Mare Nostrum: France and Turkey's Battle for the Mediterranean

 /  Oct. 29, 2020, 7:43 p.m.

Tayyip Erdogan, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Vladmir Putin
(From left to right): Russian President Vladmir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Summit for Syria.

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh rages, with several hundred casualties after barely a month of fighting. Even if a ceasefire is negotiated, there is little chance it will end the longstanding rivalry between the two nations. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been eight conflicts between the states that have caused casualties on both sides. However, as France and Turkey increase their involvement in the area, there is reason to believe this conflict is more than history repeating itself. When viewed alongside other conflicts in the region, it becomes apparent that there is a new power rivalry brewing between these two states. 

Although Turkey has consistently voiced support for Azerbaijan, this year’s conflict is the first time Turkey has provided the nation with direct military assistance. Armenia has also alleged that a Turkish private military contractor is hiring soldiers in Turkish-occupied northern Syria to fight for the Azerbaijani cause. Meanwhile, French President Emmanual Macron explicitly blamed Azerbaijan for the fighting, declaring, “I have noticed the political statements made by Turkey [in support of Azerbaijan], which I find to be inconsiderate and risky.” As the Nagorno-Karabakh War is a localized conflict, these incidents signal a push by France and Turkey for greater foreign influence, and are thus symptomatic of an emerging rivalry between the two nations. In the century since the fall of the Ottoman Empire,Turkey has been a relatively isolationist and secular nation. However, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has become increasingly Islamic, as seen in Erdoğan's decision to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque, and anxious to punch its way out of Anatolia. As Turkey emerges from its century of isolation, and as the United States increasingly withdraws from Middle Eastern affairs, France and Turkey find themselves at odds as they battle for control and influence throughout the Mediterranean. 

A Proxy Rivalry

The fault lines of the Franco-Turkish rivalry can be traced by ongoing proxy wars. Turkey’s incursion into Syria represented its most notable leap onto the world stage. That process began in 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield, which established a zone of Turkish occupation in northern Syria. Although the stated intent of this maneuver was to attack ISIS, Turkish-backed militias also attacked Kurdish forces, an ethnic group that has been in an on-and-off conflict with the Ankara government since 1978 and had allied with Western forces to fight ISIS in the area. Turkey also encouraged President Donald Trump’s dramatic decision to withdraw American troops in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in October 2019. Erdoğan told the White House that he would be moving Turkish forces to Syria on October 9 and that Washington should withdraw its troops to avoid clashes. When the United States withdrew, Kurdish forces were forced to enter a coalition with the Syrian state and Russia to avoid complete annihilation. While many Western US allies denounced Trump’s decisive maneuver, the response from Macron was particularly critical.

On October 9, Macron met with a spokesperson from the Kurdish forces and said he was “very worried” about the prospect of a Turkish invasion of Syria. Later, in December 2019 at a NATO summit in London, Macron said to Trump and a group of reporters, “When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fight with us, who fought with us, shoulder to shoulder, against ISIS. And sometimes they work with ISIS proxies.” Although France recalled its forces from Syria when the United States did because the United States had managed the operation, France openly opposed growing Turkish influence. As the United States withdraws from its traditional role of leading Western military efforts in the Middle East, these comments show Macron attempting to fill the resulting leadership vacuum.

Unlike in Syria, where French forces deferred to American leadership, Paris has quietly been executing its own policy in Libya since 2015. Wanting to establish control over the large, ungoverned areas of Libya during its ongoing civil war, France backed the authoritarian government based in the city of Tobruk. In November 2019, Turkey made a deal with the rival Tripoli-based government; in exchange for military support, Tripoli would recognize a new maritime border between Turkey and Libya. Recognition of these claims would give Erdoğan access to potential oil reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and support in border disputes with Greece and Cyprus. France denounced this deal as illegal. 

The rivalry is visible even outside the battlefield. In the wake of this summer’s tragic explosion in Beirut, Macron personally visited on the 100-year anniversary of France carving out the colony of Lebanon from Syria. During his visit he emphasized the need for ending the legacy of corruption in the country. Additionally, France led an international effort that pledged 253 million euros in reconstruction aid to Lebanon. Erdoğan has been keen to deploy soft-power as well. He has developed business ties in Iraq, and now the two countries trade billions of dollars of goods every year. Throughout the Muslim world, Erdoğan has high net favorability ratings. Through investing in nations that have been wrecked by conflict, France and Turkey are able to portray themselves as peaceful partners rather than just another invading force. Further, building a popular public profile and image is integral in gaining long-term influence. 

