“It’s not hard to abandon İncirlik, but Turkey’s not just about İncirlik”

The July 15 coup attempt is set to become as great a turning point for Turkey’s foreign policy as for its domestic affairs. Allegations that the United States was behind the attempt, along with claims that the US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen planned the attempt in particular, has produced a new and serious crisis between Washington and Ankara. Given the extent of the tension in relations with the US and EU, Turkey’s membership in NATO has even come into question among the public at both home and abroad. In the interests of delving more deeply into these developments, I recently sat down with US National War College faculty member and Brookings Institute Turkey expert Professor Ömer Taşpınar.

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How has the West viewed the events of July 15? Do you agree with the criticisms that it did not offer sufficient support to the elected government in the face of the coup attempt? Where do you think this perception comes from?

There’s confusion in the West regarding what happened on the night of July 15 – just like there was surprise and confusion among the Turkish public during the initial stages of the coup on the night of the coup. Let’s not forget that Turkey is an extremely difficult country to follow and understand as far as the West is concerned. Who’s allied to whom, what’s happening when, when did these alliances change – all of these are difficult to follow for the West [given their speed]. There’s also an important segment in the West that isn’t interested in what’s always happening in Turkey but has superficial knowledge about the country. For instance, the question I get asked the most is how two Islamist movements came to hate each other this much. Of course, I don’t remark about “how Orientalist this question is.” The concepts of “Gülenist generals” and a “Gülenist coup” are also quite new for the West. Atatürk and secularism are the first things that come to mind when one mentions the army. They’re having a hard time understanding and believing that half the generals in this massive army began serving an Islamist organization this quickly.

But this is clear: [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan has a very negative image in the West. Yes, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government and Erdoğan win elections, but in the West’s view, these elections are not being conducted in a democratic political environment. Although the AKP and Erdoğan have been elected, it is a government that is perceived to disrespect freedom of the press and thought, keep the opposition far away from the [mainstream] media and win elections with populist and pressure tactics. The view is no different than the general perception among CHP [main opposition Republican People’s Party] and HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party] voters.

Because of all these factors, instead of standing with Erdoğan and the elected government on the night of July 15 and afterwards, it became more confused and began entertaining serious worries about Turkey because in the Western media, there is no such concept as FETÖ [Fethullahist Terror Organization]. There were a great many people who thought the secular and Kemalist army had attempted to overthrow a government with Islamist and authoritarian tendencies. It’s not yet possible for the West to perceive the breaking points of the New Turkey through its prism of the Old Turkey.

Has the concept of moderate Islam lost its usefulness or not? In terms of the dilemma of democracy and stability, what kind of relationship will Western states pursue with Turkey in the wake of July 15?

The West’s search for moderate Islam will continue because non-moderate Islam is on a profound upswing. In general, there is a serious and legitimate fear of ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] terrorism in Europe and the US. As such, the concept of a clash of civilizations is acquiring greater currency among the Western public. This situation is creating Islamophobia among both conservative Christians and leftist secularists. Western liberals who are worried by this course of events are searching for a way to suggest that “the problem is not Islam.” They used to look at Turkey and say, “Look, here’s a democratic Muslim country for you.” But now for obvious reasons, they can’t call Turkey particularly democratic. Of course, Turkey’s government also accuses the West on every subject: whether it’s the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], the Gezi protests, the coup, or Gülen, it’s all the West’s fault, as far as Turkey is concerned. When the situation is like this, Turkey can’t be held up as a model country; no one can rush to extend greetings and condolences after the July 15 coup because it’s a neighbor that is endlessly accusing them of something. Add to this too the AKP’s closeness to the Islamist front in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. When that’s the situation, the understanding of Islam in Turkey doesn’t seem particularly moderate to the West. The West will probably soon start to look despairingly for moderate Islam in Egypt. They will say President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “is a really moderate Muslim, how wonderful.” Who knows.

Turkish-American relations have been tense for quite some over Syria, particularly regarding the Bashar al-Assad regime, the opposition forces and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Just when there’s news suggesting they have reached an accord on Manbij, this new crisis erupts. How do you think it will affect their ties?

The Syrian issue is now being discussed within the framework of Turkey’s own Kurdish problem as part of Turkish-US ties. There is a large Syrian and US dimension to the PKK issue. The crux of the matter, however, is the fact that the US and Russia have begun to act in concert in Syria. The fact the PYD has developed close relations with both Russia and the US shows how tragic the situation has become for Turkey. At the same time, the Washington-Moscow convergence against ISIL in Syria has benefited al-Assad the most. Turkey was always going to have to adapt to this new situation, and it is slowly starting to do so. Turkey is slowly abandoning its role as an actor in Syria.

