ISTANBUL – Turkey is commemorating the third anniversary of the defeat of a military coup; but, the fallout from the botched takeover is deepening political divisions within the country and continuing to strain ties with its Western allies.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday attended a series of events in the capital, Ankara, to mark the anniversary of the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. He also visited the national security forces headquarters, the scene of bloody fighting on the night of the attempted coup.
Erdogan was also attending a rally at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. The president’s arrival at the airport on the night of the failed military takeover was widely seen as the turning point, where he rallied support against the attempted takeover.
On the day of the failed coup, Erdogan was vacationing at a Turkish resort, narrowly escaping capture by rogue military forces.
The parliament building and presidential palace were bombed by jets. More than 250 people were killed, and thousands more injured, most unarmed civilians resisting the takeover.
Observers say Erdogan will seek to use the commemorations to consolidate his base amid growing voices of discontent and recent electoral setbacks.
There is mounting criticism, even from his supporters, over the severity and duration of an ensuing crackdown. An estimated 150,000 people have been purged from their jobs and some 70,000 others jailed in the crackdown with arrests continuing to this day.
Two-hundred media outlets have been closed, and dozens of reporters jailed. According to media watchdogs, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
Initially, the crackdown was met with broad political support, but that consensus has long dissipated.
Critics accuse Erdogan of using the crackdown to silence dissent, a charge made by many of Turkey’s Western allies.
Ankara continues to condemn what it says was its allies’ lack of support during the attempted coup, in contrast with its traditional regional rivals Russia and Iran.
“I think Turkey’s Western allies botched the opportunity, the moment the botched coup offered,” said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“The first person to come to Turkey (after the coup attempt) was Javad Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister),” he added. “The person on the telephone all night long on the night of the coup was (Russian President) Vladimir Putin and Zarif,” he said. “The White House had an ambivalent reaction; nobody bothered to call from the higher echelons of the U.S. government to the Turkish president. The same goes for the European NATO partners; that left a bitter taste definitely in the government’s mouth; that also rekindled the resentment in the general public.”
The wound of distrust between Ankara and Washington remains open, with the man Turkey accuses of being the ringleader of the failed coup remaining free in the United States.
Ankara alleges that U.S-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen orchestrated the attempted coup through his network of followers. Gulen strongly denies any involvement.
Turkish efforts to extradite Gulen have so far failed, with Washington claiming Ankara has not provided sufficient evidence. The dispute continues to poison bilateral ties.
“U.S.-Turkish ties will never be repaired, and for the right reason,” said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
“The United States has to do something about Gulen; at least refer him to the justice system,” he added. “I understand, (U.S. President Donald) Trump neither controls nor influences the judiciary, but that doesn’t mean a probe can’t be launched. Both the European Union and America use the crackdown on Gulenists as a religious rights human rights issue. It’s not true; you can’t sell that to 75% of Turks.”
Western diplomats speaking anonymously often voice skepticism over Gulen’s involvement, suggesting Erdogan himself organized the coup attempt as a pretext to crack down on opponents.
“A lot of think tanks and diplomats in the West hold that view, which is adding salt to the wound,” said Yesilada.
Seeking to exploit the rift between Turkey and its Western allies in the aftermath of the failed coup, analysts point out Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to deepen ties with Erdogan.
Friday saw Russia start the delivery of its S-400 missile system to Turkey. Washington says the purchase violates its Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Monday the missile delivery would trigger sanctions. The U.S.has said the Russian hardware is incompatible with the NATO weapons systems. The purchase of the S-400s could lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program.
This month, a survey by Kadir Has University found 81% of Turks saw the United States as a threat. Facing growing public dissent over a slowing economy, Erdogan is playing the nationalist card by ramping up his anti-American rhetoric.
“He can play this game of playing the nationalist card. When you ask people do you like America or not, I think everybody will say, ‘No, I don’t,'” said sociology professor Mesut Yegen of Istanbul’s Sehir University.
“But if it causes an economic crisis,” he adds, “because of (U.S.) sanctions, it can create this feeling we are doing well, but this guy (Erdogan) with his strong nationalism creates some major problems. There is a feeling among Turks, that the United States could be an enemy but we’ve always managed to live together with the United States. There is a sense of realism.”
Turkish pragmatism could yet be a check to further deteriorationin U.S.-Turkish relations, but observers say Ankara’s distrust of Washington over the failed coup will likely persist and continue to poison bilateral ties.