NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 19 AUGUST, 2016
Turkey, US, EU and Russia: The Dynamics Are Changing
NEW DELHI: Echoes of the failed Turkish coup continue to reverberate more than a month after it took place on July 15/16. Important developments have occurred since then, shedding more light on various dimensions of the event. These include the extent of alleged US complicity in the coup; the purge of alleged followers of Fethullah Gulen in Turkey; the impact of the coup attempt on Turkey’s relations with the US, Russia, and EU; and its influence on the situation in Syria. All these issues will be explored below.
Turkish officials, starting with President Erdogan, and including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, and other senior officials have categorically accused the US of masterminding the coup. They have even identified a senior US military officer, former NATO Commander Gen. John F. Campbell, who is alleged to have played a central role in the failed putsch. They cite considerable circumstantial evidence to support their allegations, which cannot be dismissed easily. At the very least the US knew about the coup but did not inform Turkey about it, which makes it complicit in the event.
While the coup was in progress, the US news channel NBC issued a tweet quoting a “senior US military official” as saying that President Erdogan had fled Turkey by air and was seeking political asylum in Germany. This was clearly false information, designed to demoralize Erdogan’s supporters. The “senior US military officer” was later identified by the Turks and others as Gen. John Campbell.
Erdogan’s supporters have also pointed out that both the US and the EU maintained a stony silence for several hours, while the coup was in progress, and was being covered live by many global TV channels. They came out in support of Erdogan only after it was clear that the coup had failed. This has been interpreted by the Turks as tacit support for the coup by the US and EU countries, many of which are also NATO members.
Erdogan has also accused the head of US CENTCOM, Gen. Joseph Votel, of siding with the coup plotters. Speaking at the Aspen Security Conference at Aspen, Colorado, on July 28, Gen. Votel said that several of US military’s “closest partners in the Turkish military” had been jailed following the coup attempt. Speaking at the same conference, Director of US National Intelligence Eric Clapper agreed with Gen. Votel, saying that “many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested.” These statements clearly point to close US links with several senior Turkish military officers who have been arrested for supporting the failed coup.
It is now becoming clear that the coup attempt enjoyed considerable support in the Turkish army and was not just confined to a few middle ranking officers such as Majors and Colonels. It was masterminded by former air force commander Gen. Akin Ozturk, and supported by the Commander of the Second Army Gen. Adem Huduti, the senior most army commander arrested. Top Generals, both in Ankara and Istanbul, were involved in the fiasco.
Till date, more than one-third of Turkey’s roughly 360 Generals and Admirals have been detained, in addition to thousands of soldiers and middle ranking officers. This has severely crippled and undermined the military’s cohesiveness and capability, from which it will take a long time to recover. It is now in no position to undertake an invasion of Syria.
It is also becoming clear that the coup nearly succeeded. It was originally supposed to begin at 0300 hrs. on Saturday, July 16, but had to be launched earlier as the plans were leaked on Friday evening to loyalist officers. The Commander of the First Army, Gen. Umit Dundar, phoned Erdogan on Friday evening, just before the coup began, and advised him to immediately leave Marmaris, where he was vacationing, and fly to Istanbul, where Dundar was based. He told Erdogan not to go to Ankara, where his security could not be guaranteed.
Erdogan immediately left for the nearest airport and took off in his Gulf Stream jet. Within less than an hour, around 40 Turkish commandos landed near Erdogan’s hotel in three helicopters and stormed his villa. Their objective was to capture or assassinate him. But by then he was already in the air.
But for the warning, the coup plotters might have been able to eliminate Erdogan. If that had happened, the coup might well have succeeded. Erdogan had a narrow escape.
Once the coup had been foiled, however, Erdogan’s reaction was furious. Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life were arrested, sacked, or suspended from their jobs, on suspicion of being Gulen's supporters. According to the latest estimates, around 18,000 soldiers and judges have been arrested, and nearly 80,000 civil servants, judges and members of security forces have been sacked or suspended. Erdogan’s fear and panic are driving the purge, as he can no longer trust any part of Turkey’s “Deep State.” Polarization and fault lines in the society have widened.
The Turkish armed forces—second largest in NATO— have been severely emasculated, and the Turkish state has been significantly weakened. Turkey has fallen out with both the US and the EU. A serious trust deficit has appeared in their relations, which is manifesting itself in bitter exchanges.
Turkey has formally requested the extradition of Fethullah Gulen from the US. The US reaction so far has been bureaucratic and non-commital. The process of extradition is expected to be long drawn out, and might take several years. Gulen is widely believed to be a CIA asset and is unlikely to be extradited to Turkey. As long as Erdogan is in power, this issue is likely to poison US-Turkey relations.
Another manifestation of the distrust between the two sides is a report released by the Stimson Center—a US think tank—on Aug. 15 stating that the continued presence of around 50 US nuclear weapons at the Incirlik base in Turkey “raises serious risks of their seizure by terrorists and other hostile forces.” According to the report, political instability and the overall security situation in Turkey were reasons enough for the US to pull its nuclear weapons out of Incirlik.
