The Cable

Obama Urges Restraint as Erdogan Widens Purge

U.S. calls for Turkey to uphold rule of law as Ankara suspends academics, sacks intelligence officials, and shuts down media outlets.

A picture taken on July 18, 2016 shows a poster picturing US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen burning during a Pro-Erdogan supporters rally at Taksim square in Istanbul on July 18, 2016 following the military failed coup attempt of July 15.
Turkish security forces on July 18 carried out new raids against suspected plotters of the botched coup against the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as international concern grew over the scale of the crackdown. Thousands of pro-Erdogan supporters waving Turkish flags filled the main Kizilay Square in Ankara while similar scenes were seen in Taksim Square in Istanbul, AFP photographers said. / AFP / OZAN KOSE        (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 18, 2016 shows a poster picturing US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen burning during a Pro-Erdogan supporters rally at Taksim square in Istanbul on July 18, 2016 following the military failed coup attempt of July 15. Turkish security forces on July 18 carried out new raids against suspected plotters of the botched coup against the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as international concern grew over the scale of the crackdown. Thousands of pro-Erdogan supporters waving Turkish flags filled the main Kizilay Square in Ankara while similar scenes were seen in Taksim Square in Istanbul, AFP photographers said. / AFP / OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday appealed to Turkey to uphold the “rule of law” as it investigates suspected plotters behind a failed military coup. But the plea for restraint likely will fall on deaf ears, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presses ahead with a sweeping purge of Turkey’s government, military, security services, and universities in the aftermath of last week’s putsch.

In a phone call to Erdogan, Obama reiterated his condemnation of a bid last week by a faction in the military to overthrow Ankara’s elected government and praised the Turkish people’s “commitment to democracy,” the White House said in a statement.

But the U.S. president, echoing concerns voiced by other Western governments, urged that “the investigations and prosecution of the coup’s perpetrators be conducted in ways that reinforce public confidence in democratic institutions and the rule of law.”

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday had warned Turkey that the far-reaching arrests and suspensions would come under close scrutiny and that a failure to uphold democratic norms could put Ankara’s membership in NATO at risk.

Kerry said that NATO, which Turkey has been a member of since 1952, “has a requirement with respect to democracy, and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening.”

Officials said Obama and Erdogan also discussed the legal status of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, and who Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed military attempt to topple Erdogan.

Ankara on Tuesday piled pressure on the White House over Gulen, saying it had delivered four dossiers to the Americans to support its request for Gulen’s transfer to face charges in Turkey. U.S. officials said they were reviewing the documents.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim issued a blunt warning to Washington, saying: “Do not protect that traitor anymore, for this has no benefit for you, humanity, nor Islam.”

But the White House and the State Department made clear that Gulen could only be transferred under the terms of an extradition treaty between the two countries.

Gulen, 77, a former ally turned political adversary of Erdogan, has denied allegations that he orchestrated the coup attempt and has condemned the putsch.

In a sign the Turkish government would press ahead with its draconian measures, Yildirim said authorities would remove the Gulenist movement “by its roots” so it can never pose a threat to the country again.

On Tuesday, Erdogan extended his purge from the military and police to universities, schools, intelligence agencies, and religious figures.

Officials shut down media outlets purportedly supportive of Gulen and said 15,000 people had been suspended from the education ministry. Authorities ordered 1,577 deans at state and private universities to resign, and removed 492 people at the Religious Affairs Directorate, 300 at the energy ministry and 257 at the prime minister’s office. Roughly 100 intelligence officials were also suspended.

Over the weekend, the government had announced the detention of more than 6,000 soldiers and the suspension of thousands of police officers and judges.

The military has about 620,000 troops and the police has about 250,000 members.

The scope and scale of Erdogan’s post-coup purges carried the potential to significantly weaken the Turkish armed forces, said Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Edelman said that by some estimates 125 generals and admirals had been detained or arrested since the coup, a third of all of the country’s highest-ranking officers. Dozens of other generals have been ousted in recent years as Erdogan has repeatedly taken steps against officers he said were plotting to remove him from power.

“You’ve had a military that was being battered for the past seven years with mass arrests and show trials for alleged coup plotters,” Edelman told Foreign Policy. “Now you’re removing another 125 general officers. It’s very hard to imagine you’ll have a capable military after this.”

Edelman also noted that the Turkish police and intelligence services will likely emerge with their reputations strengthened, the police because of the way they stood up — and in some cases defeated — troops taking part in the coup, and the intelligence services because they apparently tipped Erdogan to the impending putsch in time for him to escape. Erdogan is likely to have both arms of the security services focus much of their attention on monitoring the military for any signs of unrest, which could further sap military morale and fighting capabilities.

“Their bandwidth for the counter-ISIL fight is going to be very, very limited,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group.

During the coup attempt, Erdogan’s government cut the power to the U.S. military base at Incirlik, as officials believed leaders of the coup were using the airfield for their failed assault. F-16 fighter jets backing the takeover were reportedly refueled using a tanker based at Incirlik.

But as of Tuesday, Erdogan’s government had yet to restore electricity to the base, which is a vital hub for U.S.-led air raids against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Administration officials said the base was continuing to rely on generators for power and that operations against the Islamic State group had not been disrupted.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday about the air base and its role in the war against Islamic State militants, according to the Pentagon.

FP managing editor Yochi Dreazen contributed to this article.

Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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