As Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan broadens his purge of perceived political opponents following the failed military coup, tensions with Washington and European allies are straining. Questions are even raised about a possible break in relations between Ankara and the West.
Such a fundamental break seems unlikely, however, given the strategic importance of Turkey to the US-led NATO military alliance – especially at a time when NATO is vital to Washington’s policy of trying to isolate Russia.
Turkey has been a member of the NATO alliance since 1952. With armed forces numbering 600,000, the country is the second biggest member of the 28-nation military organization after the US. At the Incirlik airbase in southern Adana province, Turkey is reckoned to house 90 US nuclear warheads, which is understood to be more than most European members of NATO possess. Since the early Cold War years, Turkey was always a key US forwarding strike base against the Soviet Union.
With Washington resurrecting its Cold War policy of hostility towards Moscow – in order to shore up declining American global hegemony – the NATO alliance has found a renewed, urgent purpose.
Judging by the enormous political investment in the buildup of NATO forces in Eastern Europe over the past four years, it can be reliably surmised that Washington’s top geopolitical priority is its attempted containment of Russia, which is, in turn, closely related to its hostility towards China. To cause a rupture in NATO at this juncture through a severance of ties between Washington and Ankara makes the latter contingency extremely undesirable and unlikely. In short, Washington needs to keep Turkey within its fold. For its bigger geo-strategic reasons, it can’t afford to go «cold Turkey».
For this reason, it seems unlikely that Washington would have colluded in the latest coup attempt against Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
There have been suspicions and accusations from within the AKP and wider Turkish population that Washington may have had a hand in the failed military putsch last Friday, which resulted in nearly 300 dead and thousands wounded. In the aftermath, there has been a surge in anti-American sentiment on the streets among ordinary AKP members and supporters.
At the center of Turkish animus towards Washington is the alleged role of exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. The Erdogan government claims that the US-based imam inspired followers within the military to rise up. By extension, because of Gulen’s American domicile, it is averred that he was afforded some form of help from Washington to instigate the coup.
But that accusation seems untenable. For a start, the 75-year-old Gulen categorically denied any involvement and he quickly condemned the coup bid. His track record of mild Islamic teaching and scholastics has always emphasized multi-party democracy, non-violence and anti-terrorism. The notion that Gulen embarked on a coup seems far-fetched.
It is true that the US and Turkish military establishments have long-held close links, and it is true that elements within the Turkish military are not pleased by Erdogan’s growing Islamist version of governance, seeing it as straying from the country’s secularist constitution as envisaged by the founder of the modern state, Kemal Ataturk, in the 1920s.
However, again, it seems an attenuated stretch of reasoning to conclude that this might infer Washington had a hand in the latest coup.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow holding talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov when news of the uprising broke last week. Kerry later sternly denied Turkish claims that Washington was involved. He said such accusations were «utterly false and harmful to bilateral relations».
President Barack Obama and Kerry were also quick to denounce the coup and gave their support to the «elected government» – meaning Erdogan’s AKP administration.
Still, having said that, forthcoming relations between Ankara and Washington are set for a rocky time, as are relations with the European Union.
Both Washington and the EU have urged Erdogan to «act within the law» and to not use the failed coup as a license for repression.
Erdogan has shown a truculent disregard to calls for restraint from his Western allies. Within days of the coup being put down, the AKP dramatically widened its crackdown on the alleged plotters, from arresting a few thousand military personnel to detaining over 50,000 army and police officers.
Up to 100 generals and admirals – out of a total of 375 senior commanders – have been reportedly detained.
The AKP backlash has also extended to sacking or suspending 15,000 state education employees, as well as some 1,500 university deans and 3,000 judges. All of them accused of being supporters of the exiled Gulen.
Erdogan has taken to labelling his perceived political opponents as «scum» and a «virus» that must be «cleansed» from the Turkish body. He has urged his supporters to remain on the streets until those suspected of being associated with the coup are completely «uprooted». And, perhaps most disturbingly, Erdogan is whipping up public support for a return of the death penalty to be used against the plotters. Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004 – two years after Erdogan’s AKP was first elected – in an effort to appease the EU for its ongoing accession to the bloc.
The German government this week said that no country that applies the death penalty could ever become a member of the EU. If Erdogan proceeds with his plans to impose capital punishment on hundreds of indicted traitors from mass trials, that would suggest a collision course with the EU.
