European Affairs

Turkey’s Relations with the West Sour Following Failed Coup     Print Email

BrianBeary.new1For his first overseas trip since the failed coup of July 15 that killed 246 people, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tellingly, chose Russia as his destination. Seated next to Erdogan in St. Petersburg on August 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin reassured him: “I was one of the first people who called you on the phone [after hearing of the coup attempt] and expressed my support.”

Their meeting signaled a warming in Russian-Turkey relations, warming that began just before the coup and has been cemented by Putin’s swift condemnation of it. Erdogan and Putin had previously been drawing their countries, historic foes, closer together through joint economic projects like the planned Turk Stream gas pipeline, announced in December 2014. The relationship hit a major snag in November 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian military plane straddling the Turkish-Syrian border and Russia retaliated by imposing sanctions against Turkey. The plane downing episode now looks more like a blip than a turning point.

In stark contrast, relations between Turkey and the United States are taking a turn for the worse. There is seething resentment among many Turks over a perceived lack of solidarity from the U.S. since the coup attempt. This was a deeply distressing event for Turks, many of who watched on live television as a renegade faction of their military commandeered tanks, warplanes and helicopters, bombing the Turkish parliament and killing Turkish civilians who spontaneously protested against them. Some Turks suspect the West of hedging its bets in the coup’s first hours, condemning it only when they saw it was failing. Others lend credence to conspiracy theories that the CIA was behind the coup.

Turkish resentment is crystallizing around the government’s increasingly forceful demand that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, the founding father of an Islamic movement being blamed for the coup. Seventy-five-year-old Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999 and has obtained permanent residency in the U.S. He denies involvement in the coup. The Turkish government has meanwhile been arresting his followers and shutting down establishments linked to the Gulen movement, including media outlets and schools.

Turkish officials recently announced that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Turkey on August 24. Interestingly, the U.S. State Department has declined to confirm those travel plans thus far. If Kerry does go, there is little doubt the Gulen extradition effort will feature prominently on his agenda. U.S. officials say that Gulen will only be extradited if Turkey can supply evidence that he was personally involved in the coup, a high bar for Ankara to meet.

In its bid to bring Gulen to trial in Turkey, Ankara has one big bargaining chip: its military base in Incirlik, which the U.S. is leasing and using as a staging post for launching airstrikes against the Islamist terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Were Ankara to deny the U.S. the use of Incirlik, many would argue it would be tantamount to a self-inflicted wound given that ISIS has also been targeting Turkey, such as the Istanbul airport attacks in June that killed 41 people.

Turkey has been a military ally of the West since 1952 when it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), three years after NATO was set up. But there are serious tensions simmering between them over their differing views about what to do with Syria. The Turkish government wants to see a total regime change in Syria. It is suspicious of the U.S.’ intentions, fearing that Washington will pragmatically accept a peace accord that does not fully expunge President Bashar al-Assad from the political stage. On the U.S. side there are grievances too, with Washington doubtful about Turkey’s commitment to fighting Islamist militant groups in Syria and Iraq, notwithstanding Turkey itself falling victim to such attacks.

EU wavers on visa waiver

In the Turkey-EU relationship, the relationship is similarly tense although the flashpoint is different. Turkey is demanding that the EU add Turkey to its visa waiver program, a major perk that would enable Turks to visit the EU for up to three months without having to obtain a visa. A concession in the pipeline for several years, Ankara wants the waiver to take effect as early as October.

The EU Commission is threatening to delay introducing the waiver because Turkey is failing to fulfil all of the qualifying criteria. The Commission, in particular, finds fault with Turkey’s anti-terrorism law, which it believes unjustly targets journalists and academics. As Turkey proceeds with its post-coup purge, detaining 16,000 and dismissing more than 60,000 people from diverse walks of life, including the judiciary, media and academia, postponement of the waiver looks more likely than not.