Another important actor in this conflict is Russia. In the Caucuses, Syria, and Libya, Russian and Turkish soldiers are all but firing at each other. Relatively speaking, France has barely dipped its toes in the water. Although a Russo-Frankish alliance could largely check Erdoğan’s geopolitical ambitions, Moscow would likely demand increased influence in Eastern Europe, and if Paris wants the continued existence of the European Union, this is not an option. So while Paris and Moscow may coordinate air-strikes, a formal alliance is likely out of the question. 

Competing Visions For World Influence

Although the roots of this conflict are geopolitical, both players are eager to portray it as a clash of civilizations. France has portrayed itself as a leader on the values of secularism and democracy, while Turkey positions itself as a counterweight to Western imperialist powers. On October 9, 2020, Macron gave a speech proclaiming the need for French Muslims to change their practice of Islam to become compatible with French secularism. Most notably, he promised to introduce a law in December which will strengthen France’s secularism against “Islamist separatism.” 

Shortly after this speech, Erdoğan denounced Marcon’s speech, saying, "We expect him to act as a responsible statesman rather than act like a colonial governor." This anti-colonial rhetoric was also featured in Erdoğan’s earlier speech on September 1, where he declared, “The era of those who for centuries have left no region unexploited from Africa to South America, no community unmassacred and no human being unoppressed, is coming to an end.” As French influence expands in the region, Erdoğan will likely frame France’s maneuvers and pronouncements as imperialist and paternalistic. This rhetoric undoubtedly aims to fuel resentment in Middle Eastern and African nations where the legacy of French colonialism is strong. 

Countering this narrative, Paris hopes to present itself to regional governments as a partner for modernization and rooting out Islamism. Although secularism will be the cornerstone of French policy, this should not be mistaken for the promotion of democracy. Despite Paris’ stated preference to work with democratic allies, it will not hesitate to support authoritarians who can effectively clamp down on their ideological enemies. For example, as a part of the nation’s extensive counter-terrorist operations in Africa’s Sahel region, France has collaborated extensively with President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, who in 2016 won reelection with a suspicious 92.5 percent of the vote and his main opponent in custody.

Origins of the Rivalry

France’s anxiety as the United States withdraws from its global leadership role helps explain why this rivalry is developing now. The US military presence has defined conflict in the Middle East since 2001. Trump has led highly publicized withdrawals of troops, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has committed to pulling American troops out of the Middle East and Afghanistan and ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. No matter who sleeps in the White House on January 20, 2021, the United States is shrinking its role in the Middle East.

To France, this military reduction is unacceptable. Memories of high-profile ISIS organized terrorist attacks, most notably the 2015 Paris shootings and 2016 Nice attack, have made France eager to maintain a strong military presence in the Middle East. And, as Macron stated in 2019’s NATO summit, France suspects that many Turkish-backed fighters in Syria are former members of ISIS. So with the American withdrawal, France may start paving its own path in the region. 

Without a strong American presence in the Middle East, France is the only Western European nation with the means and motive to assert itself against a rising Turkey. Unlike other powers like the United Kingdom and Germany, France has maintained a relatively more independent foreign policy and experienced military through continuous intervention policy in the Sahel. Other nations in the region are likely to pivot to Turkey or France’s side to gain influence. Although Turkey has already secured Azerbaijan, Greece will likely be eager to align with France against Turkey due to disputes in the Aegean Sea and on Cyprus.

Over the next decade, French and Turkish special forces will operate more and more in North Africa and the Middle East. Although these developments might seem to come out of nowhere, this conflict is the convergence of longstanding historical trends. France has pursued control of North Africa since Napoleon invaded Egypt and administered Algeria as an integral part of France from 1848-1962 and turned Tunisia and Morocco into colonial protectorates. Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks have coveted Anatolia and used it as a springboard to assert their dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey itself is the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, which dominated North Africa, the Arabian Penualia, and the Balkans for centuries.

Ironically, during that same period, France and Turkey were intermittent allies for almost two and a half centuries. The difference now is that instead of aligning to ensure mutual success in Europe, these two powers are preparing for conflict due to overlapping ambitions in North Africa and the Middle East. Hopefully, this burgeoning rivalry will be defined by competitive foreign aid and business investment programs focused on building up nations, as seen in Lebanon and Iraq, rather than tearing nations down as seen in Libya and Syria. As this conflict develops, the following years will reveal how high-level strategic rivalries have major ramifications for the people on the ground. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. No changes were made to the original image, which comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and can be found at

Ronan O'Callaghan


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