The escalation of French-Turkish differences in the Mediterranean: the intersection of strategic interests and the intertwining of geopolitical issues

Prepared by: Amira Ahmed Harzli, a researcher specializing in Mediterranean studies – Faculty of Law and Political Science – Annaba / Algeria

  • Arab Democratic Center


The French-Turkish tension has clearly escalated recently, which is evidenced by the mutual accusations of each other as a result of their conflicting interests in Libya. The Atlantic security operation at the beginning of this month to ensure European security by simulating various military threats revealed the size of the Franco-Ottoman dispute, as it was soon announced France stopped its participation in it in protest against what Emmanuel Macron called the “criminal role” of Turkey in Libya. On the other hand, Turkey accused France of playing a “dangerous game” in Libya for its support of the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

France’s withdrawal from the Atlantic security operation in the Mediterranean does not seem to be a temporary or transient step, and France is not the only one that is annoyed by Turkey. The European Union in general is wary of Turkey’s unilateral role in the Mediterranean region, based on Turkey’s attack on Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which are working with the international coalition in Confronting ISIS, through Turkey’s exploration for gas in an economic zone of Cyprus, which Europe considers illegal, to Turkey’s conversion of a church (museum), meaning Sophia, into a mosque that annoyed European leaders. The Libyan issue comes to the fore in European (French) disputes. Turkey through Turkey’s violation of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations in Libya and its support for the Government of National Accord.

Analysts believe that the current and current escalation and tension between the two parties excludes options for understanding, and if they exist, they will take longer, so that they must find common ground to negotiate several issues related to each other and avoid going towards dangerous, unexpected scenarios, especially in the files of immigration and asylum, Terrorism and security.

Accordingly, the article in our hands discusses the following problem:

How can France and its successor the European Union reduce tension with Turkey to ensure regional cooperation to solve the Mediterranean crises in light of the intersection of strategic interests and the intertwining of geopolitical issues?

  1. The NATO operation “Guard Sea” in the Mediterranean and the withdrawal of France from it

The Mediterranean region is known to be a region of crises and conflicts that have been going on for decades, with the political transformations that took place 10 years ago, the region has become the most international region that witnesses severe military conflicts, at the forefront of which are Syria and Libya, and from it NATO as a European American military power, it pays great attention to the Libyan situation More than Syria, due to considerations of geographical proximity and the challenges and dangers it poses, and for pragmatic political considerations, a military intervention led by France in 2011 to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

NATO’s move in Libya is not limited to the political dimension in support of one political party over another, but rather to military security arrangements for its forces and units in the Mediterranean. The Alliance has conducted many exercises to simulate security threats and the overall risks coming from conflict areas, the last of which was Operation Sea Gardian.  The seaguard operation is a maritime security mission and joint exercises for NATO countries in the Mediterranean region, targeting the maritime security of a country, which was extended in 2016, and its goal is according to the definition of the alliance:

  • Awareness of marine attitudes,
  • Deterrence and counterterrorism,
  • Strengthening NATO’s military capabilities,
  • Control of weapons smuggled into Libya.

In an incident that reflects the extent of tension in Libya, France announced the suspension of its participation after its ship was exposed to three flashes of radar radiation from a Turkish ship off the Libyan coast, and in the details of the incident that are still subject to debate, sources say that the French frigate “Corby” was inspecting a cargo ship flying the Tanzanian flag called “Sirkin” to ensure that it did not carry smuggled weapons to Libya, but the Turkish ship’s radars attacked the French frigate and other sources say that the aforementioned French frigate tried to approach a Turkish civilian ship suspected of being involved in smuggling weapons to Libya and the vessel was accompanied by 3 Turkish warships.

  1. Reactions: France, Turkey and NATO

In international reactions to the incident, France announced, through its defense minister, “that France is temporarily withdrawing from the maritime security operation of NATO in the Mediterranean region due to disputes with Turkey that have been going on for months due to the conflict in Libya. We decided to temporarily withdraw our units from Operation Sea Gordian, pending the correction of the mistake. ”France also considered the Turkish move a hostile act under the rules of engagement in force in the alliance.

