Turkey in Precarious Foreign Policy Balancing Act 5 Years After Coup Attempt Tested Ties
Coup attempt in 2016 fueled mistrust with Turkey’s Western allies at the same time as Russia became a potential ally
Facing a decline in the economy and his poll numbers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently trying to mend ties with Washington, five years after his government and allies repeatedly accused the most powerful country in the world of conspiring to violently usurp his power.
Thursday marks the fifth anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, a cataclysmic event that fed suspicions and animosity toward the country’s NATO allies while accelerating a partnership with one of the military alliance’s greatest competitors, Russia.
“We saw the level of trust between Washington and Ankara at a historic low,” said Imdat Oner, the former deputy head of mission at Turkey’s embassy in Venezuela.
Erdogan has long criticized NATO allies of not coming to his country’s defense as the putsch unfolded on the night of July 15, which led to the deaths of more than 250 people.
Those within his government have even claimed that the US was behind the coup attempt.
The Hurriyet Daily News reported in February that Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, one of the most powerful figures in the government, accused the US of being behind the coup attempt, as Turkey was becoming more public in its effort to improve relations with the Biden administration, according to the Reuters news agency. Hurriyet reported that Soylu also made the same claim five years ago on July 16, the evening after the putsch.
Oner, who is now a senior policy analyst at the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University, told The Media Line that Erdogan fully took over the country’s foreign policy in the aftermath of the coup attempt, leaving the foreign ministry to simply apply his decisions rather than help make them.
“When Erdogan took the power and all control in foreign policy, the anti-Americanism [and] anti-Western sentiment and rhetoric became widespread among the government elites,” said Oner. “Anti-Americanism became the core of the foreign policy.”
Those positions were pushed by Turkey’s pro-government media, which has increasingly dominated the press as opposition outlets were forced to shut down.
One of Turkey’s top pro-government tabloids reported that the CIA was behind the coup attempt, a week after it was quashed.
The coup attempt introduced mistrust in what was already deteriorating relations between the West and Turkey, and that situation hasn’t changed much
Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, said the pro-government media often reported that officers involved in the putsch had links to NATO, fueling suspicions among the public.
“The coup attempt introduced mistrust in what was already deteriorating relations between the West and Turkey, and that situation hasn’t changed much,” Esen told The Media Line.
That mistrust was partly due to the US refusing to extradite Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since falling out with Erdogan, a former ally.
Washington said it needed more evidence to extradite Gulen, who Ankara accuses of masterminding the coup attempt.
Turkey in the meantime has gone after Gulen’s supporters, both inside and outside of the country, and has also jailed opposition politicians and journalists in the ensuing crackdown.
Nearly 300,000 people were put behind bars over accusations they were connected to the putsch, and 150,000 workers in the public sector have been fired or suspended.
“The story became about Turkey’s human rights abuses and not sort of the trauma the country was facing,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“I certainly think that fueled ill will in Ankara because they were getting criticized for what they thought as moving to protect their government,” he said.
The crackdown led the West to raise even stronger concerns over Turkey’s democratic backsliding that had begun accelerating years ago with the 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests, a wave of demonstrations and civil unrest calling for freedom of the press, of expression and of assembly.
Stein told The Media Line that Washington did publicly back Ankara, with President Barack Obama speaking out in support of the Turkish government in the early hours of the coup attempt, but added that the US could have sent high-level officials to Turkey faster.
When then-US Vice President Joe Biden did go to Turkey a month after the attempted coup, Ankara launched its first offensive in Syria hours before his arrival.
Erdogan said his military would target a Kurdish militia in the country which Ankara considers allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey (PKK), deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara, Washington and the European Union.
However, the Kurdish militia in Syria was allied with the US in its fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a major fissure between Washington and Ankara that has lasted to this day.
“We still just have never really recovered from that in terms of trust in the bilateral relationship,” Stein said.
The story became about Turkey’s human rights abuses and not sort of the trauma the country was facing
Esen said that at the same time as the coup attempt made clear the major obstacles between Turkey and its Western allies, Russia also emerged as an alternative.
“The coup attempt was not the only reason but I think it prompted this mutually beneficial relationship,” Esen said.
It was feared the two countries were at the brink of war over Turkey’s downing of a fighter jet in November 2015 that Ankara said entered its airspace, though Moscow said it had remained over Syria.
Three weeks before the coup attempt, Moscow said it received an apology from Ankara over its downing of the Russian fighter jet.
That meant both countries could now collaborate, including in Syria where Turkey had gone against US interests.
Along with Iran, Ankara and Moscow have drawn up agreements to end periods of heightened fighting over the war-torn country.
Turkey also purchased a Russian anti-missile defense system which many analysts argue has become the biggest obstacle in relations with Washington.
The matter became even more serious when US President Joe Biden entered the White House, taking a much tougher stance against Erdogan.
Erdogan now finds himself squeezed between two nuclear powers and competitors, the US and Russia.
“Turkey finds itself in a much more tight, delicate position,” Esen concluded. “The US [is] not really playing ball.”