Reports of an attempted coup in Turkey caught Washington off guard Friday as a military faction claimed it had taken control of the strategic U.S. ally.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been strained in recent months, but stability in the country is vital to American interests in the Middle East.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirm announced that a group within the country’s military had attempted late Friday to overthrow the government. Social media in the country has been largely shut down and television stations showed tanks and jeeps outside Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, site of a recent terrorist attack. A military official read a statement on Turkish television stating that martial law had been imposed.
Turkey lies at the nexus between the Middle East and Europe, and is directly north of Syria. It hosts the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State group, which conducts airstrikes against the extremists from Incirlik Airbase in the southern part of Turkey.
The Defense Department did not have an immediate statement on the status of American personnel and assets at the base, MSNBC reported.
It is unclear what, if any, obligation the U.S. would have to come to Turkey’s defense as a NATO ally. The Article 5 provision of the NATO alliance requires countries to come to the aid of a fellow ally in case of attack, but it is unknown how it would apply in the case of a coup rather than an attack from a country outside the alliance.
Article 5 has only been invoked once since NATO was signed in 1949, by the U.S. following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Turkey has also been destabilized as civil war rages in neighboring Syria. The border between the countries has been porous, allowing foreign fighters seeking to join the Islamic State group to flow into Syria.
Numerous terrorist attacks claimed by Islamic extremists have been carried out in Turkey in recent months, targeting popular tourist destinations frequented by Westerners.
In the statement read on Turkish television, the military official said the increase in terrorist attacks was one reason for the coup. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who was on vacation at a Black Sea resort Friday, has vowed to stamp out extremist activity.
That mission has frustrated Western allies, as Edrogan has appeared more focused on defeating Kurdish militants inside his own country rather than the collective fight against the Islamic State group. Terrorist attacks by Kurdish groups have been on the rise over the past year after a truce with the government collapsed last July.
The Obama administration has also been frustrated with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies in the country that had long been a beacon of democracy and stability in a volatile Middle East. Although he is democratically elected, Erdogan had been seeking to consolidate power in the office of the president and had cracked down on media and human rights activists.
A statement from the military published in Turkish media said the coup aimed “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country, for the law and order to be reinstated.”
Erdogan spoke to CNN Turk via Facetime after midnight from an unknown location, calling on citizens to go outside to protest the coup. The State Department reported that shots and explosions had been heard in captial Ankara early Saturday morning.
“There is no power higher than the power of the people,” Erdogan said. “Let them do what they will at public squares and airports.”