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Since an extraordinary naval standoff occurred between French and Turkish warships in the Eastern Mediterranean in early June, Paris and Ankara have been trading increasingly sharp verbal blows over their respective actions in implementing the UN arms embargo on Libya. While this may appear to be just another moment of friction between NATO allies, particularly with Turkey, it is not. This incident represents a more deep-seated strategic dilemma for NATO as well as an increasingly stark divide between the European Union and Turkey.
This strategic dilemma is rooted in Turkey’s new regional foreign and security policy, based in part on its “Blue Homeland” doctrine. The implementation of this doctrine has caused a series of serious incidents that have been observed by Turkey’s allies but fleetingly, if rarely, addressed. Encountering little resistance, Turkey believes its actions to be largely accepted (as some are, such as limiting Russian influence). But the totality of Turkey’s policies and actions have now reached a point of dangerous escalation, which could substantially challenge the coherence of NATO’s collective defense posture in the Mediterranean and weaken its political cohesion. Turkey’s actions threaten to hinder vital NATO-EU cooperation in the region as well.
To avoid this, allies should approach the growing instability in the Mediterranean through an integrative policy that seeks to deescalate tensions and define, with Ankara, common interests by identifying some agreed principles to guide regional behavior. If Turkey is unwilling to join such an initiative, greater transatlantic tensions lie ahead.
Turkey’s Blue Homeland Ambitions
Turkey’s Blue Homeland Doctrine has its origins in a plan drawn up by Turkish admiral Cem Gurdeniz in 2006. It sets out an ambitious goal to underline and expand, through assertive diplomacy and military means, Turkey’s influence in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas while enabling access to energy and other economic resources. President Erdogan adopted it in 2015 as an integral part of a national strategy of “forward defense” in the context of his sustained drive to assert Turkish independence in all aspects of foreign policy to include influence in its surrounding regions.
Manifestations of the doctrine were on full display during the February 2019 Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) exercise, which was the largest combat exercise since the establishment of the Turkish Navy and was conducted simultaneously in the Aegean, Black, and Eastern Mediterranean Seas. The Turkish government-controlled media described the exercise as a “war rehearsal.” Another example has been Turkey’s assertive energy claims around the disputed Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In February 2018, Turkey sent naval vessels to stop an Italian drilling vessel on its way to drill for gas off Cyprus’ coast. Then in the spring of 2019, Ankara sent ships into Cypriot waters, escorted by the Turkish navy, to conduct its own drilling activities. European Union member states unanimously denounced those “illegal actions,” expressed their support for Cyprus by restricting EU pre-accession aid to Turkey, and suspended negotiations of an air transport agreement. Israel also encountered Turkey’s naval activism when its oceanographic ship, Bat Galim, operating in Cypriot waters in cooperation with Nicosia, was forced out by Turkish warships. Regional tensions reached a new high in November 2019 when Turkey signed an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord. The agreement defines a maritime border between the two countries in the Mediterranean Sea and permits Turkey to defend Libya’s maritime interests (which extend to six nautical miles from Crete) as well as allowing for joint extraction of energy resources in the Mediterranean.
To date, Turkey has met little resistance from either the European Union, NATO, or the United States in response to its actions, with the exception of harsh words and limited sanctions. Some EU parliamentarians have denounced Ankara’s “gunboat diplomacy,” and EU high representative Borrell released a declaration stating that EU countries are “growing increasingly concerned about the recent escalations from Turkey.” EU foreign affairs ministers convened on July 13, asking Ankara to provide “clarifications” on its actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Syria and asking High Representative Borrell to provide options to reinforce the sanctions imposed on Turkey for its gas and oil drilling activities in Cyprus’ EEZ. Secretary of State Pompeo has called Turkey’s illegal drilling in Cypriot waters “unacceptable,” yet this is unlikely to be followed by concrete action given that the Trump administration has not yet imposed legally mandated sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
This lack of a holistic and united transatlantic response to Turkey’s naval actions has emboldened Ankara to take further actions, particularly at a time when Erdogan seeks to project independent power abroad and heighten nationalistic sentiment at home to distract the Turkish population from great economic difficulties. The restoration of Hagia Sophia as a mosque is a powerful example of this policy in action coupled with its military interventions in Libya and Syria. Absent international resolution of the Cypriot and Libyan disputes (which are on the cusp of bringing in other powers, such as Egypt and Israel), President Erdogan has (rightly) concluded that Turkey has more to gain by its unilateral use of hard power and reaching its own diplomatic agreements that suits its needs rather than through broader diplomatic engagement and dialogue.
Escalating Tensions with Allies
As Turkey secures its regional interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, it sets itself on a collision course with official EU and NATO operations, which undermines broader regional and international stability. The first major collision occurred in April 2020 when the European Union launched Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI to implement the UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya. Despite a lack of policy unity over Libya, EU countries agreed on a common objective: the importance of preventing further military escalation by taking joint action to enforce the UN embargo. Turkey denounced IRINI as taking one-sided approach to the embargo that focuses only on constraining the Government of National Accord, which Turkey supports. The U.S. State Department seems to agree. Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker sided with the Turkish interpretation, questioning whether the EU mission was “serious,” because it only focused on interdicting Turkish materiel and not preventing Russian military equipment from reaching Libya.
