Will the anticipated meeting between French President Emanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO Summit proceed according to plan after the insult Erdogan delivered to his French counterpart on the eve of the celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary?
A statement released by Macron’s office on 28 November, the day before the Erdogan insult, said that “there will be plenty to talk about, including about the money Erdogan needs for an increasingly expensive Syria policy.” That same day, Macron said that Turkey could not expect solidarity from its allies over a military campaign it had launched as a “fait accompli.”
In return, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that France had sought to build a “terrorist state” in Syria through its support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The following day, Erdogan struck with his extraordinary insult. Citing Macron’s remarks regarding NATO’s “impending brain death,” the 65-year-old Turkish president called the 41-year-old French president “inexperienced” and told him to “have his own brain death examined.”
However, despite these extraordinary observations, observers nevertheless believed that the two men would meet. The former because he is consummately pragmatic, and, as Macron noted, he needs NATO’s money. The latter because of the need to put France’s strategic interests first regardless of Erdogan’s insults to Macron and to France.
Edward G Stafford, a former US foreign service officer, predicted that Erdogan would find support from the US. US President Donald “Trump is likely to continue protecting Erdogan from his critics. At next week’s summit, this will likely translate into a focus on restraining any public attacks on Erdogan’s foreign policy initiatives while allowing for frank and direct conversations in private,” he said in the newspaper Ahval on 29 November.
“Regardless of many actions contrary to NATO interests undertaken by Erdogan over the last year, we can expect him to return from Britain touting his ability to have the other members of the alliance treat him, and by extension Turkey, with respect,” Stafford continued.
“Certainly, the Turkish press, which is thoroughly under government domination, will proclaim that Erdogan bested his fellow heads of state and ensured full respect for Turkey’s freedom of action in its relations with Russia, Syria, Iran and other rivals of NATO.”
Other observers did not foresee such a comfortable outcome for Erdogan, regardless of how he wielded the “refugee card” and the threat to release waves of refugees into Europe in order to get his way.
France cannot merely shrug off “unacceptable” insults “that have no place in Turkish-French relations,” as one French official put it. And anger has been building up in Europe as a whole against Erdogan’s policies, not just in Syria, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkish drilling activities have sparked rising tensions in the area.
Erdogan also seems determined to ratchet up the tensions further by adding fuel to the Libyan fire after concluding a controversial maritime border agreement with Tripoli.
Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey would not withdraw its gas-exploration vessels from the Eastern Mediterranean. But it is unlikely that the EU and NATO (including the White House) can remain silent on Turkey’s persistent violations of Cyprus’s maritime economic zone.
There is also the problem of the delivery of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey, one of the causes of potential US sanctions against the country. Previously, Ankara had warded off the implementation of these with the suggestion that even though it had taken delivery of the missiles despite Washington’s warnings, it might not activate them.
Last week, however, Turkey began testing the S-400s using US-made F-16 and F-4 Phantom fighters for the purpose. Defending such actions, Cavusoglu said his government had not bought a $4 billion product from Russia simply “as a prop.”
He added that Turkey would purchase even more missiles from Russia because of its NATO allies’ refusal to equip the country with similar missile systems. Dmitry Shugayev, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), said that the S-400 “system will be placed on combat duty by the spring”.
Negotiations are nearing an end over the purchase of another shipment of S-400 missiles to Turkey, according to head of Russian arms-exporter Rosoboronexport Alexander Mikheev. According to Turkish officials, negotiations are also quite advanced on a potential deal for Russian made Su-35 fighter jets, which Ankara has set its sights on after being kicked off the Pentagon’s F-35 programme against the backdrop of the Turkish-Russian S-400 deal.
In general, Europe and the US are wary of the increasingly cosy relationship between Ankara and Moscow. They are biding their time to drive the point home to the Turkish strongman, who will return from the celebrations of NATO’s 70th anniversary with promises of money, of the ill will that he has sown.
“Meanwhile,” as Stafford observed, “the fighting will continue in Syria, the refugees will remain in their camps, the [Turkish] economy will remain fragile, domestic human rights will be constrained, and thousands who have been unjustly jailed will continue to languish in Turkish prisons.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.