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Turkey at a Crossroads: The coup and its cost for the West

August 29th, 2016

By Laura Cretney – Junior Fellow

On Friday the 15th July world leaders watched in eager anticipation as a faction within the Turkish army launched a coup attempt lasting several hours. After successfully defeating the putsch, democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pinned the blame on forces loyal to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the leader of an Islamist movement previously aligned with Erdogan. He has since embarked on a purge of perceived Gulenist elements within Turkey, arresting and suspending thousands of alleged conspirators and sympathisers [1].

Many Turks who opposed the coup argue that it has increased political solidarity, however, the subsequent crackdown has accentuated pre-existing concerns relating to Turkey’s democratic and human rights records and the increasingly authoritarian nature of Erdogan’s regime. Western policymakers have also warned that the fallout could have destabilising effects on the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process and Turkey’s status as a NATO member and regional ally.

Turkey is at a crossroads. The coup has provided an opportunity for political unity, however President Erdogan might also exploit the political uncertainty to further entrench his power. Western policymakers must tread carefully in order to avoid the latter, as their responses will affect not only Turkish political society but the course of regional events and international relations.

A coup like no other

Violence shook Turkey’s main cities last month as a faction of the armed forces, organised under a so-called “peace council”, blockaded Istanbul’s bridges with tanks and stormed Turkish media outlets as fighter jets flew overhead. President Erdogan – from a holiday resort in Marmaris – urged his supporters via FaceTime to take to the streets to defend democracy against the putsch[2]. Some 265 people were killed and hundreds more injured before the government regained control, vowing that the plotters would “pay a heavy price”[3].

Given Turkey’s history of military interventions, the coup attempt was not a shock for regional analysts. The largely secular Turkish military has intervened roughly once every decade since the 1960s to overthrow governments it deemed too authoritarian[4]. What makes this coup a remarkable break from the past is its failure. For the first time, the attempt was launched from outside the chain of command and tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest military rule[5].

Some blamed the incompetence of the plotters for its failure, citing their inability to arrest the president or the prime minister and their failure to establish control over the media[6]. However the unprecedented level of public opposition to the putsch implies that, unlike previous coups, it received little civilian support. It also suggests that, while Erdogan may face significant domestic opposition, even his opponents would prefer he remain in power than see a military force undermine the democratic process.

The putsch has been followed by Erdogan’s ruthless crackdown on so-called Gulenist elements, which has penetrated not only the military but civil, educational and media institutions. More than 85,000 public sector employees including civil servants, police, judges and academics have been removed or suspended from their posts[7]. This has drawn widespread criticism from foreign observers, who argue that Erdogan is exploiting the coup to justify the repression of critics. Equally concerning are allegations of torture, including sexual abuse of soldiers detained for their involvement in the coup[8].

On the other hand, the coup has apparently encouraged increased domestic political unity, as the main opposition parties gathered at the parliament in Ankara the following day to show solidarity with the government[9]. The president has also held cross-party talks and a ‘Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally’ in the wake of the coup, inviting major opposition parties to participate[10]. Turkey has seen high levels of political conflict in recent years, but the coup might have provided an opportunity for future cross-party dialogue and cooperation.

Notably excluded from the talks, however, was the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)[11]. It is unclear how the coup will affect the Kurdish peace process, however it so far appears that Erdogan’s political unity does not encompass the Kurds. A breakdown in the peace process not only heightens the risk of increased ethnic conflict within Turkey, but could also disrupt conflicts beyond its borders. Kurdish militias have been key Western allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria, a role that could be compromised by increased hostilities with the Erdogan regime.

An unstable Turkish military could also directly change the course of the Syrian conflict given the Erdogan government’s steadfast opposition to the Assad regime. The coup has thrown this support into doubt, as Erdogan’s attention has been diverted inwards and key military figures – including most of the commanders of combat units on the Syrian border – have been imprisoned[12]. It is therefore possible that Ankara might be forced to scale down its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Alternatively, however, a lack of oversight by a preoccupied central government might instead lead to more reckless, heavy-handed military action in Syria[13].

Key ally or cold Turkey?

Turkey’s role in regional events is particularly crucial from a Western foreign policy perspective given its bid to join the EU, its influence over the refugee crisis and its NATO membership. Turkey is also home to the Incirlik Air Base, a key launch pad for US air strikes against IS which has reportedly housed American nuclear weapons (although Washington will neither confirm nor deny this)[14]. The way the coup will affect Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the West depends on how Western policymakers respond to events as they unfold. Poor judgment by US and European policymakers could cost them a key regional ally – a particular concern given Ankara’s recent rapprochement with other foreign powers – yet succumbing to Erdogan’s demands could set a dangerous precedent.

In March 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey offering visa-free travel for some Turks visiting Europe and €6 billion in refugee aid in exchange for Turkey limiting the number of asylum seekers crossing its borders into Europe[15]. Despite the fact that criticism of Turkey’s human rights record has only increased in recent months, this deal is arguably the closest that Turkey has come to obtaining EU membership since it applied in 1999. This highlights the way in which the refugee crisis in Europe has shifted the dynamics of power in the region. Turkey’s geographical position gives it a pivotal role in solving the crisis, awarding Ankara new leverage in its controversial EU membership bid. This has forced Brussels to reassess its tough stance on Turkey’s democratic and human rights records in the short term.