For its part, Turkey denied all the French allegations and considered them invalid, while NATO leaders commented that the NATO operation will continue despite France’s withdrawal from it, and that the participation of countries in it is a sovereign decision, and about the incident, a NATO official commented that officials and military personnel of NATO had prepared a report and the report would be dealt with. Secret with the allies ” [1] .

  1. France and Turkey in Libya: Conflicting Interests and Clash of Strategies

The French-Turkish rivalry has reached its peak in Libya to the point of a strategic clash there. The state of lineups and alliances constitute the political and military scene in Libya, where all France and Russia, Egypt and the Emirates stand by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan army forces stationed in eastern Libya, Turkey supports the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj, based in the capital, Tripoli, Algeria is on the fence.

With the developments of the military scene in Libya and Turkey’s direct intervention in the conflict, French criticism of Turkey has arisen, accusing it of transferring many fighters from Syria to Libya, considering that Turkey’s role in this Maghreb country is a “criminal” role. Macron said, “I think it is a responsibility and a crime for a country that claims to be a member. NATO “states that Turkey is providing political and military support to its ally, the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, which is based in Tripoli, to repel attacks by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar on the capital.

On the other hand, Turkey bears responsibility for the deterioration of affairs in Libya to France when it interfered at the head of NATO to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and entered the country into chaos and a struggle for power. According to the spokesman for Hami Aksoy, “the support it has provided for years to illegal parties” and thus France is the one playing A dangerous game supported by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in the east of the country, whose forces were defeated in Tripoli following the intervention of Turkish planes and military advisers. This takes place in an atmosphere charged with mutual accusations of violating the arms embargo and ceasefire agreement in Libya that the United Nations declared at the Berlin summit earlier.

It seems that the interests of France and Turkey are different and contradictory in Libya, as each of them supports their allies to advance and achieve military victories on the ground, which later support their political negotiation options later, which further fuel the situation in Libya to more confrontation with the intervention of other parties such as Egypt, Russia and the UAE.

  1. Dimensions of the French-Turkish differences and the intertwining of geopolitical issues

In the context of the controversy between France and Turkey, it is clear that the issue of the conflict in Libya is not what strains their relationship. The conflict in Syria is also a source of tension in European-Turkish relations despite their agreement to confront the current Syrian regime and hold it responsible for the crimes committed … when Turkey directs its military forces to confront The Kurdish forces that it considers “terrorist organizations” such as the “Syrian Democratic Forces” known for short as Qasd … others stationed in northern Syria see Turkey as a security challenge on its borders that must be fought, so that several military operations took place inside the Syrian depth to confront them, on the other hand France and the Europeans see that Turkey is behaving irrationally. Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish forces that are cooperating with the US-based international coalition to confront terrorist organizations, chief among them “ISIS and Al-Nusra …” is an unacceptable matter and a distraction of efforts to eliminate terrorism in Syria according to the European vision.

Cyprus is another arena of European-Turkish political tension, but this time it is not fueling the regional conflict nor the injection of arms and fighters, but the reason is purely economic, at a time when Turkey continues with all its efforts to explore for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus and the Yavuz ship is drilling off The coasts of Cyprus since the end of last April, and in this regard, Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmaz confirmed to Anatolia that the drilling workers will not stop and Turkey will continue its drilling and geological exploration activities in the Mediterranean. This Turkish move met with strong European opposition, as it issued warnings to Turkey to continue its illegal activities because it overlaps with the economic zone of Cyprus, a member of the European bloc.

It is noteworthy that the Cypriot government and the European Union accused Turkey of violating the maritime economic zone through exploration off the divided coasts since the outbreak of the 1974 ethnic conflict, which divided the island into two parts, Turkish and Turkish Cypriots, for its part, Turkey justifies the exploration work that this takes place within its continental shelf, which Turkish Cypriots have a right to.

