Turkish-American Relations after July 15th: Summary and Analysis

On Friday, July 15th, at around 10:00pm local time, a coup attempt was initiated by a faction of the military opposed to the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. News of the move first broke with reports that soldiers had closed the Bosphorous Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge in Istanbul. Despite the rebel faction seizing several key government buildings and news studios, in a matter of hours President Erdogan flew from Marmaris (where he was vacationing) and landed in Istanbul to a crowd of supporters--signaling to the country that he was still in control. From that point on, the coup was swiftly put down, as supporters of the president took to the streets and aided police in apprehending rebel forces on the ground and rebel aircraft were destroyed overhead.

As initial reports of the coup attempt emerged, Secretary of State John Kerry told the press, “I hope there will be stability and peace and continuity within Turkey, but I have nothing to add to with respect to what has transpired at this moment.” About two hours later, as it became clear what was happening, President Obama issued a statement saying that “all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected Government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed.” From then on, the president and the secretary of state frequently expressed support for Erdogan’s administration and were in frequent contact with him. On Saturday morning, Kerry once again addressed the press, stating, “the United States, without any hesitation, squarely and unequivocally, stands for democratic leadership, for the respect for a democratically elected leader, and for a constitutional process in that regard. We stand by the government of Turkey." While the American administration affirmed the necessity of prosecuting those involved in the coup, however, Kerry also cautioned against broader persecution of groups not involved in the coup.

THO staff have been closely analyzing media coverage and analysis in order to follow how the coup may affect US-Turkish relations. There are three areas of analysis in the immediate aftermath that are important to consider. 

Gulen Extradition Case

While the makeup of the rebellious military faction has not been made completely clear, Erdogan and his supporters immediately accused the Gulen Movement: those with organizational or ideological ties to a Pennsylvania-based preacher named Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government labels this nebulous entity a terrorist organization, while its supporters describe it primarily as a provider of social services and education. While the true character of the movement is somewhat mysterious, it is clear that many “Gulenists” were placed in the Turkish government--and probably the military--with AKP support until a falling out between Gulen and Erdogan in 2013. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly called for Gulen’s extradition to Turkey on charges of criminal or terrorist activity, but to this point had not filed a formal legal extradition request.

As the Turkish administration holds Gulen personally responsible for Friday’s coup attempt, Erdogan and other AKP officials have strongly criticized President Obama for not sending the preacher to Turkey. In response, officials from the Obama administration and Secretary Kerry have repeatedly requested evidence from Turkey of Gulen’s involvement, as well as a formal legal extradition request. American officials have also clarified that the judicial branch, not the president, examines evidence and determines the final outcome of extradition requests. Evidence is first examined by state department officials to determine the validity of the extradition request with respect to current extradition treaties and other international issues. The case is then examined by the Office of International Affairs in the Department of Justice to determine if the charges against the individual are sufficient to begin an extradition hearing. If so, the suspect is arrested and tried by a federal district court—which examines the evidence against him or her and passes judgment on the guilt of the suspect. On Tuesday morning, the Turkish government sent a 1,400-page dossier which they claim holds evidence of Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt. This is being reviewed by U.S. officials to determine whether the documents are sufficient to initiate an extradition process.

Even if this process starts immediately, in sum, it will be a long one that will require close Turkish-American cooperation and patience.

Incirlik Air Base and Cooperation on Syria

In the past year, the US-Turkish relationship has taken on an increasing importance, resting on more than just economic and social ties. President Obama’s policy in Syria has been defined by the US’s cooperation with the Turkish military and the use of key air bases in the country for anti-ISIL efforts. But on Friday night everything changed. 

About a year ago, Turkey granted the U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base to conduct airstrikes against Daesh. Since then, a fleet of A-10 Warthog aircraft have carried out daily strikes against the terrorist organization. During the coup attempt, at least one Turkish aircraft launched from the base to support the rebel faction of the Turkish Air Force, and the Turkish commander of the base has been arrested for supporting the plot. As a result, commercial power to the base was cut during the drama over the weekend and has not yet been restored--though U.S. forces were able to continue anti-Daesh operations using backup generators soon after the coup was put down. By the following Friday, commercial power had been restored to the base and anti-Daesh operation continued as normal.

NATO Membership

President Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt--seen as an undemocratic power-grab by some--has also led some to question the country’s future in NATO, which was established as an alliance of democracies.In reference to this concern, Secretary Kerry stated, "NATO has a requirement with respect to democracy. NATO will measure very carefully what is happening and my hope is that Turkey is going to move in ways that do respect what they have said to me many times is the bedrock of their country."

After suspending the European Convention on Human Rights on July 20th as part of Turkey’s recently announced state of emergency, some NATO members may call into question Turkey’s place in the alliance. However, there are no formal mechanisms for expelling a country from the treaty, and experts continue to emphasize the strategic necessity of Turkish-American partnership in any expansion of anti-Daesh operations or other forms of intervention in Syria. For the near future at least, Turkey will continue to be a crucial member of the alliance.

Conclusion: What’s Next?

Soner Cagatay and James F. Jeffrey emphasize how high the stakes are for the US in the coming weeks: “The U.S. must play a careful game, avoiding the limelight, and focus on maintaining Turkey's basic Western, democratic, free-market orientation. This means not overreacting publicly to what are likely to be new provocations...privately, the U.S. should make clear to audiences inside and outside Turkey that, while not taking sides in the country's current domestic disputes, America's ability to assist Turkey diplomatically, economically and within NATO hinges on Turks resolving these matters in a democratic fashion that preserves the rule of law.”

Despite rising tension, Turkey still plays a vital role in the international community, hosting more Syrian refugees than any other country, maintaining a huge volume of trade with Europe and the United States, and participating in the fight against Daesh.

Sarah Houston & James Sauro