General Basbug says two key issues – the extradition of Gulen who is accused of leading the coup attempt and U.S. support for PKK affiliates in Syria, strained Turkish-American relations
On November 16th, THO hosted Turkey’s 26th Chief of the General Staff, Gen. (Ret.) M Ilker Basbug, for a discussion at the National Press Club on pressing issues related to Turkey’s security and U.S.-Turkey relations.
The public event was part of the General’s weeklong visit to the U.S. at THO’s invitation.
During his remarks at the National Press Club, Gen. Basbug discussed the July 15th coup attempt and U.S.-Turkey relations. Throughout the discussion, Gen. Basbug drew upon his extensive military experience, which culminated in his service as Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) between 2008 and 2010. He emphasized that his views are solely his own and do not reflect those of any political party or organization.
July 15th and the Threat of FETO
The General told the audience that the target of the July 15th attempted coup was the Turkish nation and democracy and that there is no doubt that the coup attempt was organized by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric. The Turkish government has labeled this organization the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO). Gen. Basbug emphasized that FETO is recognized as a terror organization on the basis of a legal decision.
He said that FETO has been working since the 1980s to infiltrate state institutions and eventually replace Turkey’s secular government with one based upon religious rules. He noted that this assessment is supported by a 2005 ruling of a State Security Court. A decade later, the truth of this assessment became clear with the July 15th coup attempt.
For the General, one of the central questions following July 15th is how Turkey should respond to ensure that the threat from FETO is eradicated. He said that in order to prevent further threats from FETO, it is essential for Turkey to conduct a correct analysis of the organization regarding its composition and how it was formed. This would require a thorough social analysis.
For example, the General mentioned that when considering the Gulen organization’s claims that it is a civil society organization, it is uncharacteristically closed off and secretive. It is difficult to uncover its structure, and it is also difficult to leave the organization. This is because it is not a civil society organization but instead one created with the aim of taking over the Turkish state.
Gen. Basbug also mentioned that views that the ruling party of Turkey are similar to the Gulen community are incorrect: one is a political party; the other is not. If the Turkish people do not favor the ruling party, they can vote them out. While there may be political responsibility for the infiltration of FETO into state institutions, the biggest responsibility lies with FETO. The organization still poses a serious threat to Turkey, and the state’s response must be equally serious.
He strongly opposed conspiracy theories about the coup attempt and emphasized that these theories only play into the perception of July 15th that FETO has established.
He noted that there is a crucial difference between Turkey’s past military coups in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and the coup attempt of July 15th: the latter’s goal was to change the secular structure of the Turkish government. The General emphasized that he does not see the events of July 15th as a military coup but as a violent, armed coup conducted by FETO.
Civil-Military Relations After July 15th
Gen. Basbug noted that another main question regarding the July 15th coup attempt is whether state intelligence agencies – including the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and intelligence agencies in the law enforcement and gendarmerie – had been able to identify preparation of the coup attempt. In Turkey, it is still not known how the junta that carried out the coup attempt was able to form in the TSK and prepare for July 15th.
However, he said that following July 15th some decisions regarding reform of the Turkish military have been made in a rushed manner. These decisions have transformed civil-military relations in Turkey.
The General emphasized that in a democracy, it is possible and expected that civil-military relations can be changed. However, they should be changed legally within the Turkish parliament under a draft law. The current changes have been taken under the state of emergency through the use of decrees – without parliamentary consent – and thus could lead to some major difficulties in the future.
He expressed his hope that in the coming period, mistakes made regarding civil-military relations during the state of emergency will be corrected.
He noted that a way forward for civil-military relations in Turkey would be to take inspiration from civil-military relations in the U.S. For example, he said that cooperation between civil and military institutions in Turkey is poor, but it could be improved by doing as the U.S. does in that there are soldiers who work in the State Department and diplomats who work in the Department of Defense.
U.S.-Turkey Relations: Current Issues and Possible Scenarios
The General expressed his belief in the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He noted that there are currently two main issues between the U.S. and Turkey that are affecting relations between both countries. The first is the U.S.’s support of the PYD in Syria, and the second is what the U.S. will do with regard to the requested extradition of Fethullah Gulen.
