Relations between Turkey and France, formally NATO allies, have recently deteriorated sharply against the backdrop of contention over Syria, Libya, the Turkish-Greek dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the events occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Without any doubt, the impetus for this was the operation dubbed “Source of Peace”, which Turkey began in northern Syria in October last year. Then Turkish Armed Forces launched rocket attacks on 16 settlements in eastern Syria, shelling Kurds and massing reinforcements in the Turkish province of Hatay to then move those Turkish troop units into the territory controlled by the Syrian Arab Army and its allied forces. The international coalition condemned these actions by Ankara, initiated patrols to the east of Aleppo, and evacuated military service personnel from checkpoints in Raqqa and Al-Hasakah.
Relations between France and Turkey were further aggravated after Ankara intervened in the crisis in Libya. Vessels from the French Navy began to overtly interfere with Turkish ships carrying cargo shipments to Libya, supplying dozens of tons of armaments in violation of the international embargo. The standoff between Paris and Ankara intensified further after Turkey signed an agreement in November 2019 with the Government of National Accord (GNA) concerning maritime borders and military cooperation.
The incident in early June between French and Turkish warships, when three Turkish warships off the coast of Libya did not allow a French Courbet-class frigate that had participated in the NATO operation Sea Guardian to inspect a Turkish cargo ship, forcing Paris to declare the need to review the latter’s relations with the European Union. In addition, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, this was yet more proof of “brain death” on the part of NATO, as a result of which the North Atlantic Alliance has wound up directly involved in the mushrooming confrontation between France and Turkey. Ankara, for its part, accused Paris of “destructive actions” in Libya from the very beginning of the Western armed intervention in this country, brushing aside all countercharges.
It should be noted that how the situation around Libya has developed is now a rather serious irritant in relations between the two countries, where Paris and Ankara are throwing their support behind opposite sides: For France, it is the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and for Ankara it is the Government of National Accord that has become established in Tripoli, and to which it has been providing military assistance since December last year. The increasing entrenchment of Turkey’s positions in Libya in recent years, where Ankara has transferred not only weapons but mercenaries from Syria, is of particular concern to the French president.
The espionage scandal that broke out between the countries at the end of June did not improve relations between Paris and Ankara in the least: the Turkish authorities arrested four of the country’s own citizens on suspicion of spying for France.
The tensions between the two countries escalated even further after France advocated for the rights of Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Ankara is drilling offshore despite EU discontent. “I fully support Cyprus and Greece, since they have run up against violations of their sovereignty on the part of Turkey. It is unacceptable for the maritime space of EU member states to be violated and endangered. Those who do this should be punished,” stated French President Emmanuel Macron. Paris has called upon Turkey to halt oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. To guarantee that international law is respected, France has decided to strengthen its military presence in the region. Erdogan, for his part, responded harshly to Macron, showing that he did not intend to retreat.
The outbreak of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh served to further heat up the confrontation between the two countries. French President Macron accused Turkey of recruiting Islamic militants in Syria and then transferring them to the Karabakh conflict zone to lend support to Azerbaijan. As Macron very severely defined the situation, “the red line has been crossed”, and in these conditions NATO must oppose this kind of behavior by one of its members – meaning Turkey – and the Turkish authorities must provide some explanations. France has explicitly expressed its desire not only to mobilize public opinion in NATO against Turkey, but has called on officials – the leaders of NATO countries – to act in opposition to Ankara. In response, the Turkish President stressed that his country plays a vital role in NATO, while European countries are simply ignoring its needs. Erdogan announced that the security of all of Europe depends on Turkey’s security, and Macron’s statements are an example of a “sick and superficial” understanding of the problem.
On October 24, a spokesman for Elysee Palace said that France was waiting for Turkey to meet its demands by the end of this year concerning disagreements related to the country’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and urged Ankara to “stop dangerous, reckless schemes”, condemning its “irresponsible behavior” in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Following the recent brutal murder of a French teacher by a religious fanatic, President Macron proposed building an “enlightened Islam” in France. “This means trying to create an order that will help build an enlightened Islam in our country. A kind of Islam that would live in peace with our republic, would respect the principle of separation of church from state, and would calm hot-headed minds,” the French president said.
These words spoken by the French president drew sharp criticism from the Turkish leader and, during a speech on October 24 in the city of Kayseri at a party congress, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced that the end of Europe was drawing near. Erdogan said that the “attacks on the rights held by Muslims”, some of whom are also citizens of European countries, attest to the fact that “European fascism has entered a new phase”. In his speech, he advised French President Emanuel Macron, who called the beheading of a history teacher a terrorist attack, and spoke out sharply against Islam, to go treat his mental health.
After that, Elysee Palace called Erdogan’s statement unacceptable, and recalled its ambassador from Turkey “for the purposes of consultations”.
“Turkey must put an end to this dangerous spiral of confrontation” – this is how the head diplomate for the EU, Josep Borrell, reacted to the words spoken by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
The belligerent policy espoused by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is causing increasing concern, especially since Turkey is turning into a country that is not secular. This opinion was expressed by Pierre François Marie Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, the former Chief of the Defense Staff, in a long interview with the BFM TV channel. However, it should be added that this kind of policy by Erdogan has recently caused increasing concern not only in France, but across Europe as a whole, and in the United States, which makes it difficult to predict the actions many countries could take in relation to Turkey.
Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.