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Turkey doubles region's troubles — first in Syria, and now in Libya

Turkey doubles region's troubles — first in Syria, and now in Libya
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When a country’s diplomatic style is confrontational, what do you get? Confrontations. It has become Turkey’s signature style. But winning confrontations, or giving the appearance of doing so, can be a challenge. And Ankara may have been wrong-footed in a swiftly worsening crisis, prompted by a new stage in the Libyan civil war.

Two weeks ago, the new twist in the crisis looked like a fracas based on rival claims to potential offshore reserves of natural gas in the Mediterranean. Ankara and Tripoli signed an agreement delineating a maritime border. Until then, few realized the two countries had such a border — the Greek island of Crete was in the way. But Turkey does not regard islands as having economic exclusivity stretching up to 200 miles beyond territorial waters. 

Tripoli now shares this view, even though the administration clutching to power in the Libyan capital controls much less than half of territorial Libya at present, and not even the bit of Mediterranean coastline used to justify the claim.

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At the time of this cartographic surprise, some speculated that Turkey wanted to annoy Greece — yet again — in order to claim what it regards as its share of potential lucrative natural gas reserves at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Way to the south, Egypt already is an established producer. Israel’s Leviathan field, which comes on stream this month, will mean that that country now is self-sufficient and can export the surplus, initially via Egyptian gas liquefaction plants. Exploration continues off Cyprus, ethnically Greek but an independent country, even though its northern part is a self-declared Turkish entity, unrecognized except by Ankara. Drilling off Lebanon may start early 2020.

Over the weekend, detail emerged on a separate Turkish-Libyan military agreement: Ankara essentially promised to safeguard the government in Tripoli. That may be too late; the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Libya has been forced back to a defensive line in the outer suburbs of Tripoli. And, according to The Economist, it is having to cope with a new weapon being used by forces helping Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army — well-aimed sniper rifles in the hands of newly recruited Russian mercenaries. Haftar lacks access to Libya’s oil revenues but receives funding and equipment, as well as the occasional air strike, from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

So, after many months of stalemate, we may be watching the final round of the Libyan civil war. On the face of it, Haftar, a Gaddafi general and former CIA asset, should have taken over the government within weeks, but whether he succeeds now is a factor of how quickly the Turkish military can reach the sands of North Africa.

In 2017, when a diplomatic rift erupted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, there were fears in Doha that UAE mercenaries would attempt a land invasion and overthrow Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. It didn’t happen, but U.S. forces were so concerned that they launched a drone to monitor the border area.

Within days, several hundred Turkish soldiers had arrived, as well as armored vehicles and tanks, and taken up blocking positions. The Qatari forces may been been overwhelmed by a mercenary force but the presence of the Turkish military changed the calculation. Since then, the Qataris have built a permanent base for the Turks and much improved their own military.

At present, Washington supports the legitimate government of Libya. The U.S. lost a drone recently, by Russian operatives allied with Haftar. But will the U.S. get more deeply involved? Perhaps that depends on whatever understandings President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE reached with Turkey’s President Erdogan earlier this month.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.