Lessons From the Recent Past

September 15, 2020

Last week, fires destroyed Greece’s largest migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, leaving more than 12,000 people without shelter. It was a tragedy, a stark reminder of West’s misguided interventions in Libya and Syria, and Europe’s second major problem after Covid-19, the refugee issue.

Since the question “how we got here?” is almost always conveniently overlooked, I checked my notes for a fair reporting/assessment of past developments. I found two articles of relevance.

On March 20, only three days after the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 which enabled the Libya intervention, Steven Erlanger of the New York Times said:

“President Nicolas Sarkozy may be down in the opinion polls, but he has put France boldly in the forefront of an allied effort to prevent the decimation of the opposition to Libya’s leader, Col. Muammer al-Qaddafi.

“France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Colonel Qaddafi’s “murderous madness,” Mr. Sarkozy said solemnly on Saturday, standing alone before the television cameras and pleasing those here who still have a strong sense of French exceptionalism and moral leadership.

“Some officials of NATO countries resented having to rush to Paris on Saturday for an elegant lunch meeting and a show of hands giving symbolic backing to the military strikes while Qaddafi forces were nearing Benghazi, while others complained that initial French air sorties were not coordinated with allies…”[i]

And this is what Rick Noack, said in his Washington Post article of 21 April 2015:

“… Prior to the Arab Spring, E.U. member states openly supported many of the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East that are responsible for many of the woes and problems the region faces today.

“In 2007, for instance, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi for five days in Paris with the aim of securing an arms deal… Only four years later, France and other countries (including the United States) attacked Libya in an attempt to topple Gaddafi.

“That intervention was supposed to be swift and easy. But Libya has turned into a mess, a fractured conflict-zone…”[ii]

There is more.

On February 4, 2012 Russia and China vetoed a Security Council draft resolution that would have paved the way for another “UN approved” intervention, this time in Syria.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Moscow and Beijing had turned their backs on the Arab world. France’s Alain Juppé said they “carried a terrible responsibility in the eyes of the world and Syrian people”.

“Unfortunately, yesterday in the UN, the Cold War logic continues,” said then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “Russia and China did not vote based on the existing realities but more a reflexive attitude against the West.”[iii]

President Nicolas Sarkozy then proposed creating a “Friends of Syria Group” to keep the initiative. The US and others supported the idea. An inaugural conference was held in Tunis. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party leadership, blinded by ideological obsession, was delighted to host the second meeting in Istanbul. And the third one was held in Paris, birthplace of the Group.

Today, wars in Libya and Syria continue with no end in sight, but Friends of Syria group is history.

President Macron, following Mr. Sarkozy’s example, is striving to project himself as Europe’s next leader and score political points at home. He was the first Western leader to visit Beirut soon after the blast. In early September he returned to the Lebanese capital. He then travelled to Iraq. He is planning two conferences to take place in October in Paris, one on the follow-up of emergency aid and the other on reforms expected from Lebanon by the international community. His other agenda item is tensions in eastern Mediterranean with Turkey as his target.

Does President Macron have the power to decisively intervene in Lebanese politics to help chart a better future? Not really. Can he orchestrate eastern Mediterranean tensions towards a peaceful settlement? No, because the starting point of any meaningful diplomatic mediation is equidistance to the parties involved. Is his taking the center stage to form an anti-Turkish regional bloc a good investment in the future of Turkish-French relations? Again no. But, Mr. Macron can help resolve Europe’s refugee problem. This may not win him political points at home, but it would be a more worthy project. The people of Greece may appreciate leadership on this issue more than inconsequential diplomatic rhetoric regarding the Mediterranean.

None of the foregoing is to deny the responsibility of regional powers in turning Libya and Syria into disaster zones. Turkey is one of those regional powers and the only one to share a 910-kilometer border with Syria.

Today, Turkey not only has thousands of troops in harm’s way in Syria but is also home to five million Syrian refugees who are here to stay. Many keep speaking about “Turkish intervention in Syria”, but as things stand now, I would say that the Assad regime has intervened more decisively in Turkey.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/21/world/europe/21france.html


[iii] https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/sarkozy-pushes-friends-of-syria-group-at-un/


About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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