The Foreign Policy Implications of Turkey’s Attempted Coup

by Derek Davison

Last Friday night, elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup d’état against the civilian government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). The attempt failed completely. In the days since, Erdogan has led a public purge of the military and judicial sectors that resulted in the arrests of thousands of people and demanded that the United States extradite the coup attempt’s alleged ringleader, Turkish cleric (and former Erdogan ally) Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in America since 1999. For his part, Gulen insists that Erdogan staged the coup and says that he would “obey” an extradition order. But Washington has said that Erdogan’s government must produce evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the plot for an extradition to go forward.

In order to get a sense of the repercussions of the coup attempt for the U.S.-Turkey relationship and for U.S. foreign policy moving forward, I spoke with Omer Taspinar, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and an expert on Turkish politics and foreign policy.

LobeLog: Before we jump into the foreign policy angle, can you give me a sense of how this coup happened and where things are headed domestically for Turkey? What are we likely to see in terms of fallout from this over the next several months?

Omer Taspinar: The domestic agenda before the coup was basically Erdogan pursuing a presidential system with full force. He was in total control of the political situation. The army appeared to be working hand-in-glove with him on the Kurdish enterprise. So this came as a surprise. There were concerns that empowering the military would lead to something like this, but not this quickly and not—allegedly—from Gulen’s supporters.

The coup appears to be the work of a much larger segment of the Turkish military, not confined to the Gulenists. Many generals and admirals have been arrested. But it did not have the support of the chain of command or any unity of command. The military chief of staff and force commanders did not go along with the coup plotters. And the plotters had to act earlier than they planned because intelligence was coming in about the plot from Turkish intelligence and the police.

I don’t think Erdogan staged this coup. But a lot of people have argued that Erdogan may have learned about it, understood that it didn’t have wide support, and decided that it may benefit him. I’m not sure even that is true, that Erdogan knew about it and wanted to exploit it. But I am fairly confident that he will exploit it now that it’s happened, to gain support for the presidential system. He will tell voters that Turkey needs a strong leader who can fight enemies internally and externally. Polls show that Turkish voters like Erdogan but don’t want a presidential system. But now Erdogan has the perfect opportunity to say that we can’t afford not to go to the presidential system.

LL: Research on the issue of failed coups suggests that there is a line governments can cross in terms of purging the coup elements, where they create a backlash and increase the possibility of a second/larger coup in response. Is there a risk of that happening here?

OT: I think Erdogan has all he wants now. He can purge the Gulenists, go after liberals, and quash dissidents. His road to the presidential system is paved. He doesn’t need to go so far as to risk a backlash.

However, this will really hurt the Turkish economy, and Erdogan’s political recipe always relied on his ability to produce economic success. So if that image is damaged, it may produce problems for him in the medium to long run. But in the short run his political position is secure.

LL: Talking about Gulen is a great point on which to pivot to the foreign policy discussion. The Turkish government is demanding that the U.S. extradite Gulen in order to demonstrate its friendship to Turkey. Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu outright blamed the United States for perpetrating the attempted coup. John Kerry has said that the U.S. would be willing to consider an extradition request if Turkey can produce evidence linking Gulen to the coup plot, while also blasting allegations that Washington was involved in the coup as “utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations.” At the same time, the initial US response to the coup struck me as tepid, focused on “stability” and protecting civilians, with President Obama only expressing firm support for Erdogan when it really started to become clear that the coup was fizzling out. Are we at a low point in the US-Turkey relationship, even by the standard set over the past couple of (challenging) years?

OT: When the coup in Egypt happened in 2013, one reason why Erdogan was furious with the United States was because the U.S. didn’t call it a coup, and maintained normal relations with the new Egyptian government. Therefore he was always concerned that the U.S. might not support him if there were a coup in Turkey. So I don’t think he was surprised that the US was hedging—he expected that. However, what he expects now that the coup was botched and there’s evidence, in the eyes of the Turkish state, that the Gulenists were involved, is that the US will cooperate in Gulen’s extradition. Yet, extradition is a legal, not political, process, so there has to be legal evidence linking Gulen to decision-making within the organization. This hard legal evidence is missing, which is why Turkey hasn’t been able to make a strong case to the U.S. government for Gulen’s extradition. They can prove there is a connection to Gulen sympathizers, but what is missing is any connection between Gulen himself and decision-making in Turkey.

This is not a hierarchical organization. Gulen is an inspirational religious leader. He doesn’t give operational orders. He may hint at a strategic vision for his movement in his speeches, but he doesn’t give tactical orders. So it will be extremely difficult for the U.S. to extradite Gulen on the grounds that he’s involved in illegal activities in Turkey. This will create tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, and Erdogan will exploit that by threatening to stop cooperating with the U.S. on issues like Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State. Erdogan will get much more aggressive in his demands, but fundamentally I don’t think it will change Washington’s reaction.

