Why is France getting on Turkey’s nerves?
It would be useful to recall some chronological information before diving into the ongoing tension between France and Turkey over Syria. On Jan. 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a visit to Paris upon the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron. It was Erdoğan’s first visit abroad in 2018 and marked Turkey’s efforts to reconcile with prominent European countries after a horrible year in ties. France’s new leader was subject to severe domestic criticisms for hosting Erdoğan because of the undemocratic inclinations of the Turkish leadership.
On Jan. 20, Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” into the Afrin province of Syria in order to eliminate the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), on the grounds that both were the offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria. On March 18, Turkey, along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), captured Afrin and took control of the entire enclave in the days that followed.
France issued a number of statements calling Turkey and other countries to abide by resolution 2401 of the United Nations Security Council, which stipulates a one-month ceasefire in Syria. France’s sizeable Kurdish community has raised its voices against the French government to do more against the Turkish military campaign in Afrin.
On March 23, Macron held a phone conversation with President Erdoğan. A communiqué issued by the Elysée made clear that the French President had expressed his concerns over Turkey’s Afrin operation and underlined that any action taken in Syria should not weaken the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
On his statement on March 30, Erdoğan revealed his conversation with Macron was not an easy one. He said he had to raise his voice over some of Macron’s “strange” words on the actions of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
A few days following his talk with Erdoğan, Macron spoke with United States President Donald Trump on March 27. The Elysée’s statement has focused on the need to continue the fight against ISIL without a reference to the Turkish anti-YPG fight. The White House, however, underlined “President Trump stressed the need to intensify cooperation with Turkey with respect to shared strategic challenges in Syria,” without giving any details. In a way, that has been interpreted as France’s annoyance with Turkey’s military campaign.
Five main drives behind French move
On March 29, Macron received a group of representatives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and pledged France’s support and offer for mediation with Turkey. President Erdoğan and senior Turkish leaders were furious with the move, calling Macron’s support to the SDF as a direct encouragement of terror groups.
This not-so-short chronology seems to be important in understanding the seriousness of the tension between France and Turkey, although they have enjoyed very good relations until quite recently. Senior Turkish leaders have distinguished France from other Western countries, as Paris and Ankara had shared a similar approach on Syria, aside from on the Kurds.
There are four main reasons for the growing French reaction against Turkey, particularly on the Syrian stage:
First, the French leadership has been under strong criticisms from its political rivals and intellectuals because of its softer position on the Turkish military mobilization inside Syria. Macron’s foreign policy has been under strict parliamentary question, particularly on the Syrian issue that led to Paris to harden its statements towards Turkey. Some French officials openly called Turkey’s actions in the Afrin enclave as an invasion.
Second, France is home to a sizeable and political effective Kurdish community. A similar group from the PYD had met with former French President François Holland in 2015, despite Ankara’s reaction. The Kurdish groups have a strong ability to mobilize political groups in France and they have proven it once again.
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Third, Syria is important for French foreign policy, especially through the historical perspective. France has always been very sensitive on the developments in its former colony, which still has a Christian population. Therefore, Turkey’s vows to continue its anti-terror operations, especially through the eastern part of the Euphrates River, has increased Paris’ concerns for the entire stability of the country and the state of Syrian Kurdish groups.
Fourth, France, along with Turkey, is one of the countries that has suffered the most from jihadist terrorism stemming from Syria and Iraq. The latest ISIL-claimed attack in Trebes, a small town in southern France, that left three people dead has bitterly shown the jihadist threat is still active. That’s why Paris, in the same way with Washington D.C., believes Turkey’s actions in northern Syria lead to weakening the anti-jihadist fight as the attention of the YPG has been seriously distracted.
Last but not least, Macron is ambitious to reincrease France’s role and visibility on global affairs, especially after a period of the poor foreign policy performance of his country under the leadership of Hollande.
Despite strong-worded statements against Macron, the Turkish leadership tends not to take Paris’ move that seriously. They regard the upcoming three-way summit with Russia and Iran on May 3 in Iran much more important as decisions to be taken will shed light on its future actions in the Syrian field.