Anti-American protests have periodically erupted around Incirlik, calling for its closure. It is located only around 70 miles from Syria. Significantly, in March this year, the Pentagon ordered the evacuation of around 700 family members of the military officers posted at Incirlik, Izmir, and Mugla bases in Turkey, because of concerns over the “deteriorating security environment there.” It would be interesting to see if the US withdraws its nuclear weapons from Incirlik.
It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore trust between Erdogan and the US after what has happened. Some analysts believe that the coup is not yet over. They think it would not be surprising if, in the coming weeks and months, the US launches a “hybrid war” against Turkey, which might include support to Kurdish insurgency, a Colour Revolution, Daesh attacks, or another coup attempt. Turkey is already suspicious about the growing bonhomie between the US and the Kurds in northern Syria.
Relations between Turkey and the EU are also strained. Erdogan was deeply disappointed with the EU’s reaction to the coup attempt. Instead of supporting him, the EU expressed concern about human rights in Turkey in the wake of the crackdown on Gulen supporters in the country. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild on Aug. 15, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016 on Syrian refugees would collapse unless the EU permitted Turkish nationals visa-free entry into the Schengen area by Oct. 2016.
The above warning was dismissed by senior EU officials and leaders who said there was no possibility of meeting the above demand until Turkey reformed its anti-terrorism laws and met other EU “benchmarks.” Some of them even said that the EU was prepared to face the situation if Turkey backed out of the refugee deal because the Balkan route from Greece to northern Europe would remain closed. This issue is likely to cause further friction between the two sides in the future, with the EU unlikely to reward Erdogan in the present context of deteriorating bilateral relations.
Given the above scenario, expectations were high that Turkey-Russia relations would improve substantially during Erdogan’s visit to St. Petersburg on Aug. 9. In the event, no breakthrough was achieved, though the visit did succeed in normalizing the relations to a certain extent after the severe damage caused to them by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter aircraft in Nov. 2015 and the murder of one of the pilots. No agreement was reached on Turkey’s approach towards regime change in Syria, or on closing its borders to the flow of Jihadi fighters and weapons into Syria, which is mainly responsible for the continuation of the war in that country.
The main outcome of the visit was the prevention of further deterioration in Turkey-Russia relations, and placing them on a path of full normalization in the future. But for doing so, Erdogan will have to take some hard decisions regarding his Syria policy and meet other Russian security concerns, which he has not done so far. At the moment, he seems to be keeping all his options open. The limited rapprochement with Russia gives him more space to deal with the US and EU. He is waiting to see what they have to offer Turkey after his visit to Russia.
Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria goes on, claiming more civilian lives, producing more refugees, and causing more destruction. Fierce fighting is currently raging for control of Aleppo, parts of which are controlled by the government and assorted Jihadi groups, which are still being supplied with fighters and weapons by the US/UK, Gulf, and Turkey. On Aug. 12, the Syrian Kurds, backed by US special forces and airpower, seized the northern Syrian town of Manbij from Daesh/ISIS after a two-month siege and intense fighting. This was a significant milestone in removing Daesh from Syria. Their next target is the Daesh “capital” of Al-Raqqa.
The capture of Manbij by Syrian Kurds has raised concerns in Turkey about a possible Kurdish “autonomous region” in northern Syria, with links to the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds (PKK). Turkey does not want the US to create a “second geopolitical Israel” of “Kurdistan”.
Hundreds of US and UK special forces are now openly operating in Syria illegally, as they have not been invited by the Assad government into the country. The primary objective of the West appears to be the capture of Aleppo by the Jihadi groups or, at least, prevent its capture by Assad’s forces. If Aleppo falls to the government, the ground situation will dramatically change in Assad’s favour. That looked like happening a few weeks ago, but then the opposition pumped fresh supplies of fighters and weapons into the Aleppo area and took back some of the territory captured by Assad’s forces. There is currently a see-saw battle going on in Aleppo, with territory changing hands on a daily basis.
The US and its allies are doing everything possible to prevent Assad’s takeover of Aleppo, at least till the US presidential elections are over. The US has even hired the services of a private Washington-based security firm—Six3 Intelligence Solutions Inc.—to provide intelligence to its forces in Syria. The Americans expect the new administration, possibly headed by Hillary Clinton, to follow a more muscular policy in that country. For the same reason, Assad, and his allies are trying to capture Aleppo before Obama’s successor assumes office next January.
This, then, is the current state of play between Turkey and its most important interlocutors. Turkey—and Erdogan—find themselves isolated and bruised by the failed coup. Erdogan is estranged from his most influential backers, the US and EU. It is not clear how, when, or if relations between them will improve. Erdogan has not yet made the strategic decision to join the Russian camp though Russia is willing to admit him if he meets her security concerns. The Turkish state is in turmoil and the outlook for the future is uncertain. Turkey is at a critical juncture in its history. What happens in the future only time will tell.
(The writer is a retired Ambassador, Indian Foreign Service, who has several countries as India’s envoy)