Turkey Denies Its Warships Vanished

Depending on who you believe, a powerful NATO ally just lost a big chunk of its navy—or everything is just totally hunky dory. Move along.

Emin Sansar/Anadolu Agency/Getty

In the aftermath of Friday’s failed military coup in Turkey, 14 Turkish navy warships allegedly crewed by rebel sympathizers, reportedly slipped from their moorings or departed their scheduled patrol zones and disappeared into the Aegean and Black Seas, effectively gutting one of Europe’s most powerful navies and initiating one of the most widespread naval mutinies in modern history.

At least, that’s what one newspaper is claiming. Other sources have questioned the allegations of a Turkish naval exodus. And the Turkish government is flatly denying to The Daily Beast that any vessels are missing.

To be sure, thousands of Turkish military personnel actively or passively supported the July 15 attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Rebel tanks rolled down city streets. Fighter jets commandeered by putsch organizers shot up government installations and reportedly came close to intercepting Erdoğan’s jet as the president hurried to Istanbul from a vacation on the Mediterranean coast.

Just one naval vessel—the missile-armed frigate Yavuz—was confirmed as being seized by rebels at the height of the coup attempt. Rebels briefly gained control of the 300-foot-long MEKO-class warship at Golcuk naval base near Istanbul on July 16. Two loyalist warships reportedly moored alongside the frigate, essentially “sandwiching” it and preventing it from leaving port. Pro-government troops recaptured Yavuz the same day rebels seized it.

According to Hannah Lucinda Smith, a reporter for The Times newspaper, 14 other ships “remained at sea and unaccounted for” as late as July 18. There were, Smith wrote, “concerns that their commanders may be coup conspirators seeking to defect.” Earlier, eight putsch plotters had reportedly fled to Greece in a Turkish military Blackhawk helicopter. And on Wednesday, the Turkish government sent jet fighters to investigate two Turkish coast guard vessels that mysteriously appeared in Greek water, according to media reports.

If Smith's claim is true, those 14 ships could represent a significant proportion of Turkish power. In all, the Turkish navy numbers some 150 vessels, including 37 large frigates, corvettes and submarines. Smith did not specify which ships she claimed as missing.

Other media quickly republished Smith’s claim, and by Wednesday the allegedly missing ships had made headlines all over the world. But experts—and the Turkish government itself—questioned Smith’s reporting. “We can confirm that the report is absolutely untrue,” Lt. Sezgin Arslan, a spokesman at Turkish navy headquarters in Ankara, told The Daily Beast. “There is no missing vessel in Turkish naval forces.”

It would not be entirely out of character for the Turkish government to lie about the status of its forces in order to avoid embarrassment and to rob surviving putsch plotters of any public support they might still enjoy. In the days following the abortive coup, Erdoğan’s administration cracked down on media it perceived as being sympathetic to the rebels, canceling the broadcast licenses of television and radio stations and blocking access to Wikileaks, which had responded to the coup by releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked emails from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.

But independent experts also said they doubt Smith’s missing-ships claim. “My sources find it hard to believe,” Iain Ballantyne, editor of Warships International Fleet Review magazine, told The Daily Beast.

Devrim Yaylali, a Turkish naval expert and blogger who closely tracks ship movements in the Black Sea, likewise was skeptical. “Warships’ commanders are taught and trained to operate alone and independently,” he pointed out to The Daily Beast. “Thus they do disappear when the mission dictates.” But that doesn’t mean their crews have mutinied.

Besides, Turkish warships spend most of their time in the Black Sea and the Aegean, making it hard for them to truly disappear from sight over any meaningful period of time. “Both Black Sea and the Aegean are small seas and both Greece and Russia are closely monitoring Turkish naval activities,” Yaylali said. “If there was something wrong with our ships, they would rejoice to publish it.”

Smith told The Daily Beast she stands by her reporting but declined to detail her sources. It could be impossible to independently verify her claim until those purportedly missing warships make obvious public appearances—or show up in Greek harbors, their rebellious sailors begging for safe haven from the country they’ve fled.