Failed coup attempt in Turkey ushers in harsh response, reducing chances for reforms.
By Marc Grossman*
The brazen, bloody, failed coup attempt burst like a lightning storm over Turkey, throwing into stark relief the challenges, contradictions, cleavages and possibilities that face this pivotal nation.
The government’s revenge promises to be harsh. Thousands of people have been detained or dismissed, including military officers, judges and policemen. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for reinstatement of the death penalty.
The urgent question for Turkey and for its neighbors, allies and friends is what will Erdoğan and his AKP party supporters do next? Will Erdoğan focus on score-settling and then accelerate the forced march to increasing authoritarianism? Is it too late for Turks to commit their nation to policies that promote tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law and the fight against extremism?
To consider these questions, it’s important to examine the context of the events of July 15.
Erdoğan’s domestic policies in recent years have sown deep division. One example: His drive for a powerful presidential system is of enormous concern not just in Turkey but among allies, including the United States.
Ankara’s foreign policy decisions left Turkey isolated internationally and in the region. Turkey’s stated policy of “zero problems with neighbors” became “problems with everyone.” The government’s fantasy that it could use ISIS for its own purposes led many in the US and Europe to fear that Turkey moved toward becoming an ISIS supporter.
More than 2.7 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, an enormous burden on state and society. The plight of the refugees in Europe and Turkey, and the fear of more to come, have increased tensions between Turkey and the EU instead of encouraging a joint long-term vision. Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian jet fighter last November resulted in a year-long estrangement with Moscow.
Turkish economic growth has slowed and will no doubt be hurt further by near term instability. According to The Economist, terrorism and Vladimir Putin’s travel ban for Russian citizens have resulted in a 35 percent drop in foreign arrivals in the year to May, the largest drop “in decades.” The value of the Turkish lira has decreased by 70 percent since 2013 against the US dollar.
Surveying the predicament in May, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim concluded, “We’ll increase the number of friends; we’ll decrease the number of our enemies.” Indeed, some Turkish policies were being adjusted before the coup attempt. Turkey had started to work more closely with the US and its allies to fight the Islamic State – highlighted by its decision to allow allies to use the Turkish airbase at Incirlik for the air campaign. Turkey and Israel announced a restoration of diplomatic relations on June 28. The next day, Moscow and Ankara put aside their grievances after Erdoğan apologized for shooting down the Russian plane.
If it’s possible for Turkey to regain its balance as a pluralistic, rule-of-law state in the aftermath of the coup attempt, several things must happen.
First, Turkey needs to pursue domestic reconciliation – both with the millions of Turks who fear Erdoğan’s personal and political vision and with Turkey’s Kurdish population. Many Turks opposed to Erdoğan’s consolidation of power nonetheless joined the president’s supporters to oppose a military putsch. Many now wonder whether the government’s victory over the plotters will make it possible for Erdoğan and the AKP leadership to take into account their views and emotions. Regarding the future of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, a main ISIS objective is to widen fissures between Turks and Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. Many have argued since the Istanbul airport attack that Erdoğan should restart his dialogue with the Kurds, which he abandoned as part of his 2013 election strategy.
Second, Turkey must increase cooperation with its friends and allies in the fight against the Islamic State. US Secretary of State John Kerry says he has been reassured that Turkey will remain in the fight. But will fear of outside meddling and focus on domestic retribution make it hard for Turkey to keep its commitments?
The US government was right to oppose the coup attempt, but in the fight against ISIS, a complete convergence between Ankara and Washington is still missing. Two examples of this gap are 1) Washington’s lingering worry about Turkey’s commitment to more energetically guard its border with Syria and 2) Turkey’s continuing objections to America’s military cooperation with the Iraqi Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to combat ISIS.
Washington will continue to urge Turkey to pay more attention to its southeastern frontier. The White House, while quick to express condolences over the Istanbul airport attack, reminded Ankara that it’s in Turkey’s interest to “address our concerns about the Turkey-Syria border.” That the Istanbul airport terrorists apparently crossed that border should make this clear for Ankara.
The disagreement over US collaboration in fighting ISIS with the YPG – which the US does not label a foreign terrorist group even while acknowledging its ties to the PKK, a group the American government does list as a terror organization – remains a real point of contention. The US and Turkey must do more to resolve this challenge.
Add to these two a new, potentially explosive element: Erdoğan’s claim that the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who has lived for many years in Pennsylvania, masterminded the coup. Erdoğan and Gulen, once allies, have been at odds for years. Indeed, the conflict between the rival factions of Turkish Islamism is one of the main motifs of Turkish politics. Gulen denies involvement in the coup attempt. Erdoğan has called on the US to extradite him.. Kerry has said Washington will review Ankara’s evidence. This case will infuse every conversation between Washington and Ankara.
Third, to reassure its neighbors, Turkey can pursue a “fewer enemies, more friends” policy in the region. If Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders reach agreement about Cyprus’s future this year, it would remove an irritant in Turkey’s relations with Greece, the EU and the US – and open the door for energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas fields, perhaps including Israel.
Relations with Russia and Israel will take time to evolve into anything mutually beneficial. Turks hope that Russian and Israeli tourists return quickly, but visitors may wait to see how the security situation plays out. Turkish-Israeli relations are subject to the emotional responses to events by both Erdoğan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Russia’s Putin is no doubt considering how to take advantage of instability in Turkey.
Finally, how will the failed coup affect Turkish-EU ties, including the deal to return and resettle refugees? Erdoğan will surely interpret the Brexit vote as evidence that Turkey is better off outside the EU even while he uses the refugee crisis to get more EU money and other benefits. EU leaders, distracted by Brexit, now unsure what to make of Turkey’s future, need an honest endgame for any negotiations with Turkey.
Is it wishful thinking, including on the part of Turkey’s friends, to believe that the coup attempt and its costly aftermath could be a catalyst for a change in course? Or, do the events of July 15 mean it is already too late to imagine a Turkey fully committed to fighting ISIS and other forms of Islamic extremism while simultaneously being fully committed to creating a tolerant, pluralistic country, connected to American and NATO allies, and seeking peace with itself and its neighborhood? Stability of the Eurasian continent hangs on the answer to these questions.
*Marc Grossman is a vice chairman of The Cohen Group. His Foreign Service career included service as the US ambassador to Turkey and Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He was recalled to the State Department to serve as the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011-2012. He was a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale in 2013.