REVIEW: Article

Turkey After July 15 - Dawn or Disaster?

July 15, 2016 will live in the minds of Turks the way 9/11 is fixed in the minds of Americans. That evening a small group of mostly military officers attempted to forcibly overthrow the government and possibly assassinate Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Air Force planes bombed Turkey’s parliament while it was in session. A FaceTime call from President Erdogan mobilized thousands of citizens, who poured into the streets, directly confronting troops participating in the coup attempt, and within a short period of time, the coup collapsed. President Erdogan described the crushing of the coup as a “gift from God.”

This was not a normal coup attempt. All the previous coups in Turkey (four since 1960) had come with public support to preserve democracy. This time, there was near universal reaction against the coup leaders. No major political or military leader in Turkey stepped forward to support the coup. From left to right, Turkish political parties condemned the coup attempt and not just because of its unprecedented brutality.  Those parties simply opposed any effort to upend the political process in Turkey in favor of non-representative government. Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s party had won the most recent election with nearly 50 percent of the vote. The attempted coup was led by a group of Gulenist officers joined by some secularist officers. The Gulenists belonged to a rival religious sect and did not have broad popular backing. For one brief moment, frozen in time, nearly everyone in Turkey either rejoiced or breathed a sigh of relief that democracy had been saved.

Mr. Erdogan asked for emergency powers and launched a purge affecting the lives and careers of men and women in nearly every circle of Turkish military, judicial, educational and journalistic life, ultimately extending his reach even to private enterprises in Turkey. Today, there is no limit except one Mr. Erdogan chooses on the scope and pace of the campaign to cleanse Turkey of every point of opposition to his rule, including Gulenists, secularists and ethnic Kurds.

Mr. Erdogan inspires and then echoes public sentiment. Because the alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric, is living in exile in Pennsylvania, Mr. Erdogan accused the United States of harboring Gulen and demanded his immediate extradition. These attacks continued despite private and public denials from Washington, including one made by President Obama to Mr. Erdogan in a personal call on July 19. These false allegations of complicity were repeated so often and so widely that today a majority of Turks believe the United States had something to do with the coup.

The real purpose of this Turkish campaign, however, was not to establish truth about the US role in the coup attempt, but rather to gain leverage over the United States regarding its extradition demand, to concretize public support for its extreme measures and to avoid questions about what government actions may have contributed to the coup attempt. The campaign rallied support for the government in Turkey, but against the United States it was largely unsuccessful. Mr. Erdogan met with Vice President Biden and President Obama, but failed to pressure the United States into ignoring the extradition treaty or into treating the extradition request as a political and not a legal issue.

So we must conclude that Mr. Erdogan probably never believed the allegations against the United States. When he met with President Obama in China on September 4, in fact, he thanked the United States for its support against the coup and said “under your leadership, the alliance between our countries became a model partnership. And the relations between our countries are very special and they are getting stronger as time goes by.” On September 6, in a New York Times editorial board interview, Turkey’s Deputy PM Kurtulmus said Turkish leaders see no signs of American complicity with the plotters.   

That reversal after weeks of steady vicious anti-American propaganda produced one important positive outcome. It allowed the Turkish-US relationship to go back toward a more regular framework so the two parties could meet to discuss concrete issues. As such, it was a clear success for American diplomacy—led by President Obama and Vice President Biden on the political side and General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in military channels. Now, a number of issues can be addressed.

Can the United States and Turkey Cooperate Strategically on Syria?

The first issue is Syria. One good thing has happened already. The Turkish incursion of August 24 closed Jarablus gate, the last remaining outpost on the Turkish-Syrian border under ISIS control. This was a longstanding American request to Turkey. One could speculate that the capture of nearby Manbij from ISIS by American-supported Kurdish fighters in August 2016 stimulated the Turks into taking action in Jarablus for fear the Kurds would take it if Turkey did not.

A second favorable development is the Turkish request on September 16 to have US special forces aid its campaign in Syria, fulfilling a second American objective. This portends a longer presence in Syria of Turkish troops, promotes deconfliction between Turkish troops in Syria and Kurdish forces to the east, focuses the combat more on ISIS, and lays the groundwork for Turkey and the United States to cooperate in the capture of the ISIS capital Raqqa. Genuine help to capture Raqqa would go far to restore Turkey’s image in American eyes—especially those at the Pentagon. Turkish-US cooperation could lead to a reconsideration of a no-fly zone in northern Syria. However—and importantly—the United States will still need Kurdish fighters to help capture the ISIS capital of Raqqa and liberate Mosul. There is plenty of room here for US-Turkey cooperation if Ankara is willing to step forward. As of this writing, it is not clear whether Turkey will focus on ISIS as a priority or use its incursion as a pretext to increase hostilities with Syrian Kurds.

Further cooperation could stimulate the long-desired rethink of US strategy for Syria and for the Middle East as the new American president comes on board. Turkey will have to decide whether it will pursue narrow interests in opposition to Washington or join more closely with the United States to secure a more stable environment near its borders.  Whatever happens, Syria policy will be at the center of US-Turkey discussions in 2017.

