Tackling Once Again Turkey’s Hostility in the Mediterranean

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 2.12.2020 09:49

The latest incident in the Mediterranean comes at a time of friction between Turkey and the European Union. Turkey’s geopolitical interests in Libya have destabilising outcomes for the entire region, and the European community will most likely be sending a tougher message to Erdogan in the coming weeks.

Nature of the events

On November 22, marines from the German Frigate Hamburg boarded and inspected, as part of Operation Irini, the merchant vessel Roseline A - a 22 year-old Turkish-flagged container ship.

In application of the United Nations Security Council’s Resolutions 2292 (2016) and 2526 (2020) regarding the arms embargo on Libya, the German frigate intercepted overnight Roseline A in international waters approximately 200 kilometres north of the East Libyan city of Benghazi.

German marines carried out an inspection of the ship which was at the time suspected of unlawfully transporting weapons to Libya due to the navigation pattern of the vessel in the Mediterranean.


Tracing Roseline’s route from Yarimca Port in Turkey to Benghazi Libya. Copyright: European Security Journal


Germany’s Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stated that “the soldiers behaved correctly and acted absolutely in line with the mandate of the European mission Irini”, and the EU’s diplomatic service - the EEAS - maintained that Operation Irini had made efforts to seek consent from Ankara by issuing to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs a 4-hour notice in line with international maritime practice as well as an additional hour at the request of the Turkish Embassy in Rome.

Yet despite acting with internationally agreed procedures, Turkey’s objection to the mission led to the withdrawal of soldiers from the merchant freighter after only one hour and without finding any evidence of illicit material on board, a search which Ankara qualified as illegal and biased on board a ship transporting food, paint and humanitarian aid to Libya.


Another run-in with Ankara

This latest event resembles the June 2020 incident during which the French frigate Courbet was subjected to radar targeting by Turkish warships escorting the Cirkin cargo ship suspected of breaching the arms embargo, an incident which led to tensions within the NATO alliance due to the nature of the aggressive action.

Despite Ankara calling the mission biased, this latest inspection was no mere coincidence. Der Spiegel recently reported that armoured vehicles had been unloaded during the ship’s previous visit to the Libyan port of Misrata according to satellite imagery obtained by Operation Irini analysts. 

Additionally, suspicious cargo was sighted and brought on board earlier in November as the ship was docked in the port of Ambarli, near Istanbul.


“Turkey regularly uses military cargo planes to smuggle weapons to the GNA and their proxy Libyan allies, thus routinely violating the 2011 UN arms embargo on the country”


However, this remains the tip of the iceberg as flight data and independent investigations have for years shown that Turkey, amongst a handful of other countries, regularly uses military cargo planes to smuggle weapons to the GNA (Government of National Accord) and their proxy Libyan allies, thus routinely violating the 2011 UN arms embargo on the country.

After all, Ankara has made no secret of its intention to violate the embargo as it continues to interfere in the country’s internal affairs and is ready to carry on violating international laws and principles for the sake of its geopolitical strategy in the region. Should the GNA lose the Libyan power struggle, Turkey would most likely lose access to Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves, possibly worth $700 billion according to the US Geological Survey.


Further Sanctions?

Relations between the European Union and Turkey are already badly strained on a large number of issues including its incursion into Northern Syria and the exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean which led to severe tensions with Greece, the country’s historic regional rival.

EU foreign ministers have already agreed last September to impose sanctions on the Turkey-based Avrasya Shipping company by freezing its assets for violating the embargo in May and June 2020.

This latest incident comes as EU-Turkey ties have reached a “watershed moment” according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. EU sources, hinting at Turkey, have also mentioned further possible sanctions to curb violations of the arms embargo on Libya.

After all, MEPs overwhelmingly voted in favour of a non-binding resolution calling on the European Council to impose sanctions against Turkey over its “illegal activities” in Cyprus and for weakening “prospects of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem, exacerbating divisions and entrenching the permanent partition of the island”.


“There are increasing calls for European leaders to bring an end to leniency towards Erdogan’s aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy”


As EU-Turkey relations remain at a historic low, Turkey could be the main focus of the upcoming EU summit on December 10-11, possibly devoted to imposing punishing sanctions against Turkey for its activities in the Mediterranean region.

Henceforth, Turkey, while a strategically important EU partner, will soon need to choose between conciliation and confrontation as the EU sends stronger signals that Ankara’s position is contrary to European values and interests. There are increasing calls for European leaders to bring an end to leniency towards Erdogan’s aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy. 

December 10 could be an opportunity for European leaders to issue a unified tough message against Turkey’s hostility.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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