Anger at the West

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Supporters of various political parties gather in Istanbul's Taksim Square to attend the Democracy Rally organised by the Republican People's Party, the main opposition party, on July 24. Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric, at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S., on July 29. Photo: Charles Mostoller/Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a press conference in Istanbul on July 16. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

There is a widespread perception in Turkey that the July coup attempt was instigated by the CIA and this has led to a groundswell of resentment against the U.S. and NATO.

As more details emerge, it is becoming clear that it was a combination of luck and deft political management by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that helped thwart the July 15 coup attempt involving key sectors of the Turkish military and the top bureaucracy. More than 270 people, most of them civilians, died in the violence unleashed during the coup attempt. The Turkish President now says that American intelligence agencies lent a helping hand to the coup attempt. The demand that Fethullah Gulen, who, according to Erdogan, is the mastermind behind the coup attempt, be repatriated from the United States to stand trial in Turkey is getting louder by the day. The government of Turkey has already dispatched strong letters to the U.S. giving reasons why the exiled cleric should be immediately sent back to face trial. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said that all the files pertaining to the involvement of the Gulenists in the coup attempt will be sent to the U.S. administration.

Anti-U.S. sentiment is rising on the streets. The opposition parties, including the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, have come out in support of the government. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, held a rally in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square on July 24 in solidarity with the government. Ruling party supporters were also in attendance at the rally. The Taksim Declaration that was adopted at the rally condemned the coup attempt as an “attack on our parliamentary democracy”. There was a demonstration outside the Incirlik military base in late July demanding the withdrawal of U.S. personnel. According to the Turkish authorities, the base was the nerve centre where the coup was plotted. The coup plotters had planned to set up a “Peace Council” after removing the elected government. The leaders of the coup would have then claimed that their move was aimed against the unconstitutional steps being taken by Erdogan and for the restoration of democracy.

On August 6, more than a million Turks attended a rally in Istanbul addressed by the President along with the leaders of the two major opposition parties. The Peoples’ Democratic Party was not invited for both the rallies because of their alleged closeness to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan told the gathering, described as the biggest in the country’s history, that the Turkish people had shown the world “that we are mighty enough to foil any coup”.

Turkish newspapers have accused the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a U.S. general and former NATO commander, John Campbell, and an academic close to the U.S. security establishment, Henry Barkey, of having played an important part in the planning of the coup. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, has pointed out to a story sent out by NBC even as the coup was unfolding that Erdogan had fled from Turkey and had asked for political asylum in Germany. Assange claimed that U.S. intelligence agencies had provided this false information to the news broadcaster. Speaking at a conference of investors in the capital Ankara, Erdogan said that the West “was supporting terrorism and taking sides with coups”. Erdogan and the government have been describing Gulen and his supporters as “terrorists”. The President complained that no Western leader thought it fit to visit the country after the spate of terrorist attacks and the attempted coup, which led to the loss of hundreds of lives. He said that this was not the case when countries such as France and Belgium suffered terrorist attacks.

General Joseph Votel, a senior U.S. military commander in the region, expressed his dismay at the arrest of top Turkish military officials with whom the U.S. was working closely, following the crushing of the coup attempt. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, complained openly that “many of our interlocutors in the army” had been either purged or arrested. “There is no question that this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks,” said Clapper in a speech at Aspen, Colorado.

Erdogan’s accusation

Erdogan was quick to react to the comments of the senior U.S. officials. In a speech delivered in the first week of August, he said that the comments of General Votel were another illustration of Washington’s support for the putschists. “The U.S. general stands with the coup plotters with his words. Instead of thanking the state for repelling the coup attempt, you stand with the coup plotters,” he said. He went further and accused the U.S. of “nurturing the coup plotters” on its territory. Western capitals have been more eager to focus on alleged large-scale human rights abuses by the Turkish authorities since the events of July 15/16. No senior German politician participated in a rally held in Cologne in the first week of August by German citizens of Turkish origin to celebrate the defeat of the coup attempt. A video message from President Erdogan was not allowed to be read out at the rally by the German authorities.

