Erdogan and U.S. General in Post-Coup War of Words
Turkey’s crackdown on military officers and government bureaucrats is worrying NATO allies
One of America’s top generals moved to tone down a growing diplomatic dust-up with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, after remarks the U.S. commander made about his Turkish counterparts being arrested or fired drew a sharp response from the Turkish leader.
Speaking at a conference on Thursday, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the effort against the Islamic State, said “we’ve certainly had relationships with a lot of Turkish leaders, military leaders in particular. I’m concerned about what the impact is on those relationships as we continue.” He was alluding to Erdogan’s crackdown in the wake of the failed coup attempt earlier this month.
Erdogan angrily snapped back on Friday. “It’s not up to you to make that decision,” he said, referring to Votel’s comments. “Who are you? Know your place! You are taking the side of coup plotters instead of thanking this state for defeating the coup attempt.”
The Turkish president has been steadily purging thousands from the military and the government bureaucracy since a group of military officers tried to oust him from power on July 15, setting off a day of fighting that left 265 dead. Erdogan has ordered the arrest of 149 generals and admirals — 40 percent of the country’s 358 top officers — which has gutted the leadership of the largely secular military, which differs ideologically from the increasingly Islamist Erdogan. He has also gone after the media, shuttering dozens of outlets and detaining scores of journalists.
In the wake of Erdogan’s response, Votel issued a statement Friday explaining, “any reporting that I had anything to do with the recent unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey is unfortunate and completely inaccurate.” He added, “Turkey has been an extraordinary and vital partner in the region for many years. We appreciate Turkey’s continuing cooperation and look forward to our future partnership in the counter-ISIL fight.”
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook added, “Turkey has been an extraordinary and vital partner,” in the fight against the Islamic State, and “any suggestion anyone in the [defense] department supported the coup in any way would be absurd.”
But Votel wasn’t alone in worrying about the fate of the Turkish military, which is the second-largest force in NATO after the United States. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said on Thursday that the government’s backlash has “affected all segments of the national security apparatus in Turkey…. Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested. There’s no question that this is going to set back and make more difficult” Washington’s policymaking in the Middle East, he said.
German Chancellor Angelica Merkel also weighed in on Erdogan’s purges Thursday, saying while “it is right and important to go after the plotters with the means available,” the scale of the dismissals is of concern. “In a constitutional state — and this is what worries me and what I’m following closely — the principle of proportionality must be ensured by all.”
The post-coup crackdown has seen the arrest or dismissal of over 60,000 service members, academics, and government officials, and the number keeps growing. On Thursday, Ankara announced the dishonorable discharge of 1,700 more servicemen. Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency in the country, and is making moves to bring the military — which has traditionally operated independently of the civilian government — more directly under his control.
Elsewhere, thousands of Turkish citizens protested outside the gates of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey on Thursday, which is a major hub for U.S. and NATO aircraft bombing the Islamic State in nearby Syria. The protesters burned American flags and demanded that the government close the base. Power at the base was turned off for a week after the coup attempt, forcing U.S. and NATO forces to rely on internal generator power.
Photo Credit: Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images