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

  • 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.


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.