Paris criticised Ankara for taking moves counter to the interests of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), creating a new “crack” in the transoceanic military alliance.
The incident took place last month when a French frigate under NATO command tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of a UN embargo. However, the French armed forces ministry said the frigate was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels escorting the cargo ship. A Turkish ship flashed its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their light weapons. France accused Ankara of hiding the act of smuggling arms to Libya, while Turkey insisted that its three warships only escorted the cargo ship that was carrying humanitarian aid, helping NATO to enforce the UN arms embargo.
Relations between Turkey and its allies in NATO have long been in a poor state. The United States was very disappointed at Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system and at Ankara’s military operations against the Kurds in Syria, a force considered by Washington as an effective partner in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). The US Defence Secretary also criticised Turkey for “going in the wrong direction”. Meanwhile, Turkey and France have deep disagreements, accusing each other of supporting rival factions in the conflict in Libya. After a series of disagreements, from Turkey’s acquisition of Russian weapons to its drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus, the recent incident in the eastern Mediterranean caused France to suspect Turkey of smuggling arms to Libya. According to France, many NATO allies believe that Ankara is taking action against NATO interests and values. To highlight its attitude, France has suspended its role in NATO naval mission ‘Operation Sea Guardian’ in the Mediterranean.
After the incident with Turkey, France sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asking all members to reaffirm their commitment to respect the UN arms embargo against Libya and improve coordination in NATO missions with the European Union (EU) in the Mediterranean, aiming to avoid similar incidents in the future. French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told the European Parliament that NATO needs to make Ankara realise that Turkey must not “violate the rules”. France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also urged his EU counterparts to consider additional sanctions against Ankara during an upcoming videoconference meeting on July 13.
With the second largest military size in NATO, Turkey plays an important role in helping the military alliance maintain its strategic presence, especially in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Therefore, despite the disagreement, France still prioritises a less tough approach in the conflict with Turkey when not seeking to expel Turkey from the alliance. In fact, NATO has no formal mechanism for membership abolition, but NATO can withdraw its “assets” from Turkey, including radar systems, Patriot missiles or AWACS aircraft. Believed to play a mediating role between France and Turkey, US President Donald Trump wants to appease both allies. He urged Turkey to coordinate in order to de-escalate the conflict in Libya, while encouraging Ankara to pursue more constructive policies regarding its arguments with NATO members over the contract to buy S-400 missiles from Russia and other disagreements.
NATO’s recent adoption of a new defence plan for Poland and the Baltic region after reaching an agreement with Turkey is a positive signal that could help heal the rift in the relations between Ankara and allies in the bloc. However, if not resolved, the deep disagreement between France and Turkey is still an “underground wave” threatening to ruin the unity of this Western military bloc.