Turkey’s Erdogan Seeks to Ease Tensions with France

After months of escalating tension between Turkey and France, Turkish President Recep Erdogan is seemingly willing to pursue a truce with French leader Emmanuel Macron. The latest developments in Eastern Mediterranean and Libya alongside the unprecedented downturn in the Turkish economy are only a few of the factors that led the Turkish President in this differentiation.

The New Face of Paris and Macron’s Strategic Goals

Macron has clearly adopted a more decisive policy compared to his predecessors not only in domestic affairs – take the way he is handling the Gilets Jaunes uprising – but also in the field of international policy. Macron fully comprehends that France has historically been a major moving force in European and International politics. Seeing this role gradually degraded over the past few decades, he is apparently seeking to reestablish the robust presence of Paris on the global scene.

The imminent completion of Brexit will officially leave France as the only EU permanent member in the Security Council of the United Nations and probably the most credible power within the Union from a military perspective. In this respect the French President is steadily counterbalancing German influence and is preparing to set Paris as the European geopolitical benchmark for the long term.

At the same time Macron is not neglecting French interests in Middle East and Africa. The very concept of Mission Civilisatrice during the colonial era secured the French legacy in the aforementioned regions, with an impressive 33% of the African population speaking French as a first or second language, according to recent estimates.

France is the second-largest exporter to Africa and most French largest commercial groups have a strong presence in the Middle East and many areas of Africa through thousands of local offices and subsidiaries. The growing presence of French military missions across the continent on the top of that fully aligns with Macron’s grand ambitions for reviving the solid international standing of Paris.

The French-Turkish Standoff

The regional antagonism between Ankara and Paris comes as an expected development when considering the Erdogan’s equally grand aspirations. Turkey has been also fortifying its international geopolitical footprint especially after 2015. As the AKP policy is fundamentally based upon the promotion of political Islam and the protection of the rights of fellow Muslims abroad, the Middle East and Africa is the ideal place to put the Turkish agenda into action.

The first signs of the French-Turkish standoff started showing on the Syrian front when France criticized consecutive Turkish interventions and expressed support for the YPG, a mostly-Kurdish militia based and operating in Syria, which Ankara has designated as a terrorist group. The next squaring off between the two countries was Libya, where Total – the colossal French energy producer – has a decades-long established presence; and this is just one proportion of the vital French invested interests in the country. The two powers are fiercely supporting opposing sides in the Libyan conflict, turning the local clash into a sort of proxy war between Turkey’s backing of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the multi-national coalition where France holds a critical role.

The last front to fuel even more the tension between Ankara and Paris, has been in Eastern Mediterranean. Macron has fully supported the rights of Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s major rivals in the region. This has been the latest and most significant point of friction, with Erdogan warning Macron to “stop messing with Turkey, or he would have serious problems.”

The French President preferred to be more careful with his statements, however he took a series of strategic steps to strengthen French positions and constrain the Turkish influence in the area. From the ongoing Rafale Deal with Greece to the proposed actions decided on during the MED7 meeting in Corsica, Macron’s intentions can be considered to constitute a considerable deterrent to Turkish ambitions.

Sarraj’s Upcoming Resignation in Libya and Turkey’s Economic Crisis are Softening Ankara’s Approach

Erdogan has been aggressively pushing Turkish interests abroad. After the direct involvement in Syria and Libya, Turkish claims in the Mediterranean have also raised international concerns. The unilateral actions from Ankara prompted several countries – with France being an indicative example – to react and work together in order to outweigh Turkish plans. This backlash came at a moment, where vulnerabilities in different fronts are pressing Erdogan to reconsider his tactics.

Firstly, the scheduled resignation of Libyan GNA leader Sarraj has caused significant worry for Ankara, considering that Erdogan has invested considerable resources in the strategic partnership with GNA. The critical Turkish assistance to Libya in terms of logistics, military and financial support has been provided on the grounds that the Tripoli-based leadership would be willing to accommodate Turkish demands in the long-term. Sarraj’s exodus, of course does not mean that the Turkish relations with GNA will be ruined; however, Ankara is anxiously waiting to see who will be Sarraj’s successor. This will be a key factor for the future developments in the country and their bilateral relations. From Ankara’s perspective it’s too much of an uncertainty for Erdogan’s foreign policy at a very crucial moment .

At the same time, the Turkish lira keeps being under significant pressure. The sudden announcement of a rate rise (from 8.25% to 10.25%) from Turkey’s central bank on September 24 eased some of the this pressure and gave temporary momentum to the currency, which reported gains for two days in a row after a long period of constant serious losses. With a huge outstanding healthcare foreign debt that could have a tremendous impact on the country’s medical and financial system however, Erdogan understands that the rate rise alone will not reverse the presiding market sentiment. The key method to reduce the pressure on the Turkish economy would be to alleviate geopolitical tensions in the region and this would justify a milder stance from the Turkish President.

EUROSAM Missile Project and Erdogan’s Typical Political Maneuvers

In light of the current context the Turkish President has contacted Macron seeking to deescalate the current antagonism. Erdogan has also reportedly committed to proceed with exploratory talks with Greece, while the two leaders also discussed about the situation in Libya and Syria in an effort to find common ground and promote regional stability.

According to a recent article from Bloomberg Erdogan has also asked his counterpart to give the green light for co-production of the EUROSAM Surface-to-Air Long Range Missile Systems. EUROSAM SAMP/T is an Italian-French strategic initiative for the development, production and supply of long range air defense systems with the participation of the industry leaders Thales in France and MBDA in Italy. In January 2018, Presidents Erdogan and Macron met to officially approve the establishment of a mutual project where EUROSAM would be joined by the Turkish ASELSAN and ROKETSAN. These partners agreed to work together for the development of the Turkish Long Range Air and Missile Defense Systems.

This very promising venture – promising not only for the Turkish Defense Industry but also for the Turkish Armed Forces – was blocked in January 2020 by France after Paris strongly criticized the Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in Northern Syria. Apparently further political clashes, as described earlier, also contributed to this stalemate.

Erdogan’s alleged initiative to bring up the EUROSAM SAMP deal again, indicates that Ankara is always flexible and ready to invest in strategic ventures in order to secure alternative options in the international system and pursue long-term political objectives. Most importantly Ankara is not only seeking to maintain communication channels, but also to materialize the prospect of a substantially independent Turkish defense industry that will be covering a full spectrum of services and products, from fighter jets and missile systems to APCs and drones.

As the pressure on Turkey seems to be increasing lately, Erdogan is applying his favorite method of diversifying his possible courses of action in a way that nobody could have predicted.