The contrast in Turkey’s relations with France and Russia

The contrast in Turkey’s relations with France and Russia

Turkey and France have been at odds on geopolitical issues pertaining to the Mediterranean region. The two governments are not on the same page in Syria and Libya.

According to some French diplomatic sources, one of the reasons behind the tension is Turkey’s “Islamic leaning.” French authorities have been increasingly irritated by Ankara’s activities toward Turks living in France.

But when you look at European nationals who have been radicalized and gone to join extremist groups like Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), just a handful of them are Turks living in Europe. In that sense, the officials sent by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, the Diyanet, to Europe could be seen as a factor preventing radicalization.

No doubt, the profile of these officials during the two decades of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governance has changed, and the activities of some of them could be viewed as contravening the “secular” way of life, meaning they could disrupt public order in France.

While some independent observers from Turkey might find some truth to that view, Turkish diplomats believe the tension between Ankara and Paris is purely of a geopolitical nature, with the contention stemming from French diplomatic failures in Syria and Libya. What infuriates France is that its tactical and strategic moves have failed in both cases directly due to Turkish intervention.

In Syria, the French choose to support the Kurdish fraction in the country, considered by Turkey to be the illegal PKK’s Syrian wing, to fight ISIL. Turkey claims any support, particularly military, to the YPG/PYD poses a national security threat, even if it is assumed to be used against ISIL. Indeed, who can guarantee that these weapons are not or will not be used against Turkey? Ankara’s military operations in Syria have been a game changer, and when Turkey secured an (albeit limited) U.S. military withdrawal, French soldiers were left out in the cold. Blame NATO or blame U.S. President Donald Trump. But will things change if Trump loses elections in November?

In Libya, France has been dealing itself a losing hand by backing a warlord. Paris has been covertly helping arm and train Khalifa Haftar, who has been challenging the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli. Everyone is aware of France’s double game, starting with Italy, whose interests are directly threatened. Yet it was not Italy, but Turkey who came to spoil the game. Why?

France has the great advantage of capitalizing on Turkey’s bad image as it is increasingly perceived as a government with “Islamic leanings.” Without question, Turkish actions like reopening Hagia Sophia as a mosque will reinforce that image.

So France might as well use the propaganda that Turkey is trying to support fundamentalist Islamic groups. The problem here is that Turkey offered assistance to a government supported by the United Nations. And in essence, Turkey was simply looking to get out of the corner it squeezed itself in the Eastern Mediterranean when Egypt, Israel, Greece and Greek Cyprus joined hands against Turkey to explore natural resources in the region.

On the other hand, while they pose as the archrival of Islamists, Haftar’s followers are not exactly secular warriors, while they have also been committing crimes against humanity. At any rate, it appears that atrocities committed in the fight against Islamist terrorists are considered as collateral damage, as the crimes of French-supported pro-government military forces in the Sahel have failed to net a reaction. France’s policies in West Africa have done nothing but fuel support for Islamists, according to Human Rights Watch.

In the eyes of Turkish diplomats, France’s policies are less about fighting Islamists but more about holding on to its eroding presence as tectonic changes take place in the Middle East and Africa.

An a recent article, Didier Billion of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs underlined the remarkable contrast in Turkey’s relations with Russia and France. While Turkey and Russia are on the opposite sides in Syria and Libya, and despite occasional yet very serious crises, they avoid direct confrontation at the political level, remain open to dialogue and work together in both Syria and Libya.

Why can’t the two NATO countries do the same? One would expect France’s free press to ask this question more often and seek for answers.

However, an article from Le Monde Editorial Director Sylvie Kauffmann in the New York Times avoids asking this question while displaying a myriad of contradictions.

“For one thing Turkey, as a NATO member, is part of the very alliance it is disrupting. For another, Russia has also expanded its role in the region, and most of the West is largely hesitant to get involved there.”

She does not explain how Turkey disrupts the alliance, as its presence both in Syria and Libya curbs the expanding role of Russia, which actually serves the interests of NATO.

“Turkey brings Syrian mercenaries into Libya,” she writes, but forgets to mention the French missiles found in the hands of Haftar or the French support given to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for them to assist Haftar.
Complaining about Trump’s indifference and Europe’s inaction, she finishes the article by saying that Europe will most likely quietly wait for Nov. 3.

If Paris thinks things will dramatically change under a Biden administration, it means betting on the wrong horse based on the mistaken analysis that has become the standard, rather than the exception, in French diplomacy.