Brussels - Warships escorted a vessel suspected of transporting weapons to Libya in violation of the UN embargo. When a French naval frigate blocked their way, a combat alert was announced on the ships. Finding itself outnumbered and lacking fire superiority, the French frigate retreated.
This test of strength in the Mediterranean in mid-June was not a confrontation between enemy fleets. France and Turkey, who have sworn to protect each other, entered the conflict.
An equally hostile meeting between Turkey and another NATO member took place two weeks ago, when Turkish warplanes on low level flight flew near the Greek island of Rhodes, and Greek naval warships were put on alert due to Turkey's intention to conduct underwater drilling in the area. exploration of gas fields.
Turkey is becoming more aggressive, ambitious and authoritarian. European diplomats say it has become a headache for NATO, but few are willing to discuss the issue.
The leadership of the North Atlantic Alliance claims that Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, is too large, strong and strategically important, being at the crossroads from Europe to Asia, and therefore, open confrontation with it is unacceptable.
Turkey shrugs off any criticism directed at it, calling it unfounded. However, representatives of some countries in NATO believe that this country today openly challenges the democratic values of the alliance and its collective defense.
An increasingly aggressive, nationalist and religious Turkey often disagrees with its Western allies on Libya, Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism after 17 years of rule by autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also worries NATO members.
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to call Turkey an ally of the United States," said foreign policy adviser Philip H. Gordon, who served as the Obama administration's assistant secretary of state for Turkey.
Despite this, Turkey is receiving numerous concessions, analysts say. It is helped in this by the lack of consistent American leadership, President Trump's contempt for NATO, and his apparent admiration for Erdogan.
“It is impossible to say what is the US policy towards Libya. It's impossible even to understand what Trump's positions are, Gordon said. "This is a big dilemma for American politics, because strategically we are at odds with Turkey on almost all issues."
These strategic disagreements are growing. Turkey supports various armed groups in Syria. In 2019, it acquired state-of-the-art Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems, despite vehement objections from the United States and other NATO members. It violates the arms embargo on Libya. It aggressively drills in the eastern Mediterranean, constantly demonizes Israel, and increasingly uses disinformation with government approval.
The NATO leadership's resignation and meekness towards Turkey is not good, analysts say. They point the finger at the secretary general of the alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, whose task is to unite NATO, which consists of 30 member countries. The man is considered overly tolerant of US and Turkish misconduct.
The last serious discussion on the topic of Turkish policy among representatives of NATO countries took place at the end of last year, and this despite the purchase of the S-400 air defense system.
Other countries, such as Hungary and Poland, also do not fully respect NATO values, said former NATO ambassador Nicholas Burns, now at Harvard. But only Turkey is blocking the key activities of the alliance.
NATO has a consensus rule, and therefore Turkey's objections can stall almost any decision and initiative. And her diplomats are persistent and knowledgeable people. They are “ahead in all matters,” as one NATO leader put it. According to representatives of the alliance, France also sometimes uses its de facto veto power, defending national interests, but never weakening the collective defense. And Turkey is blocking NATO partnerships because of countries that it does not like, for example, because of Armenia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
There are also more serious points. Turkey has been blocking NATO's defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states that border Russia for months. Turkey also wants NATO to include in the list of terrorist organizations various Kurdish armed groups that are fighting for independence. NATO responds with a refusal.
Some of these Kurdish groups are strong allies of Washington in its fight against the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.
At the December NATO summit in London, it was allegedly possible to negotiate an agreement. However, Turkey created a number of bureaucratic complications, and only at the end of June backed down after powerful pressure from official Washington, which lost patience and became enraged because of Erdogan's persistent desire to buy the S-400.
If these systems are put on alert, Russian engineers will infiltrate NATO's air defense system and gain valuable insight and insight into the alliance's strengths. At the same time, there will be a threat of weakening the combat capabilities of the expensive fifth-generation fighter F-35.
There is speculation that Erdogan wants to be able to shoot down American and Israeli planes such as those used by his own air force in the coup attempt. Erdogan has become much more wary after this 2016 attempt.
“Whenever we discuss Russia in NATO, everyone thinks of the S-400, but nobody says anything,” said one European diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was giving his opinion on a very sensitive issue. "A big gap has been made in NATO's air defense system, but it is not even discussed."
Instead, the alliance assumes that negotiations between Washington and Ankara will still take place, and the problem will be resolved. But there is a split in Washington, and Erdogan speaks only to Trump.
