The current dispute between two important NATO members, France and Turkey, over their opposing views on Libya could be the beginning of the end for the alliance. If the differences escalate, will Libya be the rock upon which NATO founders? This is not an easy issue given that the question still remains about NATO's role following the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, for which it was created.
Seventy years ago, Britain's Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO's first Secretary-General, said that the alliance was created to "keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in and the Germans down." Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, however, Ismay's statement is no longer relevant.
NATO's members are not on the same page any more. National interests dominate, and the enemies of yesterday are allies today, not least in places like Libya and Syria. Russia is very involved in both, with the support of some NATO member states. The US has turned a blind eye to Russia's intervention in Syria where it has developed the Khmeimim Air Base for its own use. Washington may even have given Moscow the green light to protect the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, which was on the verge of being overthrown and replaced by an Islamist government, an obvious threat to Israel's security.
Moreover, France, Italy, Germany and other NATO countries support Russia in Libya, where it largely operates under the umbrella of a mercenary group known as the Wagner forces. Their arms and money support coup leader Khalifa Haftar in his fight against Libya's internationally recognised Government of National Accord. Turkey, on the other hand, supports the GNA which allows the latter to control the capital Tripoli and the west coast. GNA forces have dealt several blows to Haftar's militia, which has angered his supporters, mainly France, which still aspires to have the lion's share of Libya's oil and gas resources. Hence, the clash between Paris and Ankara, and while these NATO members slug it out over Libya's natural wealth, its people are paying the price with their blood.
The French accuse Turkey of violating the UN arms embargo on Libya, while Turkey points out France's inconsistency in turning a blind eye to violations by Egypt and the UAE for Haftar's benefit. The government in Paris has also accused Ankara of targeting a French warship in the Mediterranean, an accusation which Turkey denies. The facts tend to support Turkey in this, given that a Turkish ship carrying medical supplies to Libya was stopped and questioned three times in one day, first by a Greek ship, then an Italian ship and then a French ship. Such an incident has never happened before, as it is against NATO protocols for member states to question each other in that way. This suggests a lot of ill will, not least because the French naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean Sea almost endangered the Turkish vessel, even though it was acting within the framework of a NATO mission. The incident led to France temporarily withdrawing from the security operation known as Sea Guardian, launched by NATO in Libya.
A spokesman for the Turkish presidency hinted recently at the possibility of Turkey leaving NATO, which would be the beginning of the end of the most important and strongest military alliance in the modern era. Turkey not only has the second largest army in the alliance, after the US, but is also located very strategically as the link between East and West.
According to an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — "The US Alliance with Turkey is Worth Preserving" — letting Turkey leave NATO would "constitute a self-inflicted wound" and harm US interests in the region. "Turkey is not just President Erdogan but a regional geographic and economic giant that stands as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East, and between the Middle East and Russia. Losing Turkey as a Western ally would mean bringing the Mideast to Europe's threshold, and the potential frontier of Russian influence into the heart of the Middle East. Turkey is also the state best positioned to balance against Iran, whose ambitions and influence are growing along with its partnership with Russia. The dependency is mutual; without the United States, Turkey would be left to Tehran and Moscow's tender mercies."
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well aware of this; his country is simultaneously politically and militarily close to and far from Russia on one hand, and close to and far from the US and other NATO countries on the other. The S400 air defence system that Turkey purchased from Russia is an indicator of its relationship with many of its allies. While Washington objected strongly to the purchase and Congressional sanctions were imposed, and NATO also objected, Turkey went ahead regardless. The Pentagon responded by, inter alia, expelling Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme and returning Turkish military trainers to their country.
NATO also objected to Turkey's Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria against the Kurds who are supported logistically, militarily and financially by the US. Turkey views them as a threat to its national security as a wing of the terrorist PKK, which wants to establish a Kurdish state using Turkish territory. After Ankara's intervention in northern Syrian, the US Congress imposed financial and economic sanctions on Turkey.
The gap between NATO and Turkey has since widened, to the extent that EU foreign ministers have called for an end to arms exports to a fellow NATO member. Opinion polls within a number of NATO countries suggest a popular desire to expel Turkey from the alliance.
During the Cold War, Turkey was America's strongest ally and played a prominent role leading to the fall of the Soviet Union and a Western victory. The rules of the game have now changed, however, and it is necessary to re-shuffle the cards, and hand them out based on events on the ground and the positions of NATO member states. What we are seeing in Libya is undoubtedly a defining moment for the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.