Macron’s hostility towards Erdogan: NATO allies at odds in Libya

  • + France and Turkey support opposing factions in Libya.
  • + The conflict reveals a deep divide within NATO.
  • + Both powers may agree to a political solution to the Libyan civil war.
Source: Le Parisien/AFP/Ludovic Marin

Why is Macron hostile towards Erdogan?

Answer: France has condemned Turkey’s intervention in Libya.

Unrest in the Mediterranean! Macron and Erdogan have come head to head over their involvement in the Libyan Civil War. Since the fall and death of Mouammar Ghadaffi in 2011, Libya has been torn by warring warlords. Two main protagonists have emerged from this conflict: the internationally recognized GNA (Government of National Accord), and its rival the LNA (Libyan National Army) led by strongman Khalifa Haftar. Supported by the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia and France, Haftar launched an offensive on the GNA’s Tripoli in 2019, hoping for a swift end to the conflict. However, the LNA’s offensive became bogged down, and the Battle for Tripoli developed into a stalemate. 

Calling upon the international community for help, the GNA was able to form an alliance with Turkey’s Erdogan, who sent materials, troops and Syrian mercenaries to Tripoli in February 2020. By June 2020, this GNA-Turkish alliance had pushed Haftar’s forces back to Sirte (in the middle of the country) and threatened to overrun LNA positions on the front. As Macron saw Haftar beginning to falter militarily, the French president stepped up his criticism of Turkey’s direct involvement in the Libyan conflict. The French president notably claimed, “I think it is a historic and criminal responsibility for a country which claims to be a NATO member.”

French-Turkish tensions reached an all-time high on June 10th, when a Turkish vessel threatened a French frigate with a missile strike. Macron has lambasted Erdogan’s action in Libya, accusing the Turkish president of prolonging the conflict, blocking a political solution and intervening illegally in a foreign conflict. Macron has also condemned the Turkish navy’s aggressive maneuvers towards French vessels, which violate NATO’s terms of engagement. NATO announced it would open an investigation on the incident, while France has quit NATO naval patrol mission. However, Erdogan has responded by pointing out that Turkey has intervened in favour of an internationally recognized government which directly requested Turkish aid. As such, by supporting an illegitimate ruler in Libya, France is in the wrong and directly extending the civil war. 

The string of alliances in the Libyan conflict will define the balance of power in the Mediterranean for the years to come. France has allied with Russia and the UAE in support of Haftar, directly opposing NATO ally, Turkey. It seems Macron has only now begun to fully grasp Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, from Syria to Libya. Erdogan’s maneuvering to expand Turkey’s sphere of influence puts him directly at odds with Macron, who seeks to maintain France’s power base in North Africa. Hence, hostility between the two leaders is set to keep increasing if a political solution suitable to both parties cannot be found in Libya. 

What does Macron want?

Answer: Stop Erdogan from gaining a complete foothold in Libya.

Macron supports Haftar because he wants a strong ruler in Libya, capable of providing stability, security, a secular government and combating extremist Islamic groups. This guiding philosophy in the Libyan conflict is linked to the UAE’s Gulfication strategy, which has made both countries strong allies in Libya. However, Erdogan’s success in Libya does not bode well for French interests in North Africa. Indeed, Turkey gaining a foothold in Libya would weaken France’s power in the Mediterranean, while putting a potentially hostile foreign power on France’s southern border.

Furthermore, the clash between both leaders has now turned personal, as Erdogan told Macron “Only a braindead person would make these types of declarations” (alluding to Macron’s braindead comments on NATO, and French accusations of the Turkish naval incident). The French president is eager to respond to Erdogan on the field, by isolating him in NATO curtailing his international influence and thwarting Turkey’s plans in Libya. Macron is keen to preserve France’s geopolitical strength in the region and repel Erdogan’s expansionism. 

However, because France and Turkey are NATO allies, Macron’s options to push back against Turkish interventionism is limited. Furthermore, France is officially neutral in the conflict and recognizes the GNA as legitimate, but covertly supports Haftar. This double game is dangerous, as it discredits France’s action on the international stage, and therefore Macron’s diplomatic influence. Macron has attempted to keep France’s support of Haftar under the radar, but the recent clashes with Turkey have made it clear who France truly supports. Unable to enter direct conflict with Turkey and operating within NATO rules, Macron’s course of action is limited. 

To gain the upper hand on the international stage, within NATO and with public opinion, Macron has chosen to publicly engage Erdogan over Turkey’s involvement in Libya. The French president’s decision to put forward a formal accusation that the French frigate was threatened by the Turkish navy reveals his intention to patriotically unite the French population in support of the Libyan campaign while isolating Turkey in NATO.

