitimize its ambitions in Eastern Mediterranean by putting Libya in its game during November 2019 surprised even the Italian diplomacy.

The Mediterranean Dialogue held in Rome was accompanied by the announcement of the signature with strong criticism as the Italians believed that a double deal with the Turks also affected their own interests in the region.

At the end of 2019, the debate in Greece over the civil war in Libya was revived, following the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Libya’s internationally recognized government and the Turkish Republic. Until late November, when the memorandum was signed, Greece kept a neutral position over Libya, and it did not show any intention to take sides in favor of any of the warring party.

Here is to mention that Greece tried several times in the past to demarcate the continental shelf/EEZ in the Libyan Sea, but the two states’ approach was diametrically opposed.

However, Erdogan’s move to create a “fait accompli” in the Mediterranean alarmed the Greek government and has triggered a major policy shift in Athens (reopening of the “Sophia” operation in the Mediterranean e.g. with an extended mandate to oversee the implementation of the arms embargo to Libya, both by air and sea). In addition to already complicated situation, concerns were growing in Athens of the Italian government, which took actions that may even be considered hostile to Greek interests.

Although at the meeting in Cairo of the Foreign Ministers of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and Italy, the Turkey-Libya Memorandum was declared “blank and void” in a joint statement, Italy did not sign it. It only participated as an “observer”, refusing to take a substantial position.

Recalling the 2017 signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Energy Ministers of Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Italy, when Italy “again had a problem”, it looked like that Rome was continuing its curious “game” in the Mediterranean. (It should be noted that Italy’s cautious stance dates back at least to the time of the harassment of the ENI Saipem 12000 drillship by Turkish warships in 2018.

As well that the Italian frigate ITS Martinengo, which participated in exercises with Cyprus and France early December, a few days later participated in training with the Turkish Navy). Although the final impression was that Italy was searching a political solution to Libya, supporting the decision of its Mediterranean partners, while it’s low profile in Libya was explained as “maintaining a balance between Syria and Cyprus”, this episode created a serious problem of trust in Greek-Italian relations.

Libyan-Oil-pipelineLibyan Oil pipeline (Image from Wall Street International)

America’s absence

While the Eastern Mediterranean was increasingly moving into “geopolitical sand”, with Vladimir Putin mediating in Libya, plenty of reports were arguing that Washington intended to maintain a fair distance in Greek-Turkish dispute, avoiding actively condemning Turkish challenges.

Nevertheless, the scene continued to resemble a minefield, and unfortunately, Athens was called upon to handle its affairs. In this landscape, information was circulating that Turkey is considering purchasing from Russia other high-tech weapons, including the developing S-500 anti-aircraft missile system, the scenario that could further worsen the Washington-Ankara relations.

In the meantime the Greek Armed Forces were planning a series of exercises both on the mainland and at sea which would be attended by all countries that form the axis of the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, faced with the possibility of Turkish aggression, it looked like that Greek diplomacy was bound to form alliances that de facto involve it on other open fronts in the wider region. (A typical example is the diplomatic crisis with Iran).

But question arise was it maybe that the Greek Diplomatic Service was struggling to cover “the lost territory of September”, when the “Maximus Mansion” then saw a “positive agenda” during discussions with Turkish President at the UN. Even at the beginning of November, the top of the government, despite specific information, did not take precautionary measures against the Turkey-Libya memorandums made public at the end of the same month.

However, the balances at the beginning of 2020 at the UN became very different and the five permanent members of the Security Council (each for different reasons) did not want the top body to be particularly concerned with the Greek-Turkish aspect of the Libyan crisis.

While the US did not want to open any issue directly or indirectly related to Libya because the balance could have been disturbed with the Russia as the main beneficiary, Russia, which has already pursued its interests in the wider region, was not urgent in getting the Council involved, but may had been responding positively to a Greek request.

Although the United States appeared to be waking up gradually, with the State Department seeing that developments in the Mediterranean could lead to a widespread military conflict that could blow up the Atlantic Alliance and United States interests in the region of Europe, Russia and Turkey emerged as dominators of the game in Libya, with the Americans “shining through in their absence”.

