In the wake of the coup, Erdogan has thrown down gauntlets to the US and the EU that they will have difficulty picking up.
First, Erdogan has demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gulen arguing that he instigated the coup of 15 July. The US is demanding proof. A Minister in the Turkish government has accused Washington of complicity in the coup. Another cabinet member has likened Gulen to Bin Laden. He did not evoke Islamic State (IS) but he could have.
At the same time, there is credible evidence Ankara has been supporting IS, facilitating the passage of would-be jihadists across its border into Syria, helping the IS bring their oil to the market, and the like at the same time as being a member of the anti-IS coalition. Russia, of all folks, was the first to bring this to the attention of the international community.
In dealing with the extradition request, Washington would be well advised to ask itself just how the coup came about. Here is my take. The Turkish Supreme Military Council was scheduled to meet in August, inter alia to review the performance of the top brass. Roughly a month before this meeting, a large number of Turkish officers seemed poised to lose their positions owing to their real or purported allegiance with the Gulen movement.
If you are Erdogan, you leak a list of the heads that are to roll, assume that those concerned will seek to defend themselves and that once they do they will be joined by other Turks that oppose the Islamist agenda of their President. You then launch a purge in the best Stalinist tradition.
Erdogan has also laid down a gauntlet to the EU in calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey. He knows this is a red flag in Brussels.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that Turkey could endanger its status as a NATO ally if what I have deemed Erdogan’s counter-coup ended up eclipsing the rule of law. (Incidentally, NATO does not have a throw-out mechanism.)
So, moving forward, what is Erdogan’s game plan: exact concessions from Washington and the EU, or produce a situation in which he can seek to make them responsible for a rupture in the relationship?
Erdogan is playing for high stakes. He has taken steps to make amends to Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015. Ankara has recently issued an apology. And now the Turks involved in the shoot down are facing accusations that they acted out of personal, not national interest, and in this capacity as agents of Hizmet.
Erdogan and Putin will meet in August. Erdogan may just be leveraging the newly-re-established friendship with Putin, trying to make Washington and Brussels more receptive to his propos in the process.
But he may also have another agenda. Russia has established an alliance with a line of majority Shiite entities and states that stretches from Tehran to Beirut. Why would Erdogan’s Turkey not want to aspire to something similar, using its calling card as a majority Sunni state to reach out to the vast majority of Muslim-majority states? By the way, Russia’s Muslims total about 15 percent of its population, and the vast majority of them are Sunni.
Another argument is that Erdogan’s tenure since 2012 has become increasingly similar to that of Putin when he returned to the Presidency that same year. In particular, both Presidents have privileged a clampdown on any independent source of opinion, whether domestic or foreign. The question now is whether Erdogan will now follow Putin’s practices in the foreign policy sphere.
A Russia-Turkey-Iran or Russia-Turkey alliance would be unstable, fleeting and dangerous. That said, Western capitals should be prepared for it.
All this is not to forget the Turkish populace, who went out in great numbers to oppose the coup attempt. No, amongst those that opposed the coup, there were not only Erdogan hardliners but also elements that wanted to flag their support for a Turkey that embraces the rule of law. Tragically, their patriotism does now not seem to count for much with the Erdogan government.
David Law is a Senior Associate of the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow of its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. He is a former Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit. In this capacity, he also followed Greek-Turkish relations for the Secretary General.