Transatlantic Take

After Turkey’s Coup Attempt: A Year of Instability and Estrangement

4 min read
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BRUSSELS — As Turkey commemorates the one year anniversary of a dramatic attempted coup, Turks and Turkey’s transatlantic partners are taking stock.

BRUSSELS — As Turkey commemorates the one year anniversary of a dramatic attempted coup, Turks and Turkey’s transatlantic partners are taking stock. The defeat of a violent bid to overthrow Turkey’s elected government was a victory for Turkish democracy. But developments over the past year make clear that the country has paid a very high price, domestically and internationally, with no end in sight. The events of July 15, 2016 can be seen as a waypoint in Turkey’s deepening polarization and estrangement from the West. Europe and the United States will need to hedge against the consequences of an increasingly unpredictable relationship with Ankara.

First, a year on, there is still little clarity about the attempted coup and the events leading up to it. Even if the Turkish government is correct in its view that the Gülen movement inspired and led the coup, it is reasonable to assume that a variety of other aggrieved elements took part. The post-coup purge has been on a sweeping scale, with tens of thousands detained and hundreds of thousands removed from their positions. Many businesses have been confiscated, especially in previously dynamic parts of Anatolia where Gülenist influence was strong. The past year has also seen an acceleration of existing authoritarian tendencies and mounting oppression affecting political parties, the media, and civil society. The government narrowly won a referendum on the shift to a presidential system, under conditions widely seen as heavily biased, at best. Perhaps half the Turkish public remains unconvinced, and they will find ways to mobilize, as the recent CHP-led “justice march” from Ankara to Istanbul shows. Despite a pervasive climate of suspicion and outright fear, there remains the potential for large-scale public protest, possibly even mass unrest. Against this backdrop, Turkey faces ongoing and tangible threats from terrorist movements, including the PKK, ISIL, and various leftist and radical nationalist networks. Today’s Turkey is a sharply divided and highly insecure society.

Second, the collapse of the regional order and the prospect of durable chaos on Turkey’s borders have not drawn Ankara closer to its traditional transatlantic partners. Turkey’s already troubled EU accession bid has essentially collapsed in the wake of the presidential referendum and the European Parliament’s vote to suspend negotiations if the referendum’s provisions are implemented. Ankara has drawn closer to Russia, driven by commercial interests, but also by a desire to show Western partners that Turkey has other options. The government’s stated commitment to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia is tangible evidence of this desire for diversification. The operational and political costs associated with this decision seem to have been ignored in Ankara. To be sure, the strident Turkish nationalism prevalent across the country’s political spectrum has parallels elsewhere, East and West. Exaggerated nationalist rhetoric has become a leading vehicle for political mobilization in today’s Turkey. President Erdoğan’s comparison of several European countries to the Nazis was hardly calculated to stabilize relations with the EU, but it struck a chord with a public suspicious of Europe and cynical about relations with Brussels.

Similarly, U.S.–Turkish relations have been hobbled by the persistent tendency of Turkish officials to assume the worst regarding America’s regional intentions. For the moment, Ankara and Washington appear to have “agreed to disagree” on critical issues, including U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia which plays a leading role in the fight against ISIL in Syria. But there is continuing potential for friction here, especially after the campaign for Raqqa. Turkey continues to press for the extradition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. The outcome remains uncertain, and will depend on the quality of the evidence provided and the perceived independence of the Turkish judicial system, both problematic. 

The Trump administration may be more inclined than its predecessor to view relations with Turkey through the lens of security cooperation, setting aside political and human rights concerns. This does not necessarily augur well for a smooth strategic relationship if Ankara and Washington remain on different pages when it comes to specific policies, including Syria and relations with Moscow. For both the United States and Europe, the perception of an insecure and unpredictable Turkey, increasingly adrift from Western political and legal norms, inevitably weakens a partnership significant in theory but deeply flawed in practice.  In Washington, Brussels and Berlin, and despite the NATO tie, Turkey is now seen as an important but difficult Middle Eastern rather than European ally — a barrier to migration and instability on Europe’s violent periphery. 

Finally, Turkey’s situation one year after the events of July 15, 2016, raises the question of how Turkey’s transatlantic partners should respond. Turkey’s geopolitical position makes it tempting to see the country, and Western partnership with Ankara as “too big to fail.” This is too simple. The United States and Europe need to be prepared for a protracted period of instability in and with Turkey. This does not imply disengagement or holding Ankara at arms length. It does imply keeping questions of fundamental rights, including the fate of imprisoned journalists and others detained for thought crimes, front and center, alongside cooperation on migration, counterterrorism, and the rest of the so-called transactional agenda.