The visit by Syrian Kurdish representatives to the French presidential palace on Thursday was watched closely by the Turkish government who were anything but happy.
A map purportedly showing French military positions in Syria published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency on its website Friday could be seen as a direct response to Thursday’s visit.
The five military bases are believed to be mostly located in the north of the country in regions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. According to Anadolu, close to 70 French soldiers may currently be operating in the northeast of Syria.
On Thursday, President Macron met representatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, at his presidential palace. The SDF are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious alliance of both Syrian Kurdish and Arabic fighters. Macron pledged his support to the SDF, stating that he hoped “dialogue would open up between the SDF and Turkey.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted angrily to the meeting, declaring he was “extremely saddened by France’s… wrong stance on this.” He also slammed France’s offer to mediate between his country and “a terrorist organisation.”
If proved true, the information about the location of the military bases could prove dangerous for French troops. Its release could represent a warning from the Turkish government to France.
FRANCE 24 chose not to republish the map released by the Turkish agency, as the information on it couldn’t be verified.
Political crisis between France and Turkey
After meeting with Macron, a representative from the Syrian Kurds in Paris declared that the French president had promised to send French troops to Manbij.
On Friday however, the Office of the French President denied this, saying that “France is not planning any new military operation in northern Syria outside of the international anti-Daech coalition.”
In June 2016, the French Minister of Defence admitted that French special forces were deployed in Syria to advise the SDF on how to better fight the Islamic State organization, especially in Manbij. However, Paris has remained tight-lipped about the number and location of its military presence in Syria.
In July 2017, Anadolu news agency published a map of what it claimed were the locations of ten American military bases in the same zone, in reaction to US arms delivery to Kurdish Syrian fighters. At the time, it claimed that there were 75 French soldiers in the zone, many of them in a base near Racca. The Pentagon refused to comment on this information.
To understand the French position, FRANCE 24 talked to Olivier Piot, journalist and author of “The Kurdish people: keystone of the Middle East”. Piot says that Macron is supporting the Kurds in Syria so that France will have long-term influence in the reconstruction of the country.
F24: Why would France support the Kurds in Syria at the risk of provoking Turkey?
Piot: France is beginning to realise, through the statements of [President Trump], that the United States is about to leave the region. This is new; until January, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson [who was fired on March 13], maintained that the fight against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State group) was not over and that Washington planned to stay in the region for several years. But recent statements from Donald Trump show that the United States is seriously considering leaving the region.
Whether the West will play a role in Syrian reconstruction therefore depends partly on France’s intentions. Emmanuel Macron understood this and decided to send a strong if not very clear signal to the Kurds in Syria that France will stand by them. It remains to be seen how France will support them. If we abandon the Kurds, we abandon any chance for an alternative to Syrian reconstruction under the sole aegis of Bashar al-Assad.
Tensions are mounting between France and Turkey. What are Macron’s options?
Emmanuel Macron is crossing a line in his relationship with Turkey. Until now, he expressed concern and warned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he had to pay attention to the stability of the region. But it’s become clear that Ankara’s goal is to capture the 900 kilometre frontier in northern Syria, all the way to the town of Qamishli, to rid the region of terrorists. The United States hasn’t responded to this move, and until now, France hasn’t taken a clear stance. Erdogan is in the habit of making strong statements with no response in kind. This is not the first time he has threatened Western leaders, but Emmanuel Macron has started to be more firm with him.
Would France go so far as to send troops to protect the Kurds in Syria ?
In supporting the Kurds, France is defending its values, the same values that will allow France to weigh in on post-war reconstruction in the region. I think that the French president is beginning to draw a red line for the Turks, warning them against entering the town of Manbij. We’re in a situation in which diplomatic posturing won’t be enough. Soon we are going to find ourselves facing military engagement. If France wants to continue to play a role in the region, it will have to make a choice.