Questions arise about US ties to Turkey
Washington - Turkey has been a key US ally in the Middle East since the Cold War but with tempers rising amid Turkish claims of US support for a coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with the removal of seasoned intelligence officers in the mass arrests afterward, US observers wonder whether it is time to take a fresh look at Ankara’s central position in American foreign policy.
Tensions between the two NATO allies overshadowed an August 1st visit by US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Ankara. The US embassy said Dunford was in Turkey to show solidarity with the government, stating: “He will deliver messages condemning in the strongest terms the recent coup attempt and reaffirming the importance of our enduring partnership for regional security.”
As Dunford met with Turkish officials, retired general Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of intelligence at Turkey’s general staff, told the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah newspaper that he thought the July 15th coup attempt had been “planned by US intelligence agencies” with the aim of weakening Turkey. In Ankara, Dunford was greeted by protesters carrying signs that read “Coup plotter, go home”.
Some American experts say Washington should prepare contingency plans for the region that rely less on Turkey, given accusations of US involvement in the coup attempt and post-coup instability. That has affected US forces in Turkey directly: The Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, from which US warplanes have launched attacks against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, was closed by Turkish authorities after the coup attempt as police hunted suspected coup supporters. The power supply to the base was interrupted, forcing US personnel in Incirlik to rely on their own generators.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think-tank, said on Twitter that US President Barack Obama should carry out an “agonising reappraisal” of relations with Turkey, given the pressure on Turkish journalists, academics and officials under suspicion of being Erdogan critics.
“In light of Erdogan’s authoritarianism and mercurial foreign policy, the US should ready Middle East and NATO plans/policies that rely less on Turkey,” Haass tweeted.
The call for a rethink of relations with Turkey comes when top US military officials warn that mass arrests of Turkish security forces could weaken cooperation between the two countries and damage the fight against ISIS.
Senior US military officials voiced concern over the mass dismissal of their Turkish counterparts. Almost 1,700 Turkish officers have been fired since the coup attempt. That includes about 40% of generals and admirals in the second biggest NATO fighting force.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said developments in Turkey were throwing a shadow over joint efforts to defeat ISIS. “It’s having an effect because it’s affected all segments of the national security apparatus in Turkey,” Clapper said during a security forum in Colorado, according to news reports.
“Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested,” Clapper added. “There’s no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks.”
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, said the United States had lost some Turkish partners who were accused of being followers of the US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan claims Gulen organised the coup attempt. Votel said Erdogan’s campaign against suspected coup plotters and other dissidents was “something to be very, very concerned about”.
Votel’s remarks drew a sharp response from Erdogan, who accused him of supporting the failed coup. Votel denied the accusation and said Erdogan’s claim was “unfortunate and completely inaccurate”. Erdogan and other Turkish officials have publicly criticised Washington’s reluctance to extradite Gulen immediately.
These confrontations follow long-standing and unresolved differences between Ankara and Washington with regards to Syria. US officials have criticised what they see as insufficient Turkish efforts to seal the border with Syria to prevent supplies and fresh fighters from reaching the Islamic State (ISIS). In return, Turkish leaders accuse the United States of supporting Kurdish separatists by helping Kurdish militias in Syria in their fight against ISIS.
Despite Turkey’s importance, Washington should look for other partners in the Middle East, Haass and other observers said. “There are plenty of alternatives out there in the region that we might be able to work with to establish similar bases,” Jonathan Schanzer, a Turkey specialist at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Politico. “It can’t be done overnight but my sense is now is the time to begin to look at alternatives.”