Cengiz Gunes holds a PhD in politics from the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme, Department of Government at the University of Essex, U.K. He is the author of The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance.
The attempted coup d’état in Turkey earlier this month led by a section of Turkish Armed Forces may have failed, but the repercussions for the country are expected to last a long time. It shook the political establishment to the core and has set Turkey on course for a prolonged period of political instability, and that’s really bad news for the U.S.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government sees the failed coup as an existential threat, not only against itself, but against the whole country, and a danger unseen in Turkey’s modern history. Civil-military relations have always been difficult, and elected governments have been overthrown in coup d’états before. But this time was different. The failed attempt was orchestrated by a small section of the military aimed at not just overthrowing the elected government, but at overhauling the army’s hierarchy. As a step to thwart this threat, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a nationwide state of emergency for an initial period of three months.
Most in Turkey believe that the failed attempt was masterminded by the cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Previously, through the well-publicized Ergenekon and Sladgehammer cases, the followers of Gülen—organized within the judiciary—targeted the secular generals in the army, who were allegedly planning a coup against the government. But since late 2013, when the Gülenist network’s alliance with the AKP came to an end, it has been increasingly in conflict with the government. The followers of Gülen insist they are a popular peaceful movement involved mainly in education and promoting interfaith dialogue. The government argues that Gülenists have infiltrated the institutions of the state in the past 30 years with the ultimate aim of conquering state power. The government has carried out purges of Gülenists in the past three years, but is now broadening the scope to include all state institutions targeting especially the army, the police force, and the judiciary. So far, around 50,000 people have been removed from their positions, including army generals, police officers, and judges. Many educational institutions and charitable trusts thought to be controlled by Gülenists, including 15 universities, have been closed down.
The mood has stiffened in Turkey to such an extent that Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has discussed the possibility of re-introducing the death penalty. Erdoğan has even promised to sign the death-penalty legislation if the parliament passes it. The opposition fears that the government will use the failed coup as a pretext to get rid of its opponents and further erode the country’s ailing democratic institutions.
Both the U.S. and the EU have urged Turkey to exercise caution and respect the rule of law. The Turkish government’s actions are not seen in isolation as a reaction against the failed coup, but within Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism. In recent years, the state has frequently used disproportionate force to suppress peaceful protests and legitimate dissent, and there has been a visible increase in government control over the media and restriction of the freedom of the press. Jailing critical journalists has been a widely applied aspect of Turkish government’s policy, which has long been a concern to the U.S. and Turkey’s other western allies.
Consequently, the authoritarian narrative regarding Turkey’s conduct has been gaining more ground in the West. The ongoing purges are likely to add to the view that Turkey, under AKP rule, is moving closer to an authoritarian state. Erdoğan’s personal ambitions and drive to achieve an executive-style presidency adds to the unease those in Turkey and abroad feel about the government’s actions. Those within Turkey’s government see it as evidence that Turkey’s western allies refuse to fully recognize its security needs or threats it faces.
Such disputes are also behind the weakening trust in U.S.-Turkish relations. President Obama has had to emphasize that the U.S. did not have any prior knowledge of the coup attempt, nor did it support it.
The current state of U.S.-Turkish relations is a far cry from the days that the U.S. was promoting Turkey as a role model in 2011 for the aspiring Arab democracies in the region, and as proof that a predominantly Muslim country can successfully combine democratic rule and market economy while maintaining its Islamic identity.
The tense period in the U.S-Turkey relations is not new, but is expected to continue. The U.S. base in Incirlik plays a key role in its military presence in the region and is heavily used in the air campaign against ISIS in Syria. Turkey’s NATO membership and alliance with the U.S. is essential for its security. But despite this mutual need, there’s been some divergence between Turkey and the U.S. regarding what needs to be done in the ongoing Syrian conflict and the rise of a de facto autonomous Kurdish entity in Northern Syria. For Turkey, the rise of Kurds in Syria is perceived as the main threat. But for the U.S., the focus has been on fighting ISIS, and the Kurdish forces in Syria have become one of the main effective U.S. allies on the ground. The U.S. is keen to maintain its ties with the Kurdish forces, but Turkey vehemently opposes it. Turkey fears that the consolidation of Kurdish self-rule in Syria will increase the Kurds’ power as a regional actor, and permanently change the game in their favor.
There are other issues that will strain U.S.-Turkish relations in future. The case of Turkish-born Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who is awaiting trial in the U.S. on charges of fraud, money laundering, and helping to evade the U.S. sanctions against Iran, can potentially implicate Erdoğan’s inner circles. Another issue is the likely legal tussle involving Gülen’s extradition case, which is likely to drag on. Turkey may not be able to produce credible evidence to secure his extradition.
The recent developments once again highlight the ongoing tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations, and could even have an adverse impact on the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria, as Turkey may not be as cooperative as it has been recently. The ongoing political instability in Turkey will be a major concern for the U.S., and for that reason, the two countries must work harder to find a mutually satisfactory outcome. However, the U.S. is right to point at the dangers of authoritarianism, and many people in Turkey share the same sentiments: The fight against coup plotters must not be at the expense of democracy.