The differences between Cyprus and the European Union in general with Turkey over exploration work go back to 2011, and were sequenced as follows [2] :

the year The event / topic
08/18/2011 Cypriot officials say a US company will start drilling for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus in October, despite warnings from Turkey that such a move could harm the peace talks.
09/19/2011 Cyprus began to explore for gas in offshore areas.
04/26/2012 Turkey begins land drilling in the breakaway northern Cyprus region, causing tensions with Cyprus.
03/22/2017 Cypriot Energy Minister Yorgos Lakotribbis says that Cyprus proceeded with granting licenses for oil exploration after analyzing the results of the latest exploration work, and announcing the completion of the third round of awarding licenses for well drilling, in which ExxonMobil, Italy, and France’s Total, won additional offshore areas.
02/29/2018 The Turkish navy, during its maneuvers in the Mediterranean, stopped the Saipem 12000 vessel chartered by Eni while it was on its way to explore the waters of Cyprus, which sparked a diplomatic crisis.
02/23/2018 Cyprus accuses Turkey of threatening to use force against the Saipem 12000
02/21/2019 Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu begins exploring oil and gas near Cyprus in the coming days.
May 2019 Turkey sends Fatih ship pits to western Cyprus.
05/09/2018 European Union Council President Donald Tusk says, “The European Union stands by Cyprus in its dispute with Turkey over exploration operations.
06/13/2019 A Foreign Ministry official says that Cyprus has issued detention orders for the crew of the Fateh ship and its support vessels, which dock near the coast of Cyprus, due to the violation of the economic zone that it has rights to explore.
06/20/2019 Melih Khan Bilgin, General Manager of the Turkish Oil Exploration Company (TPAO), says that a second Turkish drilling vessel “Yavuz” will operate off the Karpas peninsula in north-eastern Cyprus.
07/08/2019 European Union Turkey’s plan to explore for oil and gas off Cyprus is extremely worrying and is an unacceptable escalation around Cyprus.
07/15/2019 European Union foreign ministers freeze negotiations on a comprehensive air transport agreement and agree not to hold high-level meetings with Turkey for the time being.
07/08/2019 Greece, (Israel), Cyprus and the United States of America agree to strengthen cooperation in the fields of energy and electronic security, according to Greek Energy Minister Kostis Hatzadakis after a meeting of ministers of the four countries in Athens.
09/27/2019 Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Donmez says the Yavuz has completed operations in Karpas, while the vessel Fatih continues its operations in western Cyprus.
03 / 10/2019 Turkey has sent Yavuz off the southern coast of Cyprus, where the Cypriot authorities have already granted exploration rights to Italian and French companies.
04/10/2019 Cyprus says that Turkey’s sending a drilling ship to an area where Nicosia has granted licenses for oil and gas exploration constitutes a “dangerous escalation” for what it described as Ankara’s violations of the island’s sovereign rights.
05/10/2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that there are rules for exploring energy resources in the Mediterranean, warning Turkey against carrying out “illegal” and “unacceptable” drilling activity.
10/14/2019 The foreign ministers of the European Union agree to draw up a list of economic sanctions on Turkey’s oil and gas exploration activities off Cyprus.

On the other hand, Turkey’s recent conversion of the “Hagia Sophia” Church into a mosque by decree signed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Edogan aroused the anger of the European Union, as Joseph Borrell, the European Union’s chief foreign policy official, expressed his regret for the Turkish decision. The historical record of modern Turkey and President Erdogan’s decision to place this effect under the Presidency of Religious Affairs are unfortunate. ”The Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni also criticized“ The Turkish decision to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque represents an explicit provocation to the civilized world. ”She added,“ The nationalism shown by the Turkish president His country is turning back 6 centuries. On the other hand, Turkey believes that its decision is sovereign and no one has the right to interfere in its internal affairs.

The Aya Sofya Church was converted into a mosque for the first time with the Ottomans conquering Constantinople “Istanbul” in 1453, then it became a museum in 1935 by the former President of the Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, with the aim of gifting it to humanity.

In addition to all these overlapping and intertwining geopolitical issues, a very important core issue for Turkey and the European Union, which is the issue of Turkey’s accession to the European Union, which has been stalled and stalled since the beginning of negotiations over its membership on 10/3/2005 considering several factors that affect the decision-making process in the future. The European bloc, including the high demographic mass in Turkey, reached in 2015 about 78 million people, which would turn the scales in favor of Turkey at the expense of other European countries if it was organized for the European Union, meaning that it becomes the second largest member of the Union after Germany and has the largest number and representatives in Parliament European.

