In the aftermath of the July 15th failed military coup in Turkey, which has resulted in extensive purge of the Turkish military apparatuses, the embattled President Erdogan has openly accused the US of complicity in the coup and brushing aside the US officials’ criticisms of his post-coup purges. Without doubt, the US-Turkish relations have been set back as a result of Ankara’s suspicion of Washington’s role in masterminding the coup, e.g., by dispersing US dollar among the coup-makers, in light of US top officials’ failure to condemn the coup while it was in progress.
In turn, this raises new questions about the US’s approach toward Turkey, a NATO member state that was on the verge of a major U-turn on its Syria policy on the eve of the coup, which has now been seemingly stopped. Contextualizing the failed coup is thus important, given the prior Erdogan’s sacking of Prime Minister Davutoglu in May, 2016, as a prelude for a political transition on Damascus potentiating a turnaround from the failed attempt to dislodge Bashar al-Assad with the help of Saudi-backed rebels; the latter are now so emboldened that for the first time they have convened an open summit in Ankara, forming a new coalition, and basking in the new vulnerabilities of the Turkish government presently consumed by the domestic priorities.
Although the US has adamantly denied any role in the coup and President Obama has stood behind a tall wall of denial, there is a growing consensus in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East that the US engineered the coup, not so much to dethrone but rather to weaken Erdogan and to put a qualitative brake on his omnibus of new Syrian policy.
A manna from heaven for the Syrian rebels, the coup has in a certain sense paralyzed Ankara’s ability to dictate to them, thus adding to Turkey’s present national security woes. For sure, the Syrian rebels and terrorists operating in Syria have a much easier time to cause mischief inside Turkey, a trump card against Ankara that can ill-afford new waves of terrorist attacks. Should Erdogan insist on a fresh course of detente with Damascus, it is a fair bet that Turkey will be hit with more deadly terrorist attacks in reprisal. In a sense, the failed coup has tied Erdogan’s hands on Syria, weakening the central government and forcing Erdogan into a new survival mode that may exact exorbitant prices in terms of an independent Turkish foreign policy.
With respect to Saudi Arabia, the other major stakeholder in the Syrian conflict, also indirectly accused of playing a role in the failed coup, the real value of the post-coup “disciplining” Erdogan back in the line on Syria may have been worth the risk of causing serious thorns in Turkish-Saudi relations. How far Mr. Erdogan will turn away from the US and its allies in the region will be somewhat more apparent after the much-anticipated Erdogan-Putin meeting on August 9th, interpreted by some media pundits in the west as a sign of a Turkish re-orientation. But this might be an exaggeration and, perhaps, “a new balanced” approach is more appropriate characterization of Turkey’s post-coup foreign policy. If Erdogan goes too far in Moscow’s direction, then the US and its allies will retaliate by using their proxies to cause trouble for Turkey, which is why Mr. Erdogan needs to be careful in avoiding the impression of having shifted alliance as a result of the (US-backed) coup. After all, Kurdish insurgency is one of Turkey’s main headaches today, which can be made much worse if the US decides to use the “Kurdish card” against Ankara. Nonetheless, the normalization of Turkish-Russian relations is in the national interests of both countries and, bottom line, the US and NATO can ultimately ill-afford a Turkey in chaos, which puts premium on this anti-Ankara maneuvers.
Erdogan is fully cognizant of NATO’s priorities and problems, which he in turn can exploit to his advantage. In other words, it is simply wrong to assume that Erdogan is empty-handed and is in a reactive mode. Rather, the “heavenly blessing” of the coup has brought certain dividends as well, one of which is to force a fresh re-thinking of Turkey’s long-term interests and its net of friends and enemies in the region and beyond.