ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is ready to deploy soldiers to Libya following the announcement of a security agreement with the Libyan government. Ankara has been actively seeking to project its influence across the Mediterranean as a scramble intensifies for the region's energy resources.
"If Libya were to make a request, we would send a sufficient number of troops," Erdogan said Tuesday in an address to university students in Ankara. "After the signing of the security agreement, there is no hurdle."
In what many analysts see as a surprise move, Ankara earlier this month reached two agreements with Libya's Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).
"It's only natural if the Libya government invited Turkey to provide assistance to deploy Turkish forces in accordance with this agreement. It's entirely normal," said former Turkish ambassador Mithat Rende. "Because there are so many countries that already are part of the game. This General Haftar is heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France, and I also understand, the Russian Federation."
Khalifa Haftar, the de facto leader of eastern Libya, is currently battling GNA forces for control of Libya. Ankara's commitment to the Libya Tripoli-based government could put it on a collision course with Moscow. Erdogan suggested Tuesday that any Libya request for military support could be in response to the presence of "Russian Wagner mercenaries."
The Wagner Group is a private security force run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman reported to have close ties to the Kremlin.
"I wish that the matter of Haftar would not create a new Syria in our relations with Russia," Erdogan said Monday in a television interview. Ankara and Moscow back rival sides in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish president said he plans to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Libya by phone next week.
Despite backing rival sides in the Syrian conflict, Putin and Erdogan have built up a good working relationship. Bilateral ties are deepening in the fields of energy and trade, which even extends to Ankara purchasing Russian military hardware — to the alarm of Turkey's traditional western allies.
Alarm in Greece
Moscow is not the only country, however, that likely is concerned by Ankara's deepening relationship with Libya. Athens is voicing alarm over Ankara's Libya agreement to declare an exclusive maritime zone between the two countries.
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos slammed the agreement Tuesday, claiming it compromised Greece's territorial waters. "Turkey's thoughts are on how it imagines it's imperialist fantasies," said Pavlopoulos.
Athens and Ankara have engaged in increasingly bitter maritime territorial disputes across the Mediterranean, fueled by recent discoveries of vast natural gas reserves. "The strategy is that Turkey should protect its legitimate rights in the Mediterranean," said Rende, who is now an energy expert.
"We [Greece and Turkey] have overlapping claims, overlapping declarations of maritime zones, and Turkey is left alone in the Mediterranean. Other countries — Greece, Israel Egypt — have formed gas partnerships forums and so on and Turkey was isolated. So it's only natural that Turkey concludes agreements to protect its rights in the Mediterranean."
Adding to Athens' unease is that Mediterranean waters claimed by Ankara under its Libyan agreement is the only viable route for a planned gas pipeline to distribute recently discovered Israeli and Cypriot gas through Greece to Europe.
"Greek Cypriots, Egypt, Greece, and Israel cannot establish a natural gas transmission line without Turkey's consent," Erdogan said Monday.
Ankara's Libya deal is seen as part of a more assertive regional policy. "It's part and parcel of a new doctrine," said former senior Turkish diplomat and now regional analyst Aydin Selcen.
"The first move was challenging the Greek Cypriot over energy searches, in the disputed exclusives economic zones of Cyprus. Then this move with Libya is the second one. It's extremely important and significant," said Selcen.
Ankara is currently deploying research ships searching for hydrocarbons in the disputed waters of the Greek Cypriot government.
"Greece will defend its borders, it's territory," said Pavlopoulos, "which are also the European Union's border ... with the help of the international community and the EU."
The EU is already considering sanctions against Ankara for violating Greek Cypriot territorial waters. "They [the EU] should remain neutral," said Rende. "If they don't, Turkey is prepared to face the consequences because what is at stake are Turkey's national interests, and we don't give up our national interests."
Rende insists Ankara is ready to negotiate with Athens. Turkey argues that an agreement with Athens and the Greek Cypriots would pave the way for Turkish territory to provide a route for distributing recently discovered gas reserves.
"The most natural market for this prospective gas is Turkey," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Athens University. "It not just to sell through Turkey. But Turkey is the most reasonable and feasible market to absorb this gas."
Analysts suggest Ankara's robust regional foreign policy is part of a broader strategy to remake Turkey as a regional energy hub. Procuring recently discovered Mediterranean gas ultimately could provide Ankara significant leverage with Moscow and Tehran. In the next two years, major Iranian and Russian gas supply agreements to Turkey are due for renewal.
"Turkey's main strategy is to diversify its energy resource imports and their routes, to enable flexibility of supply," said Rende.