NATO opens probe into France-Turkey naval incident in Mediterranean

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg chairs a NATO defense ministers meeting via teleconference at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 17 June 2020. [EPA-EFE/FRANCOIS LENOIR]

NATO is investigating an incident in the Eastern Mediterranean in which France says Turkish frigates were “extremely aggressive” towards a French navy vessel participating in a NATO mission in the area, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday (18 June).

“The incident in the Mediterranean was addressed in the meeting by several allies,” Stoltenberg said after a virtual meeting of NATO defence ministers.

“We have made sure that the NATO military authorities are investigating the incident to bring full clarity into what happened,” he said announcing the probe.

French defence minister Florence Parly denounced Turkey’s behaviour twice during the two days of the alliances defence ministers’ meeting.

“This extremely serious incident must be raised and our allies share our concern,” Parly told the French senate, saying eight of the NATO’s 30 members had backed her intervention.

“A reflection is needed on what is happening in the alliance. We must face the abuses that are taking place there,” she added.

The step comes after France’s defence ministry on Wednesday (17 June) accused a Turkish naval vessel of harassing one of its warships in the Mediterranean, saying the vessel was and under NATO command, carrying out a NATO mission and trying to uphold the UN’s arms embargo to Libya, and implying that Turkey was trying to enable the delivery of weapons to the Tripoli-based government.

According a French ministry official quoted by Reuters, the French ship had wanted to check whether the Turkish vessel Cirkin was smuggling arms to Libya. In response, French officials said the Cirkin had switched off its tracking system, masked its ID number, and refused to say where it was going.

France described the ship’s actions as “extremely aggressive” and “unacceptable by an ally against a NATO ship.”

“We have known complicated moments in the alliance, but we can’t be an ostrich and can’t pretend there isn’t a Turkey problem at NATO. We have to see it, say it and handle it,” a French defence ministry official told AFP on Wednesday (17 June), urging NATO to address its “Turkey problem,” amid rising tensions over Libya.

A Turkish military official told Reuters the French warship did not establish communications with the Turkish ship during the incident.

Ankara and Paris have been at odds over the civil war in Libya, accusing each other of supporting opposing sides in the country.

On Tuesday (16 June), Turkey said France violated UN and NATO decisions by supporting the forces of military strongman Khalifa Haftar against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez Sarraj.

Eastern defence plans

The recent incident caused by Turkey inside the alliance are only the latest in a series of tensions caused by Ankara.

Turkey still continues to block a NATO defence plan for Poland and Baltic states despite a deal last year between Turkey’s president and allied leaders, three allied diplomats and a French defence official confirmed on Wednesday.

The plan for the Baltic states and Poland, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has no direct bearing on Turkey’s strategy in Syria, but it raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Diplomats said while Ankara has approved the plan, known as Eagle Defender, it has not allowed NATO military chiefs to put it into action.

As EURACTIV reported from NATO’s London summit in December, Turkey had threatened to block the NATO agreement unless the alliance agreed to designate Syrian Kurdish fighters Ankara targeted in an October military offensive as terrorists.

Turkey continues to block NATO's Eastern defence plans

Ankara has not shifted from its intentions to block the final decisions related to updating NATO’s defence plan of the Poland and the Baltic States. Meanwhile, Eastern European calls for assurances of alliance commitments become more vocal.

Ankara sees the YPG, the main branch of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as a terrorist group linked to Kurdish insurgents on its own soil, and has been infuriated by the support its NATO allies have provided the militia as a partner in fighting Islamic State militants in Syria.

Eventually, after the London meeting, it was announced that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to adopt the defence plan – an information confirmed by Polish Minister of Defence Mariusz Błaszczak, who said that Turkey agreed to the plan partly also after a personal conversation between Polish President Andrzej Duda and Erdoğan.

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