Tensions between Turkey and France over French support for the Syrian Kurds turned profoundly ugly on Friday, as Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened France with terrorist warfare as a consequence of its actions.
French President Emmanuel Macron met with representatives of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Thursday. Macron, criticized in France for not doing enough to support the Kurds against Turkey’s incursion into Syria, offered to mediate the Turkey-Kurdish dispute and even dispatch French troops to stabilize the region.
Macron’s office said he “paid tribute to the sacrifices and the determining role of the SDF in the fight against Daesh” and assured the SDF that France would support “stabilization of the security zone in the north-east of Syria, within the framework of an inclusive and balanced governance.”
“Daesh” is another name for the Islamic State (ISIS), which the Kurds fought valiantly against on the front lines of both Syria and Iraq. Unfortunately, Turkey views Kurdish militia forces in Syria as an extension of the violent PKK separatist group in Turkey and has invaded northeastern Syria to drive out the Kurds.
Some of the SDF officials who met with Macron are members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) militia, the very same organization Turkey sees as a wing of the PKK. France and the United States are among the Western nations that supported the YPG against ISIS. YPG members make up a large chunk of the fighters in the SDF.
As if Macron’s expression of support was not already enough to enrage Turkey, Kurdish representative Khaled Eissa bluntly stated after the meeting that Macron was ready to send in French commandos to fight the Turks.
“There will be reinforcements to help secure from attacks by Islamic State and stop a foreign aggression. It’s message that this irresponsible action from the Islamists in Ankara stops,” said Eissa.
This was a bit further than the Macron government was willing to go in its own public statements, but the French president’s office did refute Turkey’s claims that the Kurds of the SDF are in league with the PKK, and spoke of Macron’s eagerness to help open a dialogue between Turks and Syrian Kurds.
According to Kurdistan24 news, Macron told the delegation from Syrian Kurdistan that French troops will be deployed “very quickly” to bring stability to the region and ensure the Islamic State is down for the count. Even the least excitable Kurdish observers find themselves wondering how French special forces could sit idly and watch Turkey attack Kurdish positions.
Macron has expressed concern over Turkey’s operation in Syria and called for “full access to humanitarian aid to civilian populations” in Afrin.
Turkey’s response to Macron’s meeting with the Syrian Kurdistan group rapidly escalated to white-hot rage and threats of violence, warning both French and American forces that they could be caught in the crossfire if they interfere with Turkish operations in the region.
“Turkey will not hesitate to use initiative if terrorists in Manbij are not driven away,” read a statement published on Erdogan’s website on Wednesday.
Manbij is the next city in Syria that Turkish forces are likely to hit if they continue pushing Kurds back from the Syria-Turkey border. Unlike the areas the Turks have attacked thus far, American troops are stationed in Manbij. The U.S. government is currently sending very carefully calibrated signals to Turkey that U.S. forces in Manbij are not looking for a fight, but they are not leaving, either.
Pessimistic analysts alternatively wonder if the Trump administration is signaling that it will pull out of Manbij, perhaps in exchange for Turkish assurances that they will avoid engaging anyone but the Kurdish militia groups they consider the gravest threat. Such speculation was fueled by President Donald Trump somewhat surprisingly declaring on Thursday that American forces will be “coming out of Syria like very soon.”
Two members of the U.S. military coalition in Manbij were killed by a roadside bomb on Friday. The Associated Press notes that some local officials blame the Turks for stirring up trouble in the town as the prelude to an invasion.
The relationship between America and Turkey in Syria is complex and nuanced, but the relationship between Turkey and France is becoming simple and ugly.
“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 on Friday.
“We have no need for mediation,” President Erdogan said in a Friday speech in Ankara. “We are extremely saddened by France’s wrong stance on this.”
“Since when has Turkey been sitting down at the table with terror organisations?” Erdogan snorted, referring to the Syrian Kurds. “You can sit down at the table with terror organisations but Turkey will continue its fight against terror.”
“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 of Macron’s meeting with SDF representatives.
The Turkish president added a threat of terrorist violence against France:
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.
Erdogan justified his tough talk against France by implying that Macron has taken leave of his senses.
“I’d like to express my incredible sadness over France’s behavior. I spoke with Macron in recent days and realized he says some very strange things. When he kept speaking so strangely—even though it may have been at a high frequency – I had to say something because it’s not anyone’s place to describe our military forces in an unacceptable fashion,” Erdogan explained.
At a meeting of his AKP Party on Friday, Erdogan insisted Turkey will continue military operations against Kurdish “militants” in Syria, adding that he might consider sending troops into the Sinjar province of Iraq “all of a sudden” to “deal with the terrorists there.” The Iraqi government is stepping up efforts to neutralize PKK units in Sinjar and says it has been given assurances that Turkey will not act in the region without Baghdad’s permission.
Further enraging the Turks, bona fide militants from the PKK attacked a military base in southeastern Turkey and killed six soldiers on Thursday or Friday; the timeline of the attack is presently unclear.