Turkey coup: Looming tension over Fethullah Gulen may strain ties with US

Turkey's pivotal roles as an ally in the US-led war against the Islamic State group and a guarantor of refugee agreements are likely to remain intact for now after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged triumphant followingr a failed coup attempt.

However, looming tension over Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic cleric, blamed by Erdogan for the rebellion, could strain ties between Turkey and the United States. For one, it has led to a back-and-forth between the leaders of the two countries.

Fethullah Gulen

A file photo of Fethullah Gulen

Turkey has bluntly demanded the extradition of a US-based cleric he accused of orchestrating the violence; another senior official went a step ahead and directly blamed the United States, while the US says it would assess any Turkish extradition request.

After strongly supporting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when it seemed his government might topple and then opening the door to sending home the cleric, a stung Oba administration fired back at its Nato ally.

"Public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations," US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Turkish counterpart, according to the State Department's readout of their telephone call.

The US also advised its Nato ally to keep collateral damage at the minimum and respect due process as it clamps down against those it believes are plotting against the democratically elected government.

Meanwhile, Turkey hit back saying the US should cooperate with extradition request just as Turkey has done in the past. In a televised speech Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey had never rejected a US extradition request for "terrorists." Addressing Washington, he requested the handover of Gulen and said, "If we are strategic partners, then you should bring about our request."

Although he didn't outline any threat, Erdogan's emphasis on US-Turkish counter-terrorism cooperation raised the prospect of a prolonged closure of the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey if he didn't get his way. The Pentagon said it was trying to get permission to resume air operations from the base, while adjusting mission operations in the meantime.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan AFP

A file image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AFP

Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and promotes a philosophy that blends a mystical form of Islam with staunch advocacy of democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue, has denied involvement in the unrest.

In an already politically charged environment, an expected purge of military factions responsible for the attempted putsch, could leave the armed forces in turmoil and overstretched. While trying to rebuild with loyalists, the military must continue to confront autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels in Turkey and control its turbulent border with war-torn Syria.

Turkey is a strategic US ally at the crossroads of the Asian and European continents and abuts Mideast conflict zones. It is a majority-Muslim country in Nato and a key partner in efforts to solve international challenges, including terrorism and mass migration, as well as being an important interlocutor with regional powers such as Iran and Russia.

US, European and other world leaders have condemned the assault on Erdogan's democratically elected government, while watching for further fallout from the uprising on Turkey, which was seen as a generally stable partner in a neighborhood plagued by upheaval.

The United States is monitoring the situation closely, in part because it stages air strikes from Turkey's Incirlik air base against Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government closed the airspace around Incirlik for several hours on Saturday following the coup attempt, although there was no indication of a long-term negative effect on US operations.

The uprising was launched Friday night with military jets overhead, tanks and soldiers in the streets and firepower that left at least 161 dead and 1,440 wounded, according to the government. It appears to have been led by air force, military police and armored units, but not the senior commanders of the military, who closed ranks behind Erdogan and put down the putsch early Saturday. Even opposition political parties condemned the attempt to oust the government.

Turkey Coup

The military coup was foiled by the government, which garnered huge support from the people of Turkey. AP

Nearly 3,000 accused plotters already have been detained and new purges in the military are expected to remove any sympathizers among soldiers and officers. This continued internal turmoil could be a challenge for the armed forces as they battle Kurdish rebels and support the campaign against the Islamic State group.

On Saturday, Turkey's state-run news agency said the commander of the country's second army was arrested in connection with the coup. The second army is based in eastern Turkey to counter threats from Syria, Iran and Iraq.

"A new wave of purges in military will likely weaken overstretched security services... even if basic policies will remain same," said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

Erdogan, an often combative figure, has been accused of increasingly autocratic conduct even though his government was democratically elected and he commands deep support among Turkey's pious Muslim class. The military has long seen itself as the guarantor of secular government in Turkey, and many in its ranks have bristled at both his tightening grip on power and the growing Islamic influence under Erdogan. The president had jailed or sidelined many of his military adversaries, but clearly others remained to launch the failed coup.

In the international arena, Erdogan recently sought to patch up disputes with Israel and Russia, and to lend stronger support to US-led efforts against the Islamic State group after being accused of tolerating the flow of foreign extremists and weapons from Turkey into Syria. He also was key to an agreement with the European Union that provides for the safe, regulated passage of Syrian civilians between Turkey and Europe, which has received a massive influx of refugees.

While that pragmatic approach is likely to continue as Erdogan shores up international support after the coup attempt, the president has often lashed at out his Western partners, questioning their commitment to democratic values and alleging that Kurdish militants enjoy refuge in some European countries.

The United States, emphasizing the importance of its alliance with Turkey's current leadership, expressed support for the democratically elected government as the violence unfolded. US Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to speak with Turkey's foreign minister. That response contrasted with US comments after the Egyptian military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi following protests against him in 2013 — at that time, Kerry said the military was restoring democracy in Egypt.

According to a report in AFP, while supporting the Erdogan's return, another key Nato ally, Canada has also issued a cautious statement which may not go down well with Turkey. Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion pressed Turkey to handle the aftermath of a coup attempt
according to "fundamental principles of democracy." He sait it was "important to avoid collect punishment" against those who organized the aborted coup that sought to seize power from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We must be discerning to ensure that those on trial have the chance to prove innocence or express their point of view according to the fundamental rules of justice we must aim to respect."

Though he praised Erdogan's swift return to control, the Canadian minister said "the use of military force was completely unacceptable."

Although many Turks are disgruntled over Erdogan's moves against civil liberties such as freedom of the press, and are fearful in the wake of a deadly IS attack on Istanbul's Ataturk Airport last month, the country appeared to reject the military rebellion. In fact, if anything, rather than toppling Turkey's strongman president, a failed military coup that left more than 250 dead appears to have bolstered Recep Tayyip Erdogan's immediate grip on power and boosted his popularity.

Turkey has endured three military coups between 1960 and 1980.

Yet Turkey could be poised for a fresh bout of polarization under Erdogan, who vowed that the coup plotters would pay a heavy price. Domestic tension and suspicion, in turn, could undermine the consistency or effectiveness of Turkey's international commitments and challenges, particularly when the military is involved.

"Bottom line is the relationship between the government and the military, no matter how loyal the generals may claim to be in future, is broken for good," Chris Kilford, a former Canadian military attache in Turkey and an expert on the Turkish military, wrote in an email to the AP.

With inputs from agencies 

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2016 09:07:45 IST

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