Never a dull moment in Turkey, the Mediterranean country with its pivotal role in the Middle East and its strategic position around the Black Sea, where it is keeper of the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea (and thus to open waters): the Bosporus seagate in the city of Instanbul.
Turkey is arguably the most important member of the NATO defence organization; not only due to the aforementioned strategic position both around the Black Sea and in the Middle-East, but also due to the fact that it has the biggest army outside the United States.
Turkey's current president and former prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pursuing a double, barely hidden agenda after his rise to power that started early in the 21st Century:
- The expansion and
intensification of his political (now presidential) powers, as well as the
powers of his AK party (the
Justice and Development party), that he founded in 2001.
- The famous quote of French ruler Louis IV, “l’etat, c’est moi” (i.e. 'I am the state'), seems to be Erdoğan's personal motto;
- An sunni-islamic and monotheistic Turkey with little breathing room
for Christian, shia-Islamic and non-religious minorities, as well as for the Kurds who remain being seen as 'terrorists';
- A beacon in and for the Arab world, instead of being a relatively neutral country on the brink between East and West.
- This means the abolishment of the adamantly secular state, with in it the relative freedom of religion, that has been defended by especially the Turkish army, since the days of Kemal Atatürk.
While the unmistakable turn of Turkey into a more Middle-Eastern, Islamic, “Arabic” and even dictatorial(?) direction has not been missed by the Western and Russian leaders and media, this was mostly ignored as long as Turkey fulfilled its obligations towards the NATO and the EU and played the massively important role of bridgehead for the Middle East.
European and Russian tourists were still very welcome at the Turkish coastline, where heavily subsidized, “all inclusive” megahotels had clouded the skylines of the coastal cities Antalya, Alanya, Marmaris and Bodrum.
The fact that the self-indulgent eating and drinking habits of the Western and Russian tourists, as well as their “decadent”, Western clothing style on and off the beaches, were offending the very strict rules of the Islam, was turned a blind eye to by the local authorities. Those tourists brought in a lot of spending money and helped to build up the booming Turkish economy.
And as far as Russian president Vladimir Putin concerned: he understood the mounting hunger for power and increasingly dictatorial trademarks of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but they did not bothered him at first, as long as his civil and war vessels could sail through the Bosporus seagate and his countrymen were welcome in Turkey for their holidays.
This all changed under the influence of an incident, in which a Russian jetfighter – being on a war mission in Syria – was gunned down after crossing the Turkish border during his flight. One of the pilots was killed by Syrian insurgents during his landing attempt with the ejection seat and the other pilot could barely escape alive.
The order to shoot down the Russian plane was initially defended fiercely by President Erdoğan, but an outraged President Putin immediately established a “de facto” boycott of Turkey, by stopping all flights to Turkey and urgently advicing his countrymen to not travel there for their holidays.
In those days, I wrote the following lines:
What matters [...] is that it has been a reckless and extremely dangerous move of Turkey, which could have dramatically increased the international tensions in the world (and it still could do so in the near future).
To make things worse: both the ego’s of presidents Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin prevent them from simply saying ‘sorry’ and admitting that they have acted ‘wrongly’ in this matter.
No, instead they turn into an international ‘cockfight’ in which they try to punish each other with inconsiderate economic measures (‘an eye for an eye’), loud sabre rattling and political charivari. This would not be a very big problem, when Turkey would not be one of the most prominent NATO members with arguably the most strategic position in the Middle-East, as heeder of the entrance to the Black Sea (through the Bosporus seagate).
Even though the NATO is probably absolutely not willing to risk an ‘all out’ war with Russia, on behalf of Turkey, the odds for this are increasing when the tensions between Russia and Turkey keep on mounting. In one of the most unstable regions in the world, this is almost equal to committing suicide.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems is that both the NATO and the European Union cannot force Turkey to ‘shut up’ and sweet-talk itself into a regained mutual understanding with Russia.
The NATO desperately needs Turkey as an operating base for the Middle East and as entrance for its seafleet to the Black Sea. Arguing with Erdoğan could lead to undesired reactions of the Turkish president.
