By Yavuz Baydar
In many aspects, March 30 Thursday is a crucial day for Turkish-American and Turkish-NATO relations, when the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, pays a visit to Ankara.
This one precedes his visit to NATO, scheduled for the day after, and certainly the issue of Turkey, a NATO ally that has had fraught relations with the United States and European countries in recent months, will be a key item on his agenda.
“Secretary Tillerson will reaffirm Turkey’s important role in ensuring regional stability, and he will discuss the way forward with our campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” the State Department bulletin had said when the announcement came.
As the Washington Examiner had reported, ‘The trip could give Tillerson an opportunity play peacemaker between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European members of NATO.’
There are more issues on the table.
‘American officials expect Erdogan and others to raise the case of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup last July. The focus of the Ankara talks is the U.S.-led offensive to retake Raqqa from Islamic State and to stabilize areas in which militants have been forced out, allowing refugees to return home’ Reuters reported.
‘A major sticking point between the United States and Turkey is U.S. backing for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting an insurgency for three decades in Turkey.’
In an even more fragmented multi-polar world of today, what is seen as ‘Turkey adrift’ by its allies and foes, how the Trump Administration will approach this sensitive issue if of outmost significance.
Although Fikri Işık, Turkish Defence Minister, attempted to soften the tensions in the alliance in an interview with Al Jazeera English, the gap between Turkey and its allies within NATO has reached alarming levels, threatening a rupture with far-reaching consequences.
More than anything, it involves the apparent and growing disagreement between Ankara and some Western capitals about the nature of the coup attempt in Turkey last July.
A Der Spiegel interview with Bruno Kahl, the head of the German intelligence service, added fuel to the fire. It followed the spat between Turkey and Germany over the ban on Turkish politicians conducting rallies on German soil.
Kahl was asked whether he believed Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric in Pennsylvania, was behind the coup. “Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels,” he said, “but they haven’t yet been successful.”
“The coup attempt wasn’t staged by the state,” he went on. “Even before July 15th, the government had launched a large wave of purges. That is why elements within the military thought they should quickly launch a coup, before they, too, were purged, but it was too late and they were purged as well…”
“The consequences of the putsch that we have seen would have happened anyway, if perhaps not as deep and radical. The coup was likely just a welcome pretext.”
Karl also asked:
“Will the country remain a partner in the security alliance?”
Almost simultaneously others across the Atlantic were making similar remarks. US Representative Devin Nunes, R-California and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, questioned the files presented by the Turkish government to the US Department of Justice alleging that Gulen was the mastermind behind the putsch.
Interviewed on Fox TV, Nunes said: “I find it hard to believe… I saw no evidence (in there) about Gulen’s involvement in the coup.”
“Turkey as a NATO partner has been for long a strong ally of ours but [the Turks] are becoming more and more worrisome in terms of being a reliable ally,” Nunes added.
Such statements, more public and louder than ever, shatter the mood in Ankara. While some pro-Erdogan pundits were developing conspiracy theories, top sources of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were accusing the intelligence structures of being used or infiltrated by Gulenists.
Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik accused Kahl of “being ignorant of the facts”, questioning whether German Intelligence was behind the coup.
“Where are you (Germany) in all this?” Isik asked.
The gap seemed wider with warnings from the European Commission. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn said in a newspaper interview that the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union becomes increasingly “unrealistic”.
Hahn indicated that after Turkey’s April 16th referendum on presidential powers, Turkish membership negotiations could be shelved altogether — a notion that has been circulated even more loudly by the European Parliament.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems not to object. Constantly talking about reinstating the death penalty should his side win the referendum vote does not endear him to the European Union. Nor did his saying: “Everything, including the refugee agreement, will be put on the table. It’s all over.”
There is a tacit understanding that Turkish-EU relations are on life support, doomed to fail. However, it is clear that the NATO dimension is seen as far more crucial in defining Turkey’s future role, even its existence, in the military alliance.
A sign of crack was seen when Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the German government had since early 2016 rejected Turkish requests on arms sales — light weapons and ammunition — 11 times on the basis that they could be used on the civilian population, meaning Kurds and political opponents.
