France is the real deal for Ankara

Erdoğan obviously wants his reputation to rise within Muslim communities by taking on Macron, but the story is not just about recasting the “old spell” abroad. Some polls in Turkey place Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) at around 25-29%, which is the lowest point of the movement since its foundation almost 20 years ago. More than re-energizing the AK Party at the polls, Erdoğan may be opting to try to recreate the legend around him.

After a tumultuous summer in the Aegean, Turkey has picked up new fights as the conflict with Greece recedes to the background. There are occasional spats through the Navigational Telex (Navtex) system, but the Greece-Turkey conflict is more or less under control. The tone of the new Navtaxes may even be read as “reconciliatory,” as the ones issued by Turkey always draw attention to the Lausanne Treaty. This is a “behind the scenes” message that Turkey recognizes and respects the Lausanne Treaty and does not claim sovereignty over the Aegean Islands that fall under the territorial jurisdiction of Greece.

Moreover, Turkey and Greece are reportedly meeting “everyday” under the auspices of NATO. On October 22, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the following after a virtual meeting of the organization’s defense ministers:

"Greece and Turkey meet on the daily basis here at the NATO headquarters. I think that's one of the advantages of NATO is that we provide a platform for our allies to meet and to discuss on a daily basis.”

Stoltenberg clearly tried to make a case about how useful and relevant NATO is, going beyond pointing out that the tensions between Greece and Turkey are now diffused.

Stoltenberg was also full of other “good news” regarding Greece and Turkey: both countries had agreed to cancel military exercises scheduled on October 28 and 29, which are each other’s national holidays. This is indeed evidently a further sign of de-escalation between the two NATO allies.

As Turkey picks up the pieces with Greece — or at least, enters a détente period with the country — another clash of wills is heating up. And in my view, it was and is going to be a more serious clash. I am referring to the troubles with France.

France recalled its ambassador to Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired harsh statements one after the other at France’s President Emmanuel Macron, to the extent of questioning Macron’s mental health. 

Erdoğan is clearly picking a fight with Macron because he intends to add fuel to the fire. For him, this fight is for real, unlike the tensions with Greece. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict was a dispute to be played with, to be escalated and de-escalated as a bargaining chip with Greece itself, Germany and the European Union in general. But the tension with France is genuine because it is ideological, and there is also an element of strategy going on as well.

Here is how: President Erdoğan has been emphasizing that a “new world order” is in the making since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. He recently made yet another speech in a similar direction after the Presidential cabinet meeting on October 20. He said:

“All the global and regional balances are rapidly collapsing to leave their places to new ones. Turkey, with its strong political and economic structure, is the rising star of the new global and regional quests. Every intelligent and conscientious person accepts that our country, despite some difficulties it is having, is positively distinguishing itself amid crises.”

In the same speech, he also drew attention to the open conflicts Turkey is directly involved with: “Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean” (as he cited them). And by the way, France and Turkey are on opposite sides in all of these conflicts — and in some, they are on opposite sides that are actively clashing.

Turkey’s involvement in these conflicts is legitimized through an ideology that is different from the “Neo-Ottomanism” of the Ahmet Davutoğlu times. There are elements of Turkish history from time immemorial, but the “Islam brotherhood” is the strongest backbone of this ideology. The “anti-imperialist” and “anti-Western” lines of thought are the other pedestals on which the current foreign policy ideology of Turkey rests. 

In any case, France and President Macron are ideal to be pursued in this vein because they can be cast as the “anti-Islamist archenemy.” President Erdoğan wants to catch the “one minute” vibe of 2009: it has been almost 11 years since Erdoğan walked out of the Davos session he was participating in with then-Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres and columnist David Ignatius as the moderator. Erdoğan became hugely popular across the Middle East and in Muslim communities across the globe after that incident. That’s when he started his ascendancy as a “strong man” both at home and abroad.

Now, except for Qatar, Turkey does not have any allies in the Middle East, and the rulers of the region are either openly hostile or simply unfriendly. The ruling elite aside, does Erdoğan have leverage over Middle East populations as the de facto “leader of Muslim world”? As is known, there is an ongoing campaign to boycott Turkish products in Saudi Arabia. The boycott was said to have been triggered by the following statement by Erdoğan on the Gulf countries:

“These countries did not exist yesterday and perhaps they will cease existing in the near future, but God Almighty will continue raising our flag in this region forever.”

Turkey’s mainstream and pro-government media alleges that the Saudi campaign has been unsuccessful, while some Middle Eastern channels contend the opposite, arguing that the campaign is spreading around the Arab world. 

Regardless of its success or failure, there were ironic twists and turns regarding the boycott: the Saudi food chain Herfy changed the name of its brand’s “Turkish burger” to the “Greek burger.” As the saying goes in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my best friend. 

Erdoğan obviously wants his reputation to rise within Muslim communities by taking on Macron, but the story is not just about recasting the “old spell” abroad. Some polls in Turkey place Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) at around 25-29%, which is the lowest point of the movement since its foundation almost 20 years ago. More than re-energizing the AK Party at the polls, Erdoğan may be opting to try to recreate the legend around him. 

Macron’s recent statement about “Islam being in crisis all over the world” and moving towards strengthening secularism in France to combat “Islamic separatism” was attacked by Ankara. When it came to the gruesome murder of the history teacher Samuel Paty, this time Macron’s statements on freedom of expression and Charlie Hebdo-type caricatures drew even deeper criticism from Erdoğan. Even by his tough standards, saying that Macron requires “mental treatment” was harsh. 

Back in 2015, Davutoğlu was racing to be at the forefront of the march to commemorate Charlie Hebdo’s victims. I am making this point to draw attention to the fact that the contemporary ideological stance in Turkey is quite different from “neo-Ottomanism.” First and foremost, the way the “West” is being conceptualized and addressed has taken a complete one-eighty.

I mentioned that “there is an element of strategy” in Erdoğan’s demonization of France; that part concerns Germany. By casting Macron as the enemy, and provoking negative reactions from him, Ankara aims to corner Germany and create an inner crack within the European Union. Berlin may have to sink deeper and deeper into its good cop role in order to balance out France — a role that already increasingly annoys those in EU and European circles. 

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