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by John Helmer, Moscow

“We told you so”. In  another case of the Russian General Staff telling the Kremlin that arming the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan puts strategic Russian interests at risk, Turkey has signed a plan to extend its control of the seabed southward across the Mediterranean to the Libyan coastline.

The Turkish counterparty, the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj, is also being supplied with Turkish arms, vehicles, drones, and ordnance. Notwithstanding, the GNA doesn’t control much of the shore and even less of the hinterland of Libya. Against the GNA, the Russian military, the Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin are backing the rival Libyan faction, the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar.  This isn’t new. Right now, Haftar controls much more of Libya, including coastline, than al-Sarraj.

The new Russian problem is that Turkish deployment of the S-400 missile system may be used to enforce the new Turkish territorial claim. This directly threatens Cyprus, Greece and Egypt.  The first two have sought and signed agreements to become US protectorates; the third is seeking protection from both the US and Russia, a game which Cairene regimes have been playing unsuccessfully since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time. The reason for Egypt’s strategic failure is that it is up against Israel, an enemy unlike the Turks. Israel shoots first; the Turks bluff.

Ever since the death of Yevgeny Primakov, the last civilian in Moscow to distinguish publicly in Russian strategy between adversaries who fight and adversaries who bluff, no one dares to call the Turkish bluff.  The closest the Russian Foreign Ministry has come was the declaration  on November 28 by Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. She said the Turks change their positions “by the hour. What could raise questions in Russia regarding the implementation of agreements signed by Turkey or what could raise questions in Turkey with regard to Russia can change within several hours.”

The latest Turkish bluff started at a meeting in Istanbul on November 27 between President Erdogan and al-Sarraj, whom the Turks titled “Chairman of the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord-State of Libya”. The Turkish map of the territory controlled by al-Sarraj’s GNA is shown in blue on this map. As can be seen, it controls less than half the Libyan shoreline.

Source: Map showing the disposition of Libyan forces, with Crete and Cyprus to the north, Egypt to the east;  broadcast by  Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), April 2019: https://www.youtube.com/

A short paper was signed on November 27 by a Turkish delegate, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and by Mohamed Siyala, a Libyan titled  foreign minister of the GNA. The paper is captioned a “Memorandum of Understanding”. This is not a treaty in legal terms; it is a statement of intention. The wording of the text acknowledges this in the preamble, in which the Turks and Libyans say they are agreeing on a “delimitation of their respective areas of the Mediterranean in which the parties exercise sovereignty, sovereign rights and/or jurisdiction in accordance with the applicable rules of international law taking into account all relevant circumstances.”

The most relevant circumstance is that the GNA currently exercises no sovereignty inside Libya, let alone offshore, because of the continuing civil war.

Source: Nordic Monitor, an anti-Erdogan publication based in Sweden, regularly publishes classified Turkish government documents. This one appeared on December 5; its authenticity has not been challenged.   

The first two articles of the MoU identify map coordinates setting out extensions of the Turkish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to Point A on the map which forms part of the MoU, and of the GNA claim to Point B.  In international law since 1982, an EEZ  “comprises an area which extends either from the coast, or in federal systems from the seaward boundaries of the constituent states (3 to 12 nautical miles, in most cases) to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) off the coast. Within this area, nations claim and exercise sovereign rights and exclusive fishery management authority over all fish and all Continental Shelf fishery resources.” 

The key phrase is “claim and exercise sovereign rights”.  That’s legalese for military power. The GNA doesn’t have it. The Turks claim it; that’s their bluff.  

Source: https://www.nordicmonitor.com/

An illustration prepared by a Turkish publication  from a map of the MoU handed to the Greek Government shows how the coordinates set down in November 27 cut the seabed into two large sections, coloured dark brown for the Turkish claim, light brown for the GNA. The points A and B in the Nordic Monitor publication of the map correspond to points F and E in the following map, which also illustrates the EEZ extensions of Greece, Cyprus, and the other littoral states – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

The dark blue shaded area represents the “Mavi Vatan”, a Turkish military concept meaning “Blue Homeland”. It’s an attempt by the Turkish Navy and Erdogan to project Turkish military force over Cyprus and Greece. For discussion of the Mavi Vatan in Cypriot plans for self-defence, read this.  

In March 1987, under Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, Greece went to war against a Turkish attempt to drill for oil and gas within the Greek EEZ; the Turkish attempt was backed by the US at the time. Both were forced to retreat; there were no casualties at sea, though the then Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal suffered a heart attack and had to be evacuated to a US hospital. No succeeding Greek Government has repeated the military option.

Under former Prime Minister Alexei Tsipras, Greek strategy substituted self-defence with a US military protectorate. The current Prime Minister Kyriacos Mitsotakis said after a meeting with Erdogan at the NATO summit on December 4: “I raised all issues relating to the latest Turkish actions. The disagreements of both sides were recorded. The two sides however agreed to continue discussions on confidence building measures.”   The only confidence built by Mitsotakis’s statement was Erdogan’s.

