Attempted coup in Turkey threatens ties with Washington
Washington - The attempted coup in Turkey threatens to disrupt ties between Ankara and Washington as tensions flare over Turkish accusations of US involvement in the foiled takeover and anger about Washington’s perceived reluctance to extradite a cleric Turkey accuses of masterminding the plot.
The row comes despite cooperation between the two NATO allies in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), with US warplanes using Turkish air bases to attack ISIS positions in Syria.
When US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 19th — four days after the coup — he underlined that Washington stood with Turkey’s elected leadership against the coup plotters. However, he also voiced concern about a government-ordered backlash that included the arrest of thousands of soldiers and the suspension of tens of thousands of police officers, judges and teachers.
US officials reacted angrily to suggestions in Turkish pro-government media that the United States might have had a hand in the conspiracy against the Erdogan government.
Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper, wrote that the United States wanted to trigger a civil war in Turkey via Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Islamic cleric Erdogan accuses of being behind the coup. Israel also was involved in the plot, Karagul wrote.
“The US government, which is sheltering the leader of a terrorist organisation, must be declared a country supporting terrorism,” Karagul wrote in reference to Gulen, who has lived in the United States since 1999.
In an interview on Turkish television, US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass called Karagul’s allegation baseless and “ugly”.
Turkish Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu also suggested that Washington was behind the uprising, triggering a strong response by US Secretary of State John Kerry. “We think it’s irresponsible to have accusations of American involvement,” Kerry told CNN.
Erdogan’s government claims that Gulen followers led the rebellion, which included air force and army units attacking government buildings and blocking major transport routes before announcing they had taken control. The coup failed within hours as military units loyal to Erdogan fought the rebels and tens of thousands of Turks flooded the streets to confront the insurgents.
The Turkish president publicly called on the United States to extradite Gulen, 75, so he could be put on trial for treason in Turkey. Gulen denied he had been behind the events and suggested the uprising might have been staged by Erdogan as a pretext to bring all government institutions, including the military, under his control.
After Erdogan raised the Gulen issue with Obama, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States would follow a procedure that gave “due process” to US residents such as Gulen. Turkey submitted documents on Gulen to US authorities but was unclear whether this was a formal extradition request.
Kerry called on Turkey to present evidence against Gulen and said that US courts would look into the case, a procedure that could take years. Gulen, who leads the Hizmet (“Service”) movement that has hundreds of thousands of followers in Turkey, said he was confident that an extradition request would be rejected.
Gulen and Erdogan were at one time strong allies but the two sides split after prosecutors accused by the government of being linked to the Hizmet movement, brought corruption charges against some members of the cabinet and their relatives.
A failure by Ankara and Washington to resolve the Gulen issue could have serious consequences. Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Europe think-tank wrote: “The effectiveness of the joint fight against [ISIS], which relies heavily on [US] air strikes originating from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, would doubtless be jeopardised.” Cohesion within NATO would also be affected, he said.
Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Ankara who is at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that US-Turkish cooperation against ISIS was proceeding as normal as of now. “It is ultimately for Erdogan to decide if he wants to escalate tensions with Washington further,” Pearson said.
With tensions running high in Turkey after the coup, the government greatly widened the scope of arrests and suspensions of suspected coup supporters to include tens of thousands of teachers and public servants, something Semih Idiz, a respected Turkish columnist, said could further affect Turkish-US ties.
“There is a lot of anger against Gulen among Erdogan supporters,” Idiz said, adding that Erdogan needs to be careful in channelling that anger or he risks a full-blown crisis with Washington that could affect Ankara’s standing in NATO and isolate Turkey with regards to Syria.
“Erdogan will have to tone down at some point,” Idiz said, “but it’s very emotional at the moment. There are a lot of people calling for revenge.”