ANKARA - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey is starting deployment of troops to Libya in support of the embattled United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and in line with agreements relating to maritime border demarcation and enhanced security cooperation.
"We signed an agreement with Libya to delineate maritime borders. It is no longer legally possible to conduct exploration and drilling activities or to run pipelines in the region between the Turkish and Libyan coasts without the approval of both countries," Erdogan announced in the Turkish capital Ankara on Thursday.
He added, "In 2020, we are licensing these areas and starting the search and drilling as quickly as ever. After the licensing work, for the first time the Oruc Reis seismic research vessel will conduct seismic studies in the region. We are sending our troops to this country to ensure the survival and stability of the legitimate government in Libya."
Erdogan remarks came only two days after Libya's renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar left Moscow without signing a binding truce that would have halted his nine-month campaign to seize the GNA's base of Tripoli, and would have formalized a tentative ceasefire in the war-wracked North African country.
"The draft [agreement] ignores many of the Libyan army's demands," Haftar was quoted as saying by the Saudi-owned and Arabic-language al-Arabiya television news network.
Fayez al-Sarraj, the heads of the GNA, had already signed the truce proposal after indirect talks in the Russian capital on Monday.
Last week, Turkey and Russia urged Libya's warring parties to declare a ceasefire after a recent escalation in fighting around Tripoli and the strategic coastal city of Sirte.
Erdogan has said Turkey would not refrain from "teaching a lesson" to Haftar if his eastern-based forces continue attacks against the Tripoli-based GNA.
"If the putschist Haftar's attacks against the people and legitimate government of Libya continue, we will never refrain from teaching him the lesson he deserves," the Turkish president said in a speech to his AK Party legislators in parliament on Tuesday.
"It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya," he said.
Erdogan said Turkey had deep historical and social ties with Libya, asserting that Haftar would have taken over the entire nation if Ankara had not intervened.
Turkey will join Germany, the United Kingdom and Russia at Libyan peace talks in Berlin next Sunday, he said.
"The putschist Haftar did not sign the ceasefire. He first said yes, but later, unfortunately, he left Moscow, he fled Moscow," Erdogan said.
"Despite this, we find the talks in Moscow were positive as they showed the true face of the putschist Haftar to the international community," the Turkish president added.
On January 2, Turkey's parliament has approved a bill to deploy troops to Libya.
Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop said at the time that the legislation had been passed with a 325-184 vote.
Back in late November last year, Libya's GNA and Turkey signed security and maritime agreements in opening the path to the Turkish troop deployment. The accords also drew the ire of Mediterranean countries, including Greece and Cyprus, which were eyeing energy resources in the area.
Libya's eastern-based parliament later voted unanimously against the deals.
Libya plunged into chaos in 2011, when a popular uprising and a NATO intervention led to the ouster of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his execution by unruly fighters.
The North African country has since been split between two rival administrations based in the east and west amid a conflict drawing increasing involvement from foreign powers.
According to the latest UN tally, more than 280 civilians and roughly 2,000 fighters have been killed since Haftar launched his offensive in April to seize Tripoli. An estimated 146,000 Libyans have been displaced.
Erdogan is doubling down on support for the U.N.-backed government in Libya ahead of a Berlin conference aimed at ending the Libyan civil war.
Erdogan, who is set to attend the Sunday meeting, lashed out at Libyan rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar on Friday while announcing the deployment of Turkish forces to Libya.
"Haftar is a man I do not trust. … He continued bombing Tripoli yesterday," Erdogan said in a statement. Haftar is waging war against the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord.
A day earlier, Erdogan announced additional military forces would be deployed in support of the GNA. Earlier this month, Ankara sent a few dozen military personnel and equipment to Tripoli as part of a military agreement with the GNA.
Haftar infuriated Erdogan by refusing to sign a cease-fire agreement Wednesday brokered by Turkey and the Russian government. Russian mercenaries linked to the Kremlin are backing Haftar, although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies arming the militia.
"With these new developments, Turkey is getting more and more in a losing position," said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University. "Probably Tayyip Erdogan will face much bigger problems in Berlin than he assumed before. He [Erdogan] thought he would be in a stronger position, but with no cease-fire, he is in a much more difficult position."
Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj are expected to attend the Berlin conference. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also confirmed his attendance.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met with Haftar on Thursday, claiming a breakthrough. Maas tweeted Haftar "has agreed to abide by the ongoing cease-fire" and that the Berlin meeting offered "the best chance in a long time" for peace.
But Turkey is voicing skepticism about the prospects for peace and has criticized the conference for excluding Turkish allies Qatar and Tunisia.
"He [Erdogan] will be taking a very hard position in Berlin," said Bagci. "I expect more, harsher words in Berlin – he is not going there to be soft, [he] is going there to be very hard."
Turkish oil interests
Ankara says the survival of the GNA is a strategic priority. Along with a security deal, Erdogan also signed an agreement with Sarraj that gives Turkey control of a large swath of the eastern Mediterranean. The area is believed to have vast potential reserves of hydrocarbons.
"We will start search and drilling activities as soon as possible in 2020 after issuing licenses for the areas," Erdogan said Friday, adding that a seismic exploration vessel would soon be deployed to this field.
Turkey's deal with the GNA is strongly condemned by Greece, which claims the contested region as part of its territorial waters.
The two countries are engaged in an increasingly bitter competition for resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
Analysts note Turkey is aware that if Haftar were to prevail in the Libyan civil war, all deals it made with the GNA likely would become null and void.
On Thursday, Haftar flew by private plane to Athens and was taken to a luxury hotel for two days of talks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias.
In a move that could further complicate the Berlin talks, Mitsotakis underlined his determination to annul Turkey's Mediterranean deal with the GNA.
"Greece at the level of an [EU] summit meeting will never accept any political solution on Libya that does not include as a precondition the annulment of this agreement. To put it simply, we will use our veto," Mitsotakis said Thursday in a television interview.
EU officials are also set to attend the Berlin conference, and the EU is strongly opposed to Turkey's agreement with the GNA on the Mediterranean, saying it violates international law.
Turkey insists it's ready to negotiate. "The GNA deal aims to protect Turkish vital national interests and Turkey is not to remain isolated," said former Turkish Ambassador Mithat Rende. "Turkey has made it clear it's ready to talk."
In Cairo Thursday, the seven-member East Mediterranean Gas Forum pledged to strengthen cooperation, deepening Ankara's isolation. Turkey views the move by Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Egypt as an attempt to deny what Ankara sees as its fair share of Mediterranean energy resources.
Erdogan dismissed the Cairo agreement, saying, "They tried to implement a scenario to imprison our country in the Mediterranean Sea. We ended this game with the agreements we made with Turkish Cyprus and then with Libya."
Some analysts say Ankara's stance ultimately may prove counterproductive.
"Turkey wants to be in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean; it wants to be a player," Bagci said. "Turkey wants to get more and more involved in this region. But the problem is Turkey is not wanted because it creates an atmosphere of hegemony. So this is what Turkey faces, and this is why Erdogan's rhetoric is getting harsher."