The issue of the Islamic religion and Turkish civilization is also an obstacle to Turkey’s joining the European bloc because it is the only Muslim country if it is accepted, and this would escalate the phenomenon of “Islamophobia” in Europe by the extremist Yemeni parties, and there are also economic standards adopted by Europe that are not available. Turkey has in addition to labor and cheap goods and thus helps to lower wages that produce unemployment, on the other hand, since the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, the European Union has strongly criticized the human rights situation in the violation of the law against the background of the large arrests in the ranks of Military personnel, journalists and employees from various sectors are randomly assigned.

All this entrenched collective opposition to most of the European Union countries to Turkey’s accession to it, while the latter was disappointed with Europe’s handling of its membership file, indicating that it should follow constructive strategies that guarantee mutual profit.

  1. The French-Turkish Escalation To Where?

    As mentioned above, what escalates the French and European tension in general with Turkey is the difference of interests and their contradictions in managing the conflict in Libya, and in the midst of that, observers of the Libyan and Mediterranean affairs ask, what after this escalation? What are the scenarios? Are there any signs of calm between the two parties to settle a conflict that lasted 10 years in which the simple Libyan citizen was exhausted and state institutions were destroyed in it, and in it the national security of neighboring countries was threatened? More than it is, we have no intention of confronting each other.

And from it the options remain limited. The European Union countries are afraid that Turkey will use the card of immigration and refugees from Syria and Libya as pressure on it to make concessions, which is evident in many of the statements of the Turkish president in the event that Ankara opened its closed borders with Europe since the 2016 agreement, and Turkey actually opened its borders with Greece and the influx of tens Thousands to it. Germany also views the Turkish threat very seriously, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she is determined to avoid a new crisis that threatens the European bloc. Marathon meetings in European decision-making circles and repeated calls for European leaders to impose sanctions on Turkey to stop its excessive activity and unilateral policies in the region. And between the oddities and the attraction, the policies on the ground remain the same, as everyone aims to achieve their interests without regard to the international settlement efforts, nor to the human side there, nor the extent of the destruction.


The question of how to settle the conflict in Libya and stop other foreign military interventions in it and curb its repercussions on the Mediterranean countries is the first issue that has escalated the French-Turkish dispute due to the conflicting interests of the strategy in it, just as the dispute takes other economic and religious dimensions … and therefore Turkey and other countries The European Union, with their positions and interests in Libya and in the aforementioned issues, does not at least presently create a space for regional cooperation to resolve the political crises that have stumbled across the Mediterranean for years. The matter depends on the availability of a real political will that is aware of the risks of continuing killings and the flow of arms and fighters from and to Libya is pushing towards regional cooperation in facing the challenges of the illegal immigrant crisis and terrorism … and from it, those actors must be convinced of the necessity to make concessions and sit at the negotiating table to find serious solutions to the crises of the Mediterranean in a way that serves the security of all countries of the Mediterranean basin.

[1] NATO: Operation “sea guard” continues its activities despite the withdrawal of France , Anatolia , the electronic link: AA% D9% 88-% D8% B9% D9% 85% D9% 84% D9% 8A% D8% A9-% D8% AD% D8% A7% D8% B1% D8% B3-% D8% A7% D9 % 84% D8% A8% D8% AD% D8% B1-% D8% AA% D9% 88% D8% A7% D8% B5% D9% 84-% D8% A3% D9% 86% D8% B4% D8 % B7% D8% AA% D9% 87% D8% A7-% D8% B1% D8% BA% D9% 85-% D8% A7% D9% 86% D8% B3% D8% AD% D8% A7% D8 % A8-% D9% 81% D8% B1% D9% 86% D8% B3% D8% A7 / 1897122

[2] chronology: Turkey gas exploration off Cyprus raises tensions , Al Jazeera website directly , on the web link: % D8% AA% D9% 86% D9% 82% D9% 8A% D8% A8-% D8% AA% D8% B1% D9% 83% D9% 8A% D8% A7-% D8% B9% D9% 86 -% D8% A7% D9% 84% D8% BA% D8% A7% D8% B2-% D9% 82% D8% A8% D8% A7% D9% 84% D8% A9-% D9% 82% D8% A8% D8% B1% D8% B5-% D9% 8A% D8% AB% D9% 8A% D8% B1-% D8% A7% D9% 84% D8% AA% D9% 88% D8% AA% D8% B1% D8% A7% D8% AA

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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