Turkey has especially been forced to abandon such ambitions following July 15 – forget about having an impact on Syria, it’s become clear that Ankara is hardly even the boss in its own front yard. I think there will be serious problems in between Turkey and US in the period ahead of us. The extradition of Fethullah Gülen is going to produce a crisis, while the usage of the İncirlik Air Base is already being questioned in Washington. Turkish-Russian relations can be mended, but of course there’s no question of a strategic partnership. As long as Turkey does not return to the dialogue process on the Kurdish issue, it will remain alone in the region and the world at large.

Is it possible that the extradition of Gülen would solve the issue in line with Turkey’s desires?

Not particularly. There are two problems: the extradition is not a political process but a legal one. It’s not a decision that can be given by [President Barack] Obama. The first issue is to present concrete and sound evidence [about Gülen’s alleged participation in the coup attempt]. I think the “cemaat” [Gülen movement] was very careful on this front; believing otherwise would be naïve. But let’s say the evidence was presented and a US court granted the request for his extradition. Here, the second problem – the political evaluations – comes to the fore. They will ask, will Gülen get a fair trial in Turkey? Politics will enter into the equation at the point. “Does Turkey have an independent judiciary? Is there torture?” Things like these will be asked. If things come to that point, the photos of the black and blue soldiers who confessed [to participating in the coup attempt] are going to make things difficult for Turkey. Statements that the “helicopter hit turbulence and he fell,” or he committed suicide while in custody aren’t going to be particularly persuasive. Because of this, Turkey needs to be absolutely meticulous on fair trials and torture.

The brief closure of İncirlik after the coup attempt launched more discussions, and we’re now seeing suggestions that “we should close İncirlik and leave NATO” amid the rise in anti-Americanism. Is İncirlik as important for the US as it used to be?

İncirlik is important for the US but it’s not a sine qua non. The US has aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Moreover, the US can reach Syria and Iraq from its bases in Bahrain and Qatar whenever it wants. It’s only because İncirlik is closer that the other alternatives are more expensive. It wouldn’t be hard to abandon İncirlik, but Turkey’s not just about İncirlik. For NATO, it is very important that Turkey remains democratic, stable and oriented toward the West. [If ties sour with Turkey], NATO wouldn’t just have problems on Syria, but also on Russia and Iran. From the Kürecik radar system that keeps watch on Iran to the economic sanctions against Russia, the roles Turkey plays or has the potential to play are tremendous.

How do the Gülenists fit into US politics in terms of their lobbying influence?

In US politics, members of Congress go to elections every two years. In these election campaigns, the Gülen cemaat is very influential because it has adapted very well to the US system in terms of financial backing and mobilizing the electorate. Its schools are very successful, and the cemaat’s civil society organizations can mobilize voters. It has the power to represent not only Turks but other Turkic groups coming from Central Asia. For instance, the cemaat’s “Turkic Alliance” stages a meeting every year in Washington that attracts dozens of members of Congress and senators.

I think the cemaat has found its natural habitat in the US, as democracy and capitalism have opened the way for this movement. It’s precisely for this reason that while cemaat is being destroyed in Turkey, it will become much stronger around the world in general as an integrated Islamic diasporic movement at peace with the West in places where there is democracy and capitalism.


How do you view the suggestions that the participants at a meeting on Büyükada in the Prince Islands on the night of July 15 were collaborating with the putschists? What are such allegations trying to achieve?

Turkey has a tragicomic obsession with the CIA and Henri Barkey. Those who know Washington a bit know that this conspiracy theorist mentality is not even remotely rational. Look, this much is clear: Al-Qaeda and ISIL are running wild in the Muslim world and the West, and the US does not view the Gülen cemaat as a dangerous terror organization. As it is, there is still a government ruling Turkey that was saying just yesterday “What did they want that we didn’t give?” about the group. When you look at all this, does this mean that the US gave support to the coup because it gave Gülen a green card 10 years ago? There’s also an unhealthy situation with Graham Fuller, who left the CIA 20 years ago. But if you’re going to look at the world through the prism of conspiracy theories, then the notion that the coup was directed from the Prince Islands might be very logical.

How do you view Turkey’s political future?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be particularly bright. We liberals supported the AKP so that military tutelage would end, we would join the West and the Kurdish issue would be solved. Now, the point we have reached on these issues is not a whole lot different than where we started. We’ve showed little progress. There are still coups, there’s a fight full of hatred with the West, and we’ve gone back to the 1990s on the Kurdish issue. It’s a depressing situation for both Turkey and democracy.


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