What the Failed Coup Means for Turkey’s Foreign Policy
In the late hours of Friday, July 15, as civilians and police battled with elements of Turkey’s army for control of the country, the prospect of a NATO ally slipping into chaos loomed large. Located where the Middle East meets Europe, Turkey is a key partner in confronting the challenge of refugee flows on one hand, and militant jihadi traffic on the other. As information about the coup began coming in, world leaders declared their support for Turkey’s civilian leadership. Meanwhile, thousands of ordinary citizens challenged troops to defend the government. By noon Saturday the putschists were declared defeated at the tragic cost of 265 dead and some 1,500 injured. The upshot: a definitive shift of Turkey’s center of gravity in favor of President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan and his dream of an executive presidency. What, in turn, are the implications of the coup’s aftermath and Erdoğan’s strengthened hand for foreign policy?
First, the failed coup means that Turkey’s domestic political calculus will trump all others. Affirming the government’s authority is the priority. At the time of writing this has meant suspending 2,854 members of the judiciary including two members of the Constitutional Court, and a least 3,000 soldiers including 11 generals, as well as thousands more police and civil servants. The accused are suspected of serving Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric who was once an ally of Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) but which Ankara now says is behind the attempted coup.
Turkey’s leaders are demanding that Washington extradite Gülen, a green card holder who claims to have no connection to the plotters. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and President Erdoğan have both pressed the point in public remarks, while Labor and Social Security Minister Süleyman Soylu explicitly accused the United States of backing the coup. The pro-government press is peppered with headlines that suggest several U.S. institutions and publications from the CIA to Foreign Policy magazine knowingly or inadvertently supported the plotters. The State Department has responded by inviting Turkey to produce concrete evidence of Gülen’s role in order to discuss extradition and pledged to examine the treaty-basis of such an eventuality. It also warned sternly against insinuations of American responsibility which, spokesman John Kirby said, “would damage bilateral relations.”
A more uplifting domestic outcome with potential to impact Turkey’s regional role in the longer-run is the cross-cutting resistance to the coup displayed by people from all walks of life. Opposition party leaders roundly sided with the government. Ordinary citizens of pro-religious but also pro-secular conviction opposed the plotters through brave actions. These are epitomized in now-iconic images of civilians taking on tanks and journalists defying soldiers who sought to occupy media outlets. The challenge will be to convert ad hoc solidarity into reconciliation across a deeply divided society. Doing so could help revitalize Turkey’s soft power across a Middle East desperately in need of a successful case of living with diversity. Yıldırım’s first address to the nation gestured in this direction, expressing gratitude to diverse groups. Several pro-Erdoğan pundits also have used inclusive language. On balance, however, many observers fear that the accrual of vast power, the ability to mobilize millions on the street, and the legacy of deep polarization will lead to measures that ostracize the other “50 percent” of Turkey’s population who despite opposing the coup are no supporters of Erdoğan.
Regardless of whether consolidation of power is achieved through reconciliation or triumphalism, a second major consequence of the failed coup will be to bolster Ankara’s recent pivots in regional policy. These include rapprochement with Russia. President Vladimir Putin accepted Erdoğan’s June 27 letter of apology for downing a Russian jet last November. Moscow reciprocated by beginning to lift sanctions. The failed coup won’t help economic ties rebound in the short term, but it will serve to further normalize relations, as the decision to shoot down the Russian plane is now attributed to an allegedly Gülenist officer.
Similarly, diplomatic relations with Israel were recently restored after seven years of estrangement. While some from Erdoğan’s core support base were dismayed, the adulation felt by followers after his masterful management of the attempted coup means that the new tack on Israel will have no political cost. There likewise have been hints that Turkey might reconsider its longstanding position on Syria. Ankara has to date rejected any post-settlement role for President Bashar al-Assad or the Democratic Union Party (PYG), a Syrian Kurdish group Turkey says is linked to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) but which the United States deems an ally in the battle against ISIS. Again, Erdoğan’s enhanced power means that he can modify past positions without paying a political price.
But while heightened pragmatism at the regional level can serve Turkey’s cooperation with major powers in the Middle East, a third consequence of the coup may be to amplify ambivalence in relations with the West. In addition to strong feelings about Gülen’s extradition, there is a sense among some in Ankara that Western leaders hedged in their initial response to the coup. This sentiment grafts on to residual anger at the perceived Western betrayal of Egyptian democracy when General Sisi’s 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime was accepted without fanfare in Western capitals. At the same time, public demands to reinstate the death penalty to punish coup perpetrators, if heeded, would lead to treaty revisions that disqualify Turkey from EU accession, further attenuating European influence.
In this climate, if a U.S.-Turkey impasse over Gülen’s extradition intensifies, and with Turkey’s EU accession process already in the doldrums, Western leverage in Ankara, especially when it comes to matters of democracy, human rights, and rule of law, is likely to be minimal in the days and months ahead.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.