The confusion isn't just in Washington's minds, however, says former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Amand Sloat, who dealt with Turkey under Obama and recently co-wrote an essay with Gordon. The EU and the UN also do not have a clear policy on Turkey and Libya, she said.
Turkey is pursuing its own national interests in northern Syria, deploying more than 10,000 troops there, as well as in Libya, where, thanks to its military support, the failed government was able to turn the tide, and Turkey received a share in Libya's rich energy resources in return.
It was near the Libyan coast that three Turkish ships met with a French frigate at the end of June.
The European Union has the task of enforcing the arms embargo on Libya, but NATO has no such task. The frigate Courbet performed another NATO mission, holding back migratory flows. But with Turkey and France supporting different sides in the Libyan civil war, the confrontation between NATO allies is deeply troubling.
Turkey said it carried aid, not weapons, and denied claims that its ships were harassing the Courbet. NATO officials say its military committee is investigating the case and that the evidence is not as clear as the French claim.
Nevertheless, French President Emmanuel Macron took advantage of this confrontation to once again reiterate his idea of "brain death" of NATO, since this organization is unable to curb Turkey and establish political coordination between the member countries.
His first accusation also concerned Turkey, because Trump, speaking on the phone with Erdogan last October, unilaterally decided to withdraw US troops from northern Syria, where NATO is fighting against the Islamic State. As a result, the French and other US allies were exposed and unprotected. Ultimately, the Pentagon convinced Trump to leave some of the American troops there.
Franco-Turkish tensions in NATO arose back in 2011, when it was decided to intervene against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, said political scientist Ivo Daalder, who was the US ambassador to NATO at the time.
Secular France fears that Erdogan's habit of mixing political affairs with Islamic affairs will spread in northern Africa, inspire militant Islamists and damage the French "sphere of influence," said Soner Cagaptay, head of the Turkey research program at the Washington Institute. Middle East policy. “The French are very worried,” he notes.
Another outbreak occurred due to the fact that Turkey demanded a share of gas production from a field discovered in the eastern Mediterranean in 2015. Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt have concluded deals and alliances on this topic.
Maritime claims are disputed, and Erdogan complained in June that “their goal is to deprive our country of freedom, although it has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean. They want to turn it into a narrow strip where you can only fish with a line."
Then he sent hydrographic and drilling vessels to explore in the direction of Cyprus, and said that he would do the same near Rhodes. The Greeks responded by threatening Turkey with war. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded Erdogan to postpone her actions until negotiations are over.
During the Arab Spring a decade ago, Turkey was seen by many as a moderate and democratic role model. But under Erdogan, Turkey became a different country as he mobilized the most religious voters from the countryside.
A deeply religious Muslim, Erdogan began to display nationalist and authoritarian tendencies, especially after the attempted coup in 2016, when he repressed and imprisoned many Turkish supporters of separation of the church from the state, judges, journalists and military leaders.
He decisively broke with the secular politics of Turkey. A symbol of this rift was his recent decision to convert the museum in Hagia Sophia into a mosque. He acts very decisively in his region, and his ambitions are almost Ottoman. Erdogan abandons old alliances to defend Turkish interests.
Speaking about NATO, Slote said: "The question is whether Turkey remains a western country and whether it shares our values."
Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin dismisses the criticism and says Trump and Macron are questioning NATO's value. “I guess Macron is trying to secure some kind of leadership in North Africa that he doesn't have in Europe,” Kalin said. “He called Turkey a criminal country, and it’s unheard of for France to call another NATO member that way.”
Speaking about Brussels, Kalin noted that "the EU needs to look in the mirror." Greece "is using its EU membership to put pressure on Turkey, but this language of sanctions will not achieve results," he said, adding that Turkey only needs "equal and fair distribution of energy resources."
The US official position essentially boils down to Washington calling on Turkey to "end actions that increase tensions" in the eastern Mediterranean, said Acting Under Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip T. Reeker.
“We want our friends and allies - let's not forget that all of us, Turkey, Greece and the United States, are NATO allies - so that our friends and allies in the region approach these issues in a spirit of cooperation,” he said. …
“We need to have a big conversation about what to do with Turkey,” said one senior European diplomat. “But it’s not necessary to do it now.”
Carlott Gall and MatinStevis-Gridneff contributed to this article.