Russia-Turkey cooperation

Although Putin and Erdogan have been opposing sides in Libya, their general interests have forced them to find compromises as partners rather than competitors. So they called on their “elect”, who are at the head of the warring camps, to sign a binding ceasefire to end the war and open the way for a settlement.

The peace talks were held separately in Moscow, as none of the two Libyan leaders wanted to be at the same table as the other. However, the truce in Libya proposed by the two leaders proved to be fragile.

In fact, Libyan marshal broke the plan, putting Erdogan in a difficult position. If Haftar had signed, Ankara would have achieved its strategic goal, without even sending an army, simply putting itself at the center of developments.

Berlin-Moscow Partnership

But it was not only Russia that saw Turkey as the guaranteeing power in Libya, but also Germany, which upset announced a summit in Berlin on 19 January. According to Greek press the “failure” of Germany to invite Greece to Berlin, at a time when the Libyan crisis was directly affecting Athens could not have been explained in other way. It is noteworthy that Athens reacted to its exclusion by inviting the Libyan military Haftar, as a diplomatic move that underlined that Greece is a factor in this crisis.

Meanwhile the German government was moving at a different wavelength, even from the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borell, who denounced the military involvement of Moscow and Ankara in the Libyan civil war. Perhaps this Berlin-Moscow partnership may not be so inexplicable, given the close energy relations of the two countries and not only.


Pipeline (Image from Wall Street International)

Real stakes of Berlin process

After Moscow, the focus was now on Berlin, where Germany invited the US, Russia, France, Britain, Italy, China, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the International Organizations, such as the United Nations, the EU, the African Union and the Arab League.

Despite the fact that the participants of the Berlin Conference may had intention to speak of peace and a political solution, it was clear that their real agenda was different and they certainly understood not only the political solution but also the truce itself in other terms each side. One could wonder what the real stakes in the Libyan crisis were. The peace or oil?

For Egypt, which indisputably took a leading role in the process of finding the solution, a Libya that has become a protectorate of Ankara was the worst.

Not only because of the Macron-Erdogan controversy, but also because of the traditional French notion that the Maghreb is a place of vital interest, France was already acquiring a military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean based in Cyprus and a dominant energy presence in the Cypriot EEZ and the Greek continental shelf, demonstrating power and sending the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, accompanied by a fleet of warships, to the area. The fourth force affected is Italy.

Rome was usually diplomatically affiliated with Ankara. But now with the possibility to see a Turkish army in neighboring Libya, it was upset. In addition to the forces in the region, the Americans did not want Libya to come under Turkey’s control, but neither does Haftar’s total control, because they feared Russia would gain a second stronghold in the Mediterranean after Syria.

Finally, the Russians were called upon to strike a difficult balance. On the one hand, they maintained their informal alliance with Turkey to keep it away from the West. On the other hand, they were not prepared to give Erdogan Libya, just as Syria did not. As it turned out, in Libya there was much more to be judged than who will control it.

The Libyan Conference ended in Berlin with the conclusion that the participating leaders reaffirmed the ceasefire and arms embargo on the warring sides, but there were no mechanisms in place at the moment for compliance at both levels. At the same time, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, it was decided to continue the dialogue on resolving the crisis.

Finally, according to the German Foreign Minister, it was agreed to launch a dialogue under the auspices of the UN on a political solution to the Libyan issue. With Rome from the very beginning in favor of the deployment of an international military force in Libya, Italy was immediately ready to take the lead in monitoring the ceasefire agreement.

At the same time, except for Erdogan, Moscow should not be too pleased, if one considers the statements made by Lavrov after the summit. Although he described the conference as “very useful”, apparently he would prefer a direct dialogue of the combatants that would exclude international military presence.

