Turkey flexes muscle in Mediterranean while EU tries to de-escalate tensions

Turkish forces conduct exercise in Libya’s territorial waters, plan bases.
Saturday 13/06/2020
A file picture shows Turkish Navy frigate Gaziantep escorting drilling vessel Fatih off the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey. (Reuters)
A file picture shows Turkish Navy frigate Gaziantep escorting drilling vessel Fatih off the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey. (Reuters)

BRUSSELS--In a bid to de-escalate tensions triggered by Turkish moves in the Mediterranean, EU officials were underplaying Saturday the significance of their request to NATO to help with enforcement with the arms embargo in Libya.

“This is part of a natural process between two organisations that are cooperating and working together to achieve common results: the security and stability of Europe and its neighbourhood,” said a EU spokesperson.

“This cooperation was not triggered in any way by any recent events — it is rather part of our natural and usual dialogue and exchanges,” added the spokesperson.

 

The request came after a Greek vessel with Operation Irini was prevented from inspecting a suspicious Turkish freighter headed for the war-stricken North African country.

Turkey is known to supply weapons and dispatch army personnel and mercenaries to Libya in order to help the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in its war against the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The EU had asked NATO Friday for help with its naval mission enforcing an arms embargo on Libya, officials, after Turkey blocked it from inspecting a suspect vessel.

A senior EU official said the bloc had contacted NATO to see “how we can have arrangements” with the military alliance’s Operation Sea Guardian in the eastern Mediterranean.

The move comes after an incident on Wednesday when a Greek vessel with Operation Irini was prevented from inspecting a suspicious freighter by its Turkish military escort.

NATO on Friday confirmed it was looking at how its Operation Sea Guardian, which has two ships patrolling the Mediterranean, could support the EU’s new Operation Irini.

Irini was set up to enforce a United Nations embargo aimed at halting the flow of arms to Libya.

Turkey has strongly backed the GNA, including by dispatching an unknown number of Turkish officers and sending thousands of mercenaries from Syria. It has also delievered sophisticated drones and air defence systems, helping turn the tide of the conflict against the LNA in recent weeks.

NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian has two ships patrolling the Mediterranean to monitor shipping, deter terrorism and “project stability”.

It gave information and logistical support to Irini’s predecessor, Operation Sophia, for a number of years.

“Allies are currently discussing how NATO could support the EU’s new maritime mission Irini,” a NATO official said. “It is important that the UN arms embargo is fully implemented.”

The situation in Libya will be on the agenda when NATO defence ministers hold video talks next week.

Changing Sea Guardian’s activities to include helping Irini would need approval from all 30 NATO members — meaning Ankara could potentially veto it.

Involving NATO in blocking Turkish military shipments to the GNA could also be opposed by the United States, which is perceived by experts as having green-lighted Turkey’s widening footprint in Libya.

To further flex muscle in the region, Turkish military conducted an air and naval exercise in Libya’s territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean, its defence ministry said Friday.

A 2018 file picture shows Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talking to members of the Turkish Navy, during a naval ceremony in Istanbul. (Reuters)
A 2018 file picture shows Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talking to members of the Turkish Navy, during a naval ceremony in Istanbul. (Reuters)

The exercise was interpreted by observers as an apparent show of force linked to the Libyan conflict and to the Europeans’ objections to Turkey’s moves.

The drill, which lasted for eight hours Thursday, was dubbed an “Open Sea Training” exercise by the ministry in a statement that did not mention Libya directly.

Eight frigates and corvettes participated, along with 17 planes that flew from Eskisehir, central Turkey on a 2,000-km (1,250-mile) round trip, it said.

The private NTV broadcaster said the exercise was held in Libyan waters but did not offer any explanation.

The defence ministry reported that the exercise was “conducted successfully”, sharing photographs and videos of the F-16 fighter jets and warships in action.

Turkish state news agency Anadolu dubbed the drill a “show of force”.

The exercise came as tensions grow in the eastern Mediterranean owing to the conflict in Libya, and a dispute with Cyprus and Greece over offshore hydrocarbon resources.

Turkey has already sent ships to search for oil and gas off the divided island of Cyprus.

Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak reported Friday that Ankara could set up two bases in Libya, one southwest of Tripoli at Al-Watiya that would host drones and the other in the port city of Misrata.

Turkey has signed a maritime deal with the Tripoli-based government that would give Ankara access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and other countries. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within weeks.