In Coup’s Aftermath, New Rifts Between U.S. and Turkey

Obama was quick to endorse Erdogan’s return to power, but the Turkish leader holds Washington partially responsible for the coup anyway.


The Obama administration has spent years feuding with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the White House quickly condemned this weekend’s coup attempt and made clear that it believed Erdogan — whatever his faults — was the legitimate leader of his country and needed to be returned to power as quickly as possible.

That may not be enough to prevent the failed coup from emerging as the latest strain in Washington’s chilly relationship with one of its closest regional allies.

The United States has long wanted Erdogan to do more to fight the Islamic State and moderate his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, but the coup attempt seems likely to push Erdogan in the opposite direction. Turkish officials, for their part, have blamed the coup on Fethullah Gulen, a 75-year-old cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, and hinted that Washington was somehow complicit in the attempted putsch, charges the White House has angrily denied.

“The most damaging aspect of the last few days has been the aggressive rhetoric from Turkey directed at the U.S.,” said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security, who has carried out extensive field research in Turkey. “Erdogan clearly takes Gulen’s presence in the United States personally and can’t understand why a man he sees as a terrorist can live freely here.”

The growing tensions have been on full display in the immediate aftermath of the military effort to oust Erdogan, which left more than 290 dead and Turkey — a NATO member with aspirations of one day joining the European Union — reeling.

On Saturday, Turkey shut down all U.S. and NATO operations at the Incirlik Air Base, home to at least 1,500 American personnel and a vital hub in the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State. It also cut electricity to the base, leaving U.S. forces using what the Defense Department described as “internal power sources.”

Turkish officials justified the closure by saying that coup plotters were operating out of the Incirlik base and had used airborne tankers at the facility to refuel F-16 fighter jets piloted by coup supporters. The base commander, Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, was arrested Sunday along with other officers at Incirlik, though Turkey also reopened its airspace to U.S. warplanes.

Just as alarming to the administration, a high-ranking member of the Erdogan government accused Washington of directly helping to foment the putsch, with Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu bluntly saying that “the U.S. is behind this coup attempt.” Erdogan and his aides have linked the violence to Gulen and indirectly hinted that Washington bore some responsibility because the cleric lives in the United States.

The allegations prompted a sharp rebuke from Secretary of State John Kerry. According to the State Department, the top U.S. diplomat used a conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Saturday to reiterate “U.S. support for the democratically elected government in Turkey,” but to also stress “that public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations.”

Kerry also pointedly “urged restraint by the Turkish government and respect for due process — and its international obligations — as it investigates and uncovers additional information about those involved.”

That plea is likely to fall on deaf ears with Erdogan, whose government has already launched a broad crackdown on alleged coup plotters. As many as 6,000 people — including nearly 3,000 military officers and troops — have already been detained. Turkish officials say they are continuing to look for other potential plotters and issued an arrest warrant Sunday for Erdogan’s top military aide, Col. Ali Yazici. The Turkish leader says those involved in the coup will “pay a heavy price for their treason.”

The sharp exchanges in the aftermath of the coup come on top of the long-standing U.S. criticism of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, which include opening roughly 2,000 legal cases against political opponents, journalists, comedians, and ordinary Turks accused of insulting the president.

Top Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have also said Erdogan needs to step up his efforts to seal Turkey’s southern border with Syria to prevent foreign fighters from passing through to link up with the Islamic State. Earlier this year, for example, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he would “like Turkey to do more” to fight the Islamic State.

Ankara, for its part, has bristled at American support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which has emerged as one of Washington’s most effective battlefield allies in the ground fight against the Islamic State. Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group that has killed hundreds of Turkish civilians and security personnel as it battles to create a Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey. Turkey, the United States, and the EU all view the PKK as a terrorist group, and Kurds have been blamed for a string of recent bloody bombings inside Turkey.

Heras of CNAS said Ankara knows Washington needs its help fighting the Islamic State but may warn that it will reduce its involvement unless the United States extradites Gulen to Turkey. “Erdogan will use Gulen as a chit,” he said.

Harsh rhetoric aside, it’s not clear how far Turkey is willing to go to try to force Washington to return the cleric. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Sunday that the United States has yet to receive a formal extradition request from Turkey, and Kerry and other administration officials say Ankara would first need to show clear and convincing evidence of Gulen’s direct involvement in the failed coup, a bar Turkey might not be able to clear.

Even if the Gulen controversy is defused, however, Washington will almost certainly have to sit back and watch as Erdogan ignores its pleas for restraint and uses the failed coup to further consolidate power and crack down on his real and perceived enemies.

David Weil, a doctoral student at Princeton currently in Turkey on a research fellowship, said those he saw celebrating the putsch’s failure didn’t seem to acknowledge in any way “that it was the increasing authoritarianism and incompetence of the ruling government” that led to the attempt to remove Erdogan from power.

Erdogan, Weil added, is already trying to use the failed coup to “inflame his supporters, frame opposition to him as a conspiracy against the nation, and continue the process of rooting out any and all obstacles to his personalized control over all aspects of Turkish politics.”

Kerry, in other words, can continue calling for the Turkish leader to act proportionately and adhere to the rule of law. An emboldened Erdogan may just choose not to listen.

FP Middle East editor David Kenner contributed to this article.

Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

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