Gen. Basbug addressed the military-to-military relationship by drawing on his experiences in leadership positions in the TSK during the 2000s. He noted the difficult state of relations in 2003 following the Sulaymaniyah incident (during which Turkish military personnel were detained by U.S. soldiers and interrogated in northern Iraq). This incident significantly damaged military-to-military relations.
The General took over the position of Deputy Chief of the General Staff following this incident and worked over the course of the following years to bring military-to-military relations back to normal. By the time that he became Chief of the General Staff, the relations had healed, and during his tenure in that position, the foremost issue in military-to-military relations with the U.S. was Turkey’s fight against the PKK.
Regarding U.S.-Turkey cooperation in Syria, the General emphasized that each country has its own national interests and that this is natural. Cooperation between militaries is not about giving up interests but instead about finding common ground. He said that current U.S. support of the PYD may fit within the U.S.’s short-term interests in Syria, and it is ultimately a tactical decision. However, the Turkish public is uncomfortable seeing its NATO ally supporting the PYD, as it is an organization that was founded by Abdullah Ocalan, making it effectively the Syrian wing of the PKK.
He noted that U.S. support of the PYD is destructive to U.S.-Turkey relations as well as to the U.S.’s long-term goals in the region. In the same way, he said that Turkey’s decision to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as part of Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria is also misguided. However, there are legitimate reasons as to why Turkey is conducting this current operation. According to Gen. Basbug, the U.S. did not listen to the many suggestions that Turkey has provided since the Syria conflict began, including suggestions for a no-fly zone and U.S.-Turkey military cooperation. As a result, Turkey was forced to act in northern Syria.
The General said that the U.S. should halt support to the PYD and expressed his hope that the administration of President-elect Trump will bring positive changes to the Syria situation. He noted that the U.S., Turkey, Iran, and Russia share the desire to see the preservation of Syria’s territory. While it won’t be easy, the only option to end this crisis is for these four countries to come together to resolve their differences. He recommended that Turkey must establish a direct dialogue with the Assad government if it wants to solve the Syria crisis.
On the current security situation in Iraq, he said that the demographic makeup of Mosul and Tel Afar must be preserved; he noted that there are already changes underway, especially in Mosul, and there is the danger of ethnic cleansing. Of special concern to Turkey are the Turkmen communities, and Turkey would not be able to turn a blind eye if there was a conflict between these communities and the Iraqi central government.
The other major issue for Turkey in Iraq is the presence of the PKK in northern Iraq. The General emphasized that Turkey needs the U.S. to stand by its side on this issue. The PKK is a terrorist organization that benefits from safe zones in northern Iraq, and these safe zones must be eradicated if Turkey is to solve its struggles with the PKK. He noted that throughout his service in leadership positions in the TSK, he expressed Turkey’s need of U.S. support on this issue, but unfortunately it was not forthcoming.
Finally, regarding the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the General expressed his hope that the issue will be taken seriously in the U.S. He cited recent remarks from an anonymous state department official that recognized the suspicious nature of Gulen-linked organizations and their resemblance to organized crime. He noted that he believed that there will soon be more serious movement on the extradition, especially under the Trump administration.
Throughout his remarks, the General emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, especially the military-to-military relations. When questioned about the effect of the July 15th coup on transatlantic relations, the General noted that he has not seen a negative change in military relations between the U.S. and Turkey and that Turkey must remain a part of NATO. Basbug said that a strong Turkish Armed Forces is in the best interest of U.S. therefore perpetrator of the coup Gulen should be held accountable by the U.S. authorities.
Turkey’s retired Chief of General Staff concluded his remarks by emphasizing the importance of the Turkish – American relations. “Turkish – American relations are very important, neither side should allow these resolvable issues to change this” said General Basbug.
THO is proud to provide the opportunity to inform the American public about the coup attempt in Turkey. However, the opinions expressed by our distinguished panelists are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Turkish Heritage Organization or any employee thereof.