There have been reports that four high-ranking Turkish officers and the military attaché in Oslo have been granted asylum in Norway. More than 150 Turkish Army members defected to Germany and Belgium. Officers from one NATO member seeking asylum and their claims being treated as legitimate in another is unprecedented, underlining the historically important dimension of the stand-off. Sources within the AKP say Germany could use the defectors and a couple top-level prosecutors and diplomats also seeking refugee status in clandestine activities against Turkey.
A long series of trials related to the coup attempt under way adds to the puzzle. What the suspects, especially those at the top of the command chain, tell the courts might confirm suspicions or raise new ones about who was behind the coup.
A majority of them deny any affiliation or cooperation with Gulen and his followers, maintaining that they are Kemalists, staunchly loyal to the principles of Turkey’s founder.
A witness statement by Zekai Aksakallı, commander of special operations forces, stirred even more suspicion. “A state of alarm within our army leads automatically to a top-level order on the entire staff not to leave their bases and barracks,” he said, “but this basic rule, always applied, was not implemented July 15th when the reports have been received. If that was done, the coup would be totally exposed from the first moment.”
In this context, a comprehensive report by the Foreign Relations Committee of the British Parliament landed also like a bombshell. The report, prepared with the help of a series of oral and written statements of experts and politicians, question the role of Gulen and his followers as the main culprits of the coup attempt, raising new questions, as it is once more underlining that a gap of trust between Turkish government and its western allies is wider than ever before.
This rift adds to the elements that threaten Turkey’s role and trustworthiness in NATO and intelligence structures and in the coalition combating jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
As put in a column by Leonid Bershidsky, an analyst with Bloomberg recently:
”(Turkey’s) Relations with the Netherlands are all but broken off, Germany is struggling to remain civil under a barrage of Erdogan insults, and Denmark is siding with its north European neighbors. Add to this Turkey’s differences with the U.S. and the perennial tension between Turkey and Greece, and it’s no longer clear how much of a NATO member Erdogan’s country really is. Despite its considerable military strength, Turkey’s participation in alliance activities isn’t extensive, and its interests don’t necessarily align with those of NATO.
”U.S.-Turkish relations haven’t quite recovered since Erdogan unleashed similarly strong rhetoric against the U.S. last year, accusing it of being behind the failed plot to remove him, and Secretary of State John Kerry came close to threatening Turkey with the loss of its NATO membership.
That membership, though, doesn’t appear to be particularly meaningful at present.
In Syria, the world’s biggest war theater today, Turkey acts as an independent player and sometime rival to the U.S. That became evident last year, when Turkey and Russia became co-brokers of a ceasefire and a peace process that excluded the U.S. This year, the U.S. and Russia found themselves unlikely situational allies against Turkey near the Syrian town of Manbij, preventing a Turkish push against Kurdish forces called terrorists by Erdogan’s government but considered useful allies against the Islamic State by both America and Russia.
There’s no sign of a U.S.-Turkish joint strategy, and any U.S. move to help the Kurds will be seen as a betrayal in the charged post-coup atmosphere of Ankara.
All in all, Turkey appears to have more disputes than friendships with its NATO allies. And its engagement with the alliance itself, which it joined in 1952, isn’t particularly strong.’
Some Turkish officers attached to the NATO headquarters in Brussels even asked for asylum, and others were abruptly dismissed from the military. Alliance ties were weakened, and that’s what some radicals within Erdogan’s AK party want. Earlier this year, Samil Tayyar, an AK legislator,calledNATO a “terror organization” that “threatens Turkey.” He accused the alliance and its members of being behind all Turkish coups since 1960 and called for Turkey to leave it.
Erdogan himself has never suggested going that far. His brinkmanship is designed to retain the benefits of formal NATO membership without taking on too many commitments. The U.S. and its top European allies tolerate that because a Turkish departure would, in effect, put the Black Sea and the Balkans officially in play as parts of the world where Russia and Turkey can openly vie for influence. The West would also lose a key Middle Eastern foothold.
In reality, however, Erdogan is nobody’s long-term ally. He’s a populist, mostly interested in consolidating domestic power for the long term, and his country’s strategic importance to everyone — Europeans, Americans, Russians, Arabs — gives him a sense of impunity. Turkey is only bound by treaties so long as they don’t force Erdogan to do anything he doesn’t like. And the referendum, if Erdogan wins it, will only strengthen that position.