How an eastern Med incident played into Turkey’s hands


How an eastern Med incident played into Turkey’s hands

How an eastern Med incident played into Turkey’s hands
Operation IRINI boards and inspects Merchant Vessel (MV) ROSELINE A, a Turkish-flagged general Cargo vessel. (@EUNAVFOR_MED)
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A Turkish container ship was last month stopped and searched in the eastern Mediterranean by a German frigate under the command of EU Naval Force Mediterranean Operation Irini. There are several discrepancies between the Turkish and EU versions of how the exercise unfolded.

The first discrepancy relates to the permission that had to be obtained for the search to go ahead. The EU claimed it was carried out according to UN Security Council Resolution 2292. However, this resolution provides that “good-faith efforts” must first be made to “obtain the consent of the vessel’s flag State prior to any inspections.”

To justify its action, the EU said it informed the Turkish authorities that an inspection would be carried out on the ship. However, 16 minutes before the expiry of an extended deadline it had been given, Turkey formally issued a notification of its refusal to grant the requested permission. Despite this, Germany claimed that the deadline had passed and that, according to standard practice, it considered this delay as implicit permission. Using this feeble justification, Germany sent soldiers to board the ship and carried out the inspection.

The second discrepancy concerns the time the German soldiers spent on board the ship. A statement by an Operation Irini spokesman said: “Having received no answer from Turkey after the elapsed time, Operation Irini boarded the vessel and inspected it in accordance with internationally agreed procedures… The inspection was suspended later on, when Turkey formally and with delay notified Operation Irini of its refusal to grant the permission to inspect the vessel.”

This information contrasts greatly with that provided by the Turkish authorities, which stated that German soldiers boarded the ship 16 minutes after Turkey had communicated to the Operation Irini headquarters in Rome its formal refusal to grant permission. They continued with the inspection anyway, forcing the crew to open containers until late into the night. No illicit cargo was found. Pictures of the inspection subsequently flooded social media in Turkey, showing the crew being herded by German soldiers with their hands on their heads.

This incident caused several conspiracy theories to spread in Turkey. One of them points the finger at Greece.

Yasar Yakis

The third discrepancy is about the consent that Operation Irini had to obtain from Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) before carrying out the search. Resolution 2292 provides that such operations have to be carried out “with appropriate consultations with the GNA.” However, the Tripoli government in April objected to the EU operation, saying that it has an agreement with the Turkish government for the supply of arms to Libya and that its implementation should not be blocked. So the way last month’s operation was carried out was in violation of the UN resolution. 

The fourth discrepancy was about the justification for the search. The UN resolution provides that, to justify the inspection of a cargo ship, there should be “reasonable grounds to believe (it is) carrying arms or related materiel to or from Libya.” The outcome of the inspection proves that the EU’s presumption was not justified, and therefore the EU owes Turkey an explanation as to what the “reasonable grounds” were that led it to presume that the ship was carrying an illegal cargo.

This incident caused several conspiracy theories to spread in Turkey. One of them points the finger at Greece. The frigate had a German flag, but the captain was rumored to be a Greek and the man in charge of the operation was an Italian admiral. This intricate command structure must have further complicated the operation. Although the captain would have carried out the orders he received from the Italian commander, the Turkish public was quick to insist that Greece must have played a role in attempting to tarnish Turkey’s image.

Another ironic conspiracy theory is that Turkish agents might have given a false alarm that the ship was carrying weapons, thus misleading the Operation Irini headquarters into making an unsubstantiated decision.

Whatever the real motives, the operation victimized Turkey — a situation that will exacerbate divisions ahead of this week’s EU summit. 

Despite the claims and counterclaims, there has been no irreparable damage caused to either side. The most reasonable path would, therefore, be for Turkey and the EU to bring to light all aspects of the operation and conclude the controversy with a civilized handshake and by paying compensation if warranted.

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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