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Mediterranean Tensions

BY Melissa Rossi



Mediterranean Tensions

France Temporarily Withdraws from NATO Operation Sea Guardian Over Incident with Turkey

On 1 July 2020 France announced that it would be temporarily leaving Operation Sea Guardian—a NATO naval mission in the Central Mediterranean which aims at intercepting the illicit trafficking of weapons used to fuel the conflict in Libya. France’s unexpected move comes after a naval incident with Turkey in the Mediterranean the previous month, which France claims was not addressed properly by NATO. During the incident, the French frigate Courbet, under NATO command, was prevented from approaching a suspicious vessel which was being escorted by Turkish warships.

Tensions in the region are rising fast as Turkey — a NATO member and candidate to accede to the European Union (EU) — insists on flexing its geopolitical muscles in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya. Ankara has militarily supported the UN-recognised (but unelected) Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and has supplied both weapons and fighters to boost GNA war efforts and push back the Eastern-led Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar, from the outskirts of the capital. Haftar’s LNA initiated a military offensive that aimed to subdue Tripoli since April 2019, but has recently been halted by GNA troops aided by Turkey’s drones, militias and armoured vehicles. Ankara’s support for the GNA has a strategic aim and comes after a controversial maritime memorandum signed last November between Turkey and Libya (al-Sarraj), where the contiguous maritime border of southwestern Turkey and northeastern Libya have been delimitated for the purpose of hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. The memorandum is not recognised by the EU and other Mediterranean states such as Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, since it does not consider Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and fuels tensions in the area.

Various naval missions patrol the water of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean in order to intercept the trafficking of illicit weapons entering Libya. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has already issued several resolutions — the latest being resolution 2526 (2020) — calling for arms embargoes on the North African state torn by instability and conflict since the fall of Dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. In addition to NATO’s Sea Guardian, the EU has recently approved EUNAVFORMED IRINI, as part of its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) strategy to secure stability in its strategic neighbourhood. Operation IRINI’s primary goal is likewise to intercept illicit arms trafficking in Libya, while its secondary goals include the disruption of human trafficking and intercepting illicit oil exports from Libya.

IRINI has also had a close encounter with a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship escorted by Turkish warships last month. The Greek frigate Spetsai, under the command of Operation IRINI, attempted to hail the vessel but the Turkish warships communicated that it could not cooperate.

Stakes are indeed high in the Libyan conflict, whose outcome also seems key to Mediterranean tensions. Both Turkey and the GNA do not recognise the actions of IRINI as they consider the naval mission biased in favour of the LNA, since it acts on only one weapons trafficking route, used primarily by Turkey to supply the GNA, while Libya’s Eastern land border with Egypt remains unchecked by European military forces. Egypt, Russia, France and the United Arab Emirates support the Libyan Eastern Parliament in Tobruk, known as the House of Representatives (HoR) led by representative Aguila Saleh. General Khalifa Haftar’s LNA, which supports Tobruk, is basically a patchwork army engaged in a war effort to control Tripoli and topple the GNA, supported by Turkey, Italy and Qatar. As the tide of military victories seems now to have shifted towards Tripoli, Turkey’s ongoing support guarantees its maritime deal and future investments in the oil rich North African state.

As for France, it continue to support EU naval operation IRINI, but its temporary withdrawal from NATO Operation Sea Guardian should be perceived as a warning about possible fractures in the Cold War mutual defence organisation and as a clear sign of the geopolitical changes in the region that sees Turkey as a major source of instability vis à vis its Mediterranean neighbours.