LL: It’s no secret that the U.S. and Erdogan haven’t been on the same page when it comes to Syria or the Kurds. Do you see any changes to Ankara’s policies on those fronts after this coup?

OT: Before the coup happened, Erdogan was trying to return to a policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors. He was trying to normalize relations with Russia and had already normalized relations with Israel, and had hinted at improving relations with Egypt, the U.S., and even Syria. He decided to pursue this charm offensive because he wants to convince the Turkish public that he is now in charge, that the turbulence of Turkish foreign policy over the past couple of years happened because he was focused on domestic issues, but he’s now focused on foreign policy—and that, with him in charge, things will get better. Of course, Erdogan was really in charge all along, but he wants to create the impression that the difficulties were the fault of [former prime minister Ahmet] Davutoglu, or [former president] Abdullah Gul.

We cannot understand Erdogan’s foreign policy without understanding his domestic agenda. So he will continue the charm offensive to try to return to zero problems with Turkey’s neighbors. He cannot all of a sudden start engaging with Damascus. But with some kind of face-saving mechanism, like greater involvement in the peace process or a U.S. commitment to reduce collaboration with the Kurds, he could change his Syria policy. I think he also wants to change his Egypt policy, but Egypt’s decision to block a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the attempted coup may hamper this effort.

Erdogan tried to reach out to his neighbors because he realized that foreign policy was hurting his image. Turkey was increasingly isolated, and Erdogan realized that he must change course to convince voters that he can bring stability to Turkish politics.

The coup will weaken Turkey’s ability to fight the PKK and IS, because the Turkish military is focused on internal issues, fighting the coup plotters/Gulenists, but it will not change Erdogan’s outreach policy.

LL: Let’s talk about the Islamic State. When Erdogan made his triumphant return to Istanbul Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but notice some symbolism in that his plane landed at Ataturk Airport, the site of a brutal recent terrorist attack linked to IS. Many inside and outside of Turkey have argued that Erdogan’s Syria policy has helped enable the spate of recent IS-linked bombings that have struck Turkey. Do you think those bombings played any role in motivating the coup plotters? And do you think we’ll see any shift in Turkey’s handling of IS in the coming months, or was a shift already coming—in which case, does the coup attempt change that in any way?

OT: I think there was going to be a shift in Turkish efforts to fight IS after the Ataturk Airport attack. There were signs that Turkey was beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem and that there would be an increased effort to combat IS cells in the country.

There are two phases in IS’s activity in Turkey. Initially it focused on attacking Kurds only, such as its bombings in Suruc and Ankara, but now it’s attacking Istanbul and particularly Turkish tourism. For a time there was a tacit understanding between Ankara and IS that IS would only strike Kurdish targets. When IS conquered Mosul, remember, it released several captured Turkish diplomats, and we really don’t know all that Turkey offered in return. But any deal was broken when IS attacked Istanbul, and especially when it attacked Istanbul’s main airport. So Turkey was going to ramp up its campaign against IS anyway.

As to your first question, that’s very interesting. The standard explanation for the coup attempt is “Gulenists, Gulenists, Gulenists”—this is Fethullah Gulen’s attempt to destabilize Turkey. That may be true—there was ample reason for Gulenists to make an attempt like this. But dozens of flag officers have been arrested from all over the Turkish military, which tells me that the coup attempt was not confined to Gulen’s followers. These officers were probably Kemalists, secularists, who were concerned about Turkey’s foreign policy direction. They fear, unreasonably in my view, that Erdogan is an Islamist megalomaniac who wants to reestablish the Ottoman Empire and make himself caliph. The level of flag officer participation suggests that there was panic in the military about Erdogan’s foreign policy and his Islamization of Turkish politics. His foreign policy in Syria in support of Islamist rebels, in Egypt in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, caused the Kemalists to fear that he was involving Turkey in the sectarian conflicts currently embroiling the region.

It’s also important to note that Turkey has a large Shi‘a population, the Alevis, who make up roughly 15% of the Turkish population. The Alevi element in the Turkish military—which is ultra-secularist, ultra-Kemalist—may have been involved in plotting the coup. It would be interesting to see how many of the officers who have been arrested are Alevis.

Photo: Fethullah Gulen

Omer Taspinar is a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence and an expert on Turkey, the European Union, Muslims in Europe, political Islam, the Middle East, and Kurdish nationalism. He is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


One Comment

  1. Are the USA and Israel the ones who tipped Erdogan about the coup? Both do not want Erdogan to be a replaced by unknown military commanders or a religious clerc.
    As such the coup may have failed only because of the USA’s intervention. The CIA had probably infiltrated the rebels and this what gave the impression that the coup was ill prepared and amateurish.
    It does remind me of the 1953 CIA coup that saved the Shah of been overthrown. One more time the USA is saving a convenient dictator.
    I doubt this is the ends of the rebellion against Erdogan. The rebels will not stop and will make Erdogan’s life miserable if they don’t simply suppress him. After the Kurds and ISIS, Erdogan has now another fierce enemy to fight.

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