France pulls out of Nato’s Mediterranean mission as it presses for sanctions on Turkey

Relations between Ankara and Paris deteriorate over disagreements on the eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan conflict

FILE - In this May 11 2017 file photo, the French stealth frigate Courbet is docked at Naval Base Guam, near Hagatna, Guam. rance is suspending its involvement in a NATO naval operation of Libya's coast after a standoff with a Turkish ship and amid growing tensions within the military alliance over Libya. France is also calling for crisis mechanism to prevent a repeat of an incident earlier this month between Turkish warships and the French naval vessel Courbet in the Mediterranean. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)
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France has formally withdrawn from Nato’s naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea and called for fresh EU sanctions against Turkey over Ankara’s intervention in Libya.

Speaking at a security and defence committee meeting at the European Parliament, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, confirmed on Thursday that her country was withdrawing from operation Sea Guardian, the alliance’s security mission in the Mediterranean.

Ms Parly’s statements come as relations between France and Turkey, two Nato allies, reach a fresh nadir after a naval incident on June 10 in the eastern Mediterranean.

France had sought a Nato censure over the incident in which it claims its frigate, the Courbet, was harassed by Turkish vessels as it attempted to inspect a Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship suspected of being used by Turkey to flout Libya's arms embargo.

Ankara has denied the ship, the Cirkin, was supplying weapons to the Government of National Accord (GNA), which it supports in Tripoli, but has claimed instead that the vessel was carrying medical supplies.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stand during a signing ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.  Erdogan is in Paris for talks with Macron amid protests over press freedom and the deteriorating state of human rights in Turkey. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)

The UAE has backed France in its standoff with Turkey. In the aftermath of the June 10 incident, Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said on Twitter that Abu Dhabi condemned the targeting of the French naval vessel.

Ms Parly is to speak with Minister of State for Defence Affairs Mohammed Al Bawardi later on Thursday.

Frustrated by an inconclusive probe by Nato into the maritime incident, Paris has now changed tack and is seeking EU sanctions against Ankara over its recent decisive intervention in Libya.

Ankara has turned the tide of Libya’s civil war in recent months, delivering air support and thousands of mercenaries to the GNA to end a year-long offensive on Tripoli by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army.

Ankara has regularly accused Paris of backing Mr Haftar, though French officials have denied this.

A Libyan street vendor sells corn on the roadside by the waterfront promenade in the eastern port city of Benghazi on June 22, 2020.  / AFP / Abdullah DOMA

France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian has called for a meeting of his EU counterparts on July 13 to discuss the possibility of further sanctions against Turkey.

Brussels has already imposed sanctions on Turkish officials linked to drilling operations in waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, the standoff in the region, centred on the decades-old dispute over Cyprus and the island’s frozen conflict, has increasingly come to intersect with the civil war in Libya.

In December 2019 the GNA and Turkey confirmed a new maritime border deal in the Mediterranean in exchange for subsequent military co-operation, which has had a profound effect on the ground in the North African nation.

The UAE, Egypt, France, Cyprus and Greece condemned the agreements that would give Turkey access to potentially lucrative natural gas reserves in the area.

Members of the self-proclaimed eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) special forces gather in the city of Benghazi, on their way to reportedly back up fellow LNA fighters on the frontline west of the city of Sirte, facing forces loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), on June 18, 2020.  The resurgent GNA has vowed to push on for Sirte, late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi's hometown and the last major settlement before the traditional boundary between western Libya and Haftar's stronghold in the east. / AFP / Abdullah DOMA

Next Thursday, the European Parliament is to examine Turkey's role in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and the incident with the Courbet.

The debate will be held at the request of the European People’s Party, a centre-right coalition in the parliament which includes the parties of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

In Greece last week the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell travelled to the Greek border at Evros to indicate the bloc’s ongoing support for Athens in the face of ongoing Turkish hostility.

After the last round of sanctions brought by the EU against Turkey in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could step up its deportation of EU nationals who fought with ISIS and said he could renege on his country’s migration deal with the EU and allow millions of Syrian refugees to cross into mainland Europe.

Greece, which was the principal point of entry for illegal immigrants into Europe in 2019, has vowed to defend its borders and has not ruled out the possibility of a military confrontation with Turkey.

The EU has sought to secure Nato support for its own naval mission, Operation Irini, to impose the UN weapons embargo on Libya, but Turkey would be likely to block any such moves.

Despite its withdrawal from Operation Sea Guardian, France continues to contribute to Irini with its frigate Jean Bart.

The creation of the EU mission was one of the main conclusions of the Berlin Conference on Libya at the start of this year. However, at the same time as the conflict in Libya has fractured the Nato alliance, Irini has exposed differences in the EU between Italy and Malta on the one hand and France, Greece and Cyprus on the other.

During a virtual discussion with the Libyan National Army on Wednesday, the US stressed its opposition to all foreign interference in Libya and emphasised the need for an immediate ceasefire and return to UN-facilitated negotiations, the State Department said.

In a statement released on Thursday, it said the US delegation emphasised that the LNA's affiliation with the Wagner group, a Russian Ministry of Defence proxy, and perpetuation of the oil shutdown are at odds with US and Libyan interests and undermine Libyan sovereignty, increasing the risk of a conflict that could damage critical oil infrastructure.