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One Year After Turkey’s Coup Attempt: Democracy, U.S. Ties Strained

One year after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, the impact is still apparent in the strains on Turkey’s domestic politics and on the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Far from inspiring a new era of internal or trans-Atlantic solidarity, the coup attempt and its aftermath have created a situation where a complete breakdown of Turkey’s democratic process and its alliance with the United States appear frighteningly possible.  

Just as the coup attempt deepened pre-existing tensions within Turkish society, it proved damaging to U.S.-Turkish relations because of the way it exacerbated already serious rifts within the relationship. Many in Turkey, repeatedly warned by their leaders about sinister foreign plots, were predisposed to interpret the U.S. response to the coup attempt in the worst possible light. Meanwhile, many Americans, having watched President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule become ever more authoritarian, were not prepared to celebrate the coup attempt’s failure as the clear-cut victory for democracy that Erdogan and his supporters proclaimed.

The impact is still apparent in the strains on Turkey’s domestic politics and on the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

Against this backdrop, even the strongest U.S. statements of support for Turkey’s elected government would have been met with suspicion. But on the night of the coup itself, circumstances conspired to produce two official responses from Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama that were just a little less emphatic than they could have been. Kerry was in Moscow at the time, where he was initially asked to respond to the rapidly developing situation at a news conference. He called for “stability and peace and continuity” in Turkey, but Turkish commentators were quick to read far more into his failure to make even a pro-forma mention of democracy. Meanwhile, in Washington, the coup happened late on a Friday afternoon in mid-July, meaning the White House’s response came a few hours later than expected (and, for some reason, in the indirect form of a read-out of a phone call between Obama and Kerry). This meant that, though the president was unambiguous in expressing support for the “democratically elected government of Turkey,” his statement had less resonance in Turkey than it might have otherwise. 

Set against a long history of official U.S. tolerance for Turkish coups, Washington’s response gave added ammunition to those in Turkey eager to impose their own narrative on events. By seizing on a handful of ambivalent or pro-coup statements from prominent Americans, then misrepresenting others to appear more malicious, the Turkish press created a distorted and surprisingly resilient image of American public opinion as being widely pro-coup. In the Western press, reporters and commentators who would have been the first to criticize the coup had it succeeded, quickly found themselves covering a coup attempt that had most decidedly failed. As a result, much of the coverage focused on the likely consequences for upcoming developments in Turkey and the region. This meant a series of stories about how Erdogan’s response to the coup was likely to damage Turkish democracy, rather than counterfactual accounts of how much more damaging a successful coup would have been. Though apropos and accurate, these accounts did not fully capture the relief and exultation felt by many Turkish citizens after the coup’s failure, nor the stories of Tiananmen-style heroism they were eager to share. At best, more rapid and fulsome praise for those individuals who risked their lives to defend democracy could have laid the foundation for more effective criticism of the government’s subsequent behavior. 

Quickly, though, these rival perceptions escalated into a much higher stakes argument about responsibility for the coup itself. The Turkish government immediately identified Fetullah Gulen, who had been living in America since leaving Turkey over a decade ago, as the coup’s mastermind. In the days following the coup, AKP officials and the pro-AKP press ran with this fact to accuse the U.S. government of direct complicity in the coup attempt. In addition to suggesting that Washington hoped to kill Erdogan and start a civil war, Turkish newspapers pointed to specific individuals, The Wilson Center’s Henri Barkey, the U.S. Army’s General J.F. Campbell, as supposed ringleaders.  

In this context, Turkish leaders presented Fetullah Gulen’s extradition not as a legal matter but as a test of U.S. sincerity. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and others immediately insisted that the failure to extradite Gulen would be tantamount to proof of U.S. support for the coup itself. There was substantial, if circumstantial, evidence linking the Gulen movement to the coup attempt, and many foreign observers were quick to argue Gulenists had indeed been involved. Yet this did not meet the level of uncritical acceptance the Turkish government demanded for its – sometimes changing – version of events.  

As became abundantly clear in the aftermath of the coup, Erdogan and the AKP were not going to let awkward questions about the actual events of July 15 stand in the way of using the ensuing campaign against the Gulen movement to advance their political interests. Increasingly outlandish accusations, coupled with a hostile attitude toward any expression of skepticism, made it difficult for the Turkish government to generate political support for extradition in Washington. More crucially, despite sending 85 boxes of evidence, the Turkish Ministry of Justice failed to compile a legal case that would meet the inescapable but not necessarily insurmountable legal requirement for extradition. 

July 15 and its aftermath put an already tense relationship between Turkey and the U.S.under even greater strain 

Just as the coup exacerbated pre-existing rifts between the United States and Turkey, the tensions resulting from the coup have now been folded into a wider set of disagreements. Turkey’s April 16 presidential referendum deepened the already dramatic divide between how Washington and Ankara assess the state of Turkish democracy. Meanwhile, much of the tension surrounding Gulen’s extradition has now shifted to the case of Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, which appears more politically pressing to Erdogan himself. And President Trump’s positions, on arming the Syrian Kurds and, to a lesser extent, the Qatar dispute, are gradually leading Ankara to view his administration with the same hostility and suspicion they directed at his predecessor. From the perspective of the United States and Turkey, the events of July 15 and their aftermath put an already tense relationship under even greater strain. The passage of time did little to alter the dynamics that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the coup. As the Turkish government’s post-coup purges expanded well beyond the range of anyone who could have been conceivably involved in, or even aware of, the coup, they generated even more attention and criticism – from the U.S. press, if not the White House or State Department. The purges within the military itself have, understandably, come in for far less public criticism, yet they have also had an impact on the relationship. In a climate of intense anti-American suspicion, the purges seem to have, fairly or not, fallen hardest on officers who studied, trained or worked in the United States. As a result, the personal ties that helped facilitate a closer working relationship between U.S. and Turkish militaries have largely disappeared. When combined with deep disagreements over U.S. strategy in northern Syria, the rise in bilateral tension was hardly surprising.  

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