ISTANBUL — Turkish officials accused the United States of abetting a failed coup last summer. When the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated last month, the Turkish press said the United States was behind the attack.
And once again, after a gunman walked into an Istanbul nightclub early on New Year’s Day and killed dozens, the progovernment news media pointed a finger at the United States.
“America Chief Suspect,” one headline blared after the attack. On Twitter, a Turkish lawmaker, referring to the name of the nightclub, wrote: “Whoever the triggerman is, Reina attack is an act of CIA. Period.”
Turkey has been confronted with a cascade of crises that seem to have only accelerated as the Syrian civil war has spilled across the border. But the events have not pushed Turkey closer to its NATO allies. Conversely, they have drifted further apart as the nation lashes out at Washington and moves closer to Moscow, working with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to secure a cease-fire in Syria.
One story in the Turkish press, based on a routine travel warning issued by the US Embassy in Turkey, was that the United States had advance knowledge of the nightclub attack, which the Islamic State later claimed responsibility for. Another suggested that stun grenades used by the gunman had come from stocks held by the US military. Still another claimed the assault was a plot by the United States to sow divisions in Turkey between the secular and the religious.
Rather than bringing the United States and Turkey together in the common fight against terrorism, the nightclub attack, even with the gunman still on the run, appears to have only accelerated Turkey’s shift away from the West, at a time when its democracy is eroding amid a growing crackdown on civil society.
All of this is a reflection, many critics say, of what they call the paranoia and authoritarianism of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose leadership has so deeply divided the country that, instead of unifying to confront terrorism, Turkish society is fracturing further with each attack.
The West, symbolized by the United States, is the perennial boogeyman.
While seeming to pile on the Obama administration in its waning days — by accusing it of supporting Turkey’s enemies, including the Islamic State; Kurdish militants; and supporters of an outlawed Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blamed for directing the coup — Turkish officials are also telegraphing something else: that they are willing to open the door and improve relations with the United States once Donald Trump takes office.
“Our expectation from the new administration is to end this shame,” Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said this week while accusing the United States of providing weapons to Kurdish militants in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State but are also an enemy of Turkey.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities said on Wednesday that they had identified the killer but refused to release any other details, although photographs of the man, from surveillance cameras, have been released. Also, a video surfaced that appeared to show the assailant recording himself in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
A senior US official, who has been briefed on the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential details, said the Turks had recovered the video from a raid on a house in Istanbul. The official said the Turks now believed the killer was from Uzbekistan, not Kyrgyzstan, as many reports first suggested.
The official expressed alarm at the growing anti-Americanism in Turkey, which seems to accumulate after each crisis here, and said it put the lives of Americans in the country in jeopardy.
The chaotic investigation has added to the anxiety on Istanbul’s streets, with vehicle checkpoints, night raids on houses, and low-flying helicopters.
“There is significant fear in ordinary people,” said Aydin Engin, a columnist at the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, who was detained last year as part of the government’s crackdown on the news media. “Fear prevails when it comes to going to an entertainment place, being in a crowd, going to a shopping mall, getting on the metro.”
With each passing day, public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.
In the days before and after the nightclub massacre on the shores of the Bosporus, nationalists staged a mock execution of Santa Claus in the name of defending Islam; a reporter for The Wall Street Journal was detained, strip searched and placed in solitary confinement — for, according to the newspaper’s account, “violating a government ban on publication of images from an Islamic State video”; and a well-known fashion designer was beaten up at the Istanbul airport and arrested for his social media posts.
While Turkey faces a growing terror threat, the country is also largely at war with itself, with deep divisions along many lines — religion, class, ethnicity — that make unity difficult even in a time of crisis. Perhaps the greatest source of division is between supporters of Erdogan, about half the country, and opponents who assert that he has become too powerful.
“Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other,” said Soner Cagaptay, a specialist on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is why I am deeply worried about Turkey and the country’s ability to stymie further terror attacks.”
Erdogan, who spoke this week with President Obama in a condolence call, also told an audience what he believed Turkey, in facing so many terrorist attacks, was really up against: a plot by the West.
Invoking the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the subsequent Turkish war against Western armies and their proxies, he said, “Today Turkey is in a new struggle for independence.”