Sarraj-Erdogan deal sparks anger, wariness across region

Libyan envoy expelled from Greece.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) receives Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, in Riyadh, December 2. (DPA)
Ripple effects. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) receives Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, in Riyadh, December 2. (DPA)

LONDON - A deal between Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s Tripoli-based government, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked hostile reactions and expressions of wariness over increasing tensions in the region.

The Greek Foreign Ministry said it ordered the expulsion of the Libyan ambassador in Athens over implications of the deal on its maritime jurisdiction dispute with Turkey. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said December 6 that the Libyan envoy was given 72 hours to leave Greece.

The Erdogan-Sarraj agreement also sparked concern in Riyadh where it was seen as leading to more Turkish military support for Libya’s Islamist-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Gulf affairs experts said the presence of senior Saudi government officials at a meeting December 2 between Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Libyan House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh signalled the importance that Riyadh places on developments in Libya and its concern about Turkish interference in North Africa.

Coupled with increased Turkish military and intelligence presence in Qatar, the Erdogan-Sarraj deal was probably perceived by Saudi Arabia as a threat to its national security. For the Saudis, Turkey’s role in the region is comparable to that of Iran.

A Libyan diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Saleh visit aimed to obtain Saudi support for a petition, submitted to the UN secretary-general and the Arab League secretary-general, requesting the withdrawal of both organisations’ recognition of the GNA in Libya.

The Libyan delegation also sought support for the formation of a government of national unity whose head would be appointed by the Libyan parliament and supported by the General Command of the Libyan Army.

Saleh previously urged the Arab League to withdraw its accreditation of the Sarraj government after it signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkey on military cooperation and the demarcation of Libya’s maritime borders.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit called for the matter to be “submitted to the league’s council to issue a decision to withdraw its accreditation to the Government of National Accord and the adoption of the only legitimate body, the House of Representatives and its derivatives, in addition to rejecting the said memorandum of understanding and considering it null and void.”

The deal comes despite calls from the Arab League, which includes Libya, to end cooperation with Turkey in protest of its military offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria.

Details of the Erdogan-Sarraj agreement, signed November 27 in Istanbul, have not been released but media reports suggest it could extend Turkey’s continental shelf by around one-third, allowing Ankara to lay claim to recently discovered oil and gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. That would cut across claims by Greece, Cyprus and Egypt.

Turkish media said Ankara would provide the United Nations with coordinates of its “exclusive economic zone” in the Eastern Mediterranean once the relevant law was passed by its parliament.

Ezzedine Aguil, head of the Libyan Republican Alliance Party, which is opposed to the GNA, said by telephone that the threat represented by this agreement “affects Arab national security overall.”

Aguil described the Turkish military support for the GNA-backed militias as “a serious violation of international law.”

Since April, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has been on an offensive in Tripoli against militants and other armed militias allied to the GNA.

Turkey is reported to have supplied the GNA with drones, transport vehicles and other military equipment. The LNA is said to have sought support from Russia and regional powers.

Athens said it would seek support from NATO following the military deal signed by Turkey and Libya’s UN-recognised government. “An alliance cannot remain indifferent when one of its members openly violates international law and aims (to harm) another member,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.

The Turkey-Libya agreement also raised hackles in Egypt and Cyprus.

Dendias met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on December 1 in Cairo to discuss the matter.

The UN Security Council in July urged countries not to intervene in the conflict or to take measures that would exacerbate the conflict. The council called for full compliance with the arms embargo but any action over reported sanctions violations is unlikely, Reuters reported.

“The transfers (of military material) to Libya were repeated and sometimes blatant with scant regard being paid to compliance with the sanctions measures,” UN experts wrote in a confidential report expected to be published in December, Reuters reported.