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Failed Coup Just Latest Crisis Pushing Turkey Away From West

  • Ilhan Tanir

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters during a rally against the failed July 15 military coup in Istanbul on August 7.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters during a rally against the failed July 15 military coup in Istanbul on August 7.

The effects of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey continue to ripple through the country, and indeed far beyond. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed blame for the coup attempt squarely at the feet of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The coup attempt is just the latest event to stress the relationship between Turkey and the West, and as that alliance deteriorates it will have serious repercussions for regional security in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, geopolitical balance, and the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).

The aftermath in Turkey continues, jeopardizing key Turkish state institutions. About 80,000 people who are suspected to be affiliated with the Gulen movement, which Turkey declared a terrorist organization in 2015 under the name Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETO), have been removed from their jobs at various Turkish state institutions, including about 45,000 workers from the Education Ministry alone. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag's latest numbers state that 18,000 people have been formally arrested, while another 6,000 detainees are still being processed.

Reports indicate that Turkey's penal system was already overstretched with crowded prisons and backlogged courts. This spring, Turkey's prisons held 188,000 detainees, around 8,000 more than existing capacity. Now, it faces the added burden of handling an influx of tens of thousands detained in the aftermath of the attempted putsch. Since about 3,000 prosecutors and judges are among those detained, accounting for a little more than 20 percent of Turkey's judiciary staff, challenges at Turkish courthouses and jails are becoming overwhelming. And President Erdogan has declared that these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg, so it is reasonable to expect many more to be arrested in the coming days.

Erdogan is working to shore up his personal control of the country, and any critics of his government may be caught up in his net. Under rules governing a state of emergency, which can only be declared by the president, authorities can detain anyone for up to 30 days without needing to show any evidence or bring any charges. Seventy-seven journalists are currently sitting in jails, 42 of whom are implicated in some kind of involvement with the attempted coup. The true number of arrested journalists may be higher, as the detentions of local reporters often go unrecorded across Turkey.

According to testimonies, jailed journalists have been asked about their writings in their columns, tweets, or books, but were not presented any evidence by authorities that would tie them to the failed coup. They are effectively being held for alleged thought crimes, accused of "embracing FETO" and "excusing the coup attempt," which are very vague accusations. Kurdish reporters are being rounded up as well, even if they have no known ties to Gulen.

A Wide Net

Before the coup, many Turkish politicians, leaders, and high-level bureaucrats were racing to receive Gulen's blessings. As a result, now almost anyone from any Turkish political party can be arrested in Turkey for allegedly being a member of, or associated with, the Gulen movement or FETO. In fact, former Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu -- who was instrumental in quelling antigovernment protests in 2013 over plans for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park on behalf of Erdogan -- was arrested for allegedly being a member of FETO, and he has since confessed to speaking with Gulen in 2012.

Meanwhile, some of the jailed journalists and others are having difficulties finding a lawyer because many human rights lawyers are also detained or on the run. In Turkey, lawyers can be detained over the types of suspects they are defending, a brazen attack on fundamental rights and the essence of the judicial institution.

Turkey has never had a free press. However, in the past relatively independent newspapers tied to various powerhouses in Turkey made the country's media environment vibrant and more representative of various segments of Turkish society. As Erdogan consolidated his power and became Turkey's unrivaled political leader, the press's editorial freedom and room for debate narrowed accordingly. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 151th out of 184 countries in the 2015-16 Press Freedom Index, faring even worse than Russia.

Following the coup, things have become much worse. A single decree issued by Erdogan's palace on July 27 effectively banned more than 130 media organizations (TV channels, magazines, newspapers, news portals, etc.). It's true that many of those media outlets are affiliated with the Gulen movement, but many other media outlets on the list are not.

This crackdown, which has been criticized by many Western leaders, is only further distancing Turkey from its Western allies.

The attempted coup, as Erdogan put it in the first hours of July 16 during his Ataturk Airport press conference, was "a gift from God," as it would help him cleanse the military of "members of the gang," or "viruses." However, it seems that there are many others apart from Gulenists who are also being "cleansed" from state institutions. For example, neo-nationalist and secular columnist Emin Colasan complained loudly that many "pro-Ataturk, republican, and secular" citizens also became victims in the guise of the Gulenist witch-hunt.

Syria, A Catalyst For Turkey's Break With The West

When looking back, 2013 seems to be the year when everything started going in the wrong direction as far as Erdogan's international standing is concerned.

Then-Prime Minister Erdogan visited the White House in May 2013, and was given a high-level reception. However, behind the scenes of goodwill and roses (there was a press briefing at the Rose Garden), leaders were unable to agree on the main issue -- how to respond to the crisis in Syria. Only two weeks after the visit, the Gezi park protests started. The way Erdogan quelled the protests attracted worldwide condemnation, including from the United States and others in the West. Erdogan's smiling and reformist face suddenly turned upside down as his image morphed into that of an authoritarian-Islamist leader. Erdogan, despite warnings from U.S. President Barack Obama in the face-to-face meeting, continued his Syria policy of supporting all kinds of fighters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including jihadists.