In the aftermath of the coup, President Erdogan announced his readiness to reinstate the death penalty if the Turkish people demanded it and parliament approved the necessary legislation[16]. This represents a sharp break with previous Turkish endeavours to placate leaders in Brussels (Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 in order to comply with EU policy[17]). This blatant disdain for EU standards could be interpreted in various ways. Firstly, it could imply that Erdogan is fully aware of the advantage that the refugee crisis has awarded his country vis-à-vis Europe and is challenging its extent. Thus far, Brussels has remained steadfast on the issue, and EU leaders including German Chancellor Merkel have warned him that reinstating the death penalty would scupper Turkey’s bid for membership in the bloc[18].

This raises the question of whether Turkey has abandoned its desire to join the EU entirely, instead looking eastwards to build new relationships. Against a background thawing Turkish-Russian relations[19], Erdogan travelled to St. Petersburg on the 9th August to discuss the strengthening of ties between the two countries with President Vladimir Putin. During the visit, Putin reportedly told his Turkish counterpart that Russia is ready to restore economic cooperation with Turkey, along with other ties[20]. This could have far-reaching implications, most notably in Syria, where Ankara and the Kremlin have thus far backed opposite sides of the conflict. It is also possible that Erdogan is reaching out to the Kremlin to bolster support for domestic campaigns, such as the fight against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)[21]. This could come at a heavy price for the Turkish population, as replacing European allies with a Russian one could lead Erdogan to embrace a more authoritarian outlook. Maintaining a close relationship with Erdogan and preventing a ‘tilt towards Moscow’[22] is therefore both strategically realistic and morally important from a democratic and human rights perspective.

Both Putin and Iran’s President Rouhani telephoned Erdogan after the coup to show their support for his regime, with Rouhani offering his congratulations on its failure and stating Iran’s readiness for closer relations with Turkey[23]. This was cemented in a meeting between Erdogan and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Ankara in August, during which they agreed to boost trade relations between the two countries and increase cooperation regarding Syria[24]. In the midst of uncertainty over Turkey’s Syria policy, closer cooperation with Russia and Iran could definitively turn the tide of the conflict.

European and American leaders, on the other hand, have been criticised by many in Turkey for failing to rally around Ankara in the wake of the coup, instead offering stern warnings to the Erdogan regime against disproportionate repression and human rights violations. Western foreign ministers urged Ankara in the hours after the coup not to abandon the principles of democracy and rule of law, however, many Turks perceive this as the failure to recognise how much worse military rule would have been for Turkey’s democracy.

Days after the coup, a German court ruled against allowing Erdogan to address a crowd of supporters and anti-coup demonstrators via video link in Cologne this month. In response, Erdogan repeated his complaint that no foreign leader had visited Turkey following the putsch, saying “those we considered friends are siding with coup-plotters and terrorists”[25]. Such actions threaten Western leaders’ leverage with Ankara while simultaneously playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists who suggest that Europe and the US tacitly supported the coup plotters (such theories have been steadfastly denied by Western officials).

Western media coverage, which many in Turkey perceive to mirror the stance of their respective administrations, has also been criticised for its perceived bias and for showing an ‘obsession’ with Erdogan rather than focussing on definitively identifying those responsible for coup[26]. While upholding the values of democracy and human rights is necessarily a priority for Western leaders, they currently run the risk of alienating both Ankara and the Turkish people. A more nuanced approach is therefore necessary to avoid pushing Turkey directly into the hands of the Kremlin.

Washington’s relationship with Ankara in particular has been strained by the Erdogan regime’s repeated request for the extradition of Pensylvania resident Fethullah Gulen, the alleged coup mastermind. The Erdogan government has reportedly sent Washington 85 boxes of documents that allegedly prove Gulen’s involvement in the coup, however the US government appears unconvinced[27]. The Obama administration is rightly concerned with the human rights implications of extraditing Gulen without sufficient evidence, particularly given recent discussion of the death penalty. However, Ankara has warned that refusal to hand Gulen over will have serious consequences for the future of US-Turkish bilateral relations[28].

Unfortunately for the US, its refusal to extradite Gulen has reinforced Turkish suspicions that the US assisted the putsch, with a criminal complaint filed by a Turkish lawyer against two US generals, alleging that they conspired with elements of the Turkish military at Incirlik Air Base. According to the complaint, Turkish fighters jets and refuelling tankers used in the putsch came from Incirlik, though the US denies these claims[29].

The security implications of a deterioration in US-Turkish relations must not be ignored. This dispute, on top of the obvious divisions and instability within the Turkish military, could hold serious implications for the future of NATO. In early August it was reported that Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Turkey later this month, a visit that will be key for maintaining a strong relationship with the Erdogan government[30]. Kerry will need to tread carefully, on the one hand showing the Erdogan government that the US values its friendship and cooperation, but also upholding his government’s commitment to democracy and human rights in the Turkish republic and the wider region.

