France-Turkey tensions mount after NATO naval incident

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron (L) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

For France, it was the final straw. For Turkey, it was a misunderstanding. For NATO, it could be a turning point.

The incident unfolded quickly in the eastern Mediterranean on June 10, when a French frigate under NATO command tried to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya in violation of a U.N. embargo.

The French armed forces ministry, speaking on behalf of the government, said the frigate was harassed by three Turkish navy vessels escorting the cargo ship. A Turkish ship flashed its radar lights and its crew put on bulletproof vests and stood behind their light weapons, it said.

Turkey disputes this. It denies trafficking arms to Libya and says the cargo ship, the Cirkin, was carrying humanitarian aid. It has accused the French navy of aggression.

Turkey’s ambassador to France, Ismail Hakkı Musa, said on July 1 the three Turkish warships were helping NATO enforce the U.N. arms embargo.

NATO ordered an investigation, but its contents are classified and NATO has not commented on its outcome. Two European diplomats told Reuters that France sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in early July saying the report did not “correctly establish the facts.”

The U.S. Pentagon declined to comment on the incident.

For France, the incident highlights what many NATO allies see as President Tayyip Erdogan’s tendency to act against the Western alliance’s interests and values.