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Macron and Trump clash at NATO summit

What happened: French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump publically squabbled over the return of ISIS fighters and the situation in northern Syria during a joint news conference at the NATO summit in London.

  • Trump asked Macron whether he would take any of the foreign fighters that the US had captured in Syria and Iraq. Trump said: “We have a tremendous amount of captured fighters in Syria under lock and key, mainly from Europe. Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I could give them to you. You can take everyone you want.” Macron brushed off the question and said the number one priority is the defeat of ISIS and Trump replied: “That is why he is such a great politician. That is one of the greatest non-answers I have heard and that’s OK.”
  • At an earlier press conference Trump said he saw potential for France “breaking off” from NATO despite the country needing protection more than anybody. He added that Macron’s remarks about NATO being brain dead were “disrespectful … very, very nasty” comments. Last month Macron said NATO members were no longer cooperating on key issues, mainly in reference to Turkey’s invasion in northern Syria and the US withdrawal beforehand, and described the alliance as “brain dead”
  • Macron also accused Turkey of working with “ISIS proxies” after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he will block NATO’s plan for the defence of Baltic countries unless the alliance recognises the YPG Kurdish group as “terrorists”. The YPG are the largest fighting force in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is one of the main groups of the US-backed coalition to fight ISIS.
  • NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attempted to play down the impact of disagreements within the alliance. He said: “Because we are 29 allies, from both sides of the Atlantic, of course there are differences. But the lesson we learn from history is that despite these differences we have always been able to unite around the core tasks to protect and defend each other.”

Context: Relations between Turkey and its NATO allies have been strained over issues, ranging from Ankara’s decision to procure Russian air defence systems to its policy on Syria.

  • The US threatened to implement sanctions on Turkey if it decided to purchases the S-400 air defence system from Russia in 2017. When pressed yesterday whether the US was going to sanction Turkey after the arrival of the S-400 this year, Trump declined to give an answer.
  • President Macron was also critical of Turkey saying “technically it is not possible” to be a member of the NATO alliance whilst at the same time deploying the S-400 system. Macron, like former US President Obama, maintains that a Russian defence system inside NATO will expose its military hardware, including the F-35 fighter jets, to Russian military intelligence.
  • The NATO meeting began last night with a reception at Buckingham Palace. This morning leaders are holding talks over subjects including terrorism, China and outer space. It is expected that the US will push for more NATO countries to fulfil the NATO target of 2% of GDP spending on defence – according to NATO, 22 out of the 29 members fail to meet that target. The US has also pushed for NATO to pay more attention to the rise of China, in contrast to its traditional focus on the European neighbourhood — and Russia in particular.
  • NATO was set up in 1949 after the Second World War in response to anxiety over Soviet expansion. It was founded by 12 members on the principle of collective defence between allies.

Looking ahead: Despite their difference, the US and France have made clear that they would not cede to Turkey’s demands over Kurdish groups and it therefore remained unclear how member states would break the impasse. BBC Defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus argues that the Turkish problem, if not resolved, could test the very boundaries of NATO’s membership.