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Foreign policy implications of 15 July ‘s coup attempt: cold Turkey?

27 Jul 2016 - 10:57
Source: Lubunya / Wikimedia.org

The unsuccessful revolt against President Erdoğan’s Turkish government on 15 July has been primarily an internal democratic and constitutional drama as regards cause, method and effects. But the failed coup could also have serious external consequences for Turkey’s position as candidate member of the EU, as NATO ally and as co-belligerent in the Syrian civil war (1). These are only three aspects of the geopolitical implications. It would be easy to add many more: Turkey’s relationship with its other neighbour states (Israel, Iran, Armenia and Iraq), its role in the Caspian region energy corridor to Southern Europe (2), and its maritime position in the Black Sea as a counterweight to the Russian fleet buildup in the Crimea. More generally, the attempted coup has implications for Turkish ambitions to develop into a major regional power or even leader of the Muslim world (3). In this contribution, we will restrict ourselves solely to the EU consequences and the NATO and Syrian implications. 

As regards the first aspect, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, in line with other Western reactions, took a nuanced position (read ‘diplomatically measured’) by making a distinction between the democratic institutions and the politicians themselves: she was relieved to state, together with other Western politicians, that thanks to the failure of the coup, the first-mentioned had at least survived it, while staying carefully silent about the second. But the reactions were more critical as the Turkish regime started to link follow-up measures and plans to the failure of the coup: the Turkish Labour Minister reproved the US for being behind the coup, and Ankara demanded the handing over of self-exiled Fethullah Gülen by the US, something that noticeably irritated the US, as it effectively accuses the US of facilitating the leadership of a terror organisation, as the Turks refer to it.

The wholesale elimination of political opponents even prompted the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, to warn that NATO will carefully observe whether Turkey continues to meet its “requirements with respect to democracy”, in an implicit warning to Erdoğan that even NATO membership could come into discussion. Another membership is also in question: Federica Mogherini said that Turkey’s bid for EU membership could suffer if it reinstates the death penalty against the coup plotters . Also the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a phone conversation with Erdoğan on 18 July, warned against reinstating the death penalty, already dubbed by her MF foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as an immediate obstacle to any further admission talks.  Threats that Erdogan  subsequently brushed away by once again leaving the possibility of reinstallment of the death penalty open.

NATO

NATO is an alliance of democratic states, but in its history it has always allowed the high politics of safety to weigh more heavily than human rights or the nature of the member regimes. Greece and Portugal had military dictatorships that were tolerated, and since Turkey’s accession to the alliance in 1952, the Turkish military has intervened in politics four times without repercussions with respect to their membership. There may be an excuse for this, as the alliance also played a moderating role in easing the traditional tension between Greece and Turkey in relation to islands in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus. More crucial is the bilateral relationship between the US and Turkey, mentioned separately in most American documents alongside NATO’s multilateral alliance (5). Turkey itself always considers this as a separate chapter too: not the relationship with NATO, but the good bilateral relationship which was brought into the conflict by the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, who on 18 July requested extradition of the US-based scholar Fethullah Gülen after the failed coup attempt. “Even questioning our friendship may be brought to the agenda here. Nonetheless, our Justice Ministry is conducting the necessary work,” according to Yıldırım (6).

The İncirlik air force base, besides its role in the Syrian war, is also of great importance due to the presence of between 50 and 90 American nuclear weapons. These play a particular role in the NATO nuclear deterrent strategy. Some years ago, suggestions circulated that in crisis situations the US could also allocate these weapons to US CentCom for operations outside the NATO area. Although experts have cast doubt on the actual viability of these vintage 20th-century B61 airborne bombs, and on the fact that the Turkish F16s are probably (yet far from permanently) nuclear-certified and so the Turkish air force is not fully committed, the presence alone of all these weapons at a distance of around 100km from the front with IS/Syria and the danger of either terrorist or disloyal troop attacks raises the question of whether this nuclear relationship can indeed continue. Recently added to this is the fact that Turkish air force personnel on the base apparently played a role in the coup and in this sense are not ‘trustworthy’ and, further, that the Turkish government has supposedly disrupted the professional operation of the base through purges. Even the commander of the NATO-assigned air base, General Bekir Ercan Van, as an accomplice to the coup (two of the tanker aircraft assigned to İncirlik were involved in the coup plot) has also been detained.