Policy Recommendations

The EU

  • Both Brussels and individual European leaders must show the Erdogan government and, more importantly, the Turkish people that they are unbiased in their approach to upholding democracy and human rights in Turkey. They should recognise that a successful coup would signify a major step back for the democratic process and be more specific in their criticism of Erdogan’s crackdown. This means accepting the importance of apprehending those who tried to overturn democracy, whilst condemning the crackdown on civil and cultural institutions, the alleged torture of prisoners, and the potential reinstatement of the death penalty. European officials will then avoid appearing unsupportive of a key ally, whilst continuing to advocate respect for human rights and caution against autocracy.
  • Individual officials and national leaders should reach out to President Erdogan, highlighting the opportunities for political unity created by the coup and pledging their support for further meaningful dialogue between the AKP and opposition parties.
  • Brussels must reinforce its commitment to working with Turkey to resolve the refugee crisis and keep the door open for Turkey’s EU bid – a commitment that should be echoed by national leaders – although it must make clear that this strictly depends on Turkey meeting European standards of democracy and human rights. This will signal to President Erdogan that Europe values Turkey’s cooperation, dissuading him from forsaking democracy and turning to Russia for support.

The US

  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Turkey this month will be key to maintaining close bilateral relations with Turkey and to securing the future of NATO. Kerry must show nuance when discussing events with Erdogan and addressing the Turkish people. He should state the Obama administration’s relief that the coup failed given its implications for the democratic process, and pledge support for the unification of the political system under Erdogan. He should, however, note the importance of the Kurdish peace process for political unity and be specific in his criticism of the crackdown on critics and peaceful opposition.
  • The US has an extradition treaty with Turkey, which requires a judicial decision followed by an evaluation by the Secretary of State, who must take into account the possibility of torture or execution[31]. In the case of Gulen, this would be a definite possibility given recent torture allegations and Erdogan’s threats regarding the death penalty. The US should therefore make clear to Ankara that they will extradite Gulen ONLY on the basis of sufficient evidence of his involvement in the coup, and with a guarantee that he would not be subject to torture or execution.
  • The US must show support for the Erdogan government’s fight against domestic terrorism, whilst clarifying that the term is not used to justify the repression of non-violent opposition. The Obama administration could offer Turkey intelligence assistance for counterterror operations, provided the US government agreed with the targets. This would allow Washington greater influence over the designated targets and scrutiny of the evidence against them. This could also ensure that the Turkish government is not targeting Kurdish groups in Syria that are allied with the West in the fight against IS.
  • Finally, the Obama administration should steadfastly refute claims of its involvement in the coup in order to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the Turkish people and so as not to lose its use of Incirlik Air Base, which has been crucial in targeting IS in Syria.

Turkey now occupies a critical position on the world stage and the West has found itself in competition with Moscow and Tehran for influence over Ankara’s next move. Despite the varying interests of Western policymakers, there is one key theme evident in the above recommendations: developing a more nuanced narrative regarding the coup in order to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the Turkish people and President Erdogan.

[1] Amnesty International, 22nd July 2016 (LINK)

[2] Reuters, 16th July 2016 (LINK)

[3] Amnesty International, 22nd July 2016 (LINK); Reuters, 16th July 2016 (LINK)

[4] The Washington Post, 16th July 2016 (LINK)

[5] War on the Rocks, 28th July 2016 (LINK)

[6] The Washington Post, 16th July 2016 (LINK)

[7] Amnesty International, 22nd July 2016, (LINK);  BBC, 13th August 2016 (LINK)

[8] The Guardian, 23rd July 2016, (LINK)

[9] The Washington Post, 17th July 2016 (LINK)

[10] Al Jazeera, 7th August 2016 (LINK)

[11] Al Jazeera, 7th August 2016 (LINK)

[12] The Economist, 24th July 2016 (LINK)

[13] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28th July 2016 (LINK)

[14] Foreign Policy, 18th July 2016 (LINK)

[15] The Economist, 28th May 2016 (LINK)

[16] Al Jazeera, 19th July 2016 (LINK)

[17] EU Policy on Death Penalty (LINK)

[18] Al Jazeera, 19th July 2016 (LINK)

[19] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28th July 2016 (LINK)

[20] BBC, 9th August 2016 (LINK)

[21] Foreign Policy, 3rd August (LINK)

[22] Foreign Policy, 3rd August (LINK)

[23] BBC, 9th August 2016 (LINK); Arabist, 22nd July 2016 (LINK)

[24] ABC News, 12th August 2016 (LINK)

[25] Military Times, 2nd August 2016 (LINK)

[26] War on the Rocks, 1st August (LINK)

[27] Al Arabiyya, 5th August (LINK)

[28] Washington Post, 26th July 2016 (LINK)

[29] Military Times, 2nd August 2016 (LINK)

[30] CBC News, 4th August 2016 (LINK)

[31] The Wall Street Journal, 17th July 2016 (LINK)

About Laura Cretney