Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey’s Greater Unknowns

Turkey’s Greater Unknowns

On July 15 at approximately 10 PM, an attempted coup d’etat was staged by elements of Turkey’s military. Parliament and the presidential palace were bombed. An assassination attempt was made on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks took to streets, seizing the Bosphorus Bridge, now renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in memory of the 230 Turks who died that night. Surviving the attack, Erdogan implored people to take to streets in response. Of the deceased, 145 were people protesting the attempt.

A 90-day state of emergency has been declared, giving the state sweeping powers in its pursuit of those allegedly complicit in the action. To date, approximately 60,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers, and civil servants have been suspended, detained, or placed under investigation. 6,000 arrested in a sweep anti-Gulen dragnet. 2,431 schools, unions, charities, and health care centers have been closed. Thirty-five percent (124 of 358) of Turkey’s generals and admirals are under arrest. Forty-two journalists were indicted. Gulen-related businesses are being shuttered. The government suspended the European Human Rights Convention. There are calls to reintroduce the death penalty.

The military and other state institutions have been significantly weakened and are now vulnerable. This is happening while jihadists kill scores of Turkish civilians, outright war is being fought against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents in the southeast, and the Turkish military is nominally engaged in the coalition against ISIS.

What is the likelihood of Fetullah Gulen’s extradition?

Fetullah Gulen is the clerical leader of the global Hizmet. A murky Islamic-social-educational movement comprised of various service-based organizations, its unifying theme is interfaith and cultural dialogue.  Gulen provides spiritual and executive direction from his Pennsylvania estate, where he has lived in exile since 1999. While Gulen was an erstwhile ally of the ruling AK Party (AKP), Erdogan is at present placing all blame for the attempted coup on Gulen and his followers and has asked the US to extradite him to Turkey.

The US and Turkey have had an extradition treaty since 1979. Officials at the Department of Justice are responding to Turkey’s extradition request. The Turkish state will have to bear the burden of proof, which includes an arrest warrant, statement of facts, and evidence that the offense is prosecutable in the US, although it occurred in Turkey. In sum, it is possible.

Current and past efforts to evidence crimes against the state were a categorical mockery; i.e. in the Sledgehammer cases of 2012, prosecutors presented the alleged 2003 coup plans on documents generated by Microsoft Word 2007. AKP needs to do better than that to win in a US federal magistrate’s court. And if Amnesty International can verify the accusations of suspected coup-plotters being beaten, raped, and tortured, then submitted confessions won’t count for much.

In case of no extradition – What’s the impact on US-Turkey relations?

If a federal judge denies the extradition request, the judgment will likely be problematic for US-Turkey relations. The latter will see it as a political decision, rather than a genuine legal ruling.

At greatest risk would be the end the government’s (i.e. the ruling and two largest opposition parties’) tolerance of continued US material and financial support of a ground force highly effective in killing ISIS recruits in Syria – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Then, there’s the US Air Force’s use of the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, from which at least 25 sorties are flown daily. Without it, American strike capabilities in Syria would be drastically limited.

Finally, there’s the concern of Turkey withdrawing from NATO. The USSR is no more, anti-Americanism is running exceptionally high, the European Community staggers from crisis to crisis (and it is not likely Turks believe they’ll someday be living in an EU Member State, according to polls), so what’s the point as long as there is trade? Diminished sovereignty in exchange for what, exactly?

Yet another go at alliances on eastern horizons?

Something rather extraordinary happened in late 2013. After centuries of wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, topped off with decades of teeth bared at the border between the USSR and Turkey, then prime minister Erdogan proposed the idea of a Turkish bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Comprising member states such as Russia, China, and Uzbekistan, this Eurasian political, military, and economic group is as far in aims and practices from the EU as it is geographically. Primarily a swipe at the EU’s foot-dragging on Turkey’s EU membership accession process, it nonetheless struck a rather anxious chord in the West.

Fed up with constant cries of an increasingly “authoritarian” Turkey in the halls of European capitals, worn of limited sovereignty, and boiling mad over what will be a lengthy extradition process regardless, might Erdogan throw up his hands and be done with whole affair?

And enmity between Turkey and Russia over the former’s downing of the latter’s jet in November last year? Well, a genuinely authoritarian Turkey would be a boon to the geostrategic interests of Putin, whose cronies seize each and every opportunity to weaken the Trans-Atlantic Alliance and the EU. Values are a feel-good luxury when one is a political animal of such ruthless caliber. Case in point: Erdogan finally came around to apologizing for the affair to Putin just last month and is set to fly to Moscow on August 9.

Is a broader witch hunt coming?

This remains to be seen. If the ruling party’s previous court-approved purges such as Ergenekon and the aforementioned Sledgehammer afford a guide, then the spies are in the shadows and evil-doers at every pass. The sheer magnitude of detentions, arrests, and investigations suggest that a greater net may be soon cast.  

Yet there is a silver lining. Turkish entities once considered enemies of AKP rejected the attempt outright. Backed into a corner, Erdogan took full advantage of the video chat application FaceTime—despite his repeated attacks on social media—to call citizens to the streets. This was broadcast live by CNN-Turk, previously lambasted by the president with accusations of working to undermine the government. On July 24 the main opposition party CHP and AKP held the joint “Republic and Democracy” rally in Istanbul on the following day. The following Monday, Erdogan met with the leaders of all major political parties (except the People’s Democratic Party – HDP) to discuss post-coup plans and measures. Could the base for a limited-but-unifying common ground be forming in a society otherwise toxically divided?

Consider that Turks of every political and social color came out in solidarity to protest the Friday coup attempt. The message was this:  We’re done. We’ve moved on from those days. Our rights to democratically participate in our own governance won’t be denied yet again.

These are the same Turks who voted down the mighty AKP in June 2015, forcing them to try to form a coalition government after years of parliamentary dominance. Why? AKP was bruised by corruption scandals and, perhaps more importantly, polls consistently indicated that Turks were weary of their president’s efforts to corral and then enlarge executive powers. Unfortunately, the renewed war with the PKK in the south changed that trend with November’s elections. People quite like stability, after all. Yet coupled with last summer’s election and strikingly unified stances taken on and after July 15, there is a genuine sign of hope, and one most deserving of our respect.

Editor’s Note: In view of the current ambiguities in Turkey concerning academics and journalists, the author wishes to remain anonymous.