Behind closed doors, Macron has stepped up his diplomatic efforts with partners Russia, the UAE and Egypt to guarantee Haftar will keep his territory in Eastern Libya, and attempt to find a political solution to the conflict. With Putin, al-Sisi and bin-Zayed, Macron has defined the red line of the Turkish advance at Sirte, which would essentially split Libya in two between the GNA and LNA. As the pro-Haftar alliance has massively been reinforcing the LNA’s defensive lines at Sirte, Macron hopes to negotiate a power-sharing agreement between Haftar and the GNA’s al-Sarraj, a solution which could satisfy all parties involved. 

What does Erdogan want? 

Answer: Expand Turkey’s sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Having consolidated his power in Turkey following the failed 2016 coup, Erdogan has led an increasingly interventionist foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. He stepped up Turkey’s campaign against Kurdish secessionists, intervened in Idlib (Syria) against al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA), shelled Kurdish positions in northern Iraq and intervened in favour of the GNA in Libya. As such, the Turkish president has led a resurgence of Turkish influence in the Mediterranean, which has been referred to neo-Ottoman, hailing the once mighty Ottoman Empire. Strengthened by Turkish public opinion united around the Turkish military interventions, Erdogan has free reign in conducting Turkey’s foreign policy. In Libya, he hopes to further expand Turkey’s influence not only in the Mediterranean but also on a global stage by confronting France, the UAE and Egypt. 

Erdogan has chosen to intervene in favour of the GNA because as their only lifeline against Haftar, Turkey now has extensive influence over the GNA’s territories in Libya. This allows Erdogan to exploit Libya’s oil and gas reserves while drilling hydrocarbons of the Libyan coast. Furthermore, Erdogan is able to set up military bases in Libya, project Turkey’s military power in the Middle East. Thus, Erdogan positions himself as a military and diplomatic strongman in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Arab world. Domestically, Turkish military successes strengthen Erdogan’s rule and his popularity with public opinion, developing the Turkish president’s myth of a neo-ottoman empire. Turkey’s foothold in Libya allows Erdogan to challenge France’s interests in North Africa, but also enter the Arabic sphere, thus posing a threat to Egypt and the UAE.

The coming confrontation between Turkey and France, Russia, the UAE, Egypt at Sirte will test the Turkish president’s interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, Erdogan’s clash of words with Macron has only put both countries’ action in Libya under the spotlight, but Erdogan is confident he will emerge the victor of this diplomatic friction.

First, Erdogan assesses that Turkish public opinion is more united behind him than French opinion is behind Macron. Second, Erdogan considers that he is in the right to intervene in favour of the internationally recognized GNA, and thus that he should have the support of the international community. This push for international support seeks to isolate Macron on the global stage, and position Turkey as the key diplomatic power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lastly, the Turkish president believes he has the advantage on the battlefield thanks to the strategic initiatives taken by the Turkish military and the success of the GNA advance in recent months.

It’s also important to remember that Erdogan and the Turkish people still feel a great deal of bitterness towards the EU, which never accepted to integrate Turkey into the Union (even though Turkey had conducted many reforms to be eligible). Therefore, Erdogan’s will to develop the Turkish sphere of influence in the EU’s backyard also stems from historical tensions. 

However, Macron has put Erdogan in a difficult position in NATO, perhaps forcing member states to choose sides, which would likely benefit France. Furthermore, the red line drawn at Sirte by the pro-Haftar alliance has been backed with Egyptian threats of intervention, while Russia has sent up to 3000 Wagner Group mercenaries and the UAE has sent thousands of mercenaries from Sudan. Thus, Erdogan is unwilling to engage in an all out war with Egypt and is cautious of a prolonged asymmetric conflict around Sirte, which would damage his claims of being a key negotiator in ending the Libyan civil war. As it currently stands, Erdogan is likely to settle on a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which would allow him to retain Turkey’s foothold in North Africa, expand Turkey’s sphere of influence in the Mediterranean and exploit Libya’s natural resources. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Turkey seems to have the upper hand, but a political solution is at hand.

As it stands, Erdogan has completed his objectives of expanding Turkey’s sphere of influence in the Mediterranean. His clashes with Macron have not weakened his power but threatened to divide NATO and the international community over the Libyan issue, a front where he may not emerge victoriously. On the other side, Macron’s support of the renegade Haftar has been questioned by the international community, but he has stood firm and argued for a political solution to the conflict. The French president’s political maneuvering on the international stage has put Turkey under the limelight, while his pro-Haftar alliance (with Russia, the UAE, Egypt) seems to have halted the Turkish advance. Nonetheless, Macron’s limited success is really damage management, as Turkey’s foothold in Libya is detrimental to French interests. 

For you, this conflict reveals 3 things: 

  1. The reshuffling of international alliances and the decay of NATO.
  2. A resurgence of Turkish diplomatic and military power, referred to as “neo-Ottoman”. 
  3. A political solution is likely at hand in Libya, will end either with:
    • + A power-sharing agreement between Haftar and al-Sarraj. 
    • + Splitting Libya in two, potentially creating new states.