With the U.S. supposedly harboring the mastermind of last month's coup attempt, is Turkey looking for a new friend?
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg for the first time in a year. The two met to discuss the relationship shared by their two nations and the prospects of their future economic cooperation. Putin announced the phasing out of Russian trade sanctions against Turkey.
These sanctions came as retaliation for the downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber over Syria that had briefly passed into Turkish airspace on November 24. This is the first meeting between Erdogan and a foreign leader since a failed coup attempt last month.
Nearly one month ago, on July 15, the Turkish capital Ankara exploded in turmoil as forces within the Turkish military attempted to seize power from Erdogan. The president, who was at an Aegean seaside resort, quickly returned to the capital with his plane evading threats by Turkish fighter jets allied with the breakaway faction responsible for the coup. In Ankara, a bomb exploded at the Turkish parliament, killing twelve persons. Other reports of scattered violence were also numerous.
In response to the insurrection, Erdogan’s government immediately began a vicious crackdown. Evidence of the violence utilized by government forces, like footage of civilians being run over and killed by armored military vehicles, came out across social media soon after the crackdown began. Human rights activists were quick to call attention to the crackdown, with many choosing to heap criticism onto government forces and onto Erdogan himself.
President Obama spoke out, choosing to condemn the coup attempt as disruptive and harmful, urging a return to law and order. President Erdogan is the head of a heavily conservative, but also a relatively secular government that, much like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, is, at present, essential to the interests of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
In the days after the coup attempt, Erdogan announced that a state of emergency would remain in place for at least three more months. He also heaped praise onto those individuals who died attempting to resist the coup. He met with a cabinet of advisers on July 20, afterwards making nationally televised statements about the imposed state of emergency, saying:
“The purpose of the declaration of the state of emergency is, in fact, to be able to take the most efficient steps in order to remove this threat as soon as possible, which is a threat to democracy, to the rule of law and to the rights and freedoms of the citizens in our country […] It is very similar to a cancer […] It is like a metastasis that is going on in the body that is Turkey. And we will clean it out.”
Evidence exists that indicates an opposition to Erdogan’s government on the basis of its having negotiated with the PKK. A petition found during a thorough search of the office of a Turkish public prosecutor contends that Erdogan’s government actually aided a terror organization through its willingness to negotiate. The petition states that the prosecution of Erdogan, and other members of his government, is necessary for their handling of the Kurdish situation. It opposes the series of peace talks that stretch back to 2009.
Erdogan is attempting to wipe the country of influential individuals opposed to his remaining in power. This purge now exists at levels that threaten to drastically reduce the efficiency of the Turkish state apparatus. The Turkish military is now significantly weaker. This has decreased the likelihood that it will be able to engage in any kind of large-scale campaigns in the near future. This also means that Turkey may have less influence with respect to the diplomatic and political situation in Syria than it did before its current internal strife began.
It is clear that the push back against this attempted usurpation radically altered Turkey’s public environment in less than a week, and that this alteration has continued since that time. It is also clear that his government’s reaction to the coup will do little to improve its human rights record.
Erdogan may benefit from the failure of this attempt. The fact that his government has managed to subdue it and to weather the backlash means that it possesses the power necessary to do the same again some time in the future. This will no doubt be reassuring to those individuals in Turkey and abroad who have much vested in his remaining in power.
The government has suspended or removed tens of thousands of individuals from official positions including generals, admirals, judges, and teachers. In addition, it has detained thousands of persons, and there are existing reports of some of these persons being subject to abusive treatment and even torture although these kinds of stories are often difficult to verify.
Erdogan has targeted Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States, as one of the individuals primarily responsible for the rebellion. Gulen himself has actually condemned the attempt. The Turkish government has requested his extradition while U.S. officials have expressed no intent at this time to do so.
Extradition requires a convincing case that the individual to be extradited has committed some sort of offense that qualifies them for extradition and Gulen has committed no offenses that qualify. In Turkey, there is growing anger over the refusal of U.S. officals to extradite Gulen. Many Turks hold him responsible for the coup attempt because of the actions of his followers.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag stated in an interview to state-run media that:
“There is a serious anti-American feeling in Turkey, and this is turning into hatred […] It is in the hands of the United States to stop this anti-American feeling leading to hatred […] Whether the U.S. extradites Gulen or not this will be a political decision […] If he is not extradited, Turkey will have been sacrificed for a terrorist.”
As a NATO member country, Turkey has represented a key U.S. ally over the last several decades. The Turkish government has provided military aid to the current campaign against the Islamic State in Syria-Iraq. Turkey is likely to remain an ally for the United States, especially since now it is weak and relatively vulnerable.
Nothing that has occurred thus far indicates that this will not be the case in the future, regardless of the friction that the two nations are currently experiencing. The fact that Erdogan and Putin are negotiating could be an omen of uncertainty for the future of Turkey’s relationship with NATO. For the time being, however, it is probable that things will proceed the way that they have proceeded in the past, with the exception of the dynamic influence of this recent coup attempt.