Tension between the United States and Turkey continued over Syria, the fate of Assad, the response to IS, and the stance with regard to Syrian Kurdish groups. After the June 7, 2015, elections, in which Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to get a majority, the Turkish government decided to open the Incirlik air base to the U.S.-led coalition for anti-IS operations.

Many observers thought this could be the turning point for Turkey's relationship with the West. However, the honeymoon did not last long. Turkey resumed its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- which is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union -- at the same time it opened the Incirlik base to anti-IS operations.

Ankara's stance to the Syrian Kurdish group PYD and its military wing, the YPG -- which the United States has not designated as terrorist organizations and which are major players in Washington's strategy against Islamic State -- also became much more hawkish. Insisting there was no difference between the PYD and the PKK, Erdogan said that one "cannot speak of good terrorists and bad terrorists" and that one terrorist organization "should not be given a cloak of legitimacy" under the guise of fighting IS. Erdogan asked the United States and the West to agree with him. Instead, the United States increased its support to Syrian Kurds against IS with the help of its Incirlik operations. In other words, while Erdogan was condemning the PYD/YPG as terrorist organizations, the United States was expanding its logistical help to the same groups from an air base on Turkish soil.

Erdogan's Syria policy never became popular with the Turkish public. As the crisis across the border turned into a full-scale civil war and millions of Syrians began seeking safe haven in Turkey, Erdogan's Syria policy became a liability. However, since Erdogan has kept increasing his influence in the Turkish private media world, and since as president he controls state TV stations, radios, and news agencies, his ability to shape public opinion, at least among his base, has been left unrivaled. Erdogan masterfully manipulated voters by scapegoating various foreign leaders -- including Syria's Assad; Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled elected President Muhammad Morsi; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; or Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani -- blaming each for various problems over the years that slowly isolated Turkey further, and deeper.

While polarizing the country between seculars and conservatives, Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds -- at any given time Erdogan has been able to divide and rule. Incompetent opposition leaders were busy consolidating their powers within their own parties by eliminating rivals, working to stay at the helm of their respectful political parties, rather than finding ways to reach out to broader segments of Turkish society to earn the top executive job. Consequently, Erdogan, as unpopular as it has been, has not had to change his Syria policy as president due to the lack of credible challenges coming from opposition forces.

Despite all the power he has accumulated inside Turkey, Erdogan's "erratic" behavior, antidemocratic policies, and anti-Western statements kept alienating both Western and Eastern friends. While Erdogan cut a deal with European leaders to curb the flow of migrants to the EU, the deal did not significantly boost his international standing. Even after Erdogan overcame the coup attempt, Western leaders steered clear of visiting Ankara. As Erdogan has repeated many times, not a single EU member-state leader has visited Erdogan since the coup attempt to offer condolences.

And Then There Is The Fight Against Islamic State

On top of all of Turkey's internal issues and fight with the PKK, IS started bombing targets inside Turkey within the past year. IS militants first hit Kurdish targets before and after the June 2015 elections that elevated Erdogan to the presidency. Then, tourists in Sultanahmet were targeted in January, and Israeli tourists in Beyoglu in March. On June 29, two weeks before the coup attempt, Istanbul's Ataturk Airport was hit by a deadly attack that Ankara says was carried out by IS militants.

Turkey's already-challenged system has become more fragile since July 15. One month since the coup attempt, Erdogan must now make some big decisions both domestically and regionally. The first is how long he will continue his crackdown on democratic institutions, opposition groups, and governmental checks and balances. If he continues down the same authoritarian road, Turkey's economic and political regression, along with the potential collapse of its institutions, could cause further instability.

All indications suggest that Erdogan is extremely angry, to say the least, at the United States and the European Union for their perceived lack of sympathy to Turkey's civilian rulers after the coup. Accusations that the United States was behind the coup, openly and repeatedly stated by state-run media and government ministers, are clues that relations between Turkey and the West have become even further strained. It's anybody's guess how long Turkey can hold to this type of anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric and expect to stay allies with the United States and Europe. Gulen's stay in Pennsylvania surely makes relations thornier.

Will Erdogan turn to Moscow and Tehran instead of Washington and Brussels if he cannot get Gulen extradited? Can Russia and Iran really replace the West? Does Erdogan really want to untie Turkey's hundreds of years of anchorage to the West and 70 years of history with NATO?

These questions are now being asked every day, on TV news shows, and in tea houses across Turkey.

Ilhan Tanir is a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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