The removal of more than one hundred generals, not to mention the numerous lower-ranking military held in prison now, will severely hamper contacts (military-to-military, but also on the political level) among NATO allies. Whilst it is logical for any political regime to check the loyalty of their armed forces following a failed military coup, after 13 years of being methodically marginalised during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tenure, the vengeful shake-up will put the precarious power balance between the Turkish military and political elite under even more strain, always leaving open the possibility of a second coup attempt by frustrated officers.

According to experts’ most optimistic estimates, the measures of detainment will certainly seriously reduce the strength and quality of the Turkish armed forces, if not make them dysfunctional, and with over 500,000 military personnel, it is one of the largest in NATO (7).  The clean-up operation might even distract from Erdoğan’s military preoccupation, i.e. his war against the Kurdish PKK. General Adem Huduti, the commander of the Second Army, has been arrested following the foiled coup. The Second Army has led counterinsurgency operations against the PKK. It also oversees the security of Turkey’s borders with Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Whatever the consequences of the reduced capacity of the Turkish armed forces might be, it is likely that NATO obligations will suffer. On the other hand, as the president sidelines his political rivals, Turkey may reassert a policy of more controversial proposals, such as the supply of anti-aircraft missiles to its favourite Syrian opposition groups or the establishment of a ‘safe zone’ along the Syrian-Turkish border (which at the same time would deny the YPG Kurds local access). Any such escalation could place Turkey into conflict with major regional powers, particularly Iran and Russia, and strain its NATO relations with the US and Europe.

Syria

Taking up the Syrian repercussions, Erdoğan has long provided covert support to opposition groups including al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, in order to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Turkey participates in the US-led anti-ISIS mission as well, but it uses its strategic position to block the US from deeper partnership with the Syrian Kurds – the main US ally in Northern Syria. Erdoğan granted permission for the US to conduct sorties from İncirlik airbase in July 2015 in exchange for guarantees against further expansion along the border by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. In the immediate term, Turkey's ability to implement these policies beyond its borders will be limited as Erdoğan conducts an aggressive purge of state institutions, including the Turkish armed forces and Turkish National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).

ISIS could also launch new operations to reassert its control over parts of the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey has provided extensive military support to opposition groups along the so-called ‘Marea Line’ in Northern Aleppo Province as a counterweight to the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

As the ISW also reports, ISIS may use the current disorder within the Turkish armed forces along the Syrian-Turkish border to import additional fighters and resources into Syria. It could also use the confusion to smuggle new cells into Turkey in preparation for future attacks in Europe. Turkish security services, also shaken up after part of it was accused of being involved in the coup attempt, have also been stretched thin by deadly terrorist attacks carried out inside the country.

To summarise, while Turkey has survived the drama of a military coup, and the mood of even a majority of Turks beyond the AKP seems happy with that as another proof of Turkey’s political emancipation, the reality is disquietingly sober and even threatening – not only for Turkey itself, but for the region as well.

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(1) In only a very few publications the chances  of a military coup against have been considered (as possible, but unsuccesfully), e.g. Middle East Briefing: Is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seriously threatened by a coup d’état?, 27 June 2016.
(2) John Roberts, Energy Implications of Turkey’s Attempted Coup, Atlantic Council, July 16, 2016.
(3) NRC-Handelsblad, 23 July 2016, Profile of Tayep Recep Erdoğan, pp 22-25.
(4) Euronews
(5) Eg: “The United States enjoys a strong legacy of defense cooperation with Turkey, both bilaterally and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), dating from the onset of the Cold War”.In: Turkey-U.S. Defense Cooperation: Prospects and Challenges, Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, 2011; R41761. Mutatis mutandi restated in  Zanotti, Turkey: Background and US Relations in Brief, Congressional Research Service report 7-5700 R 44000, March 18, 2016.
(6) The Longest Night in Istanbul: Turkey after the 6-Hour Failed Coup, Middle East Briefing.
(7) IISS, the Turkish armed forces, count 510,000 active military personnel (army 402,000, navy 48,600, air force 60,000), paramilitary 102,200, and 378,000 reserve forces (plus 50,000 paramilitary). The Military Balance 2015, pp 144-147.
(8) The following paragraph draws heavily from Christopher Kozak, Institute of War Reporting, Failed Coup in Turkey: Implications for the Syrian Civil War, 23 juli 2016.