Cyprus under President Nikos Anastasiades has also agreed to the US protectorate, ignoring dissenting assessments by Cypriot and Greek military experts and former officials. Their views on the Cypriot capability to defend itself, and the Cypriot Government’s attempts to send papers defending its territory to international organizations, can be followed here   and here.   

Russian policy and Russian strategy aren’t the same thing; there are differences of assessment of Turkish intentions and capabilities between the Russian General Staff, the Foreign Ministry, and the Kremlin. As the gap between them has widened, the Stavka (Defence Ministry, General Staff)  has muted public reporting of its views. The sharpness of this divergence broke into view following publication a few days ago, on November 26, by Nordic Monitor of leaked Turkish Government documents; these show that Erdogan had known in advance, and had approved,  the ambush of the Russian Su-24 aircraft over Syria on November 24, 2015. The pilot was rescued; his bombardier and a Russian soldier in the rescue team were killed on the ground by Turkish-backed troops.  

For details of what happened, read this.  For the leaked Erdogan documents, read the Nordic Monitor.   

Unusually, the Kremlin responded to defend the Turks. According to Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, announced through the state news agency Tass:  “Moscow proceeds from the fact that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not give orders to attack a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet in Syria in 2015, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. ‘We are guided by Turkey’s statements, including public ones, that other people ordered the Russian plane to be shot down.’” For more on Peskov’s relationship with Erdogan, read the backfile

President Erdogan greeting Peskov in Ankara, April 3, 2008; on Peskov’s right, Yury Ushakov,  Kremlin foreign affairs adviser; Foreign Minister Lavrov. Source: http://johnhelmer.org/

On November 27, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Maria Zakharova, defended Turkish violations of the latest Putin-Erdogan agreement on northern Syria, claiming the Turks change their minds and positions “by the hour”.  Who is failing to abide by the Sochi agreements, Turkey, Russia, or the Kurds, a reporter asked. Zakharova replied: “Firstly, the situation there is changing by the hour. What could raise questions in Russia regarding the implementation of agreements signed by Turkey or what could raise questions in Turkey with regard to Russia can change within several hours.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov carefully avoided criticism of Erdogan’s Libyan MoU  during meetings in Rome on December 6. At a forum of Mediterranean foreign ministers, the closest he came to referring to the MoU was this remark: “Generally speaking, we firmly believe that the interests of both the North and the South of the Mediterranean are met not by zero sum games, but by joint efforts to neutralise common challenges and threats.” 

At a press call, following Lavrov’s meeting with the Italian foreign minister (right)  the same day, Lavrov was asked by a reporter how he views “the treaty between Turkey and Libya on the maritime border and logistics, including military supplies?” He replied: “The situation in Libya is very difficult because there are too many groups involved there, and too many questions are asked on who is the most legitimate. We have the UN Security Council’s decision, which, as I have said, should be honoured. In this respect, for example, the legitimately recognised parliament of Libya in Tobruk expressed disagreement with the signed document you mentioned. Libya’s neighbours also expressed concern. We cannot fail to consider this. Of course, any steps taken on the ground and on paper should factor in the extremely delicate nature of the situation and contribute in the best way possible to ensuring that everyone involved in the Libyan crisis act together, sit at one table. This includes the African Union as well which is undeservedly pushed aside when it comes to the Libyan settlement.”

The 370-kilometre southward reach of the Turkish-Libyan EEZ is well within the range of the new S-400 missile system which Russia has supplied Erdogan, although the full deliveries contracted for have yet to be fulfilled.    Russian reporting last week of Turkish tests of the S-400 can be followed in this English translation. Note that no details have been reported of the ranges of detection and interception for the Turkish operation of these S-400s. Also, until all deliveries are completed, the location of the mobile missile batteries is uncertain.

What is clear already is that the range of the S-400 may extend to the Libyan shoreline if Erdogan decides to deploy the S-400 on the south-westernmost point of the Turkish coast as drawn on the MoU map, and if Erdogan and the GNA agree on a Turkish military protectorate for the Libyan EEZ. For discussion in July of that probability, well before the MoU was negotiated, read this. For more details of the strategic range of the Turkish S-400 against Greece, Cyprus, and also Italy, click to read

Source: http://johnhelmer.org/This Turkish map indicates a maximum detection range for the S-400 of 600 kms. If deployed on Turkey’s south coast, near Antalya, the S-400 range can be projected well into the Libyan EEZ.

In Moscow this week seven prominent Russian experts on military strategy in the Mediterranean were asked if they believe Russian policy is endorsing the Turkish-Libyan MoU and the deployment of the Turkish S-400s to advance Turkish maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean. They do not reply.

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