Turkey’s prospects after the coup attempt

U.S. and EU officials have called on Turkey to show restraint amid concerns that Friday’s failed coup attempt will be the pretext for an authoritarian crackdown. Turkey’s ability to investigate the putsch will be compromised by the fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repressed the media and weakened the judiciary, says Kemal Kirisci, of the Brookings Institution. The coup attempt will likely bolster Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power, and that will make any investigation into the true causes of the coup difficult, Kirisci says.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pinned responsibility on the cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. Is that credible?

It is possible [that the Gülen movement is responsible], but this needs to be thoroughly investigated. The [Turkish] government has long argued that Fethullah Gülen leads a parallel state from Pennsylvania, where he has been living since 1997. The journalist and academic Ali Bayramoğlu has said that the movement, going back to the 1980s and early 1990s, began to systematically place their students in the police and military academies. These students were closely monitored and accompanied.

Other commentators have argued that it’s unbelievable how F-16 pilots, on whom the state has spent more than a million dollars each to educate, attacked the Turkish parliament, military headquarters, intelligence services, and communications centers. How can a well-trained, prestigious F-16 pilot do this unless they are deeply attached to a cause? The movement also [includes] high-ranking judges and officers, including many one-star generals, who have been arrested.

Erdoğan has renewed his calls on the United States to extradite Gülen. Is this more plausible after the attempted coup?

Turkey has for a long time been seeking Gülen’s extradition, but the United States has not been cooperative, saying there was not enough evidence to build a case. However, the [U.S.-Turkey] extradition treaty refers to an obligation to extradite anyone who attempts to assassinate the leaders of one or the other country. There clearly was an attempt to assassinate Erdoğan: the hotel where he had been staying was attacked, and there was an attempt to control the airport where he was supposed to land. A necessary condition of extradition is that a convincing connection between the coup and the sought-after person is established; that should be the focus of cooperation.

Many analysts expect that Erdoğan will use the attempt as a pretense to invest the presidency with full executive powers, as he’s long sought.

The difficult issue will be to assess Erdoğan’s accusations independent of his political ends. Many commentators say the allegations put forward by the government serve his political aspirations: Erdoğan has become, de facto, the executive president of Turkey, but he wants to introduce an element of legality to it, which will require either a constitutional amendment or a completely new constitution. Opinion polls just before the coup suggested that the public, even supporters of [the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)], did not look favorably on it. This kind of threat to the system gives him considerable leverage [to codify an executive presidency], and I suspect he will follow that path rather than what some commentators are calling for, bringing the polarized country to a consensus through dialogue.

How to sort that out from the pursuit of the truth will be a difficult exercise, and I’m not sure today’s Turkey is equipped to do it, given the way the media has been repressed and the judiciary has been brought under the influence, if not control, of the government. These measures raise serious doubts about Turkey’s ability to investigate this within the realm of the rule of law.

The Incirlik air base, from which a U.S.-led coalition carries out air strikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, just reopened after a temporary closure. Will the coup attempt have broader implications for the anti-ISIS campaign?

Cooperation on ISIS is important, but much more so is the future of democracy in Turkey. A Turkey that is democratic is a Turkey of the rule of law, and a secular Turkey is one in which sympathy for such extremist groups is much less. Such a Turkey shares common values with the West, which makes cooperation much easier.

It looks like a large number of officers—colonels as well as one-star generals—were involved, and so the Turkish military is going to experience a period of weakness. That’s where U.S. cooperation, on intelligence and counterterrorism, is critical. Such cooperation demands trust. That trust will partially, but importantly, be a function of [cooperation over] the Gülenist dossier.

The United States and Turkey are going to have to find a way to cooperate over the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union Party). [Editor’s note: the United States backs the Syrian Kurdish party’s militant wing, the YPG, to combat the Islamic State; Turkey says the group has aided its compatriots in Turkey, the PKK, whose insurgency against the state resumed in July 2015]. The United States enjoys leverage over the PYD, and now it’s ever more important that it keeps the PYD in line so it does not become involved in the conflict in Turkey and strengthen the hand of the PKK while Turkey is vulnerable.

Turkey hosts roughly three million refugees and the country is party to an agreement with the EU to stem migration to Europe. What will EU-Turkey relations look like in the aftermath of the coup attempt?

If the perpetrators had gained control of government, it would have led to civil war, so the very fact that the coup attempt collapsed is saving Europe from waves of Turkish asylum seekers. The EU will need to expand its basis of cooperation with Turkey, because this coup attempt will adversely impact Turkey’s ability to deal with these refugees. There will likely be a purge from some of the bureaucracies and organizations that deal with them.

More broadly, both U.S.-Turkey and EU-Turkey ties have been strained lately. Will the Turkey’s alliance with the West come out on stronger footing after their condemnation of the coup attempt?

Helping with the investigation to establish the truth will be critical. The way in which, at the end of the day, [the EU and United States came out] with support for the elected government, just as Turkish opposition parties did, should entitle them to some influence, calling on Turkey to live up to the norms, standards, and values of democratic society.

The EU and United States together must reanchor Turkey solidly within the Western alliance. Erdoğan, as much as [the United States and EU member-states] may resent him or disagree with policies, must be made to feel that he’s welcome back in the ranks, the way he was between 2003 and 2010, on the condition he reforms his policies.

Erdoğan and the people around him, especially [former Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu, had delusions of grandeur. They dreamed they were going to lead the ummah, the Islamic world. This is all gone now: the emperor is naked. Erdoğan seems to recognize Turkey has boxed itself into a corner and wants to come out in the direction of the West. There is nowhere else to go. Turkey needs tourism, international trade, and foreign investment, and to protect its national security. On all these grounds it needs cooperation, and it’s not going to come from Iran, China, or Russia, even if that might be their preference. It can only come from the West.

Turkey may also recognize that the West is in trouble too, and if the West cannot come out of that trouble, Turkey will be in even deeper trouble. Brexit is going to have a negative impact on Turkey’s export market and tourism. An EU in trouble is not going to be able to give visa liberalization to Turkish nationals, which symbolically will anchor Turkey in the West, and is also important economically. If the EU and United States move to the right and say no to free trade agreements [and migration], Turkey will not benefit. Both sides next each other even more than in the past.

Copyright © Council on Foreign Relations 2016, republished with permission