Turkey’s failed coup could have implications for Ankara’s relations with the West, Russia and Syria.
Government supporters during a protest in Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 19, 2016. Photo: AP
On July 17, it became obvious that the attempted military coup in Turkey had ended in failure. The first arrests have now escalated into an unprecedented widespread purge in the military. Turkey’s partners were not very quick to condemn the coup attempt, while simultaneously affirming that all international obligations would remain in force in Turkey.
As a result, the international position of Ankara should not undergo any fundamental changes. However, these internal political events will inevitably have ramifications for Turkey’s relations with the U.S., Russia and Syria, especially given the heft of Turkey’s military in the region.
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According to the annual analytical report “Military Balance for 2016,” prepared by the British think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Turkish army has 410,000 military personnel. This means that the country has the most powerful army in NATO after the United States, and, unlike most European armies, Turkey’s military is constantly earning combat experience in guerrilla warfare against Kurdish rebels.
The Turkish army is also an important political institution. It has consistently seen its role reduced, despite a brief rise in prestige after the war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And now the unequivocal defeat of the military elite as a result of the failed coup will have an impact on Turkey’s relationship with its closest ally in NATO, the United States, as well as with its recent enemy, Russia.
Implications of Turkey’s coup on its relations with the West
These recent events mean that many working contacts with Turkey, within the framework of NATO, have been temporarily frozen. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has explicitly warned the Turkish political leadership that it would be a big mistake for a NATO ally to undertake mass purges of its military officers at this time.
The U.S. is especially concerned since the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is in full swing, and NATO is still warning against Russia's assertive foreign policy, which the Alliance just discussed during its recent summit in Warsaw.
In response, Erdogan hinted that the U.S. was partially involved in the coup, at least by the fact that the main “puppeteer” of the conspiracy and the “parallel state” – the religious figure Fethullah Gulen – is currently living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and the most senior Turkish generals cooperated with their American colleagues, including those in the intelligence services.
Foreign Policy magazine notes that the obvious consequence of this failed coup will be the weakening of the functionality of the Turkish Army in NATO in the short term. A clear indication of this was the fact that this political instability immediately affected the main NATO base in Turkey – Incirlik, near the Syrian border. In addition to aircraft, there are also tactical nuclear warheads, located at that base. In fact, it was disconnected from its life support systems during the attempted coup by the conspirators, one of which was the base commander.
Incirlik is the main place where U.S. aircraft and members of the international aviation coalition fighting ISIS are based. The coup led to the fact that departures of attack aircraft from the base were stopped, with jets having failed to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), 60 percent of whom are Syrian Kurds. The Turkish military has always considered them as nothing more than a branch of the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.
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Despite the fact that the flights from the Incirlik base have resumed (for now, the aviation coalition is needed to support the Kurds during their current battle for Manbij, a city in northern Syria), Turkey’s armed forces are hardly likely to be able to support rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo and Latakia in the near future. After all, the Syrian Army cut off the rebel-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo from all communications by July 18. This does not mean that the supply of fighters and the sending of instructors and entire intelligence units into Syria will stop. Even during the days of the attempted coup, such activities continued.
Nevertheless, the scale of Turkish activity is expected to decline, and this will make it easier for Moscow to support Damascus. This is what Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, thinks. This will happen regardless of the wishes of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who will never give up his neo-Ottoman ambitions) to increase support for the FSA, if only because the military management will remain paralyzed for some time.
The impact of the attempted coup on Ankara’s relations with Russia and Syria
In this light, it’s important to mention the information that was leaked to the press shortly before the coup, concerning informal contacts between Turkish military intelligence and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is supported by Russia. However, Ankara and Damascus are hardly likely to resume official dialogue in the near future, given the fact that Assad described Erdogan as a fascist in his recent address to the newly elected Syrian parliament.
However, based on the example of Russia, one can see how rhetoric can quickly change 180 degrees. There is no reason to be surprised in this situation either: the FSA, supported by Turkey (both during its February battles against the Kurds and loyalists, and May battles against ISIS) had shown its complete impotence. The Kurdish threat and the failed bets on the “moderate opposition” will inevitably lead to a dialogue with Moscow.
At the same time, the raging Kurdish guerrilla war in the eastern provinces of Turkey and the growing power of their Syrian compatriots has led Ankara to believe that Assad is perhaps the lesser evil than the Kurds on both sides of the border. Damascus is also looking at the Syrian Kurds (their situational allies) with mistrust, especially after their declaration of autonomous status and calls for the federalization of Syria.
One should keep in mind that the relations between Ankara and Washington have worsened because of the Kurdish question. That’s because, on the ground, in their fight against ISIS, the United States is relying on the SDF, rather than on the FSA.
At the same time, there were secret contacts between the Turks and the Syrian government (and certainly not without the knowledge of Moscow) with a sudden improvement in Russian-Turkish relations after the so-called “apology” that Erdogan made with regard to the Russian pilot killed on November 24, 2015. Ironically, the Turkish pilot that shot down the Russian plane was involved in the coup attempt on July 16.
Supporters of Erdogan simply could not help taking advantage of such a fortunate coincidence – with the Mayor of Ankara Melih Gokcek, an Erdogan loyalist, happily announcing in an interview with the Turkish affiliate of CNN that the “two-time offender” pilot was captured. Now, the former national hero was party to an evil plot hatched by the military and the political émigré Gulen to poison relations between Putin and Erdogan.
Yet, just a short time ago, everything was the opposite. In February 2016, when the rebels supported by Turkey in the north Syrian province of Aleppo were defeated by the Kurds and Syrian government forces, it was the top generals that persuaded the enraged Erdogan from intervening in the neighboring country and escalating his conflict with Moscow.
As a result, a looming direct military confrontation with Russia did not happen, and Turkey was able to avoid fighting on several fronts – against Kurds in the rear, against Kurds in Syria, against Assad and his Russian-Iranian allies, and against ISIS. The military supported the continuing intervention in Syria, but only within the framework of the fashionable “proxy war” strategy.
The trend in the improvement of relations with Russia, obviously, will continue. This will happen in spite of the ban on regular civil aviation flights to Turkey and the temporary blocking of navigation on the Bosporus (vital for supplying Russian units in Syria, and Assad himself) during the coup, which made Moscow nervous. It is possible that at the upcoming G20 meeting, Putin and Erdogan will finally meet. However, it remains to be seen if the improvement in Moscow-Ankara relations is really longstanding.
A look ahead
The repressions taking place in the army, the situation with the Incirlik airbase, and the persistent demands to extradite Gulen will not add warmth to relations with Washington. At the same time, attempts to improve relations with Russia do not mean that Turkey will refrain from pursuing imperialist policies in the Middle East or providing assistance to Syrian rebels. Perhaps these are not a long-term trend, but they are a signal to the Americans, who just made another “Syrian deal” during Kerry’s latest visit to Moscow.
Moscow should not be charmed by the “apology” of Erdogan, or the revelation that the military was behind the poisoning of relations between Turkey and Russia. America, despite the worsening of relations (which had been even worse before, such as during the 1974 Cyprus crisis) remains a strategic partner of Turkey.
And relations with Russia, in spite of its supply of gas and its flow of tourists, can be put off until later, after a necessary respite, so as not to fight against all enemies at once. The question is – how long might this respite last?