Evolution was not surprise as Middle East history has shown that ceasefire agreements serve to give the warring parties time to resume conflict at the right time. A few hours after the Berlin Conference, the first clashes between the forces of Haftar and the forces of the Sarraj government have already begun proving this particular peace conference largely resulted in ceasefire desires, rather than tangible results.

“Curse” of Libyan oil

The current situation in Libya is a result of the struggle for power, control over oil resources and tensions between ethnic and tribal affiliations. It should be noted, however, that these tensions had already existed before Gaddafi.

Among the numerous opinions regarding the causes of internal and external policy led by him, there is also a viewpoint according to which Libya’s terroristic and anti-imperialistic tendencies stem from the fact than until 1951, Libya was occupied by various imperial countries such as Turkey, Italy and England as well as partially by the USA. Therefore it is considered that Libya’s anti-imperialist tendencies date back to the beginning of the early Italian occupation1.

Following the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly called for Libya to be granted independence. It established the United Kingdom of Libya through the unification of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan, appointing Idris to rule it as king. El Sayyid Prince Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi (12 March 1889 – 25 May 1983) was a Libyan political and religious leader who served as the Emir of Cyrenaica and then as the King of Libya from 1951 to 1969.

He established links to the Western powers, allowing the United Kingdom and United States to open military bases in the country in return for economic aid. After oil was discovered in Libya in 1959, he oversaw the emergence of a growing oil industry that rapidly aided economic growth.

While in Turkey for medical treatment, Idris was deposed in a 1969 coup d’état by army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi, who overthrew the monarchy, proclaimed democracy and ruled dictatorship until 2011. The fallen Libyan monarch settled in exile in Egypt, where he died at the age of 94. He was buried in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

“Blessing” of the East Med?

We saw that Germany ignored the US threats, and proceeded with Russia to the Nord Stream pipeline. Turkey, which cooperates with Russia on Turkish Stream pipeline needs Libya as a bridgehead, while Russia is also known to not see East Med with a good eye, as it undermines its energy monopoly. Germany, which has become a major transit hub for Russian gas transportation to other Western European countries, seems to have the same view.

Obviously, the dispute between Ankara, Berlin and Moscow on a number of issues, most recently Libya, is not unrelated to the intensification of their energy cooperation. As it is not unrelated, the German tolerance of Turkish arbitrariness towards Greece and Cyprus. On the other side, this energy game is causing a stir within the EU, as France’s strong reactions show, while this “peculiar partnerships” seems to bother Washington.

Additionally, the US-Turkish rupture, coupled with an increase in US shale gas production, is driving the US to aggressively push forward its agenda on Europe’s energy issues. Developments with regard to the port of Alexandroupoli and the adoption of the East Med act are beginning of the implementation of American plans in which Greece is a key and critical partner.

The agreement on the East med pipeline was even strengthened with an Atlantic dimension, when recently adopted by the US Congress the East med act. But is this project of strategic importance not just for Greece but also for Europe hiding other plans and creating problems in the future?

The project has not been finalized because technical studies, expected to be completed by middle of 2021 are lacking. Besides the necessity to secure the buyer to find gas and to determine the viability of the project, even more important is another unanswered question- who would undermine the competitiveness of their economy to be “independent” from Russia or third countries (especially when their cooperation so far has not been a problem)?

Taking into consideration that the signing of the East Med indirectly opposes the logic of the memorandum between Turkey and Libya and the fact that signing the pipeline agreement could mark the beginning of closer co-operation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel in other areas, as well as that developments that may be triggered by the death of the Iranian general, the concerns are raised about the new landscape being formed and a new phase in which there may be an ignition in the region of the Middle East.

It should be noted here that Libya has the largest volume of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. As well that has become obvious the energy game in the Eastern Mediterranean is “a game for big players” who are ready to take risks while the alliances in the Mediterranean have been almost “cleared”.



1Kemal El Shairy, Curse of oil- the Libyan Case, Global South- at 50 and beyond, Proceedings of the ECPD Second International Round Table, Editors Boutros Boutros Ghali/Negoslav P.Ostojic, Belgrade 2015, p. 112-122.