On June 10 2020, Operation IRINI unsuccessfully tried to investigate a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship, escorted by Turkish warships and headed toward Libya. The Turkish ships prevented the Greek navy from inspecting the vessel, claiming the cargo was “medical equipment.” Tensions further escalated that same day when the French Navy ship Le Courbet, operating in the Eastern Mediterranean in the framework of NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, a maritime security operation launched by NATO in 2016 to support maritime situation awareness, counterterrorism, and security capacity building, tried to inspect the same civilian cargo ship. But the Turkish escort intervened again, leading this time to a more aggressive and dangerous incident. According to the French government, Turkish warships turned their fire-control radars on the French warship (the preliminary phase before launching a weapon on a target) and pointed guns at the warship to dissuade any attempts at inspecting the cargo. Ankara rejected these claims, calling them “groundless,” and instead accused the French ship of conducting a “high-speed and dangerous maneuver.” Speaking to reporters in Paris this week, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the United States was “very sympathetic with France” in its dispute with Turkey, and “NATO allies shouldn’t be turning fire control radars on one another.” At France’s request, NATO has launched a formal investigation into the incident, but the results of the investigation have not been released publicly.
The Risk of a Mediterranean Strategic Decoupling
Since the incident, tensions between Turkey and France have escalated as both presidents have used very strong rhetoric against the other. Although it might be tempting to hope that tensions will fade, they are likely to escalate again and have major implications for the European Union, NATO, and the rule of law.
First, tensions have now reached a level where they risk significantly impacting NATO. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system against the wishes of the United States and its NATO allies, its unilateral military interventions into Syria against Kurdish forces, its frequent military interventions into northern Iraq (its most recent air and ground operation was in mid-June), its violations of Iran (and likely Venezuela) sanctions, its continued probing of Greek airspace, and its recent veto over important NATO plans for the defense of NATO’s eastern flank (which was suddenly lifted days after the naval incident) leads one to conclude that Turkey is increasingly pursuing its national interests over NATO’s collective defense interests. The decision by the United States and other F-35 program partners to remove Turkey from the program (although it continues to contribute to the supply chain) will diminish NATO defenses in general as well as its readiness, interoperability, and effectiveness of NATO’s air defense capabilities. Likewise, the announcement of France’s withdrawal of its forces from NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian following the naval incident with Turkey reduces much-needed naval capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean for both the European Union and NATO to jointly enforce the UN arms embargo in Libya.
NATO has always struggled to articulate and deploy forces to protect and defend its southern flank and has devoted too little strategic attention to the Mediterranean over the last few years while powers such as Russia have consistently reinforced their military presence. With a dramatic increase in conflict as well as migration challenges, NATO and the European Union need to be an effective and unified presence in the Mediterranean despite disagreements with Turkey. The European Union relies on NATO intelligence and other support to execute many of its missions, so a diminished NATO also diminishes the European Union.
Absent more focus on the Mediterranean, Ankara and Southern European NATO members may conclude that the alliance has become, de facto, exclusively focused on its eastern flank. These members may see to protect and pursue their own interests in the region as well, modeling Turkey’s behavior of ad hoc arrangements, new regional alignments, and reversible bilateral understandings, thus creating even greater regional instability.
Second, these tensions reveal troubling divergences between Turkey and the European Union. From the EU perspective, Ankara’s aggressive pursuit of energy interests, disregard for the rule of law within Turkey (which should concern NATO as well), and use of migrants to pressure the European Union and destabilize the European neighborhood are at odds with EU values and interests. In the case of Cyprus, the European Union cannot be an unbiased actor. It supports its member state Cyprus and its ability to advance its economic interests within its EEZ according to international law, as the European Union would with any country elsewhere in the world. And while Turkey is free to pursue its national interests at the expense of collective European interests, its actions move it away from a more constructive partnership or strengthened economic ties with the European Union. And a more problematic EU-Turkey relationship further complicates conflict resolution efforts in the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and the Caucasus.
Eastern Mediterranean Principles
The preamble of NATO’s Charter states that its members pledge to “promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area.” All NATO allies, including Turkey, need to promote stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. A first step would be to create an agreed set of principles to include: (1) ensure that all regional partners reap the benefits of energy exploration in the region, with a path toward equitable sharing of energy revenues acting as a confidence-building measure toward restarting the Cyprus peace process; (2) contain Russian influence and presence in the region; (3) ensure NATO’s freedom of action from the Black Sea through to the Mediterranean; (4) work toward regional stability in the Middle East and North Africa region, including counterterrorism efforts; (5) uphold international legal norms and UN resolutions, such as the UN arms embargo on Libya and efforts to reach a cease-fire, as well as countries’ territorial or maritime integrity (regardless of existing disputes); and (6) redouble efforts to avoid future maritime incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean between NATO allies by establishing new procedures.
Stronger U.S. political and security involvement in the region will help strengthen NATO’s resolve in the Eastern Mediterranean, be a bulwark against Russia’s growing military presence, and better balance tensions between France and Turkey. The European Union (and France in particular) will need to identify pragmatic ways to engage with Turkey on a range of issues and not simply denounce its actions. As Turkey’s economic situation deteriorates, greater economic opportunities, such as expanding the EU bilateral trade relationship with Turkey or increasing U.S. foreign direct investment, might encourage Ankara to participate in the development of a regional framework of principles. Unfortunately, these relationships have grown very fragile as tensions have risen, and Turkey’s unilateral actions have significantly destabilized the region. Hopefully, refocusing on a set of agreed principles and incentivizing progress can restore NATO unity and restore focus on protecting its southern flank.