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Here’s How to Stop Turkey’s Anti-American Turn
Turks are wondering if the United States was behind the coup to overthrow Erdogan. And Washington should realize they have good reasons to worry.
Most foreigners seem to have difficulty understanding just what a watershed event last month’s failed coup was for Turkey. My country has had four military coups before, but this one was different. No coup had seen the parliament bombed, the police fighting rebellious soldiers, and, most importantly, ordinary people defying army tanks at the cost of their lives. More than 240 people died on that long night, 173 of them civilians, and they are now commemorated all across the country as “martyrs of democracy.” Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, where some of the resistance took place, is now called “July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge.” News of the people’s sacrifice, and the marches to praise their glory, can still be heard on any radio or TV.
The culprit and motive behind the failed coup plot were also unique. In previous coups, the Turkish military would launch an overthrow to “correct” the mistakes of politicians but would also promise to quickly restore democracy. Hence, some Turks would support the coups or at least “understand” them. This one, however, was the work of a cabal within the military that virtually everybody in Turkey — both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his secular, left-wing, and Kurdish foes — identifies as FETO, or the “Gulenist Terror Organization.”
At first glance, this charge may look ridiculous. The Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers can appear as nothing but a peaceful, moderate movement, and “terrorism” is a label often exploited to demonize dissidents in authoritarian regimes, from Egypt to China. But there is much more to the Gulenists than what meets the eye: As former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey noted, Gulenists launched an “extreme infiltration” of Turkey’s institutions, and it is “highly likely” that they were behind the coup attempt. Testimonies and confessions from the officers involved in the attempt also make Gulen himself a prime suspect in this case.
It is Gulen’s location that has transformed his fate from a domestic problem to a potential crisis for U.S.-Turkish relations. The cleric has been based in the United States since 1999, where he directs a global empire of some 1 million religious followers and a web of educational, religious, and media institutions from Pennsylvania. For many Turks, this raises the question whether America — or some other key player in Washington, like the CIA — is really pulling the strings. “Can we really believe that this man lives in America, operates there, and plans a military coup in Turkey there,” a senior figure in pro-Erdogan media asked me, “and Americans really don’t know this?”
Harvard University professor Dani Rodrik, who exposed some former misdeeds of the group, also penned a much more refined analysis on the same question. The United States, he said, needs to “seriously reconsider its attitude towards Gulen and his movement.”
Turkish suspicions were exacerbated by U.S. officials’ seemingly unsupportive messages right after the coup attempt. President Barack Obama’s condemnation of the coup was perceived by most Turks as meek and belated. Moreover, three days after the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Turkey’s disproportionate response to the coup could violate NATO’s “requirement with respect to democracy.” Many Turks wondered: Is this really what you should say to a county that barely survived a bloody coup attempt? Wouldn’t the coup attempt itself, if it succeeded, threaten Turkey’s NATO membership, whereas Turkey now deserves respect and solidarity?
A rare Western statesman who grasped this point was former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who pressed Western leaders to show more support for Turkey. “It took some time for the EU to condemn the events,” Bildt noted. “And there was no sign of senior EU representatives afterward flying Turkey in support of an accession country facing the gravest threat to its constitutional order.”
Bildt also warned that it would be a “disgrace for Europe” if Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first leader to meet Erdogan after the attempted coup. That is indeed what came to pass, when Erdogan met Putin on Aug. 9 in St. Petersburg, rejuvenating the ties between Ankara and Moscow that had long been frayed by their rivalry in Syria. Erdogan thanked Putin for personally calling him right after the coup, much before most Western leaders, saying the call “meant a lot psychologically.”
Moreover, Putin isn’t the only American rival who seized this crucial moment to improve ties with Turkey. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Ankara on Aug. 12, paying a visit to the bombed parliament building and congratulating Turkish citizens “for the defiance they showed against the coup plotters.”
What does all this mean? Is Ankara drifting away from the West and turning its face toward Russia and Iran?
That would be too much to conclude at this point. First of all, Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and Iran can hardly turn into a full strategic coupling due to their deep rift over Syria. Moscow and Tehran are the best allies of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while Ankara still loathes the dictator in Damascus. There may be a softening in Turkey’s tone against Assad, but that is still a far cry from embracing Russia and Iran’s position that all anti-Assad rebels are “terrorists.” Moreover, Turkey boasts a century-old engagement with the West’s political institutions and its economies. No Turkish government can afford to trash those links.
However, the feeble Western reaction to the coup has left a bitter taste in the mouths of even the most pro-Western Turks. This has certainly fueled anti-Westernism, in particular anti-Americanism, in Erdogan’s base. Furthermore, the Gulen issue is very likely to deepen these feelings. The longer Gulen finds a safe haven in the United States, the more Turks will think that America is really “behind” him.
Deeply ingrained biases on both sides make this issue even harder to resolve. On the Turkish side, the political culture is extremely “statist” — states are seen as the sole factors in politics, and nonstate actors are always explained as their “puppets.” For the same reason, many Turks readily see nonstate actors such as Kurdish militants or jihadis as “puppets” of the major powers as well.
On the American side, meanwhile, there seems to be an obsession with Erdogan that blinds U.S. policymakers to every other problem in Turkey. Yes, Erdogan has been an authoritarian populist, and I criticized him for that in Foreign Policy just weeks before the coup attempt. But the sudden violence proved that other forces in Turkey are far more dangerous to democracy. Sophisticated observers of the Gulenists, such as former police chief Hanefi Avci — who wrote a revealing book about them in 2010, only to be jailed soon after on trumped-up charges — argue that instead of blaming the United States, Turks must help Americans understand the group, which veils its aims with impeccable secrecy and a polished public relations campaign.
The most critical issue between the two longtime allies will be Turkey’s demand for Gulen’s extradition. Although Ankara is utterly convinced of its own charges, the evidence presented by the Turkish side might fail to conform to the standards of the U.S. legal system, whose independence from the executive branch is hard for many Turks to fathom. Yet it should be recalled that for extradition, the United States does not need evidence to sentence Gulen; it only needs evidence that makes him a prime suspect. Such topics will likely be discussed intensively this week, as Vice President Joe Biden and a delegation from the U.S. Justice Department arrive in Ankara.
The coup plot heightened Turkey’s sense of being under siege — but it also opened a new chapter in its political scene that features some promising signs. Erdogan is now offering an olive branch to the secular opposition, which stood with him against the coup, presenting a rare opportunity for broad national consensus. Not just the United States but the West more broadly should engage Turkey constructively at this critical period, rather than pushing it away.
CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images