Ankara’s testy demands for Washington to extradite the cleric Gulen also suggest another collision course in the offing. Erdogan’s prime minister Binali Yildirim said that any country affording support to the coup plotters is «at war with Turkey». Erdogan has made a direct public demand on Obama to hand over the cleric.
So far, Washington has played down the extradition requests. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week: «If and when we receive a request, we will evaluate that request based on the extradition treaty that was signed by the US and Turkey nearly 30 years ago».
A further significant development this week were reports that Erdogan informed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a phone call that «Turkey was ready to work with Iran and Russia to restore peace and stability in the region».
Erdogan’s conciliatory overtures to both Iran and Russia have been building over recent weeks. His overdue apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month for the fatal shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet in November last year by Turkish forces was the clearest signal yet of a desired rapprochement. Erdogan’s government has fallen foul of Moscow and Tehran over its support for regime-change proxy militants in Syria since 2011 – a long-time regional ally of both Russia and Iran.
Some observers have even suggested that Erdogan’s apparent desire for rapprochement with Russia and Iran may have prompted the US to trigger the latest coup against his government. Such a short time-line for such a mobilization does not seem plausible.
In any case, on the matter of Syria, Washington has in recent months seemed more accommodating to Moscow than either of its two regional partners, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. After all, that’s why Kerry was in Moscow last week, seeking apparently to join US and Russian forces in Syria to «combat terrorism».
Washington has also been far more keen to push a political track for its objective of regime change in Damascus. Indeed, at times it is Turkey and Saudi Arabia who have voiced anger and frustration at Washington for not being more confrontational in Syria, by not creating no-fly zones and increasing supply of weapons to the anti-government militants.
The idea that Erdogan was «going AWOL» from the US regime-change camp on Syria – and courting Russia and Iran – does not ring true. If anything, the Turkish leader appears to be reacting to Washington’s gradual shift away from covert war in Syria to a more political track. Sensing that the covert war using terror proxies was coming to a dead-end, Erdogan seems to be casting around to mend fences with Moscow and Tehran.
So, what can we conclude?
The coup in Turkey follows a long tradition of such revolts by the military. There have been at least six since 1960. The latest attempt most likely was a genuine uprising from within the Turkish ranks by elements not happy with Erdogan’s drift towards Islamist rule. It seems counter-intuitive that a US-based, and rather mild, Islamist scholar would have inspired a bloody uprising, whose stated objective was to install secularist governance.
Washington, although a past-master at orchestrating foreign coups, most probably had nothing to do with the putsch on July 15. Relations with Erdogan have certainly become increasingly strained over the differing tactics on how to prosecute the regime-change operation in Syria. That is, whether to pursue military or political tracks.
Nevertheless, Washington has a much bigger goal and transcendent priority than either Turkey or Syria. It is Russia. Washington has clearly demonstrated and explicitly stated over recent years that its top global challenge is Russia. The US needs NATO cohesion more than ever to pursue that strategic objective.
It would seem patently counter-productive for Washington to alienate Turkey and the dominant ruling AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan at this strategic juncture. That would only lead to a crisis within the NATO alliance and thereby a setback to Washington’s more important anti-Russia project.
Erdogan will continue to strain relations with Washington and the EU over his increasing move towards autocratic rule and his brazen exploitation of the coup crackdown to curtail democratic freedoms in Turkey. That repressive trajectory has been underway for several years under Erdogan and neither the US nor EU have expressed any meaningful protest.
In the end, the EU and Washington need Erdogan more than he needs them. The EU and Germany in particular are beholden to Ankara to stem the flow of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; and Washington needs Turkey to maintain its NATO spearhead against Russia.
Erdogan has, in effect, latitude to pursue even more dictatorial powers in Turkey. And while the EU and Washington may issue the odd verbal admonishment over his draconian demagoguery, neither will want to estrange the Sultan in Ankara owing to their sensitive, paramount strategic needs. Getting rid of Erdogan would be just too wild a card to play.
Of course, a converse question could be: will Erdogan ditch the US and EU? And embrace Russia and Iran?
Erdogan has shown himself to be incorrigibly maverick, deceptive and unscrupulous to make that a realistic outcome.
Russia and Iran might enjoy, even partially benefit from, the tensions between Turkey and the US. But the latter’s NATO orbit and strategic imperative towards Moscow will over-ride a major geopolitical shift with Turkey.
Washington is not going to go cold Turkey. It’s got a more pressing addiction regarding how it deals with Russia.