05.08.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Anti-US Populism Increases in Turkey as it Engages the US in a ‘War of Words’

34534534534Never have the US-Turkey relations been at such a low ebb as today due to the alleged US involvement in the (failed) coup attempt. Despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO—a legacy of cold war Western alliance against the former Soviet Union and a modern manifestation of military imperialism—Turkey’s leadership seems “determined” to stick to its guns against the “front” that has been opened against it at a time when most of the Middle East is in the grip of terror. Dissolution of an elected government in Turkey, however bad its policies were, would have sent serious political jolts across the entire Mid-Eastern political landscape and put Turkey on course to social and political fragmentation, the kind of which is currently prevailing in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Who would have benefited the most from it?

Turkey’s leadership tends to believe it would have been the US Hence, widespread anti-US populism in Turkey that may, at some point, lead to some concrete and significant changes in its foreign policy. So far, however, the anti-US populism that Erdogan is fanning seems to be aimed at putting some pressure on the US to refrain from making further attempts at dislodging Erdogan. By keeping the Turks politically charged (read: Several hundred flag-waving protesters staged a peaceful protest march near the Incirlik base on Thursday, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and “Damn the USA”, the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper reported. The protesters burned a US flag), Erdogan has developed a sort of insulation against the “Western conspiracy”, as also considerably strengthened his own political base.

Erdogan is having to face a lot of criticism from the West due to the heavy purges he has undertaken to cleanse Turkey’s key institutions of the “conspirators.” The ‘war of words’ going on between him and the West reached its climax last Friday when Erdogan criticised the European Council and the European Union (which Turkey once aspired to be a part of) for their failure to pay a visit to offer condolences, saying their criticism was ‘shameful’.

The Director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, said on Thursday the purges were harming the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by sweeping away Turkish officers who had worked closely with the United States. The head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, said he believed some of the military figures whom the United States had worked with were in jail. Votel’s comments drew condemnation from Erdogan. “Instead of thanking this country which repelled a coup attempt, you take the side of the coup plotters. The putschist is in your country already,” Erdogan said, referring to Gulen, who denied any involvement in the coup attempt.

There is no doubt that heavy purges have taken place (read: About 40% of all generals and admirals in the military have been dismissed since the coup) and many believe that Erdogan is using the pretext of “conspiracy” to tighten his own control over Turkey, which is true to an extent. While Erdogan has certainly been aspiring to change Turkey’s system towards centralism, the question is: why would he choose to blame the US/EU -Turkey’s traditional allies -for the crisis and not Russia, or Kurds or Iran -its ‘enemies’?

The primary reason for this is perhaps that the US itself has chosen to emphasise that Erdogan is using the coup-context to strengthen his position. Well, this was but natural to happen in Turkey, or any other country, due to its extremely troubled past in terms of its internal balance of power between its armed and elected apparatuses. Hence, the US’ emphasis on “protection of democracy” in Turkey. US Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged this view when he appeared to hint that Turkey could not remain in NATO if it strayed from democracy and the rule of law as it seeks to politically paralyse those behind the failed coup attempt.

What has further encouraged this ‘war of words’ is, as hinted above, the very presence of Gulen in the US While Erdogan knows that Gulen will not extradited, within this Gulen-centric ‘war of words’ is hidden significant foreign policy repercussions for both Turkey and the US, as also for some other major powers. For instance, the CIA would not simply surrender such a “strategic asset” to Turkey mainly because Gulen’s version of political Islam had seamless uses for the US regional strategies in many parts of the world, especially in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which constitute Russia’s “soft underbelly.” Therefore, if the US surrenders Gulen to Turkey, not only would it lose an important tactic against Turkey, but also against Russia and thus unwittingly pave the way for greater Turko-Russian rapprochement.

On the other hand, regardless of the conspiracy theories circulating, the coup would have benefited the US The fact of the matter is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) also has elements, including at the leadership level, who empathize with Gulen and his version of political Islam. Simply put, if the coup had succeeded, it would have essentially led to a ‘Gulenists’ takeover of the AKP itself, and allowed an ‘anti-Russian’ posture to develop into a fully-fledged foreign policy of Turkey. Hence, the US led pressure on Turkey regarding a possible “excommunication” from NATO, followed by other repercussions (read: American warning that Turkey-US military cooperation could suffer due to post-coup developments) too.

Within these developments are, therefore, hidden powerful seeds that may grow into a major change in Turkey’s pro-Western tilt it has maintained since long. The current US /EU emphasis on maintaining a certain level of “democracy” is highly misplaced and dipped in propaganda; for, the fact of the matter is that “democracy” does not matter here as Turkey’s NATO membership never suffered even slightest decline following successful coups in Turkey in the past, when the Cold War was raging, and NATO could not endanger the strategic advantages Turkey provided against the Soviet Union. Erdogan knows that by putting an undue emphasis on “democracy”, the US/EU are only trying to prevent Turkey from re-balancing its relations with Russia and Iran—a situation that would certainly disturb the US plan for the Middle East; while, a Gulenists takeover would have made it easier for the US to implement it.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.