The upheaval following the failed military coup in Turkey on July 15–16 is far from over. The fallout is being discussed in Brussels, where EU foreign ministers met on July 18 with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and in Washington, where the foreign and defense ministers of the countries in the coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State gather. Western leaders have three worries on their mind: military reliability, the rule of law, and Turkey’s ideological drift away from the West.
In military circles in the United States, the EU, and NATO, the coup attempt has created a huge surprise, but more importantly, actions taken in its aftermath have raised questions about Turkey’s reliability as an ally.
Not only is Turkey the second-largest conventional force in NATO, but it also represents the easternmost location of the U.S. nuclear defense architecture in Europe. When the airspace over the İncirlik air force base was closed by the Turkish government for almost twenty-four hours, with the base’s Turkish commander and a group of officers arrested and the power supply shut off, it meant not only a sudden interruption of anti–Islamic State air operations but also a freeze of the some 50 U.S. nuclear warheads that are stockpiled there. Similarly, in Malatya, a civilian airport that doubles as a Turkish air force base, a U.S.-manned radar is the easternmost facility of NATO’s missile defense shield.
This is the worst possible time for doubts about Turkey’s role. The July 8–9 NATO summit in Warsaw discussed Russia’s military posture around Europe and decided on measures to deploy airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft in Turkish airspace to better fight the Islamic State. Decisive operations are being conducted against the Islamic State in the northern Syrian city of Manbij and around Raqqa. And more decisive action by Turkey against the Islamic State is being requested in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Nice.
Is the failed coup attempt sending a wave of uncertainty throughout the Turkish forces? Is the ongoing repression going to destabilize the Turkish army even further? Will a shaken Turkish leadership opt for a more populist, anti-Western narrative for domestic reasons and engineer a crisis over exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen’s extradition from the United States? Because a coup was attempted, because harsh retribution is being handed out to entire segments of society, Turkey’s reliability as a Western ally is now under scrutiny.
Rule of law is the second worry. During the night of July 15–16, EU and U.S. leaders were prompt to defend Turkey’s democratically elected government and president against a military uprising. But, if one listens carefully to what U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, European Council President Donald Tusk, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, and foreign ministers actually said, it is clear that the Western rule-of-law narrative applies both to the denunciation of the coup attempt and to the conduct of the coup’s aftermath.
Western leaders called for a due judicial process against the military officers involved. Judging by the more than 6,000 arrests in the military and judiciary, the populist narrative, and television images, this is far from being the case. As many judges and prosecutors as military officers have been rounded up; academics and businesspeople have been arrested, too; 8,700 police and gendarmerie officers have been suspended from duty; and independent websites have been closed down. From the first hours of the attempt, even before the leadership was certain it would prevail, the entire coup has been squarely attributed to the Gülen movement. There is now a distinct inclination toward more authoritarian rule.
In addition, reinstating the death penalty—scrapped in 2004 as a part of the reforms needed to launch Turkey’s EU accession negotiations—is now openly discussed, with the Turkish president saying that “the evaluation of that demand will be made by the related authorities constitutionally and then a decision will be taken.” Should the death penalty be reintroduced in Turkey, it would have an inescapable consequence, namely the immediate suspension of accession negotiations—unless EU leaders want to disavow one the cardinal principles of the European Union, a politically unthinkable course of action.
Several voices have expressed concern that the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal on refugees might be in jeopardy in the wake of the coup attempt, especially as a mellowing of the country’s antiterrorism law is now out of the question in the post-coup context. What is more likely is that the EU and Turkey, which both have more vital concerns than visa liberalization, will continue to implement the core elements of the deal. That is especially true as €2 billion ($2.2 billion) out of the €3 billion ($3.3 billion) promised by the EU to Turkey under the agreement will have been allocated by the end of September, a remarkable performance in just six months. In doing so, the two sides are likely to maintain a course of action that improves the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey while alleviating the burden on the country’s budget.
There is a third worry underlying the coup attempt: the likely acceleration of Turkey’s drift toward a religiously conservative power structure. Two key events occurred within hours of the coup: the Turkish president stated that the coup was “a gift from God” that would allow for a cleansing of the army; and imams at the country’s 80,000 mosques were instructed to propagate a call to citizens to take to the streets in defense of democracy. The imams’ announcement started with the words “By order of our president and the Diyanet [the state’s religious directorate].” This is probably the first time that the mosques have been used countrywide for political purposes in such a tense context. That inevitably increases the country’s already acute polarization.
Undoubtedly, there will be many calls from Europe and the United States for the respect of the rule of law and the reinforcement of democracy in Turkey. Most of them will be in vain for two reasons. First, despite being seen as poorly prepared and conducted, the coup attempt came within minutes and meters of striking at the top of the state, which inevitably leaves a trail of revengeful actions behind it. Second, the thwarted coup offers a golden opportunity to the president to reinforce his powers, including by calling another snap election if it is felt that a new ballot in such an emotional context will provide the supermajority of parliamentarians needed to introduce a new constitution
Turkey’s democracy and Western affiliation may end up being the coup’s first victims.