Turkey’s post-putsch purge
Woodrow Wilson Center analyst Henri Barkey is one of the latest. Based mostly on the fact that Barkey was in Istanbul on the night of the recent coup attempt and that he coauthored a book with former senior CIA official Graham Fuller, Turkish authorities have launched an investigation into the respected US academic. With successive rounds of purges emerging daily, and US analysts harassed by Turkish pro-government media, such inquiries threaten to damage Turkey’s relationship with the United States even further.
Even before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded that the United States hand over Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen — claimed by Ankara to have been behind the failed coup — US-Turkey relations were seriously strained. Turkey’s support of jihadist groups against the Syrian regime, its negotiations with China to procure a non-NATO-compatible missile defense system, and its hostile stance toward Israel generated massive diplomatic tensions with Washington. Little wonder that many US officials now view the Turkish president as an authoritarian rather than a democrat.
The failed coup further paves the way for a Turkish rapprochement with Russia. Erdogan had expressed regret to President Vladimir Putin in late June over the downing of a Russian jet in Turkish airspace last year. In rounding up the soldiers responsible for the incident as part of the post-coup purge, Erdogan kills domestic and foreign policy birds with one stone.
Erdogan followed the same template during a diplomatic row with Israel. Initially praising the efforts of the Turkish nongovernmental organization whose flotilla was attacked by Israeli Defense Forces while trying to break the Gaza blockade in 2010, this June Erdogan blasted the NGO for undermining Turkish-Israeli ties. Finding distasteful what Turks call “tükürdügünü yalamak,” in a more colorful expression of “eating crow,” Erdogan adroitly shifted the blame for what caused a dispute onto others.
These diplomatic attempts to extricate Turkey from its geopolitical isolation may also be in vain. An adviser once euphemistically referred to the country’s foreign policy as “precious loneliness” before it became clear Turkey’s economy and national security necessitated partnerships; the loss of export markets, the plunge in the vital tourism industry, and multiple terrorist attacks show that isolation in the long run is impossible.
Yet integration is also problematic. The European Union has made it clear that reinstating the death penalty, which Turkey abolished in 2004 as part of its EU accession requirements, would doom any hope of future membership. Amnesty International reports of the torture, rape, and starvation of individuals detained by pro-government security forces further erode the legitimacy of a NATO ally — a legitimacy that was already in serious doubt following Turkey’s handling of negotiations on refugees with the European Union.
The counter-coup crackdown has immediate costs for the international community as well, as seen in the disruption to attacks against the Islamic State caused by the temporary restriction of US access to Incirlik airbase near Turkey’s Syrian border, which is a key US asset in the air campaign into Syria and Iraq.
Unfortunately, it is far harder for the global community to stop events in progress than it is to deter them in the first place. As prime minister and now president, Erdogan has been the key political figure in a government that stifles dissent in the media, eliminates the checks and balances function of institutions, and encourages the persecution of opposition for nearly a decade and a half. Literally volumes have been written over the past few years about Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian regime under Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party he cofounded in 2001.
Short of options to influence Erdogan’s behavior directly, the international community has doubled down on civil society groups within the country. Initiatives such as the Scholar Rescue Fund assist in providing safe employment for academics under threat. The Turkey branch of the Committee to Protect Journalists reports on and advocates for all involved in Turkey’s news media, from government critics to Mustafa Cambaz, a photographer for a pro-government newspaper who was shot and killed by Turkish soldiers on July 15. Such unbiased treatment of those affected by the coup and its aftermath will be essential to the legitimacy of these organizations’ efforts.
Cambaz was one of nearly 300 who were killed during the attempt to unseat the AKP government. Notably, some of the most vocal opponents of the AKP condemned the coup-makers, whomever they may turn out to be, as harshly as the government did. Their outrage united them, if only on this one issue and in this moment, with the AKP supporters from whom they had become profoundly estranged.
By aggressively targeting and persecuting Turkish citizens, and now those who study Turkey as well, Erdogan is squandering a true rarity in Turkish politics: a brief moment of unity. Some claim a mood of “political moderation still lingers in the air,” pointing to joint statements by the prime minister and the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party. Yet statements mean little when the government egregiously violates democratic and human rights norms. Despite the threats now targeted at those outside of the country as well as within, the international community must continue to speak out on these violations. Claims they are justified as part of Turkey’s post-putsch purge and represent the national will serve only the interests of the Turkish government, not its people as a whole.
Lisel Hintz is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.