The events over the last 72 hours in Turkey, a member of NATO, at the very least have called into question the nature of the relationship between the United States and Turkey. There has been very little said between Ankara and Washington D. C., but that doesn’t mean clear messages haven’t been sent.
The attempted overthrow pulled by some personnel in the Turkish military seemed less like a coup and more like a clumsy, reluctant insurrection–or even a training exercise. The attempt itself, was over about as quickly as it began. A little over 12 hours. The coup was said to have been plotted at Incirlik Air Base, the headquarters for the American led coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS).
After the democratically elected government in Ankara regained control, the electrical power to the base was cut off. A short time later Turkey shut down the air space halting all operations against IS and leaving American-backed rebels like The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) exposed in Manbij, where the SDF has been attempting to liberate the city from the barbaric clutches of IS for weeks. It’s not yet clear if this reaction to the short lived rebellion had any effect on opposition ground forces, but they’ve always relied heavily American air power.
This action taken by Ankara was augmented with an accusation made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that an exiled cleric in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, conspired with members of the Turkish military to overthrow the democratically elected Erdogan.
The suspicion on Erdogan’s part likely stems from the bad blood that developed between the two former conservative political allies. The pair united to push secularists out of power at the turn of the millennium, but began to have differences by 2010. Turkey has since demanded Gulen’s extradition from the United States. Which is likely to happen, given that Erdogan today told CNN that he would refuse all extradition requests by the U.S. if Gulen isn’t handed over. That may seem like typical bluster from the increasingly anti-Western leader, but given Turkey’s proximity to the largest gathering of armed jihadis in the world, it has real ramifications. Any American fighting for the Islamic State or Jabhat al Nusra could hide out in Turkey should Erdogan follow through and make good on his threats if the Obama White House doesn’t comply with the request. For a leader with pan-Islamic aspirations, Erdogan could not ask for better optics to sell himself as a regional strongman.
For a few days, “U.S. Central Command had to adjust flight operations in the counter-ISIL campaign to minimize any effects on the campaign.” according to U.S. official Peter Cook. Secretary of State John Kerry wanted proof of Gulen’s involvement in the conspiracy.
This accusation doesn’t need to be proven, it only needs to be believed. And it mostly certainly is a theory people are willing to entertain in Turkey and elsewhere. An anti-American tone and general mistrust of the West finds fertile ground in the Middle East and North Africa. A story of America getting caught supporting a coup against a NATO ally is something expected by Sunni and Shia Muslims alike in the region. The charge levied by Erdogan serves the ambitions of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, who seek to be the new merchant of stability in the region. The story of America supporting a coup also bolsters the claims of domestic critics of foreign intelligence services, like the CIA.
Could the U.S. still continue to cover its proxies and strike IS in their shrinking stronghold? Absolutely. It just takes a little more effort and planning. It’s inconvenient. It requires more work. It requires admitting that this White House does, in fact, need to recalibrate its calculus on the complicated dramatis persona and re-approach its strategy in the region, especially with complicated allies with frayed relations like Turkey. But with a mere six months left in office, this administration is playing prevention defense. They’re preventing any negative narratives to attach itself to the legacy of the 44th president.
For anyone paying attention to the dynamics of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s willingness to undermine the mission of the coalition to peruse its own agenda is not something that comes as a surprise. They’ve repeatedly attacked Kurdish fighters in Syria as well as civilians.
The significance of shutting down Incirlik for the United States is the unspoken message sent from Ankara, which simply put is: The government of Turkey is willing to bring the coalition to destroy IS to a screeching halt for our own domestic political agenda.
Another message that was sent to the U.S. from Turkey was in whom they were speaking to in the wake of the failed coup attempt. There wasn’t an urgent meeting face-to-face with Presidents Obama and Erdogan. Instead, Erdogan scheduled a face-to-face in early August with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a global figure who has growing aspirations to take over the role as global stabilizer from the United States. How he comes to fill that void doesn’t seem to matter to former KGB colonel.
Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusogl, told reporters, “We will cooperate with everybody who is fighting Islamic State,” and furthermore, “Ankara has opened the Incirlik airbase to all those wishing to join the active fight. Why not cooperate with Russia in the same manner? Turkey is ready for such cooperation.”
The immediate hurdle to that proposal is that Russia is not in the coalition. Secondly, in juxtaposed priorities to the US-led coalition, Moscow does not only focus on IS but has stuck an array of other armed opposition across Syria. At the same time also shoring up the Assad regime in Damascus.
Most importantly, by allowing Russia to join the coalition, the U.S. is legitimizing and condoning every atrocity they’ve facilitated since sending their military in last September. Homes, markets, hospitals, and refugee camps; Russia has shown zero regard for civilian casualties. There’s no indication that Moscow would suddenly change their tune on killing civilians merely because their jets take off from Incirlik instead of Russia’s already existing airbase in Latakia, Syria. Russia’s stance on opposition in Syria has been very basic: All opposition forces are terrorists.
That simplistic view of the conflict likely won’t sit well with the average Turkish conservative who sees Erdogan as a coup-thwarting strongman with Allah’s blessing. The Muslim Brotherhood has a large role in Turkey’s political landscape. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is not despised in the same way IS is in the Muslim world. And the Russia-Turkey alliance may not be as great as Erdogan is hoping it to be, but that may be hard to see for those drunk on nationalism and defiance.
It’s unclear what kind of coalition, if any, remains between Turkey and the United States It’s also not clear if the Turks still even want U.S. air power or the 84 nuclear weapons that are housed in Incirlik. What is clear that they have lost faith in relations with a NATO ally and no one seems to be rushing to mend fences.