Turkey seeks to expand oil and gas drilling through influence on Tripoli government

The Turkish Petroleum’s request for drilling permit is based on Erdogan-Sarraj deals of last November.
Friday 15/05/2020
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus, last August. (Reuters)
Drillship and escort. Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is escorted by Turkish Navy frigate TCG Gemlik in the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Cyprus, last August. (Reuters)

TUNIS--In a new illustration of the economic objectives it is pursuing in Libya, Turkey has announced its intent to begin oil and gas exploration in an unspecified area off the North African country’s coast.

State-run oil firm Turkish Petroleum has submitted an application to the Tripoli government to start drilling in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said on Thursday.

“Exploration will begin as soon as the process is completed,” he was quoted as saying.

Turkey’s oil and gas exploration plans are based on the November 27, 2019 controversial agreements signed by the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The agreements create an “exclusive economic zone” for Turkey that extends from the southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast.

Donmez also said that Turkey plans to drill in the Black Sea for the first time starting in July.

According to experts, Ankara, which is facing serious economic pressure, is trying to assert control over natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean as a fait accompli as countries of the region remain focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Ankara is also seeking to use its influence over the Sarraj government to expand the scope of its drilling activities in the Mediterranean.

A Libyan affairs expert told The Arab Weekly, “Ankara is trying to preempt any challenges to the Ergogan-Sarraj deals by acting on the maritime demarcation agreement and exploiting any international law ambiguities. What is also at stake for Turkey is imposing its control over the gas resources that Europe needs.”

According to the same expert, “Turkey will also use the exploration permit to expand its military presence in the area, especially if you consider Erdogan’s warning that his armed forces will not hesitate to intervene if  Turkish interests are threatened.”

The move is expected to spark further tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where Turkey is in a tense standoff with Greece and Cyprus over maritime resources. Athens and Nicosia are backed by European nations and other countries of the region in the dispute.

The most recent move is also likely to irk Egypt and Tunisia, both neighbours of Libya.

At the end of a teleconference last Monday, the foreign ministers of the UAE, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and France called on Turkey to “fully respect the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of all states in their maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

The ministers disputed the legality of the agreements signed by Erdogan and Sarraj last November that produced a maritime border demarcation map that is favourable to Turkey in the Mediterranean.

The deals also paved the way for increased military involvement by Turkey in Libya, where Ankara is supporting militants and militias loyal to the GNA with military equipment and mercenaries in their fight against the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The ministers condemned “the illegal Turkish moves” in the territorial waters of the Republic of Cyprus, which they said represent “a violation of international law according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

They noted that it “is the sixth attempt by Turkey in less than a year to illegally conduct drilling operations in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

According to Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Turkey’s drillship, the Fatih, is “set to continue operations in the Black Sea and make its first drilling project in July,” while another drillship, the Kanuni, is “said to be ready to start its operations following a relaxation on measures against the pandemic.”