Could Ankara and Paris normalise relations?

It is always fascinating to see how the outcome of an American presidential election influences international relations. Joe Biden’s victory in last November’s election is significant in this regard, as President Biden has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to defending the liberal international order and building warmer relations with America’s traditional Western allies.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who distilled his foreign policy under the phrase ‘America First’, attacked international security alliances and reduced America’s global engagement, which thus paved the way for a more active role for revisionist authoritarian powers on the international stage. This was particularly explicit in his decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria in 2019, which opened the way for Turkey – a NATO ally – to launch a military operation against America and Europe’s only anti-ISIS ally on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Trump’s reluctance to curb President Erdogan’s assertive foreign policy has consequently weakened European security. Among European leaders, Emmanuel Macron has been the most vocal against the Turkish leader’s military adventurism. President Erdogan has repeatedly taken to heart his French counterpart’s condemnation, often retaliating through vitriolic attacks.

Yet, as the new Biden administration now seeks to improve transatlantic relations, the Turkish leader is moving quickly to make a number of policy changes, including improving his ties with President Macron. In particular, President Erdogan wrote a New Year’s message to his French counterpart, in a first attempt to ease tensions. However, the Turkish leader is also aware that more needs to be done.


Opposing interests

Ankara once practiced the mantra, promulgated by the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal,“zero problems with neighbours”, in its foreign policy. Since the failure of the 2016 Turkish coup attempt on President Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey’s NATO allies have witnessed President Erdogan’s abandonment of this maxim for military might to obtain greater influence on the international stage. Turkish military operations in the MENA region and South Caucasus, coupled with the deployment of research vessels in the territorial waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus for oil exploration, are part of President Erdogan’s quest for renewed Turkish grandeur.

Equally, it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey’s ambitions extend only to these geographical areas. Ankara has also made considerable efforts to strengthen its influencein the Sahel. The geostrategic objective of Ankara’s action is above all to circumvent the longstanding influence of France in the region. To achieve this, President Erdogan has extended Ankara’s influence over Sahel security, notably by pledging $5 million in financial aid in 2018 to the G5 Sahel counter-terrorism efforts. The Turkish leader has also signed a military cooperation agreement with Niger, securing Ankara’s strategic efforts in the country.

This is a natural concern for the French leader who considers the MENA region and the Sahel as part of France’s traditional sphere of influence.Indeed, at the height of its colonial power, France forged deep political and economic ties in the countries of both regions.Following Washington’s progressive withdrawal from the MENA region after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, France sees an opportunity to reaffirm its credibility, as a power in the region. This has been recently apparent in Lebanon.President Macron has confirmed this through various specific French political actions and initiatives. After the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut last year, the French leader visited the Lebanese capital twice and spearheaded conferences on international aid to Lebanon. With regard to the Sahel, France has, in particular important commercial interests held by French multinational groups, Total and Orano.

France also has a major interest in the stability of both regions. In recent decades, France has succumbed to devastating terrorist attacks coordinated by terrorist organisations active in the MENA region and the Sahel. As a stabilising force, in recent years it has played an important role in the fight against militant terrorist groups, in particular the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In the Sahel, it has intervened in Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane to oust militant terrorist groups affiliated to ISIS and Al-Qaida. However, now that President Erdogan has sent Syrian militias to the battlefield in Libya, France believes that the risk remains that these fighters could eventually ally themselves with the two international terrorist groups in the Sahel, and thus complicate its counter-terror efforts.

The French leader is equally concerned about Ankara’s violation of the territorial sovereignty of Athens and Nicosia, seeing such action as a blatant disregard of European sovereignty. In this respect, it is not surprising that President Macron has bolstered France’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean,especially since last summer, sending fighter jets and a naval frigate to deter Turkish unilateral actions in the region. Indeed, the discovery of gas deposits in the territorial waters of Cyprus and Greece is of strategic importance to the European Union. It is hoped that the rich gas resources will be exploited within the framework of the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline project and exported to the European market.

The conditions

After months of deep disagreements and bickering, President Erdogan would be pleased that his French counterpart agreed to relaunch political dialogue. Indeed, the foreign ministers of Ankara and Paris haverecently held a constructive telephone conversation in this regard, agreeing on the need to work on a road map to normalise relations. Certainly, a clear and concise roadmap will be essential to re-launch the healing process in relations between two key NATO allies.

The French President would want his Turkish counterpart to disengage from any new unilateralist commitment that would go against the strategic and geo-economic interests of Ankara’s European allies. To this end, the engagement of constructive dialogue with Greece on maritime borders and energy rights, while refraining from undermining French counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel, will be one of the key points on which Turkey will have to agree before any normalisation of relations. In this sense, the French leader would calmly welcome that Turkey and Greece have sought to continue negotiatingon their conflicting interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

Equally, the Elysée would want Ankara to recommit to supporting peace in its neighbourhood. Last year, Turkey repeatedly violated multilateral principles, notably those set out at the Libya peace summit, in which President Erdogan regularly sent Turkish warships and Syrian fighters to Libya. Having the largest Armenian ethnic community in Europe, France would like Ankara to refrain from further vitriolic attacks against the Armenian government that threaten Armenia’s sovereignty. Another important commitment will be that Ankara refrains from further blatant aggression against Kurdish strongholds in Iraq and Syria, which risks destabilising the region and fuelling the resurgence of ISIS.

At this juncture, it is difficult to see President Erdogan accepting these demands. The Turkish leader wants to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and transform Turkey into an international power, in line with the achievements of the ninth Sultan of the Empire, Selim I. The memory of the 1923 Treaty of Lausannewhich drew the boundaries of the modern Turkish state by Western powers, weighs on the political imagination of the Turkish leader. Yet President Erdogan’s power politics have isolated the Western allies and, as a result, reduced investor confidence in the country. Turkey was by far the worst performing emerging market last year. While many Turks are seeing their incomes plummet, it is time for the Turkish leader to curb his foreign policy adventurism and cooperate with Ankara’s allies. The ball is clearly in President Erdogan’s court.

Author: Kareem Salem

Kareem Salem holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales. He is bilingual in English and French and has written for a number of international bodies. His main interests lie in transatlantic relations, the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy and international trade and cooperation within the international system. Kareem firmly believes in multilateralism and considers it an important mechanism to support international peace and cooperation between nations.

February 9, 2021