The Revenge of Turkey’s Erdogan

The coup deserved to fail, but his purge will cause further turmoil.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and former Turkish president Abdullah Gul (C-R) attend the funeral of a victim of the coup attempt in Istanbul on July 17, 2016. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

If it did nothing else, Friday’s failed coup in Turkey proved the adage that even paranoids can have real enemies. In the 15 years that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics, he has pursued vendettas against military officers, journalists, police, social activists, Kurdish opposition figures and fellow-travelling Islamists, among others. Now it turns out there was a fifth column against him, and the irony is that its failure may accelerate his march to Putin-like authoritarian power.

All of Turkey’s opposition parties joined Mr. Erdogan in denouncing the Keystone coup, and rightly so. Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been consistent winners at the ballot box, most recently in November’s elections. Most Turks don’t want to return to the days when the military ran a self-dealing “deep state” that routinely overthrew elected governments.

The coup threatened Turkish stability at a dangerous moment. Turkey is already suffering from a slowing economy and accelerating attacks by Islamic State. The Turkish army is battling Kurdish guerrillas in the country’s southeast, and the air force has been in a face-off with Russia over the latter’s violations of Turkish airspace. Some 2.5 million refugees from Syria have flooded the country, thousands of whom go begging in the streets.

Had the plotters succeeded, they would have had to use violence to suppress the millions of Turks who would have rallied against them. Unlike in Egypt, where then-defense minister Abdel Fattah Al Sisi took power from elected President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, in Turkey the crowd was not with the coup.

Nor were the chief of staff and other senior Turkish commanders who could have resisted with garrisons loyal to Mr. Erdogan. Even the President’s most vehement critics couldn’t have relished a civil war. A broken Turkey would have extended the chaos of Syria even closer to Europe and given Islamic State and other jihadists the opportunity to exploit it.

The U.S. conducts many of its operations against Islamic State from the Turkish air base at Incirlik, where some 1,500 U.S. service members are stationed. At this writing Turkey has closed airspace over the base and shut off external power because some of the coup plotters seem to have been stationed there. When those operations might resume is uncertain, but at least the U.S. won’t have to evacuate Incirlik in emergency conditions.

But if Turkey has avoided the worst, it still faces what could be a bitter reckoning. Mr. Erdogan wasted no time blaming the coup on followers of his erstwhile ally, exiled imam Fethullah Gulen, and demanding his extradition from the U.S. Mr. Gulen, who teaches a mystical form of Islam, broke with Mr. Erdogan over his increasingly autocratic ways. The Obama Administration has indicated it will consider the extradition request, and Mr. Erdogan will doubtless play Incirlik and cooperation against Islamic State as cards to get him back.

But Mr. Gulen and his followers adamantly deny participation in the coup. Without solid evidence of his direct involvement, it would be dishonorable and shortsighted for the U.S. to offer what would amount to a blood sacrifice to Mr. Erdogan’s rage. If Turkey threatens to evict the U.S. from Incirlik, the Administration should indicate a willingness to relocate the base in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.

As worrying is Mr. Erdogan’s round-up of thousands of opponents in what looks like it could become a wholesale political purge. So far some 2,800 officers and soldiers have been arrested, including nearly 40 generals. That may be necessary for restoring democratic rule, but it’s hard to make that case about the immediate dismissal of 2,745 judges, including two members of the Constitutional Court. It’s worth wondering if their names were already on a list before the coup gave Mr. Erdogan a pretext to dismiss them.

U.S. policy toward Turkey should be to support the principle of democratic rule in a stable and cohesive state. The failure of the coup staved off one threat to Turkish stability. What remains to be seen is whether Mr. Erdogan’s revenge does even graver damage to Turkey’s hopes for decent self-government and further destabilizes the world’s most dangerous región.

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