Turkey warns that should the EU renege on the visa waiver pledge, it may renege on the wider deal it made with the EU back in March to better manage migrant flows from Syria. More a series of political commitments than a legally-binding treaty, the EU-Turkey refugee agreement was precipitated by the influx of a million Syrians into Europe in 2015 fleeing the war and chaos that has engulfed Syria.

Many of the migrants reached the EU by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, the country that has received more refugees than any other in the EU, was pivotal in forging the deal. The EU has so far disbursed more than two billion euros of aid to Turkey to provide humanitarian relief and education to two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

In return for the aid, Turkey has agreed to take back from the EU those migrants whose applications for asylum inside the EU are rejected. Given the large sums of money involved, Turkey has a strong incentive to stick with the deal. Nevertheless, the deteriorating relations between the EU and Turkey –many Turks feel that the EU, like the U.S., has been tepid in showing solidarity over the failed coup – is putting the deal under pressure.

As for Turkey’s bid to join the EU, first launched in the late 1950s, no one seriously believes that the membership negotiations, formally launched in 2005, will lead to accession anytime in the near future. The pace and breadth of these talks had picked up earlier in the year due to the refugee deal. But now that Turkey has, in the post-coup purge, suspended parts of the European Convention on Human Rights, another stall is in the cards.

Were Turkey to reintroduce the death penalty − the government says it has no plans to do so − EU accession talks would grind to a complete halt. Even without reinstating the death penalty, the EU is carefully eyeing reports from human rights groups like Amnesty International who are documenting cases of suspected coup plotters detained by Turkey being systematically tortured.

Trade talks continue

Turning to the economic relationship, Turkey has been in a customs union with the EU since 1995. That gives Turkey generous access to the EU’s single market, albeit not unfettered as there are restrictions on trade in agricultural goods, services and procurement. In return, Turkey gives reciprocal tariff-free access to its market to EU-produced goods and aligns import tariffs on goods from non-EU countries with the EU’s rates.

In May 2015, the EU and Turkey launched talks to update and expand this customs union. More technical and less politically fractious than the refugee deal, the talks have a decent chance of success. Turkey and the EU are major trading partners of each other, their goods trade alone totaling €140 billion last year.

A tangentially-linked dossier is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, the comprehensive free trade agreement that the EU and United States have been negotiating since summer 2013. Turkey has stated its desire to be part of TTIP and sees the EU-Turkey customs union revamp as a stepping stone to TTIP accession. But the EU and U.S. have made no firm promises to Turkey on TTIP. Moreover, whether TTIP gets concluded is in doubt, given the rising protectionist sentiment in the EU and U.S. For example, an anti-TTIP grassroots movement in Germany has turned much of the German public against the deal.

Erdogan consolidates power

Geopolitics aside, things are changing dramatically inside Turkey. The failed coup has intensified a consolidation of power that Erdogan has been pursuing since the late 2000s. His swift, decisive action to quash the coup further bolsters his standing – there are near-daily pro-Erdogan rallies. He now controls the Turkish executive, legislature, judiciary, military, police, and, to a large extent, media and academia.

The religiously-devout Erdogan has cemented his bond with Turkey’s Islamic leaders too. On the night of the coup attempt, clerics entreated their faithful praying in the mosques to go out onto the streets and oppose the coup. They did so, an act that proved pivotal to the rapid demise of the coup. Turkey has grown more Islamic under Erdogan’s rule, as evidenced by greater restrictions on the consumption of alcohol and greater prevalence of women wearing Islamic clothing in public spaces. His ruling AKP party is Islamist at its core. Erdogan was once an ally of his fellow Islamist, Gulen, but the two had a falling out some years ago and Gulen has become public enemy number one. Even before the failed coup, Turkey had classified the Gulenist movement as a terrorist organization, and Erdogan was accusing it of operating a parallel, secret state structure.

In light of the post-coup traumatic stress that Turkey is suffering, combined with the ongoing erosion of checks and balances to Erdogan’s power, Turkey’s relations with the West are in for a rough ride in the months ahead.

Brian Beary is former Washington correspondent for EuroPolitics and is contributing editor at European Affairs.

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