We do not yet know the details of the agreement signed on Thursday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the head of Libya’s National Accord government Fayez al-Sarraj. The deal has been described as a memorandum of understanding, though what matters in international law is the content, not the name of an agreement. However, never before has a maritime borders agreement been called a memorandum of understanding, because the latter is not legally binding. The next few days should reveal what exactly has been agreed between the two sides.
The development doesn’t come as any surprise. Libya has two governments that are engaged in a civil war. Al-Sarraj’s National Accord government is based in the capital Tripoli and has been recognized by the United Nations. Based in Tobruk in eastern Libya, the government of Khalifa al-Ghawil is backed by France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia – and indirectly by the United States. Turkey (together with Qatar) has been among al-Sarraj’s key supporters for several months, supplying Tripoli with jihadi mercenaries from Syria, along with arms and drones. In exchange, it asked for the agreement on the maritime borders between Libya and Turkey.
The agreement that Turkey wants (and may have signed) is a flagrant violation of the Law of the Seas, as the area it purports to delineate stretches south of Crete, an area it does not neighbor. It is also seeking to deprive the Aegean islands of Rhodes, Kasos, Karpathos and Crete of their continental shelf, leaving them with just 6 nautical miles of territorial waters.
Not only are these islands numerous, they are also large in terms of size and population. It is akin to France signing a delineation agreement with Libya that completely ignores Italy by arguing that Sardinia and Sicily in between are islands and therefore have no continental shelf or exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The possibility of a Turkey-Libya sea border deal was what prompted Greece in early October to rubber-stamp the agreements conceding exploration rights to parcels south of Crete to a consortium of the United States’ Exxon-Mobil, France’s Total and Greece’s Energean, thus safeguarding the country’s rights. Apart from this move, Athens had little room for reaction. On the one hand, the al-Sarraj government is almost entirely dependent on Turkey and, on the other, our allies who could potentially exercise some pressure on Libya support the rival government.
Signing such an agreement is a strategic move for Turkey, as it gives it the superficial legitimacy it so lacks in order to move in on the area. It could create a wall that would prevent Greece from developing its sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean continental shelf. It would confirm what Ankara has been arguing for years: that the islands are not entitled to a continental shelf under law. And last but not least, it would shift the point of contention from the Kastellorizo continental shelf to that of Crete.
The bad thing is that even though it is illegal, from the moment that it is signed, such a deal can only be overturned if Libya backs out of the agreement or by recourse to international justice – and Turkey will never accept the latter alternative. So, if the delineation has been signed, no matter how illegal, it will always stand in Greece’s path.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’ Panteion University. He is also a New Democracy MP.