Washington’s Turkey Dilemma

by Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero

Last week’s events in Istanbul and Ankara, which left 290 dead, revealed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s weak grip on the Turkish military and dispelled any notion that Turkey’s history of military coups ended in the 20th century. With more than 7,500 arrested since Friday, Erdogan is using the putsch as an opportunity to purge the military, judiciary, and other bodies of government whose members had allegedly backed the coup. As Erdogan now further accelerates the country’s shift toward authoritarian rule, Washington must address difficult questions concerning its most important Muslim ally.

Dependent on the Incirlik air base for military operations against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining strong relations with NATO member Turkey and thus is a major stakeholder in the outcome of the infighting between Erdogan and the arch-secularist military. For 24 hours in the putsch’s aftermath, Turkey closed Incirlik, which is home to roughly 1,500 U.S. military personnel, presumably to remove potential coup plotters and sympathizers. Authorities arrested General Bekir Ercan Van, Turkey’s top military official, at Incirlik for his alleged role in the operation, which provided air-to-air refueling for the fighter jets that flew over Ankara and Istanbul on July 15 to intimidate the anti-coup resistance.

As Turkish officials allege U.S. complicity in the failed coup attempt, the temporary closing of the airbase cut off Incirlik’s electricity, which required American forces to rely on “internal power sources” to continue air operations against IS. The action was likely intended to deliver a message to Washington. Indeed, there is a history of Ankara using this air base for leveraging its influence over U.S. foreign policy on past occasions. From 1975-1980, Turkey retook control of Incirlik in response to the U.S. cutting military aid to Ankara after Turkey used American-supplied equipment to invade Cyprus. Ankara also refused to permit Washington to launch air raids in Iraq from the airbase during the 2003 invasion.

Shortly after the putsch, Erdogan pointed his finger at his once ally and now rival, Imam Fethullah Gülen, who is self-exiled in Pennsylvania. A formal extradition request from Turkey to Washington is pending, and the U.S. government vowed to honor Ankara’s request if it met the legal requirements for extradition. One day after the failed coup attempt, Erdogan spoke at a rally and called on Obama to turn Gülen over to Turkish authorities. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared that Washington’s refusal to extradite the aging cleric would constitute an act of war. And Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu alleged that the U.S. played a role in backing the coup.

Although the Obama administration declared “absolute support for Turkey’s democratically-elected, civilian government and democratic institutions” and the State Department firmly rejected accusations of Washington’s involvement in the coup, important questions linger. Given that the coup plotters used many tanks, attack helicopters and a dozen fighter jets, and coordinated with Turkish troops who’d returned home from fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, some analysts argue that the U.S. must have had advanced knowledge of the army’s intentions on July 15. Many Turks are suspicious of an American role, particularly within the context of Washington’s complicity in previous Turkish military coups, the close relationship between U.S. and Turkish military and intelligence institutions and a history of Washington and Ankara partnering in military operations against the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

If Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime concludes that the U.S. is sponsoring a movement to overthrow Erdogan by refusing to extradite Gülen, the U.S. and Turkey will have to ask difficult questions about the future of their alliance, which is already severely strained by U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters. If Erdogan were to close Incirlik for an extended period of time, as the Turks did in the 1970s, how would Obama or his successor respond? For Washington to continue its military campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria from Turkish soil, the U.S. has no choice but to work with Erdogan, assuming he can preserve his power. U.S. allies in Europe will also want to continue working with their counterparts in Ankara to find solutions to the Middle East’s refugee crises, which represents increasingly complicated dilemmas and heavier burdens for a variety of EU countries.

Yildirim said, “We would be disappointed if our (American) friends told us to present proof even though members of the assassin organization are trying to destroy an elected government under the directions of that person… At this stage there could even be a questioning of our friendship.” The Washington Post reported that Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “Turkey’s NATO membership could be in jeopardy” if authorities fail to meet democratic requirements as mandated by the alliance in response to the failed coup attempt.

If Erdogan’s crackdown removes some of the Turkish military’s most experienced and talented leaders, the army will be in a weaker position to combat both IS and armed Kurdish factions. As IS and other extremist groups thrive in countries where there is already ethnic/sectarian unrest and contested power vacuums, Turkey might fall victim to much of the toxic chaos that has plagued a host of Arab states — including Syria and Iraq — in recent years. A major geopolitical risk is a prolonged power struggle between Erdogan’s loyalists and anti-AKP factions in the military, without a decisive victory in sight for either side. At a time when renewed violence between the army and Kurdish factions in the country’s southeast is already raising the specter of a more widespread civil war, and with IS having made its deadly presence in Turkey well known (highlighted by last month’s Atatürk Airport terrorist attack), the possibility of infighting within and between Turkey’s military and security apparatus could further undermine the country’s security and stability.

Turkey represents NATO’s second largest military force, and the country is situated at the intersection of several critical regions. As such, Turkey’s future is of grave geo-strategic importance not only to the U.S. and its European allies but also to Russia and parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. Although the Ankara-Moscow relationship deteriorated rapidly after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last year, Erdogan’s recent apology to the Kremlin signals an interest in pursuing closer ties with Moscow. Given the tension between Ankara and Washington, Moscow may be expected to exploit an opportunity to widen the gulf between Turkey and the U.S. while simultaneously strengthening its own hand with Ankara. Should that occur, the Kremlin could apply pressure on Ankara to shift its policies in Syria, and other countries where Moscow has vested strategic interests, more towards Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preferences.

Without question, Erdogan’s crackdown on the military is unlikely to make the army entirely obedient to the Turkish president. If further infighting within Turkey’s military and security apparatus destabilizes Turkey, what will be the implications of Article V for the rest of the alliance’s members? The stakes are high for everyone involved—most of all, the Turkish people of course—but few countries in the world hold such intrinsic geopolitical value for so many other players.

Daniel Wagner is the CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”. Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Photo: Turkish armed forces on annual Victory Day parade.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.