This confrontation between Russia and prominent NATO member Turkey was a serious crack in the relations between Russia and Turkey at one hand, but also between Turkey and the Western world at the other hand.
Even though the NATO and the whole Western world openly declared to stand behind their close ally Turkey, some serious frowns were shown in the various Western government seats, when this potentially dangerous event occured.
However, as Turkey reached out a helping hand to the struggling EU – with respect to the refugee conundrum – and Dutch PM Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel established a deal with Erdoğan with respect to taking back illegal Syrian refugees, the situation between Turkey and Europe improved quickly again.
And in a later stage (i.e. a few weeks ago), Erdoğan decided to count his blessings, as he sent out an apology to the Kremlin for the jet fighter incident after all. This apology was received with a benign smile of “Vladimir Vladimirovich“ and an abolishment of the Russian boycott of Turkey followed soon.
- the closeness of Turkey to the bloody and dangerous civil war in neighbouring country Syria;
- the war blazing up between the Turkish government and
the Kurdian population inside and outside the country (i.e. living in Syria and Iraq);
- the relative sympathy of
president Erdoğan for ALL the adversaries of Syrian president Bashir Assad – not to mention his alleged, candid cooperation
with IS, reputedly enabling (illegal) oil trade from the sieged areas of Iraq;
- and especially a series of very deadly, terrorist attacks at different spots in Turkey,
And in spite of Erdoğan’s apology to the Kremlin, the Turkish president behaved more and more authoritarian and imperative towards the opposition, as well as towards the other religions in his country.
That was the situation until last Friday (e.g. July 15, 2016), when the world was suddenly alarmed by the message that insurgents in the Turkish army had started a coup d’etat attempt against the government of President Erdoğan.
A few tense hours followed in which different army squadrons fired shots at each other, as well as at civilians, members of parliament and policemen, from helicopters and jet planes. The fate of the president was unclear until Erdoğan suddenly appeared on Turkish television and urged his grassroots – via video and SMS – to massively protest against this coup d’etat. This event was the beginning of the end for the insurgents.
After the coup d’etat was finally over the next day, the Turkish government started a purging process in which not only the army insurgents, but also representatives of the legal system (around 3000 judges and justices) and other ‘enemies of the state’ were arrested and taken away to prisons or large public places (i.e. sports halls) for a (probably brutal) interrogation.
The opposition of the AK Party, as well as the remaining free media and journalists in Turkey, were intimidated to not comment too loudly upon the destabilizing political situation and the deteriorating human rights in Turkey.
Especially the ubiquitous arrests of insurgents and ‘the political and societal enemies’ of Erdoğan reputedly all happened according to lists, carrying the names of these enemies. Allegedly these lists all had been prepared in advance and they had been ready for usage before the coup d’etat even took place.
Particularly this circumstance spurred the stories and conspiracy theories that the coup d’etat was actually "pre-cooked" and perhaps even a total fake, as it would have been orchestrated by persons within the AK Party itself.
One name for “the person responsible for this coup d’etat” was mentioned very quickly and convincingly by the Turkish government. That was the name of the spiritual leader of the opposition against President Erdoğan: Fethullah Gülen. And that is where the global, political component of this coup d'etat started.
Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim preacher and political leader, has been living in a self-imposed exile in the United States (i.e. in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania) since 1999. Even though Gülen and Erdoğan started as ‘partners in crime’ against the secular government that ruled Turkey at the end of the 20th Century, their relation soured dramatically in 2013 when Erdoğan accused Gülen of spurring an anti-corruption investigation against Erdoğan and his political friends. In return, Gülen was put on a Turkish most-wanted-terrorist list and the United States were asked for his extradition, to which the USA did not comply.
Last Saturday – the day after the coup – the extremely important NATO military airport Incirlik in Turkey (from which the daily barrages of the US in Syria take place) was closed down by the Turkish government.
For a brief period, it was forbidden for the US to use this airport, as Erdoğan both wanted to punish the US for offering hospitality to Gülen and for “being the alleged masterminds behind this coup”. Besides that, he also wanted to remove possible insurgents within the Turkish airforce from this airbase.
