With Turkish deal, Sarraj stirs up hornets’ nest and his government has a lot to lose

The Greek government announced December 6 the expulsion of the Libyan envoy to Athens.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj at the Dolmabahce Palace, November 27. (DPA)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) meets with Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj at the Dolmabahce Palace, November 27. (DPA)

TUNIS - The fallout from the military and maritime boundaries deal made with Turkey by Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, has stirred up a hornets’ nest.

With its recognition by the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Turkey’s controversial claim to a large part of the Eastern Mediterranean, the GNA has infuriated Greece and Cyprus.

The Cypriot government described it as a “grave violation of international law.” The Greek government announced December 6 the expulsion of the Libyan envoy to Athens over failure to supply it with enough information on maritime jurisdiction implications of the deal.

Egypt sees the exclusive economic zones agreed to with Cyprus and Greece, as well as with Israel and Lebanon, as threatened and condemned the agreement as illegal.

More dangerously for the GNA, it faces the risk of reprisals from the European Union. It also opened the door for the Arab League to vote to withdraw recognition of the Sarraj government.

The move is serious. Following the condemnations of the Turkish maritime deal by the House of Representatives (HoR), its president, Aguila Saleh, wrote to Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for both organisations to end recognition of the GNA.

The move is said to have the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries.

Saleh’s letters were written just after he met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and were said to have been approved by the king.

Sarraj is fighting to save the GNA’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab League. There have been phone calls from Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala to his counterparts in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman and Tunisia to gather support but the GNA’s standing in the Arab League is at rock bottom.

It took a battering in October when Libya was the only country to object to the Arab League’s condemnation of Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria as an invasion. Qatar and Somalia, Turkey’s other close allies in the Arab world, less forcefully expressed reservations.

Standing fully side by side with Ankara, the GNA refused the Arab League’s demand to reduce diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Other than Qatar and Somalia and to a lesser extent Algeria and Tunisia, the GNA has no real friends in the Arab League.

Sudan and Morocco are said to have joined the anti-GNA alliance. It is thought the only reason enough members might decide to hold off delegitimising the GNA was that without the HoR first coming up with an alternative government, it would create an even bigger power vacuum and greater chaos in Libya.

Were the Arab League to delegitimise the GNA, this could lead to similar action in the UN Security Council.

There is precedent. In March 2011, three weeks after the Libyan revolution started, the Arab League called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from air attack by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, saying his regime had lost sovereignty.

With Russia and China unwilling to back Qaddafi because of Arab support for the ban and therefore abstaining, the Security Council agreed.

The argument that the GNA has lost sovereignty would be a powerful one in the Security Council, even though some members might argue that delegitimisation of the GNA ahead of an agreement on an alternative government would cause greater division and instability in Libya.

Nonetheless, as one European ambassador to Libya noted, the Security Council is rapidly turning against the GNA, with the Turkish deal a possible final straw.

The agreement has left many GNA supporters asking why Sarraj agreed to it. “It was crazy. It’s made him new enemies,” one Tripoli official said. “Did he not realise the damage it would do?” asked a GNA sympathiser.

Turkey insisting on the maritime boundaries agreement as the price for military support for the GNA was not good enough, he said, adding that Sarraj should have realised that the consequences could be existential for the GNA.

Those consequences have expanded the Libya crisis in other ways.

In September, the battle between the GNA and the LNA was regarded by many as in large part a proxy war between Turkey and Qatar on the one side and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia on the other. It now seems to also be turning into a proxy war between Turkey and Greece with the former backing the GNA and the various authorities in eastern Libya building up links with the latter.

A Greek company is to build a power station in Tobruk. Another has been awarded the contract for the master plan for the reconstruction of Benghazi. Possible contacts are being discussed with others.

Ignoring EU opposition to dealing with non-GNA bodies in Libya, a delegation led by the head of the eastern-based parallel Central Bank of Libya was in talks in Athens in October attended by Greek Foreign Ministry officials. It is reported that Saleh has been invited for talks in Greece, although technically he is on an EU sanctions list.

Libya has a history of being a place where other countries pursue their conflicts. Seventy-seven years ago, it was the Italians, Germans and British in World War II. Now there are at least six foreign players, with a large handful of others playing supporting roles.

The belief held by many Libyans that the country’s problems have been made inestimably worse by foreign interference is likely to be strengthened by the boundaries deal, seen even in pro-GNA circles as serving only Turkish interests.

It is unlikely to help boost sympathy for Turkey among Libyans on either side of the divide.