How Can the Extradition Demand for Fethullah Gulen be Managed?

Turkey’s demand for extradition of Fethullah Gulen will complicate US-Turkey relations for the foreseeable future. There is no winning position for the United States on this issue. Although the issue has been moved to the legal realm where the judicial process will conduct its work, resolution may be years away. Turkey will continue to raise the issue as a priority, however, and may attempt to impose conditions on extradition to cooperation in other areas. Turks may accuse the United States of hypocrisy, pointing to its help to the United States in the post-9/11 period in rounding up and handing over suspects without going through extradition treaties.

The conundrum is that the evidence appears to be circumstantial. If Turkey had in hand a smoking gun document or message, Ankara certainly would have given it maximum publicity. We only need to recall the UN testimony of then Secretary Colin Powell in February 2003 that provided voluminous circumstantial evidence for the presence of nuclear weapons and possible preparation to use chemical weapons by Iraq, allegations which turned out not to be accurate. To keep the lid on this explosive issue, the United States needs to constantly acknowledge at high levels the emotional impact of July 15 on the Turks and frequently reiterate its understanding for the Turkish popular state of mind that connects the coup attempt to Fethullah Gulen. That will help manage this difficult problem, but it will not lessen the Turkish determination to bring Gulen to trial in Turkey.

How Extensive will the Post-Coup Purge Be and What Damage Could it Cause?

Turkey’s purge of Gulenists in civil society and private enterprise is broadening, it seems, to anyone deemed to be in opposition to Mr. Erdogan’s views. The crackdown has now reached to over 100,000 people in military, civil servant, education, journalistic and business circles. Many names have been published in media outlets. Whatever the outcome, the careers of thousands may be effectively over, and their lives turned upside down. More hundreds of thousands will be affected—spouses, children, co-workers, friends and family. Stories are pouring out of Turkey of cancelled passports, harassment of families and dismissals based on the merest suspicion. Insistence by Turkish officials that the rule of law is being followed increasingly rings hollow. An atmosphere of fear and intimidation now reigns.

The problem for the government is the collateral damage it is causing. Two major elements are of immediate importance: first, Turkey’s military readiness and second, its economic well-being. If 40 percent of Turkey’s Air Force pilots have been removed, if nearly half of the senior military commanders have been replaced, Turkey’s military efficiency cannot escape unscathed. As a key NATO member, not only Turkey but its fellow partner countries would like to see stability emerge. No NATO partner, including the United States, has any objections to civilian control of the military. Turkey receives unanimous support for this principle, but allies and opponents all need to see that Turkey remains militarily strong and capable.

Second, the economy already was suffering and now is facing more uncertainty. In the private sector, supply chains are slowing down or halting because businesses do not want to be seen having a Gulenist partner. Companies worry that their executives face dismissal and that their finances will be suspended pending investigation for prohibited funding. One can imagine that when Gulenists were active political partners of the AKP government, companies were happy to recruit such personnel and to give them key positions. Gulenist-affiliated businesses probably proliferated. Now those companies and their personnel feel trapped.

Against these current concerns the background picture is uneven. The share of global foreign direct investment (FDI) that comes to Turkey has fallen to 1994 levels (FDI fell from $22 billion in 2007 to $12 billion in 2014). Turkey’s growth rate in recent years is about half what it was in the first years of AKP governance. Unemployment has ticked up recently, and wages have stagnated. High-tech exports are stuck at the same level of total exports—two percent—that existed in 2002. Outside investors are essentially required to pause except for hot money trying to take advantage of short-term developments.  Worries about judicial independence and central bank control raise barriers to investment decisions. According to experts, for now a robust housing and mortgage finance market aided by a sound banking system is contributing positively to economic health.  However, the implementation of key structural reforms and a move away from a business patronage system linked closely with the government would help restore Turkey to its desired prosperity.

President Erdogan has called for restraint in the post-coup cleansing twice now, reflecting undoubtedly his own and his business supporters’ growing concerns that the government has unleashed a juggernaut. He certainly will have been warned that the negative impact on the business sector could snowball. He needs economic stability in order to generate the popular support he needs.  It is too early to know whether he will act more forcefully to raise public confidence, but the urgency to do so is visible and mounting.

More Cooperation Means Strategic Openings Could Come

In summary, Turkey and the United States have returned to a more regular relationship after the July 15 coup attempt crisis, with major help from strenuous US diplomacy in the civilian and military spheres. That alone solves no problems, but there is now room for further cooperation regarding the Syrian war, a process for better managing the issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, and the possibility of putting the economy back on a more even keel. The United States could expand military cooperation in Syria, if it happens, to broader cooperation with the new Turkish military and could offer to aid Turkey in expanding transatlantic trade ties. For the United States and Turkey to coalesce around major agreed policies is always difficult, but it is possible, and that should be a goal the United States continues to pursue.

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Director-General of the Foreign Service, 2003-2006
United States Ambassador to Turkey, 2000-2003