French-Turkish tensions continue over UN arms embargo on Libya

Joe Malmkvist, NATO Watch

11 July 2020

France has suspended its role in Operation Sea Guardian, a NATO operation aiming to counter maritime terrorism and ensure freedom of navigation, after accusing Turkey of violating the UN arms embargo against Libya. France’s withdrawal from the NATO operation comes after its frigate Courbet tried to inspect the cargo ship Cirkin on 10 June, suspecting it was smuggling arms.

According to France, its frigate Courbet was unable to inspect the cargo after being targeted three times by weapon and defence systems from Turkish warships escorting the Cirkin. However, according to Turkey's ambassador to France Ismail Hakki Musa, the Courbet was the aggressor while the Cirkin was only carrying humanitarian aid. Musa also said, that the NATO report investing the 10 June incident was “inconclusive”, to which the French defence ministry responded that France will not recommit to Operation Sea Guardian until the UN arms embargo is respected by all NATO allies. France also demanded, amongst other things, better NATO and EU coordination to enforce the embargo and the introduction of mechanisms that would avoid similar incidents in the future.

Following the 10 June incident, French-Turkish tensions have continued to build with the Turkish Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saying on 2 July that “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”. French President Emmanuel Macron responded by saying that “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO”, and that “We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia given that it is a member of NATO”.

In Libya’s civil war Turkey supports the UN-recognized government, while France has supported forces led by Russian-backed Khalifa Haftar. These divisions are escalating the French-Turkish tensions. On 30 June Turkey’s foreign minister accused France of trying “to increase Russia's presence in Libya" while Macron has denied supporting the Russian side saying that France seeks a “political solution”.

Since 2011 where a NATO-backed uprising helped overthrow Muammar Gadhafi, NATO has maintained a largely passive stance towards Libya with no current ground troops in the region. However, having hosted senior officials from Libya's UN-recognized government, it appears that NATO’s Libya policy is changing.

According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the Libyan arms embargo “needs to be respected by all sides”, however, the embargo does not equate Libya's UN-recognized government with the forces led by Khalifa Haftar. Therefore, “NATO is ready to give its support to the government of Tripoli”, said Stoltenberg having discussed the situation separately with the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although NATO is prepared to follow through on its promise in helping Libya's UN-recognized government with developing defence and security institutions, political negotiations, led by the UN and involving all parties, is the only solution to the crisis, said Stoltenberg.

During a European Union Military Committee meeting on 9 July, the EU Chiefs of Defence agreed, much in line with Stoltenberg’s comments, on the urgent need “to guarantee a balanced approach towards all parties involved in the Libyan conflict”.