After the coup attempt, around 40 per cent of the top officer corps in the armed forces has either been dismissed or detained. Many of the officers arrested were working closely with U.S. officials on counterterrorism issues. More than 70,000 people, including teachers and journalists, have lost their jobs. Forty-five newspapers, 16 TV channels and 23 radio stations have been closed down. As has now become apparent, the Gulenists, because of their proximity to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from 2002 to 2013, had thoroughly infiltrated all the major institutions of government. They had played an important role in helping Erdogan consolidate his tenuous hold on the levers of government.

The AKP had tolerated the extraconstitutional methods the Gulenists used to bring the coup-prone military to heel during the first decade of AKP rule. The Gulenists then used their influence to infiltrate the armed forces, which was once the bastion of secularism. There is now little doubt that the supporters of Gulen did indeed play a crucial role in the coup attempt. Gulen himself has said that some of his followers could have been involved but insisted that they were not acting on his instructions. The Obama administration seems unwilling to accede to the Turkish government’s demand for the repatriation of Gulen. After all, the old cleric is a well-known CIA asset of long standing.

If Gulen continues to live in self-exile in the U.S. under the protection of the government, relations between Washington and Ankara are likely to nosedive. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that the Turkish people were “appalled at the U.S. insistence on harbouring him”. The Turkish Prime Minister hinted that Ankara could retaliate by closing down a military base near Ankara which is being used by the U.S. military if Washington does not relent on the Gulen issue. It is being speculated that the Prime Minister was referring to the Incirlik air base, used by the U.S. to bomb targets in Syria and Iraq.

Warm relations with Russia

The West fears that recent events will drive Ankara closer to Moscow. Relations between Turkey and Russia have become considerably warmer after Erdogan apologised for the downing of the Russian fighter plane and the death of a pilot earlier in the year. President Vladimir Putin was among the first world leaders to strongly condemn the coup attempt. In a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani a few days after the coup attempt, Erdogan said that Turkey was now “even more determined to work hand in hand with Iran and Russia to resolve the regional issues and strengthen our efforts to return peace and stability to the region”. Erdogan had opposed the imposition of tougher U.S. sanctions on Iran in 2010 and, along with President Lula da Silva of Brazil, had proposed an alternative plan to solve the nuclear impasse between Tehran and Washington. In 2003, Erdogan had refused permission to the U.S. to attack Iraq from Turkish territory.

James Clapper said in Aspen that Russia was trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey. But even before the coup attempt, relations between Turkey and the U.S. were going downhill. The Turkish government was extremely displeased with the open support provided by the U.S. to the separatist Kurds to set up an autonomous state along the Syria-Turkey border. Turkey is well aware that such a move is a big step forward for the creation of a bigger Kurdish state in the region. Turkey is at war with the PKK, the Turkish wing of Kurdish separatists, and realises that if the Kurds are allowed to secede, it will mean the disintegration of the modern state of Turkey forged by Kemal Ataturk.

But despite the current misgivings, it will be difficult for Turkey to cut off the umbilical cord that connects it to the U.S. and the West. Turkey is among the oldest members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) despite being geographically located quite far away from the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s 600,000-strong army is the biggest European military force and the second biggest in NATO. Turkey had even committed troops to help the U.S. in the Korean War in 1952. The ties between U.S. and Turkish political and security establishments are deep-rooted. During the recent visit to Turkey of General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was apparently assured by the country’s Prime Minister and senior military officers that Turkey would continue to cooperate with the U.S. in the efforts to defeat terror groups such as the Daesh (Islamic State).

The Turkish government was helping groups such as the Daesh in the fight against the government in Damascus until last year, despite the U.S. conducting bombing raids against them. From the beginning of this year, the Turkish government seems to have decisively turned against the Daesh.