The progress made weeks after an ISIL-initiated terrorist attack at Istanbul’s international airport, Turkish and U.S. leaders came together for a renewed commitment of their collaboration in fighting ISIL now is uncertain thanks to the failed coup. President Erdogan’s purge of suspected disloyal officers in the military is already raising alarm about the ability of the Turkish military to continue its commitments as effective and sovereign fighting force despite the fact that the vast majority of its members remained loyal to the Turkish state.
Leaving power unchecked
President Erdogan is openly considering calls to reinstate the death penalty and has made it his priority to “cleanse the state institutions of all these viruses…that like a cancer, has spread throughout the state apparatus.” Absent in this rhetoric is any concern for the death penalty’s potential to hurt Turkey’s position as an EU candidate or Western ally. To add to this, President Erdogan blames the coup on Gulen’s “Hizmet” movement, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization. This movement is led by and named for Fethullah Gulen, a former Islamic-influenced ally of President Erdogan. Gulen resides in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and President Erdogan has called for the U.S. to extradite him immediately. Turks even protested in front of Fetullah Gulen’s home to show their support for President Erdogan and voice their allegations of the Cleric.
The Turkish Prime Minister asserted that any country standing with Gulen is at war with Turkey leaving no room for compromise. Meanwhile, President Erdogan insinuatingly remarked that the U.S. had never rejected a U.S. extradition request for “terrorists” and said, “if we are strategic partners, then you should honor our request.” Secretary Kerry has responded to this request by asking for any “legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny” indicting Gulen but clearly this is just beginning of a difference of definitions and interpretations.
U.S. Approach: Find Where Interests and Ideas Intersect
Given the still-evolving situation in Turkey, it’s clear that in the short-term security and interests will supersede freedom and values in these turbulent times, therefore the U.S. must proceed with caution. There is a delicate balance between maintaining a strong partnership with Turkey, which is crucial for regional and international security, and sticking to U.S. ideals of democracy and support for civil society.
Yet even those opposing the AK Party do not want to see Turkish democratic progress revert, nor do they want to see an unstable and violence-ridden Turkey. The coup was negative for almost every member of Turkish society, and President Erdogan has thanked opposition party leaders for their condemnation creating a small window of opportunity. While this one point of convergence stands in contrast to Turkey’s polarized political climate, the overwhelming narrative now is focusing on renewed fears of increased authoritarianism. A strategic and nuanced American response must now capitalize on whatever little hope and common ground that exists in Turkey domestically. With a balanced understanding of Turkish domestic politics, and a belief that freedom and security are not mutually exclusive, there is still room to help turn the tide of the failed coup from a power paradigm that will only lead to further polarization, to democracy through pluralism.
The coup has now created an atmosphere of fear, instability and insecurity for Turkey’s citizens. This fear, instability and insecurity removed the remaining checks on President Erdogan’s power—the very same checks and balances that are the cornerstones of democracy itself.
Journalists and citizens alike immediately noted that the coup played right into President Erdogan’s hands, paving the way for him to persecute his critics and giving credence to his fears of conspiratorial overthrow. The failed coup is already being described as a “windfall for Erdogan,” who will use this insecurity to hasten the push for Turkey to become a presidential system that he had set in motion by removing Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister earlier this summer.
Turkey has had a tumultuous past few years, including the antigovernmentGezi Park demonstrations and a massive corruption scandal in 2013, apresidential election in 2014, and a spike in domestic terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. Amidst this instability, President Erdogan’s supporters have only become more fervent in their need to defend the stability of the Turkish state through security measures that might encroach on individual freedoms. One need only watch an AK Party campaign commercial from 2014 for a visual representation of this trend that is becoming all too common in America’s 2016 presidential campaign as well.
The role of the international community
As a critical NATO member, the largest host of Syrian refugees, and a regional power in the Middle East, Turkish domestic politics are not isolated, but inextricably linked, to international affairs. Likewise, the AKP’s tightening grip on power is not only dependent on the Turkish electorate, but also on the support of powerful actors in the international community.
Importantly, the AK Party has recently sought stronger ties with Russia and Israel. European Union countries rely on Turkey to stem the flow of Syrian refugees, as Washington looks to Ankara for anti-ISIL collaboration, and in particular its strategic use of Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. As the coup eroded security, Turkish authorities closed the base, and a power outage added a whiff of intrigue. Its reopening suggests continued collaboration between the Turkish and U.S. governments in the fight against ISIL but also a new chapter in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Selma Bardakci and Joshua Walker
This article was also published at the National Interest