Rough seas for NATO as Turkey clashes with allies Macron sees vindication in tensions with Ankara over Libya.
For NATO allies operating in the Mediterranean, it was less collective defense than collective nonsense.
A shambolic day at sea, culminating in an encounter that led France on Tuesday to suspend its role in a NATO mission in the Mediterranean, has laid bare tensions at the heart of the military alliance.
On the morning of June 10, southwest of the island of Crete, a Greek navy frigate, the Spetsai, was on patrol as part of the EU’s Operation IRINI — an effort to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya that EU officials stress is “neutral” and not aimed against any particular country.
The Greek vessel spotted a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship, Cirkin, a squat white-and-blue boat, suspected of being used by Turkey — a NATO ally and still officially an EU membership candidate — to transport tanks and weapons to Libya’s U.N.-recognized government. The Spetsai dispatched its helicopter, a Sikorsky S-70B Aegean Hawk, to take a closer look. But the helicopter and the Spetsai were tersely warned off by three Turkish naval ships, which said the cargo boat was carrying medical supplies, and under their protection.
On orders from an Italian commander, the EU forces backed away and reported the incident to EU and U.N authorities.
But things got even testier — and more dangerous — that evening, closer to Libya, where the same small Turkish flotilla encountered a French frigate, the Courbet, that is part of NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian. At that point, the French said, the Cirkin’s Automatic Identification System was off.
What happened next is a matter of fierce dispute, and subject to a classified investigation at NATO’s highest levels. According to the French defense ministry, which lodged an official complaint, the Turkish ships became hostile when the Courbet, acting on the orders of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command, headquartered in the U.K., sought to inquire about the Cirkin’s destination and payload. Turkey insists the interaction was friendly, and that one of its boats even refueled the Courbet.
What is clear is that the two incidents have put an embarrassing new spotlight on intense infighting among NATO allies — prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to double-down on his assertion that the alliance is experiencing “brain death.”
And on Tuesday, France sent a letter to NATO, announcing the temporary withdrawal from the Sea Guardian mission, in a move that indicates there was not enough support from the alliance.
The incidents have also highlighted the failure by NATO and the EU to enforce a U.N.-backed arms embargo intended to curb the fighting in Libya.
The two naval incidents also have exacerbated EU fears over Turkish assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean, where tensions were already high after Ankara expanded its oil and gas exploration activities in areas that Cyprus and Greece consider to be their territorial waters.
The EU has condemned “illegal drilling activities” and imposed sanctions on two Turkish oil company officials.
But Greece has gone even further, issuing blunt threats of potential military retaliation.
Standing alongside the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at Evros on the Greek-Turkish border last week, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said that Turkey “is violating almost daily Greece’s national airspace and territorial waters, including overflights of inhabited areas here in Evros and the Aegean Sea by armed warplanes.”
Asked about the possibility of an incident in response to Turkey’s activities, the head of the Greek armed forces Konstantinos Floros said: “A military response is a possibility. No one can rule it out.” He added: “Whoever sets foot on our territory, we will burn him first and ask who he is later.”
Meanwhile, there is a deepening rift over Libya, where Turkey has intervened to tilt the fight in favor of the U.N.-recognized government under Fayez al-Sarraj and against his opponent, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, whose militias are backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has warned that if Turkish-backed forces capture the strategic city of Sirte they would cross a “red line” and trigger a direct “intervention” by Egypt’s military.
The clash between Turkey and France is the latest example of chaos among NATO countries that has made them seem less like allies than rivals, if not outright enemies. At best, the allies are failing to communicate; at worst, they are working at cross-purposes and joining opposing sides in active military conflicts — precisely the sort of disjointed mayhem that prompted Macron to declare last fall that NATO was experiencing “brain death.”
According to the French, as the Courbet followed NATO orders to inspect the suspicious cargo ship, Turkish sailors could be seen in combat positions, and one of the Turkish frigates flashed its radar lights onto the French vessel three times, effectively threatening to shoot. French officials were irate.
“We can’t accept that an ally behaves this way, we can’t accept that an ally does this against a NATO ship, under NATO command, carrying out a NATO mission,” a French defense ministry official said. And at a NATO meeting last month, the French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, demanded an investigation. Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar issued a statement dismissing the French claims as “completely unrealistic.”
What seems clear is that Turkey did not want its own allies to see whatever the Cirkin was carrying. And its cargo was delivered without being inspected, despite orders from commanders leading the different EU and NATO maritime missions.
Even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who normally finds a way to explain away any differences among the alliance’s 30 members, could not dispute the stark divide over the events of June 10.
“The fact is that two NATO allies are involved and those two NATO allies have totally different views on what actually happened. And therefore, the NATO military authorities are now investigating, looking into that instance to try to establish the facts,” Stoltenberg said in a public interview last week with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
NATO allies had unanimously denounced Macron’s “brain death” remark, but after the recent naval tension, the French leader claimed vindication. “I refer you back to my comments at the end of last year on the brain death of NATO,” he told reporters last week. “This was one of the most beautiful demonstrations possible — when we have two NATO members who found themselves in the situation that we went through.”
