France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits

France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits
The French stealth frigate Courbet is docked at Naval Base Guam, near Hagatna, Guam. France is suspending its involvement in a NATO naval operation off Libya’s coast amid growing tensions within the military alliance over Libya. (AP)
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Updated 06 July 2020

France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits

France-Turkey spat over Libya arms exposes NATO’s limits
  • NATO headquarters refused to provide details saying the report is “classified,” and it’s unlikely that its findings will be made public
  • Trump has publicly berated European allies and Canada for not spending enough on defense budgets

BRUSSELS: The festering dispute between France and Turkey over a naval standoff in the Mediterranean Sea has shone a glaring searchlight on NATO’s struggle to keep order among its ranks and exposed weaknesses in a military alliance that can only take action by consensus.
The dispute has also revealed NATO’s limits when its allies are, or are perceived to be, on different sides of a conflict — in this case in Libya — especially when a major nuclear ally like France has lamented the “brain death” at the world’s biggest security organization due to a lack of American leadership.
According to French accounts of the June 10 incident in the Mediterranean, the French frigate Courbet was illuminated by the targeting radar of a Turkish warship that was escorting a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship when the French vessel approached.
France said it was acting on intelligence from NATO that the civilian ship could be involved in trafficking arms to Libya. The Courbet was part of the alliance’s operation Sea Guardian, which helps provide maritime security in the Mediterranean.
In a PowerPoint presentation to French senators on Wednesday, which angered the French officials, Turkey’s ambassador to Paris, Ismail Hakki Musa, denied that the Courbet had been “lit up” by targeting radar and accused the French navy of harassing the Turkish convoy.
He also suggested that a NATO probe into the incident was “inconclusive” and that France had pulled out of Sea Guardian. The French Defense Ministry rushed to release its version of events and underline that it would not take part in the operation until the allies had recommitted to the arms embargo on Libya, among other demands.
NATO headquarters refused to provide details saying the report is “classified,” and it’s unlikely that its findings will be made public. A French diplomat said the investigators probably did the best they could, given that they were provided with two very different versions of what happened.
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused France of lying.
“We have proven this with reports and documents and gave them to NATO. NATO saw the truth,” Cavusoglu said. “Our expectation from France at the moment is for it to apologize in a clear fashion, without ifs or buts, for not providing the correct information.”
On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron had accused Turkey of flouting its commitments by ramping up its military presence in Libya and bringing in fighters from Syria.
“I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO,” Macron said. “We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”
It’s not the first time Turkey has been at the center of controversy at NATO. Ankara’s invasion of northern Syria last year angered its allies, while its purchase of Russian-made missiles, which NATO says would compromise allied defense systems, got Turkey kicked out of the F-35 stealth fighter program.
Despite concerns about its direction and close ties with Russia — NATO’s historic rival — Turkey can’t be ejected from the military organization. Legally, there is no mechanism, and decisions require the unanimous agreement of all 30 member nations. In any case, NATO insists that Turkey is too strategically important to lose.
In normal times, the US — by far the most powerful and influential of the allies — could be expected to bring its partners into line. But the last four years, with President Donald Trump at the helm in the US have been extraordinary times for NATO.
Trump has publicly berated European allies and Canada for not spending enough on defense budgets. He has pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies aerial surveillance pact, which the Europeans regard as important to their security.
Just after Turkey invaded Syria, Trump announced that he was pulling US troops out, surprising and angering his allies. In recent weeks, he’s threatened to take American troops out of Germany, again without consultation.
At the heart of the France-Turkey quarrel is the question of whether NATO allies should respect the UN arms embargo for Libya. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month that the alliance “of course supports the implementation of UN decisions, including UN arms embargoes.”
But in a interview on Tuesday, former UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said just after a Berlin conference in January where countries again backed the Libyan arms embargo, he saw pictures of weapons shipments showing that even Security Council members were sending “ships, planes and mercenaries” there.
With no firm US guiding hand, divisions among the allies over how Libya should be handled, and a decision-making process that requires everyone to agree — even on what they should talk about — it’s difficult to see when NATO might debate the embargo question in earnest.

