U.S. officials tried Monday to de-escalate simmering tensions with NATO ally Turkey, where an abortive coup attempt has given way to anti-American rhetoric and the purging of thousands from government posts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s zeal to show that he’s still in charge – and ready for payback – is the latest test of how far the Obama administration is willing to bend in the name of strategic importance.
U.S. officials already have faced criticism for their muted treatment of Turkey’s reluctance toward the anti-Islamic State campaign, murky positions on al Qaida’s Nusra Front and crackdown on journalists and civil society. Turkish officials are also upset by U.S. support for a militia with close ties to Kurdish separatist guerrillas in the fight against extremists in Syria.
This time, however, the barbs from Ankara are more personal, with senior Turkish officials unreservedly accusing the U.S. of complicity in the attempted overthrow of Erdogan’s democratically elected Islamist administration. The Turks demand that Washington hand over the cleric it claims hatched the plot, Fethullah Gulen, who since 1999 has led his Hizmet movement from rural Pennsylvania.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking by phone to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called the accusations of U.S. involvement in the coup plot “utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations,” the State Department announced.
The Obama administration said Monday that there’d been no formal request for Gulen’s extradition and that, as far as the U.S. government knew, Gulen was living “peacefully” and within the law on his compound in the Poconos.
“We need to take the drama, if you will, out of it and look at it purely as a legal question or a legal case,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Toner wouldn’t be baited into condemning the Turkish finger pointing of Erdogan and his supporters. Toner said it was understandable to hear “fiery rhetoric, passionate rhetoric” after such a tumultuous 48 hours, but that U.S. officials had cautioned Turkey to avoid language that escalates tensions.
That message from American diplomats appears to be falling on deaf ears.
The Turkish labor minister said bluntly that the United States was behind the overthrow plot. A legislator from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) floated the idea that U.S. military personnel had fought alongside the plotters. Conspiracy theories abound in state-backed news agencies and Western journalists on the ground have reported anti-American chants at rallies in support of Erdogan.
Some news reports – and, unfortunately, some public figures – have speculated that the United States in some way supported the coup attempt. This is categorically untrue, and such speculation is harmful to the decades-long friendship between two great nations.
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass
U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass issued a 500-word statement Monday defending the Obama administration’s response as the coup attempt was under way, noting that President Barack Obama was the first world leader to publicly support Turkey’s elected government. Kerry, Bass wrote, followed suit by 2 a.m. the night of the uprising and reiterated the next day that U.S. support for Turkey was ironclad.
“Some news reports – and, unfortunately, some public figures – have speculated that the United States in some way supported the coup attempt,” Bass wrote. “This is categorically untrue, and such speculation is harmful to the decades-long friendship between two great nations.”
At home, the Erdogan administration is exacting revenge against suspected plotters with sweeping purges, dismissing 9,000 police officers, 3,000 judges, 6,000 rank-and-file military and more than 100 generals and senior officers, according to Turkish news reports. Human rights groups, foreign policy analysts and – privately – U.S. diplomats suspect that Erdogan is using the coup attempt as cover to cleanse the government of his political enemies.
Such a tactic, Kerry said in a TV interview, “would be a great challenge to his relationship to Europe, to NATO and to all of us.”
At least 200 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured during the coup attempt, which apparently was carried out by a faction within the military. Erdogan now speaks of restoring the death penalty to Turkey to punish the plotters, a prospect that effectively would kill the country’s chances of joining the European Union.
“The coup attempt unleashed appalling violence and those responsible for unlawful killings and other human rights abuses must be brought to justice, but cracking down on dissent and threatening to bring back the death penalty are not justice,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director for the human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Roundups following the coup appear to be hitting the Turkish military hard. Arrests have included the commander of the Incirlik air base, Bekir Ercan Van, who was taken into custody Sunday, accused of complicity in the coup attempt. Incirlik is a giant base near the Syrian border that serves as the U.S.-led coalition’s launching point for attacks against the Islamic State.
All 3,000 or so U.S. military personnel based in and near the Incirlik air base in Turkey have been accounted for, as have munitions and aircraft, and operations to combat Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq continue, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
The coup attempt unleashed appalling violence and those responsible for unlawful killings and other human rights abuses must be brought to justice, but cracking down on dissent and threatening to bring back the death penalty are not justice.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International.
Cook provided only a sketchy account Monday of how Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had stayed informed during the turmoil, and whether U.S. officials think there is a solid hand on the helm of the Turkish military. He said Carter had relied on regional U.S. military commanders to reach out to their Turkish counterparts to provide him with updates and did not make a phone call to Turkey’s defense minister to get a firsthand report.
Outside power to the air base remains cut off, he added, and U.S.-led forces are using generators to power runway lights, a control tower and other needed functions. He said the power cutoff was not yet “a limiting factor” in U.S.-led bombing runs and other missions over Iraq and Syria.
Cook declined to spell out whom U.S. military commanders had spoken to during the turmoil of the weekend or to name their new Turkish interlocutors over Incirlik activities. He said U.S. officials had found Turkish counterparts to coordinate takeoffs and landings and other activities at the base.
“We don’t have any indication that the Turkish military does not have control,” he said.