This temporary closedown of the indispensable NATO airbase Incirlik was a signal that the US government – and as a matter of fact the whole western world, as well as the Kremlin – did not misunderstood!
Kerry was “not amused”, to say the least, about the ongoing purge in Turkey, as well as the emerging situation regarding the NATO airbase and the accusations and threats uttered by Recep Erdoğan in the aftermath of the coup d’etat. The following snippets were printed in Foreign Policy:
Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Turkish government Monday that its actions could have consequences for the NATO alliance if it goes too far with its ongoing purge of thousands of military personnel, judges, and police officers accused of involvement in last weekend’s failed coup attempt.
The U.S. diplomat’s remarks, delivered at a meeting of the European Union’s 28 foreign ministers, came as authorities acting on behalf of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sacked more than 8,000 police officers and officials in a massive effort launched in the aftermath of the coup, according to the Washington Post and Reuters.
“A lot of people have been arrested and arrested very quickly,” Kerry told journalists. “The level of vigilance and scrutiny is going to be very significant in the days ahead.”
“We will certainly support bringing the perpetrators of the coup to justice but we also caution against a reach that goes beyond that and stress the importance of the democratic rule being upheld,” Kerry said.
That all is a diplomatic way to say that the “sh*t is hitting the fan”, as far as American Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned.
Even though the 'Incirlik' NATO base closedown was not mentioned in the Foreign Policy article, it must have made a real dent in the American trust in their Turkish NATO partner. Not being able to use Incirlik airbase means that nearly all NATO operations in the Middle East are close to ‘impossible’.
And that was that...
Little more than half a year ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey managed to infuriate the Russians with his gung ho attack upon the Russian jet fighter, after it illegally crossing the Turkish borders. In spite of the cautious ‘détente’ between Turkey and Russia starting after Erdoğan’s apology towards the Kremlin, the political situation between these countries is yet far from normal again.
And now Erdoğan has alienated the American government with:
- his accusations and demands, regarding Fethullah Gülen and the American role in the failed coup d'etat;
- his temporary closedown of
Incirlik airbase and;
- his dramatic, allegedly ‘precooked’ purge within his country, in which he hunts down all his political enemies and even wants to reinstate the death penalty for the insurgents.
European countries with large Turkish population groups, like Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, intensely feel the effects of the coup d’etat on their own home turf. Erdoğan badgered the pro-AK party groups in these countries to protest against the pro-Gülen groups. Fierce protests and small riots in a few large cities within these countries were the result of Erdoğan’s call.
And so the failed coup d'etat might have long-lasting political implications on a global scale.
Nevertheless: to the uninformed reader it might seem that Erdoğan is getting into a more and more difficult position, after alienating both Russia and the United States. And of course, there WILL be a few cracks in their relations with Turkey. But please look at things objectively:
- Turkey is the
gateway to the Middle East and is a leading and authorative country in that
- Incirlik is an indispensable airbase for NATO operations, for which there is hardly an alternative now and in the distant future;
- Istanbul is the gateway to the Black Sea for both Russia (i.e.
to get out of it) and the United States (i.e. to get into it);
- Turkey is protecting Europe from massive numbers of
refugees. These refugees can and will be used as “leverage”, when Europe does
not play the right tune towards Erdoğan's ears;
- Turkey is the second largest NATO partner with the second
largest and second most versatile army. Turkey being kicked out of the NATO
would leave a void with the size of a large meteorite crater. This will therefore never
- President Erdoğan’s authority among the Turkish population, inside and
outside his home turf, is nearly undisputed, as the failed coup has proven.
- Unless Erdoğan is removed by a successful (!) coup in the coming months or years, he will maintain playing a pivotal role in the world for these very reasons.
Whatever happens in the aftermath of the Turkish coup d’etat, the United States, Europe and Turkey will remain close partners inside and outside the NATO.
Not out of mutual “love and compassion”, but out of sheer necessity for all parties involved, as they need each other desperately. Every other outcome is highly unlikely...