Turkey sent a military drone to Northern Cyprus amid growing tensions over Ankara's deal with Libya that extended its claims to the gas-rich eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey’s move escalates a regional issue over a November 27 deal signed with Libyan National Accord government of Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj regarding security and maritime jurisdiction.
Turkish armed Bayraktar TB2 drones arrived in the breakaway region of northern Cyprus on Monday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned they would deploy unmanned aerial vehicles to safeguard their oil and gas exploration efforts in the area.
Analysts say Turkey is pushing back against rival efforts to claim exploration rights in the area after Cyprus, Greece, Egypt and Israel excluded Turkey from a new "East Mediterranean Gas Forum" that also includes Jordan, Italy and Palestine.
The move came hours after a rare public criticism of Libya’s UN-backed government by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sissi. He accused the Tripoli-based administration of being “held captive by armed militias,” something he explained as the main reason behind the elusiveness of a peaceful settlement in the North African nation.
Mr El Sissi’s comments to a conference at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh are likely to deepen the rift between Cairo and the Government of National Accord.
If implemented, that deal would vastly expand Turkey’s continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean. It would empower it to disrupt the search for and exploitation of natural gas in a region where Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Greece are pooling their efforts and resources to turn it into a major and global natural gas hub that would bring badly needed revenues to the four countries.
The comments also come at a time when Egypt’s Libyan ally, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar of the National Libyan Army, was staging the “decisive” battle in his eight-month campaign to capture Tripoli. Adding to the tensions are Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s repeated assertions his NATO member country was prepared to deploy troops to Tripoli if asked.
Mr El Sissi is a general-turned-president who views the fight against Islamic militants as a cornerstone of his five-year rule. He’s a firm believer that what happens in Libya has a direct bearing on his country’s national security. Moreover, Egypt has been at sharp odds with Turkey since 2013 when the military removed Mohamed Morsi from office. Cairo accuses Ankara of supporting militant groups to serve its regional interests.
Differences between the two nations were compounded in recent years by Turkey’s repeated obstruction of drilling for natural gas off the coastline of Cyprus, an EU-member island nation that has been divided along ethnic lines since Turkey invaded and split it in 1974, ostensibly to protect the Turkish minority against the island’s Greek majority.
Egypt has rejected the deal between the Tripoli government and Turkey, calling it illegal. Its response, at least in part, came in a naval show of force in the eastern Mediterranean, throwing into the war games, among other things, Cairo’s French-made troop carriers. Cyprus also rejected the deal, while Greece retaliated by throwing out Libya’s ambassador in Athens.
Speaking at the Sharm El Sheikh conference, Mr El Sissi appeared to rule out military intervention in Libya in aid of Field Marshal Haftar, but emphasized that his country’s security is directly affected by what happens in neighbouring Libya, a vast energy-rich nation that fell into chaos and lawlessness in the aftermath of a popular uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“Our national security is directly impacted by the situation in Libya,” he said. “We would be forgiven for directly intervening in Libya, and we do have the capability to do so. But we did not do it because we considered Libya’s circumstances and we wanted to maintain our relations and brotherhood with the Libyan people.”
Egypt’s support for Field Marshal Haftar is widely believed to include the training of his troops and, at least on occasion, providing him with aerial support. In recent days, images surfaced on social media networks purporting to show Egyptian-made armoured vehicles being used by the Libyan National Army.
The footage could not be immediately verified and the government had no comment.
Egypt, however, has on several occasions publicly acknowledged carrying out airstrikes against positions belonging to militant groups in eastern Libya.
Cairo also has blamed Libyan-based Islamic militants for a string of attacks in its western desert close to its border with Libya. Those deadly attacks targeted members of Egypt’s security forces and minority Christians travelling to desert monasteries.
Egypt is simultaneously fighting an insurgency by Islamic militants in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. That rebellion has gained momentum and became much deadlier after the removal in 2013 by the military, then led by Mr El Sissi, of Mr Morsi, an Islamist president whose one-year in office proved divisive. Mr Morsi hailed from the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He collapsed in court and died shortly after last summer.