Erdoğan vs. Macron: Round two

Here we go again. Few spats and a couple of phone calls later, we are back at square one on the Erdoğan-Macron front. Or even worse perhaps this time around. Remarks by Erdoğan in which he questioned the mental sanity of his counterpart signal his desire to divert attention from domestic troubles.

Here we go again. Few spats and a couple of phone calls later, we are back at square one on the Erdoğan-Macron front. Or even worse perhaps this time around, as France recalled its ambassador in Ankara back to Paris for consultations. That followed remarks by Erdoğan in which he questioned the mental sanity of his counterpart. An insult leads one to consult.

Not only that. Erdoğan further claimed that secularism is a lie in Europe and the main problem is Islamophobia. Who are these Muslims that Europe targets then? Easy: Erdoğan, lumping together the police raid to Mevlana Mosque in Berlin and Macron’s anti-Islamist (but not anti-Islam) rhetoric, has the answer: “Because for a Westerner, a Muslim is a Turk and a Turk is a Muslim."

Ergo, Erdoğan conveniently slips into the boots of the standard bearer of Islam without evading a wink to nationalists. For the naïve bystander, Erdoğan’s harsh reaction is twofold surprising. First, no citizen of Turkey or anyone with origins in Turkey is involved in the brutal killing of Samuel Paty. Not the killer, not the mosque, the association or parents. And two, Turkey is a secular republic too albeit with a heavy majority of its citizens are Muslim.

Actually, in his statement French Foreign Minister Le Drian underlines the lack of any official condemnation and show of solidarity from the Turkish government following Paty’s murder. That is true. On the contrary, Erdoğan’s spin doctor Altun waded into muddy waters by drawing a parallel between the European Jewry in 1930’s and today’s Islam and, speaking on behalf of “us”, refused to turn the other cheek but to urges “us” to defend “ourselves” together, adds that Europe becomes increasingly a dangerous place for Muslims. So and so forth, you would have guessed the drill.

Yet Erdoğan, as historian Nick Danforth notes “seems to be enjoying himself these days.” “Truly”, I would only add and Danforth has a point. For Erdoğan cherishes to dive into these matters head-on. On Sunday he exclaimed: To U.S., “you don’t who you’re dancing with.” To Macron, “this guy has a problem with Erdoğan.” Although Macron did not mention his name even once lately, and from the US side there is no talk of sanctions since a long while.

Erdoğan is frustrated. He is in need to be taken seriously, as a counterpart. He needs to be a player, a mover & shaker so-to-speak in the international arena. Short visits to Qatar and Kuwait are not enough. His phone should be ringing all day long. Otherwise, he is seen more and more as a provincial figure, a side show, even worse a “has-been.” 

Erdoğan needs action. The ball must be constantly rolling. He must be in possession of the ball all the time and be able to dictate the speed of the game. He needs to be in the picture. But in Libya, a ceasefire agreement is reached without Ankara’s door being knocked. In Syria's Idlib, TAF had to leave those surrounded monitoring posts. Still in northeastern Syria, US is after brokering a deal between the IKR and the SDF.

The economy is not in good shape. To the woes aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic as elsewhere in the world, a rudderless administration’s reckless decisions add insult to injury. The decision making process is in tatters as even the slightest bureaucratic point needs to be checked and double-checked with the palace. Not the parliament, not the party, not the electoral base count anymore. This is a struggle for survival whatever cost it takes.     

Hence Erdoğan widens the front. He is seemingly looking for more trouble. To me, he is looking for action and diversion of attention. It is getting increasingly difficult to sustain a narrative of success story. Talk of snap elections won’t go away notwithstanding the fact that Erdoğan repeated time and again that they are not on the agenda. Like Macron, this is for Erdoğan too, a domestic issue but Macron is not good enough for him as a single punching ball. 

The cracks in the so-called forward posture of an assertive foreign policy are getting more apparent by the day. Erdoğan postures as if he is the real chief of an imaginary but wished for axis of resistance. At the same time, the schizophrenia remains inescapable as Turkey remains a founding member of the Council of Europe, a NATO ally, an EU candidate state, one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel and has a secular constitution.  

Arab countries for sure are not united as a dreamed “umma” behind Erdoğan. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt are definitely on the opposite side. Maghreb countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are not welcoming Turkey’s presence in Libya. Israel’s establishing diplomatic relations with various Arab countries deprives Erdoğan of a rallying cause. Instead of state actors he is tempted and forced to deal with sub-state actors like Hamas.  

Punching above your weight is a temporary and an extraordinary measure. There is always a time when the reality catches up with you. Unfortunately, the self-proclaimed “democratic” opposition appears to be willing to do the same as Erdoğan only with a softer rhetoric and a gentler touch. As we say in Turkish, even in a change in power, foreign-policy wise the hammam will remain the same, only different rubbers will take over. At that time, and if he is still around, only Mr. Macron will be happy to avoid the insults.

May 17, 2021 An odd road companion