A week in Turkish international relations: Ankara takes on the West in various spats

Turkey found itself in the middle of numerous rows with its European and U.S. allies last week, from prolonged issues such as gas and oil claims in the eastern Mediterranean to much newer ones like an online TRT World video discussing French colonialism in Africa.

The week’s disputes began with Turkey's Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun sharply criticising former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton for the “misleading, one-sided and manipulative” depictions in his new book – officially released on Tuesday – of conversations between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In his new memoir “The Room Where It Happened”, Bolton had written that Erdoğan gave Trump a memo saying Turkish state lender Halkbank, under investigation by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for violating Iranian sanctions, was innocent.

“Trump then told Erdoğan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton wrote, making a reference to U.S. officials appointed by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Altun, one of Erdoğan’s top advisors, came to the Turkish head of state’s defence.

“We find it reprehensible that former high-level officials attempt to use serious diplomatic conversations and efforts to resolve outstanding issues between allies like the U.S. and Turkey for their domestic political agendas,” Altun said, alluding to Bolton, in one of a series of tweets posted on Wednesday.

Although Trump and Erdoğan were reported to have amicable relations recently, U.S.-Turkish relations have soured over various subjects, such as Turkey’s arrest of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson in 2016, Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defence system and both nations’ involvement in war-torn Syria.

Ankara’s pushbacks did not end there. A day after Altun’s statements, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called on Turkey to halt “illegal drilling” in the Eastern Mediterranean and called for Ankara.

“Turkish illegal drillings must stop,” the EU’s top diplomat tweeted on Thursday after his meeting with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides during a two-day visit to Nicosia.

“Delimitation of exclusive economic zones contested by Turkey must be done in full respect of international law and in good faith, as proposed by Cyprus.”

Borrell’s visit came during an ongoing spat between Turkey and other countries – including Greece, Egypt, Israel – collaborating on a gas drilling project off the Cyprus coast. Ankara, which does not recognise Cyprus as a state, claims half of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on behalf of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and has repeatedly carried out warship-escorted offshore drilling in the territory.

Borrell said in a press release on Thursday that the EU supported an invitation by Cyprus to Turkey for talks over its maritime boundary issue.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy dismissed Borrell’s proposal as “far from being serious” a few days later.

“The proposal is far from being serious,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement.

The offer was made by the same EU “which always ignores the existence of the Turkish Cypriots and has never referred to their equal rights over the natural resources of the island in any of its statements,” Aksoy said in a statement on Saturday.

Turkey’s disputes were not limited to international diplomacy. On Tuesday, state-run TRT World released a nearly 5-minute video called “Africa’s French Problem", where a commentator discussed France’s “legacy of colonialism” in Africa and its historical relations with the continent.

The commentator said that while French President Emmanuel Macron criticises Africa for having “shaky democracies,” France has “cooperated, supported and secured” many despotic regimes in the continent.

“The comfortable, yet condescending tone, in which France’s elite discuss Africa shows us how colonialism still exists as a mentality – a mentality that has not changed despite the fact that borders have,” the commentator said in conclusion.

The video came as Turkish-French relations simmer after Paris accused Turkish naval vessels, which were escorting a cargo ship suspected of carrying weapons, of harassing a French warship on a NATO mission to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

Analysts did not see the June 10 event as an isolated incident since Turkey and France support opposite sides of the Libyan conflict, exchanging blame for the instability in war-torn North African country. 

Turkey has secured a foothold in Libya by providing military support for the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in the form of drones, armoured vehicles and Syrian mercenaries. 

France meanwhile views GNA rival General Khalifa Haftar and his anti-Islamist views a safer option than the Tripoli-based government’s ties to the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The French Foreign Ministry responded to the TRT World video on Thursday.

“Africa doesn’t have a ‘French problem’ and France is not afraid to confront its past. African states are sovereign and make their own decisions,” the ministry said on a Twitter thread, rebutting statements made in the online video.

“As for military assistance: you’re nearly right, French troops are present in several African countries. But you forgot to say that it was at the request of the governments of the countries in question,” it said, referring to the TRT commentator saying that France militarily intervenes in African countries it has troops in.

The Senior Crisis Response Advisor for Amnesty International Donatella Rovera gave a backhanded compliment to the video.

“This is really quite good @trtworld. Now can u also do one about #Turkey 's interventions in #Syria #Iraq #Libya etc, including targeting of #Kurds inside Turkey,” she tweeted.

Al-Monitor correspondent Amberin Zaman called the video “incredibly crass even by AKP standards”, referring to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

The week ended the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Sunday expressing “disappointment” over Turkey’s unchanged status in fighting human trafficking in an annual report by the U.S. State Department, and said the country, in fact, increased efforts in fighting human trafficking warrants a higher designation.

The State Department’s 2020 “Trafficking in Persons Report” said Turkey did not fully comply with the minimum standards for preventing human trafficking, although the country made significant efforts to comply with those standards.

“It is disappointing that Turkey was not upgraded to a higher category despite confirmation that “our country has increased its fight against human trafficking,’’ the ministry said.

“Turkey is home to nearly 4 million displaced people and more likely to shoulder the burden of increased migration every year because of the instability in our region. Nevertheless, Turkey fights human trafficking in a decisive way,” the ministry statement added.