NATO’s Mediterranean Black Sheep

NATO will be investigating an incident between Turkish and French warships which occurred earlier this month in the Mediterranean. This latest event might very well be the last straw for Ankara while many members within the Alliance see Turkey as an unreasonable and unreliable security partner.

On June 19, NATO Deputy Secretary General Geoana stressed during an online discussion of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit the importance of the military and of security partnership for democracy. He concluded that in order to achieve international peace and security all countries should act within the framework of international law and promote cooperation. 

Yet, the military alliance has been dealing over the years with various tantrums thrown by Ankara and has once again been challenged by another dangerous act of defiance and possibly of Turkish aggression towards one of its very own allies.

The recent incident involving French and Turkish navies only further reinforces many members’ mistrust in a NATO member that does not seem to share the same interests and values as the military alliance it belongs to.


NATO Investigating an Incident in the Eastern Mediterranean

In response to France’s allegation that its frigate “Courbet” had been harassed by the Turkish navy while on a NATO mission in the Mediterranean, Secretary General Stoltenberg announced that the alliance would launch an investigation into the incident to gain further clarity into what happened. 

During this Press Conference announcement  following a Defence Ministers Meeting, Stoltenberg reaffirmed NATO’s commitment to implement the UN arms embargo on Libya and its full support for the UN’s attempts to broker peace in the war torn country.

This serious incident which was eclipsed by current socio-political events involved the French frigate Courbet being “lit up” multiple times by Turkish warships as it attempted to approach a cargo ship suspected of breaching the current UN arms embargo on Libya.

Such flashing would suggest an imminent missile strike and qualify as an act of aggression against a NATO ship, under NATO command and while carrying out a NATO mission.

What is less known is that the same Tanzanian-flagged Turkish ship “Cirkin” had previously made trips to Libya. On one occasion, while suspected of carrying military equipment, Greek naval forces under the auspice of Operation Irini were unable to approach the vessel for inspection as it was under Turkish naval escort.

Both incidents not only raise concern around the enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya, but most importantly is leading some NATO members to publicly acknowledge that  Turkish actions are undermining NATO cohesion within the organisation and this requires utmost attention.


A Member Often at Odds with the Rest of the Military Alliance

This is not the first time Ankara has come under fire for its conduct. This behaviour is the latest in a long line of tensions caused by Ankara which counter the interests of the Alliance, and of peace and security as a whole.


“Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia through defence industry cooperation still unnerves NATO members”


Turkey had already made headlines by acquiring Russian S-400 long-range air defence weapons systems in 2019, a purchase which could expose sensitive details related to the next-generation F-35 Fighter jet’s radar signature and which could compromise its sensitive capabilities. Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia through defence industry cooperation still unnerves NATO members as Ankara pursues advanced negotiations with Moscow to acquire Russian Su-35 fighter jets

Turkey-NATO relations are further strained by the blocking of a NATO defence plan, dubbed Eagle Defender, for the Baltic States and Poland as long as the Alliance does not recognise the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) as “terrorists”. Despite approving of the plan which was drawn up following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Ankara has prevented NATO military chiefs from putting the plan into action unless the alliance recognises the YPG as a terrorist group. This is a further sign of division between Turkey and an alliance which has long timidly pleaded Ankara to show restraint.


An Opportunity for Change on the Horizon

Relations between Turkey and its fellow NATO allies are under severe strain, and EU ties with Ankara have meanwhile worsened over fear of a new migrant crisis earlier this year and of offshore drilling in Cyprus territorial waters. Turkey has over the years become a growing source of concern along with a lack of mutual confidence.

NATO welcomed Turkey in 1952 in order to contain the Soviet Union whilst providing the alliance with a foothold in the Middle East. However, security challenges for both NATO and Turkey have tremendously changed over the years as well as have their inter-relationship.

Growing fatigue and annoyance have led some NATO members to consider the unthinkable: Turkey’s NATO membership suspension. After all, some have pointed out that today Turkey no longer meets some requirements for membership today such as having a functioning democratic political system, a commitment to peace, good relations with neighbouring countries etc. 


“Yet, while such a dramatic step might not bother some member states, a total collapse of the NATO-Turkey relationship remains unlikely.”


Yet, while such a dramatic step might not bother some member states, a total collapse of the NATO-Turkey relationship remains unlikely. Ankara’s neo-Ottoman oriented foreign policy might be fuelled by survival instincts, NATO remains a crucial asset in terms of politico-military and defence industrial cooperation while provides Ankara with the Western security umbrella. Parallely, Turkey has become an important regional and geostrategic asset for NATO vis-à-vis both Russia and Iran. NATO fully knows that ridding itself of Turkey would allow Russia and even possibly Iran to fill the void while weakening NATO’s southern flank.

Therefore, NATO will need to be more firm and assertive by directly challenging Turkey’s confrontational and unilateral moves. Yet, both parties will have to find a common ground and take all necessary steps to avoid a total collapse of cooperation.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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