Turkey’s tortured relationship with the West seems to be reaching a crisis point. The botched coup attempt of July 15 and the reaction in the aftermath have exposed a widening emotional chasm between Ankara and its Western allies. A conviction is strengthening among many in Turkey that the United States was behind the violent attempt to overthrow the Turkish government. Unfolding events are feeding poisonous conspiracy theories, however fantastical, which Turks of all ideological persuasions find seductive. The thwarted coup has triggered some virulent anti-Americanism – always latent in Turkey but now increasingly on the surface.
For many in Turkey – and not just supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the response to the putsch by Western government officials has felt tepid. They complain that few of their Western allies have paid solidarity visits in the aftermath of the bloody military uprising, despite the fact that in a night of carnage 250 people were killed, parliament was bombed from the air, and cities across the country were terrorized by low flying jets. In a response now as reliable as the salivation of Pavlov’s Dog, E.U. foreign ministers have issued little more than stern warnings to Turkey about rights violations. Urging Ankara not to abandon the principles of democracy and the rule of law, the content of these messages may have been right, but their timing within hours of the coup attempt has jarred with the local mood.
After years of President Erdogan’s anti-democratic crackdown and relentless slamming of the West, the lack of empathy among Europeans and Americans is understandable. But it also misses the point. Many Turks sense a failure in the West to recognize how much worse things could have been if the military had taken over. This perceived blind spot diminishes allies’ leverage on Turkey, and plays into the hands of the dark conspiracy theories circulating about the West’s role in what happened on July 15.
Those theories are fueled by the central part apparently played by followers of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen in the coup. The government points the finger squarely at the Gülenists. But while there is near unanimity in Turkey about Gülen’s role, many outside observers are skeptical at best. Much of the evidence emerging suggests at least some and perhaps many of those involved in the coup attempt did indeed have links to the Gülen movement, but it is far from clear that any smoking gun evidence will eventually incriminate Gülen himself or his movement as a whole. There is frustration in Turkey over the Washington’s alleged insistence on harboring a man Ankara calls a terrorist. And there is frustration in the United States over the lack of any direct evidence so far submitted tying Gülen to the coup attempt. Differences over the issue is driving a wedge between the two NATO allies – and the schism only seems to be getting wider.
The Gülenists’ complicated relationship with the Turkish government is by now well-known. Suffice to say that the one-time allies are now bitter foes, and many Turks see the Gülenists as little more than a front organization for ill-intentioned foreign schemes. Those suspicions were not helped by Graham Fuller, a former CIA operations officer who served in Turkey, writing a whitewash of the Gülen movement for The Huffington Post one week after the coup attempt. Fuller was among the referees who wrote a letter in support of Gülen’s green card application after he moved to the United States in 1999, a detail that has not escaped the notice of many Turks.
In an interview with the Guardian on July 26, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım suggested that there are “question marks in the minds of people” over the possibility of U.S. backing for the coup attempt. The rhetoric adopted for domestic consumption — both by senior Turkish politicians and in the Turkish media — is less ambiguous. Pro-government Islamist newspaper Yeni Şafak has for days been claiming that retired U.S. General John F. Campbell masterminded the coup. Others have reported that Istanbul anti-terror police are pursuing Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. It should be noted, of course, that there is no evidence to link these two to the plot. Far from being an emotional outpouring immediately after July 15, the statements of government officials are getting bolder by the day. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag has dropped heavy hints, saying he had “no doubt” that “U.S. intelligence knows the coup attempt was made by Fethullah Gülen.”
President Erdogan himself started riding the tiger on July 29, after Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, expressed concern over the jailing of some military leaders who had worked with the U.S. military. Erdogan accused Votel of being “taking sides with the coup plotters,” adding “My people know who is behind this scheme…they know who the superior intelligence behind it is, and with these statements you are revealing yourselves, you are giving yourselves away.”
Talking to locals where I live here in Istanbul, it seems to have already become accepted wisdom among many that the United States was behind the coup. Such sentiments might not have been voiced so boldly if Turkey’s Western allies had been less seemingly equivocal in their condemnation of it – or if Ankara had not so instinctively reached for anti-Western conspiracy theories in the aftermath. The Turkish government’s legitimization of conspiracy theories is certainly making foreign observers less sympathetic to Turkey’s predicament.
Many Turks have also lashed out at media coverage in the West, which they believe has mirrored the failings of Western officials. Foreign journalists on the ground here have told me that they despair about editors’ obsession with President Erdogan. Even while the coup attempt was still underway, the focus of much analysis had already turned to Erdogan’s expected iron-fisted crackdown. That crackdown has indeed been harsh: Tens of thousands of people have been suspended from state institutions and tens of thousands have been detained by police. The government has declared a state of emergency allowing more punitive measures, including its suspension of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Journalists and academics, some without any connection to Gülen, have been detained for police questioning. Photos show military officers with severe bruising and injuries apparently inflicted after being detained (which is likely to complicate any extradition request). Amnesty International has reported claims of torture and sexual abuse of detainees. All of this must be monitored vigorously both inside and outside Turkey. But the Western media’s immediate focus on Erdogan’s predicted power grab — even as hundreds were being killed on the night of July 15 and people were being crushed under tanks – left a bitter taste, even among his harshest critics here.
Reactions to the coup once again demonstrate the power of overarching narratives in shaping news coverage. Once upon a time, Erdogan was simplistically characterized in the Western media as a model leader for the Middle East: A moderate Muslim bravely fighting off undemocratic forces and dragging Turkey to the level of a first-class democracy. Remember the “Turkish model”? Back then, it was hard to find anything deeper or more nuanced about him, his path to power, or the underlying political dynamics in the country. The narrative of Erdogan-as-democratizer was established and it shaped all reporting and analysis of Turkey. Today, that narrative is flipped on its head. After years of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian steps and personalized rule, news related to that story is the only game in town. Black and white triumphs over shades of grey.
Recognizing the gravity of Turkey’s coup attempt and its underlying causes does not have to mean ignoring the government’s clampdown in the aftermath. Unfortunately, such nuance is hard to come by. The consequences for Ankara’s relations with its Western allies may be very grave indeed. The current mood in Turkey suggests we may be heading to a critical watershed.
Turkey has submitted legal documents to the U.S. authorities concerning Gülen’s activities. It says it will formally request his extradition after completing the investigation into the coup plot. But whether or not the evidence submitted is strong enough for Gülen’s extradition is unlikely to affect the popular mood in Turkey. Turkey’s foreign minister wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera on July 25, saying:
Turkish people are appalled at the US’ insistence in harbouring him. We, as the Turkish government demand his return to face justice.
His extradition to Turkey is the strongest expectation of the people of Turkey from the US. The position of the US on this vital matter is what it may shape the future relations of the two key allies.
Polls show that Turks are suspicious of pretty much every country that isn’t Turkey, but levels of anti-Americanism are particularly high. Ankara has nevertheless remained a key, if troublesome, Western ally. Perhaps in the coming period we will see the country’s international alliances finally reflect popular sentiment. Ankara and Washington face many shared challenges, but at the moment it looks like relations are going through a slow motion car crash, with many people just standing by watching.
William Armstrong is a journalist based in Istanbul. He writes book reviews and interviews for the Hürriyet Daily News, and presents the Turkey Book Talk podcast.