Is Macron Losing His Strategic Battle with Erdogan?

Tensions between French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been escalating since June following an incident involving a French frigate near the coast of Libya. The ship was there to enforce a NATO arms embargo and tried to search a cargo ship. However, it was targeted by Turkish naval vessels which escorted the ship away, according to Paris. Ankara said the cargo ship was carrying humanitarian aid.

The situation has only gotten worse since the incident, as Macron has sent warships to the Aegean Sea in case Erdoğan does not withdraw his naval forces from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece is also planning to double its western territorial waters with Italy to 12 nautical miles, a right provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an agreement which Turkey has not signed up to.

Erdoğan Calls Macron ‘Greedy and Incompetent’

EU member states agreed on a list of sanctions against the Turkish Government in case they fail to deescalate tensions in the region. Considering France is one of the loudest advocates for sanctions against Turkey, Erdoğan responded by calling Macron “greedy and incompetent.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Saturday said that the EU’s actions could even spark a war.

Brussels has responded by saying that it will implement further measures if Ankara does not comply with the first set of sanctions.

Macron is Worsening Tensions with Turkey

Macron is failing to reduce tensions between himself and the Turkish leader, which is why Germany would like to mediate the Turkish-Greek dispute over the Mediterranean. If the French leader is not careful, he could lose the wider strategic battle that he has been pursuing with Erdoğan since June.

The French President has the capacity to regain the initiative from his Turkish counterpart, but that largely depends upon his success in ending tensions in Libya.

Last week, Macron invited Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to visit Paris.

Can Macron Restore Peace to Libya?

Sarraj accepted France’s invitation because it represents a chance to implement a new ceasefire alongside fresh elections. It is also a chance for Libya to resume its oil production.

Yet Macron’s initiative faces two obstacles. Any settlement in Libya depends upon Sarraj receiving Erdoğan’s approval and support.

The Turkish President has the upper hand in the Libyan conflict and he would like to occupy the strategic city of Sirte that provides the Turks with a gateway to the ports of Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Marsa al-Brega and Zuwetina, where three gas conduits and 11 oil pipelines reach the Mediterranean coast.

Considering the Turkish leader has nothing but disdain toward Macron, why would he support a peace initiative led by his French rival?

Erdoğan Has Outflanked Macron in the Middle East

Also, other key players like Russia would need to be involved in the discussions. Due to a lack of US involvement in the Libyan conflict, Moscow and Ankara have emerged as the main rivals for control over the war-torn country. Russia is also interested in controlling Sirte and that is why the Libyan war cannot end until Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan have resolved their differences over Sirte.

If Macron, who has been a vocal critic of Sarraj’s GNA, can also persuade the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar to support a ceasefire, it would provide France with a huge strategic advantage over both Turkey and Russia.

Nonetheless, Macron faces other strategic battles with Erdoğan beyond Libya. The French President visited Lebanon this week to show that he is interested in pursuing political reform there, but French attempts to influence Middle Eastern politics will be met by resistance from Turkey, Russia and Iran. The Russian-Iranian-Turkish triumvirate is working closely to squeeze US influence out of Syria and without wider NATO support, Macron cannot hope to take on this triumvirate on his own.

The Turkish President seems to be winning a strategic battle with Macron, whether that is in Greece or the rest of the Middle East. Macron has made tensions over the Mediterranean worse and he cannot afford to risk war with Turkey, which the latter has proposed in response to EU sanctions.

There is still a chance Macron could score a win in helping Libya, but by and large, he cannot defeat Turkey and should take steps to deescalate his confrontation with Ankara.