President Emmanuel Macron of France accused the government of Turkey of working with “ISIS proxies” in its campaigns in Syria during remarks alongside President Donald Trump on Tuesday.
The remark is the latest in accusations that have mounted for years against Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his government, at best, has been too permissive with Islamic State jihadists seeking to cross into the Syrian Civil War theater and, in the worst-case scenario, has actively aided and abetted Islamic State terrorists.
Erdogan dispatched the military into Syria in October for “Operation Peace Spring,” an invasion alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of militias known to include al-Qaeda elements.
Operation Peace Spring’s goal was to eradicate the indigenous Kurdish presence of northern Syria to make room for mostly Arab Sunni refugees currently in Turkey, a plan the Kurds have repeatedly described as ethnic cleansing.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the group Turkey invaded to attack, is a coalition largely led by Syrian Kurdish forces that also includes Christians and other ethnic minorities. The SDF has close ties to the government of France.
During a press conference with Trump at the ongoing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in London, Macron took a moment to address tensions with fellow NATO member Turkey over its cooperation with radical Islamic groups in Syria.
“The common enemy today is the terrorist groups. I’m sorry to say, we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table,” Macron said of Turkey and France.
“When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fought with us. And sometimes they work with ISIS proxies,” Macron said. “We have lost cooperation with Turkey, on security and trade and migration and European Union and France.”
The SDF, which Erdogan attacked, was America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria and largely responsible for the defeat of the Islamic State in its “capital,” Raqqa. SDF intelligence was also instrumental in finding, capturing, and neutralizing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of the terrorist organization.
Macron also condemned Erdogan for insisting on purchasing an S-400 missile system from Russia, which is not interoperable with NATO standard equipment, a violation of NATO protocol.
Macron’s comments were tame compared to Erdogan’s incendiary statements in response to Macron’s remarks about NATO generally in an interview last month. Macron had told The Economist that he feared for the viability of the alliance, declaring, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.”
“I am talking to France’s President Emmanuel Macron, and I will also say this at NATO. First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” Erdogan responded in televised remarks in Turkey.
Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also accused Macron of engaging in terrorist activities in remarks last week.
“In any case, he (Macron) is sponsoring the terrorist organisation, he receives them regularly at the Elysee (presidential palace),” Cavusoglu said, referring to SDF leaders. “Let Macron not forget… Turkey is also a member of NATO. That it stands by its allies.”
The government of Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist organization and a proxy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization. The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization but cooperates with the SDF. The PKK has also fought the Islamic State in northern Iraq, helping defeat them amid the group’s genocide of Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
Macron’s comments on the “brain death” of NATO did not find support from Trump, who referred to them as “very, very nasty” and “insulting to a lot of different forces” in remarks Tuesday. In a different press conference alongside Macron, Trump also said that Turkey had been “very helpful” in finding and cornering al-Baghdadi and that Erdogan’s government was “very supportive, actually.”
Trump also appeared to pressure Macron to help American and Kurdish forces in Syria handle European nationals captured fighting for ISIS.
“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? You can take everyone you want,” Trump asked Macron, which left the French president “visibly irritated,” according to Reuters. Macron replied that Europeans fighting for ISIS were a “tiny minority of the overall problem.”
“This is why he’s a great politician, because that was one of the greatest non-answers I’ve ever heard, and that’s okay,” Trump replied.
Erdogan calling Macron “brain dead” was the latest chapter in a tumultuous relationship between the two leaders. Last year, following a meeting between Macron and SDF leaders, Erdogan threatened France with a flood of terrorists “fleeing from Syria and Iraq,” and a key deputy warned that Turkey would treat French forces like terrorists if Macron insisted on his alliance with the Kurds.
“Those who host at the highest level the members of a terrorist organisation, which has been freely carrying out its activities in their countries, should be aware that this is nothing but an expression of hostility against Turkey,” Erdogan said. “Those who get into bed with terrorists and even welcome them at their palaces will sooner or later see the mistake they have made. We hope they will not dare to seek our help when France is filled with terrorists fleeing from Syria and Iraq after being encouraged by French policies.”
“Those who enter into cooperation and solidarity with terror groups against Turkey … will, like the terrorists, become a target of Turkey. We hope France does not take such an irrational step,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.