Macron accused Turkey of violating an international agreement reached at a peace conference in Berlin in January to end outside intervention in the Libyan conflict, and warned that the North African nation could end up in a situation as catastrophic as Syria, where Turkey has also played a major role.
“We won’t tolerate today the role that Turkey is playing in Libya,” Macron said, adding that he also opposed intervention by Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group but he notably, twice, omitted any mention of Russian warplanes sent to Haftar’s side. “I denounce all incursions, indeed I consider that whether it’s Turkey or the Wagner Group, when they import jihadists from Syria, France condemns it clearly.”
But Macron’s comments put France at risk of accusations of hypocrisy and double-talk. Paris cooperated with Haftar when he was fighting ISIS in the port city of Derna, and has lent him political support. In June 2019, four French-owned Javelin missiles were also found left behind in a base held by Haftar’s forces south of Tripoli. At the time, the French defense ministry said the Javelins had been deployed to protect a French unit gathering counter-terrorism intelligence.
A Turkish official slapped back at Macron, accusing him of displaying NATO’s dirty laundry.
“As a matter of principle, we do not find it appropriate for topics of sensitive and confidential nature for the Alliance to be the subject of media commentary,” the Turkish official said.
“Unfortunately, there is an increasing tendency on behalf of some allies to publicize such issues, through targeted leaks, anonymous commentary or high-level statements,” said the official, who declined to be named.
“This was very much evident in the run-up to the NATO London leaders’ meeting last December in connection to the Syrian dossier. Most recently, we are witnessing the same modus operandi in an attempt to revive this artificial and ill-advised debate over the vitality or ‘cerebral health’ of the Alliance, this time using Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean as a backdrop.”
But Macron is not the only leader of a major NATO power to come into conflict with Ankara. U.S. President Donald Trump has stoked his own disputes with Turkey.
In October, Trump announced a sudden and universal pull-out of American forces from northeast Syria, effectively giving Turkey the green-light for a military offensive against Kurdish forces that had been surrogates of the U.S. against the Islamic State. Then, Trump turned around and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds.”
That left U.S. officials scrambling to broker a cease-fire with Ankara, and set heads spinning at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Trump also sent a threatening letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who effectively threw it back at Trump during a visit to the White House in November.
Trump’s actions, as well as the failure of the U.S. — NATO’s most powerful member — to put a stop to all of the infighting, suggest he may be causing serious damage from within.
Erdoğan has caused his own damage. In 2016 he purged many of Turkey’s elite NATO officers, after accusing them of backing a failed coup attempt against him. Some of those officers ended up pleading for asylum in Belgium and other EU countries. Others were jailed in Turkey. Erdoğan has also angered NATO by purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is incompatible with NATO weapons systems.
NATO’s investigation into the French-Turkish standoff may ultimately prove less important than how events unfold in the Mediterranean and especially in Libya.
While Erdoğan has done little to mask his role, Trump has also played an ambiguous game in Libya, first seemingly giving a green light to Haftar on the eve of an ill-fated offensive against Tripoli in April 2019, and more recently by seeming to signal his support for Turkey’s military operations in Libya.
At the same time, tensions have risen sharply between Turkey and the EU ever since their 2016 refugee deal. Under that pact, Ankara agreed to help control the flow of migrants and the EU agreed to pay €6 billion to NGOs and international organizations to assist refugees in Turkey.
In late February, Erdoğan threatened to abandon the deal and “open the gates.” He allowed thousands of asylum-seekers to mass on the border with Greece — a move that sent EU leaders into a panic, and distracted from their initial efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.
The EU has also voiced rising anger with Turkey over unauthorized oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean: Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades told POLITICO that Turkey should lose its status as a candidate for EU membership.
Still, other EU and NATO countries, even when politically close to France, are reluctant to acknowledge such a stark divide, given Turkey’s military importance — as one of the alliance’s largest and best-armed members, and the political risks of alienating Ankara, which could push it closer to Moscow.
That reluctance was vividly on display when only eight out of 30 NATO countries were willing to publicly support France in its complaint about the Courbet incident. Most notable was the lack of public support from Washington and London, where Boris Johnson made clear he did not give much credence to France’s view.
The U.K. sees Turkey as an essential part of its global strategy post-Brexit, while the U.S. sees Turkey’s involvement in Libya as a way to curb Russian intervention.
All that has left other NATO countries struggling to calibrate their message.
“Turkey is a valid ally,” Portuguese Defense Minister João Gomes Cravinho said in an interview. “I wouldn’t call it a problem, but there are a number of problems relating to Turkey.”
By: DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, RYM MOMTAZ and JACOPO BARIGAZZI
Nektaria Stamouli contributed reporting.