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Conspiracy Theories Risk Credibility of Turkey Coup Investigation

The brutality of Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt has left the vast majority of Turkish citizens understandably angry. Coupled with plausible evidence that followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fetullah Gülen were involved, this has led Turkish officials to declare that if the United States fails to extradite Gülen it would prompt a crisis in Turkish-American relations.

Yet many in Turkey seem stubbornly impervious to the fact that extraditing Gülen is not a purely political decision to be made by the U.S. administration. Extradition has a legal component as well, which requires a judge to determine that there is “probable cause” (the same standard required for an arrest warrant) for believing Gülen himself was personally involved in the plot. In this light, the administration has offered to work with Turkey in investigating the coup plot and preparing an extradition request.

Which makes it all the more striking that Turkey is systematically alienating the U.S. administration and undermining the credibility of any evidence it provides by launching a series of absurd, conspiratorial accusations of U.S. involvement in the coup plot itself.

One newspaper ran a poll asking readers to vote on which branch of the U.S. government played the biggest role in the coup attempt.

The first and most high-profile accusations came from Turkey’s minister of Labor and Social Security Süleyman Soylu. By way of logic, he pointed out that in his initial statement as the coup was unfolding Secretary of State John Kerry had called for “peace,” while the junta behind the coup had called itself the Peace at Home Council. The pro-government media, meanwhile, always eager to promote anti-American conspiracy theories, has been quick to echo these claims. The newspaper Sabah, for example, ran a poll asking readers to vote on which branch of the U.S. government (CIA, White House, etc) played the biggest role in the coup attempt. The editor of the newspaper Yeni Şafak, meanwhile, wrote that “The U.S. administration planned a coup in Turkey through the Gülen terror organization and tried to cause a civil war.” On Twitter, one the paper’s columnists added even more bluntly:

Subsequent speculation in the Turkish press cited Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia as one reason the United States might want to topple the Turkish government, with a number of commentators claiming that the United States would have created an independent Kurdistan after the coup. More specifically, Yeni Şafak identified U.S. Army General J.F. Campbell, formerly in command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, as “one of the top figures who organized and managed the soldiers behind the failed coup attempt in Turkey.” By way of proof, the paper noted that he had visited Incirlik airbase on at least two occasions and distributed $2 billion in CIA money to the coup plotters through Nigerian bank accounts. The paper also targeted Wilson Institute scholar and BPC Turkey Initiative member Henri Barkey, naming him as the “second top American figure who orchestrated the coup attempt in Turkey.” Among the evidence cited in the article was Barkey’s presence in Istanbul on the night of the coup along with the fact that “Barkey was accused of making several telephone conversations on the coup night.”

Rather than creating pressure on the U.S. government, spurious accusations will undermine Turkey’s credibility, thereby complicating the path to extraditing Gülen.

Last week, Secretary Kerry called the accusations of U.S. involvement in the coup attempt “utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations.” In the past, however, similar accusations have only met with intermittent criticism from U.S. officials, making it even more important for them to spell out clearly why such provocative claims will be so harmful today. Rather than creating pressure on the U.S. government or scoring easy domestic political points, spurious accusations will undermine the Turkish government’s credibility, thereby complicating the political and legal path to extraditing Gülen. If Turkey fails to provide evidence of Gülen’s involvement that can convince an American judge—something even more likely if Turkish evidence is compromised by forced confessions and absurd conspiracies—the United States will not extradite Gülen. If the Turkish government and its media refuse to accept this outcome as an inevitable product of America’s commitment to the rule of law and judicial independence, suspicion and anti-American anger will deepen, putting the survival of the U.S.-Turkish relationship at risk.

Turkey has vowed to fight both the Islamic State (or ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) “without distinction,” yet a BPC analysis of how Turkey has conducted these two conflicts shows stark differences. Explore our new interactive maps.

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