Naval Powers in the Mediterranean

Ankara protests German forces' boarding of Turkish vessel. Italian admiral: The West has lost its pre-eminence in the Mediterranean.

BERLIN/ANKARA (Own report) - The Western powers, including Germany and the EU, are in danger of losing their pre-eminence in the Mediterranean, Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, former Chief of the Defense Staff of Italy declared. According to Binelli Mantelii, Russia has become "the pre-eminent naval power in the Mediterranean," and Turkey, in particular, is rapidly gaining influence. Together, Moscow and Ankara are in the process of superseding the "traditional" Western peacekeeping powers. The statement is being published at a time when Turkey has snubbed the navy of a leading EU power, for the second time. During the night from Sunday to Monday, a German boarding team seeking to inspect a Turkish cargo vessel en route to Libya, suspecting a possible breach of the UN arms embargo, had to abandon its inspection due to Ankara's intervention. Already in June, Turkey had averted a similar French naval operation. Unaccustomed to defiance, the EU finds itself powerless to halt the rise of its Turkish rival.

The Boarding of "Roseline A"

The dispute over the boarding of the Turkish cargo ship "Roseline A" by a Bundeswehr boarding team, operating from the German frigate "Hamburg" is currently escalating. On Sunday, the Irini Operation command commissioned the "Hamburg" to verify whether the "Roseline A," en route to the Libyan port city of Misrata, was transporting weapons, in violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. According to the Irini headquarters in Rome, it had made efforts to seek the consent of the flag State - Turkey - for the boarding on Sunday afternoon.[1] Since it had received no objection within the usual period of four hours, the boarding team began its operation. Shortly thereafter, however Turkey lodged an objection. Subsequently the German soldiers broke off the cargo's inspection, remained on the Turkish ship until dawn - for security reasons, so to speak - and finally returned to the "Hamburg." They did not discover weapons on the "Roseline A," the German government reported. However, they were not able to complete their inspection. Ankara claims that only humanitarian aid - such as food - and paint had been on board.

A Toothless Tiger

The boarding dispute has several facets. On the one hand, it is unclear how the inspection was carried out. The Bundeswehr announced yesterday via Twitter that "the situation on board" had been "cooperative." Just what that is supposed to mean, remains ambiguous, especially given the fact that the Turkish news channel TRT World published a video showing how a member of the freighter's crew was taken away by a German sailor with his hands in the air.[2] Pro-government Turkish media complain not only about the German boarding team's methods, but also that the boarding, itself, had been illegal. This leads Berlin and the EU to raise the question of what competence Irini boarding teams actually do have in such operations. Yesterday, the German government announced that "under international law, it is necessary for the flag state to agree to the boarding," therefore, the German sailors terminated their operation immediately, when Turkey objected. From the perspective of confrontational states, if each boarding attempt can be thwarted by the flag state simply objecting, Irini will be merely seen as a toothless tiger. To Berlin and the EU's claims to power, that is detrimental.

Picked up by Fire Control Radar

The dispute over the boarding of the "Roseline A" is also of great significance, because it is not the first such case. On June 10, there had been a more serious conflict with the freighter "Cirkin,", on its way from Turkey to Misrata. The crew of the Greek frigate "Spetsai" initially attempted to inspect the freighter, but was unsuccessful, because of the Turkish naval vessels escorting the "Cirkin."[3] That same day, the French frigate "Le Courbet," engaged in the Mediterranean in NATO's "Sea Guardian" operation, made a second attempt, which also was parried by the Turkish warships. The "Le Courbet" had been picked up by Turkish fire control radar - a measure taken usually just before opening fire. The French frigate backed off. Vehement disputes ensued within the NATO framework. In September, the EU had imposed sanctions on Turkey's "Avasya Shipping" company, which had dispatched the "Cirkin" to Libya. Ankara sharply protested against the sanctions.

"Turning Point in Relations with Turkey"

This new incident has done more than just generally escalate the conflict between the EU and Turkey. Just last week, EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Josep Borrell warned, that Ankara is in the process of "deepening its estrangement from the EU."[4] This was in reference to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's controversial visit to the Cypriot ghost town, Varosia, and to his demand that a two-state solution be instituted on that Mediterranean island.[5] In consideration of the fact that Erdoğan, thereby had just added an additional conflict to those already on the burner between Ankara and Brussels,[6] Borrell considers that the EU is actually approaching "a turning point in our relations with Turkey." In fact, a debate on the expansion of sanctions against Ankara is on the agenda for the EU's December summit. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas agrees with Borrell's warning. If, in the run-up to the summit, there are "no positive signals from Turkey," confirmed Maas, "we will certainly have a difficult debate.” It would "certainly" include possible sanctions.[7] Until now, Berlin has averted coercive measures from being taken against Ankara.[8] The aborted boarding by German forces has now escalated the conflict, also with the EU's main power.

"The Mediterranean's Pre-Eminent Naval Power"

In the dispute over boarding, a supplementary problem is looming; The conflict raises the question of who really is the pre-eminent power in the eastern Mediterranean. In answer to that question, being discussed with growing intensity in specialist circles, Admiral Luigi Binelli Mantelli, Italy's former Chief of the Defense Staff (2013 - 2015) is quite blunt. According to Binelli Mantelli, the West - due to the United States' Asia Pivot and to NATO's new focus on the Baltic Sea periphery - has lost considerable influence at the Mediterranean. With its deficient "operational readiness," the EU,- in spite of France's considerable efforts - has little more than a "sad spectacle" to offer. In the meantime, "the pre-eminent naval power in the Mediterranean" is Russia, which maintains a naval base in Syria, is now establishing a second one in Libya, and in recent years, has displayed a level of assertiveness that recalls the US during the days of the Cold War."[9] Alongside Russia, Turkey is on its way to acquiring a "significant power-projection capability" in the Mediterranean. Moscow and Ankara have begun to push out "traditional" peace-keeping powers - the USA, NATO, or other European actors - Mantelli is quoted saying, in reference to developments especially in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. The West's "golden days" in the region are long gone.


[1] Thomas Gutschker, Lorenz Hemicker: Ankara stoppt deutsche Kontrolle. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 24.11.2020.

[2] Thomas Wiegold: EU-Einsatz im Mittelmeer: Die Bundeswehr mitten im Informationskrieg. 23.11.2020.

[3] See also In den Einsatz vor Libyen.

[4] Hans von der Burchard: Germany to Turkey: Calm tensions or face EU sanctions. 19.11.2020.

[5] Erdogan fordert Zwei-Staaten-Lösung. 15.11.2020.

[6] See also Eskalation im Mittelmeer, Dispute Over Policy Towards Turkey and Kämpfe im Südkaukasus.

[7] Hans von der Burchard: Germany to Turkey: Calm tensions or face EU sanctions. 19.11.2020.

[8] See also Eskalation im Mittelmeer.

[9] Andrew Rettman: Russia is 'pre-eminent naval power' in Mediterranean. 23.11.2020.