How the Biden presidency might impact Turkey’s Kurdish problem

A Syrian Kurdish woman joins a demonstration in Hasakeh province on June 27, 2020, to protest Turkish deadly offensives in the northeastern areas of the country. (AFP file photo)
A Syrian Kurdish woman joins a demonstration in Hasakeh province on June 27, 2020, to protest Turkish deadly offensives in the northeastern areas of the country. (AFP file photo)
Updated 10 min 58 sec ago

How the Biden presidency might impact Turkey’s Kurdish problem

A Syrian Kurdish woman joins a demonstration in Hasakeh province on June 27, 2020, to protest Turkish deadly offensives in the northeastern areas of the country. (AFP file photo)
  • White House not expected to stay silent as Turkish Kurds’ rights are violated and their Syrian and Iraqi brethren are targeted
  • Biden has openly called Erdogan an autocrat, indicating he may be far less accommodating of Turkish president’s whims

MISSOURI, US: A good many Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere will be celebrating the departure of US President Donald Trump when he leaves office on Jan. 20. 

Those in Iraq will remember when his administration hung them out to dry during their independence referendum, allowing Iran, Baghdad and Shiite militias to attack, while Turkey threatened to blockade them. 

Turkey, meanwhile, had little reason to fear American outcry over its human rights violations as it arrested and jailed thousands of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) activists and their elected representatives.

And in case this did not prove sufficiently disappointing for the Kurds, Trump withdrew US troops from the Turkish border in northeastern Syria in October 2019, giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade the Kurdish enclaves there and ethnically cleanse hundreds of thousands from the area. 

Kurdish forces in Syria, who had just concluded the successful ground campaign against Daesh, found themselves betrayed by a callous and unpredictable American administration. Just days before Trump greenlit the Turkish operation in a phone call with Erdogan, the Americans had convinced the Syrian Kurds to remove their fortifications near the Turkish border to “reassure Turkey.”

Most Kurds therefore look forward to President-elect Joe Biden taking over in Washington. In Turkey, from which roughly half the world’s Kurdish population hails, many hope the new Biden administration will pressure Ankara to cease its military campaigns and return to the negotiating table with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

In this April 28, 2016 photo, then US Vice President Joe Biden talks to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani (R) during his visit to the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Turkish Kurds are hoping to get help from the US, now that Biden has been elected president. (AFP file photo)

At the very least, they hope a Biden-led administration will not remain silent as Erdogan’s government tramples upon human rights in Turkey and launches military strikes against Kurds in Syria and Iraq as well. 

Judging by the record of the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president, Kurds may expect some improvements over Trump. But they should also not raise their hopes too high.

One need only recall how Erdogan’s government abandoned the Kurdish peace process in 2015, when the Obama administration was still in power. At that time, the HDP’s improved electoral showing in the summer of 2015 cost Erdogan his majority in parliament. He responded by making sure no government could be formed following the June election, allowing him to call a redo election for November.

Between June and November, his government abandoned talks with the Kurds and resumed the war against the PKK. The resulting “rally around the flag” effect saw Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) improve its showing in November, boosted further by the Turkish army siege of entire Kurdish cities, which in effect disenfranchised them. Following the November 2015 vote, Erdogan formed a new government with the far-right and virulently anti-Kurdish National Action Party (MHP).

The militarization of Ankara’s approach to its “Kurdish problem” increased even further under the AKP-MHP partnership. In 2015 and 2016, whole city blocks in majority Kurdish cities of southeastern Turkey were razed to the ground as part of the counterinsurgency campaign. In the town of Cizre, the army burned Kurdish civilians alive while they hid in a basement. 

