Franco-Turkish tensions mount after NATO naval incident

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PARIS / BRUXELLES (Reuters) – For France, it was the last straw. For Turkey, it was a misunderstanding. For NATO, this could be a turning point.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018. Ludovic Marin / Pool via REUTERS / File photo

The incident happened quickly in the eastern Mediterranean on June 10, when a French frigate under NATO command attempted to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged freighter suspected of smuggling weapons into Libya in violation of a UN embargo.

The French Ministry of the Armed Forces, speaking on behalf of the government, said that the frigate had been harassed by three Turkish navy ships escorting the freighter. A Turkish ship projected its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their small arms, he said.

Turkey disputes this. He denies arms trafficking to Libya and claims that the freighter, the Cirkin, was carrying humanitarian aid. He accused the French navy of aggression.

Turkish Ambassador to France Ismail Hakkı Musa said on July 1 that the three Turkish warships are helping NATO to enforce the UN arms embargo.

NATO has ordered an investigation, but its content is classified and NATO has not commented on its outcome. Two European diplomats told Reuters that France had sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in early July, saying that the report “did not establish the facts correctly”.

The US Pentagon declined to comment on the incident.

For France, the incident highlights what many NATO allies see as President Tayyip Erdogan’s tendency to act against the interests and values ​​of the Western alliance.

FRACTURES

After a series of disagreements, from Turkey’s arms purchase from Russia to gas drilling operations near Cyprus, France concluded that the suspicions of Turkish arms smuggling to Libya were too serious to be ignored, four diplomats and NATO officials told Reuters.

France has suspended its participation in the Mediterranean mission of NATO, Sea Guardian, rather offering its assets to a mission of the European Union which maintains the embargo on the arms of the UN but does not involve Turkish ships said diplomats.

“What do you do when you have a NATO surveillance mission… and one of the members of the alliance is the one who traffics, while saying that he is implementing the embargo (UN)? “Declared an official of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the question.

The United States, frustrated by Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and its military operations in Syria, is seeking to ease tensions within NATO, the diplomats said.

In October, the US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, said that Turkey “is going in the wrong direction”. While US President Donald Trump has close ties to Erdogan, he urged Turkey in May to help defuse the Libyan conflict.

The Pentagon “strives to preserve our relations with Turkey while encouraging the Turkish government to pursue more constructive policies regarding the S-400 and other areas of disagreement,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a gatekeeper. – word of the Pentagon.

FRENCH REQUESTS

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told the European Parliament on July 2 that NATO must make it clear to Ankara that it cannot “violate” NATO rules. But French diplomats also say that Paris is not seeking to expel Turkey and that NATO has no formal mechanism to punish or expel members.

However, NATO could threaten to withdraw assets from Turkey, such as radar, Patriot missiles or NATO AWACS aircraft.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wants EU foreign ministers to consider further sanctions against Ankara during a video meeting on July 13.

“The main problem for Europe is Russia. The ambivalence of Turkey, with one foot in each camp, is the troubling factor, “said Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey in the Carnegie Europe think tank.

Turkey has the second largest army in NATO and gives the alliance a strategic presence, especially on the Black and Mediterranean seas.

“Imagine NATO without Turkey! You would not have a NATO, “said Ambassador Musa.

France made four concrete requests to NATO in its July letter to Stoltenberg, the content of which was exposed to Reuters.

He wants the 30 allies to reaffirm their commitment to respect the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, to ensure that NATO signals are not used during national missions, to improve coordination between NATO and EU missions in the Mediterranean and to avoid similar incidents in the future.

At the last meeting of NATO defense ministers in late June, via video link, eight countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain, supported the search for a more cooperative approach to Turkey.

Slideshow (2 Images)

French diplomats cite the signing by Turkey of a NATO defense plan for the Baltic countries and Poland last month, after having suspended it for months, as a first sign of success.

However, there is a risk of a long-term break with NATO if Erdogan does not change course, analysts say.

“Turkey now considers itself large enough to be independent on all sides,” said Pierini.

Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, edited by Frances Kerry and Timothy Heritage

Our standards:Principles of the Thomson Reuters Trust.

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