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The rift between Turkey and the US

August 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

Turkey has long been a significant partner for the United States and NATO. It is strategically located between Europe and the Middle East and, for decades, Turkey and the US have cooperated in many areas, from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to Central Asia and even Korea. There are some important reasons for this cooperation which should be considered carefully when looking at why Turkey is such an important ally.

The alliance between the US and Turkey has centred on international security within the volatile region in which the latter is located. This has entailed bilateral and NATO action post-Cold War in the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Turkey sits close to several global hotspots and its territory is used for the storage and transport of arms, cargo and personnel, which provides valuable facilities for the US and NATO.

More importantly, the largest US military presence in Turkey is at Incirlik Air Base near the southern city of Adana, which hosts approximately 1,500 Americans. Since the end of the Cold War, Incirlik has been used to support the US and NATO operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, “Turkey maintains the right to cancel the US access to Incirlik with three days’ notice,” wrote Andrew Tigman in the Military Times. “Incirlik Air Base is important in the United States and the coalition group who fight against Daesh.”

In terms of relative stability, Turkey has emerged as a significant actor in the Middle East, building on its extraordinary economic success and, until now, its stable democracy, very strong military capabilities, relations with key Western or global institutions (such as its NATO membership, EU Customs Union membership and candidate status for the EU, and G20 membership), and the cultural appeal of its Western-Islamic mix. Turkey thus provides both stability in the region and a potential platform to influence developments therein, both on its own and possibly in tandem with the US and other Western actors.

As a model for the Muslim world, Turkey is a country that is not only secular but also democratic and Islamic. It has set itself the objective of becoming one of the 10 biggest economies in the world by 2023 with an impressive economic performance in recent years which has distinguished it regionally and in the wider world, especially at a time when many other countries have experienced the negative effects of the global financial crisis.

The US and other Western countries should take into account that Turkey still remains a key regional power that shares links and characteristics with the West which distinguish it from other Muslim-majority regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Although it is easy to see how significant an ally Turkey is, tensions have surfaced recently between Ankara and Washington, notably following the failed coup attempt last month. Turkish officials have openly accused America of supporting the coup, which left at least 240 people dead and many more wounded. Indeed, some high ranking politicians from the ruling AK Party have accused Washington of directly or indirectly supporting Fethullah Gülen, the US resident accused of being behind the attempted military takeover, and his movement which is designated as a “terrorist organisation” by Turkey. Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu stated bluntly that, “The US is behind this coup attempt.”

Erdogan and his aides have linked the violence to Gülen and hinted that Washington must bear some responsibility because the cleric lives in Pennsylvania. Despite President Barack Obama voicing his support for the democratically-elected Turkish government, it has not helped to ease the tension between his administration and the government of his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Relations between Turkey and the United States are once again at a crossroads and will deteriorate quickly if Presidents Barack Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan don’t move swiftly to restore trust,” said Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The post-coup purge of government institutions in Turkey is a cause of concern for US officials. Joseph Votel, the chief of the US Central Command which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, warned that it is “something to be very, very concerned about” because it could harm the campaign against Daesh in Syria. “Some of the officers with whom we have relationships in Turkey are now either detained or in some cases retired as a result of the coup,” declared NATO’s Supreme Commander, General Curtis Scaparrotti. “We’ve got some work to do there.”

Erdoğan has reacted angrily to statements which appeared to support the failed coup. “The US general stands on the coup plotters side with his words,” said Turkey’s president. “He revealed himself via his statements… It is up to you to decide on this. Who are you? Instead of thanking the state for repelling the coup attempt, you stand with the coup plotters.” Erdoğan reminded Americans that the main coup plotter is in their country. “You are nurturing Fethullah Gülen there. It is out in the open.” The Turkish people know who is behind this scheme, he insisted, “and they know who the superior intelligence behind it is. Moreover, with such statements, you are giving yourself away.”

Certainly, and more importantly, perhaps, the US response is not improving matters. Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected such accusations as utterly false and harmful, and warned that Turkey’s NATO membership could be in jeopardy if it continues to purge thousands of officials and civil servants, although this has been denied by the organisation’s secretary general.

Since the AK Party came to power in 2002, Turkey-US relations have gone through dizzying ups and downs but this latest situation is quite different. America has a real dilemma, as Ankara tries to show that Gülen and his movement were involved directly in the coup. Turkish officials have provided evidence which they claim that Gülenists have built a parallel state, and that their large network of supporters and loyalists are more than capable of destabilising the state and overthrowing the government.

Some Turkish officials have sought to portray America’s extradition of Gülen as a critical requirement for positive relations with Washington, although the potential consequences if it does not happen remain unclear. “According to a recent poll,” reported Gulsen Solaker for Reuters, “calls for Gülen’s extradition have widespread public support in Turkey.”

The US might, therefore, be forced to hand the founder of the Gülenist movement to the Turkish authorities for the cleric to face prosecution in his home country. For many people, this is the only way out of the dilemma, and America should hand over Gülen to Turkey without further delay to ease the tension between the two strategic allies. It is not only vital for US-Turkish relations but also necessary to calm the dangerous political tensions in Turkey and prevent the existing divisions within society from becoming wider.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.