Mourners lower into a grave the coffin of Kurdish leader Mehmet Tekin, 38, who was killed at his home in Cizre by Turkish troops, during his funeral in Sirnak on Decembe​​​​​r 23, 2015. (AFP file photo)

In Sirnak, footage emerged of Turkish forces dragging the body of a well-known Kurdish filmmaker behind their armored vehicle. In Nusaybin, MHP parliamentarians called for the razing of the entire city.  

Urban warfare is never pretty, of course, and the PKK held part of the blame for the destruction as a result of its new urban warfare strategy. Many aspects of the Erdogan government’s counterinsurgency actions of 2015 and 2016 went beyond the pale, however, and should have earned at least some rebukes from Washington.

The Obama administration stayed largely silent during this time. Policy makers in Washington had finally gained Turkish acquiescence to use NATO air bases in Turkey in their campaign against Daesh and Ankara has also promised to join the effort. 

What Obama really received from Ankara, however, were a few token Turkish airstrikes of little significance against Daesh and a rising crescendo of heavy attacks against America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. 

Erdogan’s government duly reported every cross-border strike and various incursions and invasions into Syria as “operations against terrorist organizations in Syria” — conveniently conflating Daesh and the Syrian Kurdish forces.

Turkey even employed former Daesh fighters and other Syrian radical groups among its proxy mercenaries in these operations, further aggravating Syria’s problems with militant Islamists.


  • 87 Media workers detained or imprisoned for terrorism offenses.
  • 8,500 People detained or convicted for alleged PKK ties.

The quid pro quo of this arrangement involved Washington turning a blind eye to Turkey’s human rights abuses against Kurds both in Syria and Turkey. Even Turkish airstrikes in Iraq, which at times killed Iraqi army personnel and civilians in places like Sinjar, failed to elicit any American rebukes — under Obama or Trump.

If the new Biden administration returns to the standard operating procedures of the Obama administration regarding Turkey, little may change.

Although a Biden administration would probably not callously throw erstwhile Kurdish allies in Syria or Iraq under the bus as Trump did, they might well continue to cling to false hopes of relying on Turkey to help contain radical Islamists. 

Many in Washington even think Turkey can still help the US counter Russia and Iran — never mind the mountain of evidence that Turkey works with both countries to pursue an anti-American agenda in the region.

Alternatively, Biden may prove markedly different to his incarnation as vice president. Biden knows the region well, has called Erdogan an autocrat on more than one occasion and has repeatedly shown sympathy for the Kurds and their plight in the past. 

In charge of his own administration rather than acting as an aide to Obama’s, Biden could conceivably break new ground regarding Turkey and the Kurds.

If so, he might start by pressuring Turkey to abide by human rights norms. Selahattin Demirtas, the former HDP leader and 2018 Turkish presidential hopeful, as well as tens of thousands of other political dissidents have been languishing in pre-trial detention in Turkey for years now.

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold a picture of jailed former party leader Selahattin Demirtas as they attend a 'Peace and Justice' rally in Istanbul on February 3, 2019. (AFP file photo)

In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Demirtas’ detention is politically motivated and based on trumped-up charges and that he must be released.  

Although Turkey is a signatory to the court, it has repeatedly ignored such rulings. A more human rights-oriented administration in Washington might join the likes of France and others in pressuring Ankara on such matters.

A determined Biden administration might also try to coax or pressure Ankara back to the negotiating table with the PKK. A return to even indirect negotiations, especially if overseen by the Americans, could go a long way towards improving things in both Turkey and Syria.  

Little more than five years ago, Turkey’s southeast was quiet and Syrian Kurdish leaders were meeting as well as cooperating with Turkish officials.

Turkish ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AFP)

If Erdogan and his MHP partners nonetheless remain adamant in maintaining their internal and external wars, then Biden should look elsewhere for American partners. 

Biden said as much only last year, expressing his concern about Erdogan’s policies. “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership ... . He (Erdogan) has to pay a price,” Biden said.

Washington should embolden Turkish opposition leaders “to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process,” he added.

This kind of language from the new Biden administration might go a long way towards changing the current policy calculus in Ankara.


David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University