Americans are far too concerned with the mind boggling electoral warfare and the fear of terrorism to pay attention to the tragedy of a country that until not too long ago was the bridge between Asia and Europe: that reliable stalwart ally, Turkey. The president of that NATO ally, Recep Tayyp Erdogan, has now quashed a military coup that was far too tentative and disorganized to justify the overreaction that basically destroyed any vestige of democracy and respect for human rights in Turkey. The man is hell bent on creating an Islamic Republic in Turkey under his authoritarian stamp and has even the gall of telling his European critics that he will not accept lessons about human rights, the implication being that Europeans are committing the same crimes in a hypocritical sort of way. No less antipathetic is the message to the United States, which is obliquely accused of being responsible for the attempted coup by harboring his fervent opponent Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled imam in New Jersey. One of Erdogan’s newspapers, Yeni Safak, went so far as venting the accusation that the CIA was behind the coup. The secret plotter named by the daily is none other than a U.S. general by the name of John Campbell, while the CIA is accused of financing the coup leaders through a mysterious bank in Nigeria.
The U.S. is handling the crisis in the only possible way, with quiet talk, as President Obama has asked President Erdogan to respect democratic principles. The answer by Erdogan has been to press for the extradition of Gulen, openly threatening consequences for the relationship between the two countries. The dire dimensions of the punitive measures instituted by Erdogan are beyond any limit conceivable in a state ruled by law. Over 2,000 entities suspected of having ties with Gulen have been shut down, including fifteen universities, 19 labor unions, 1,043 private schools, 1,229 foundations and 35 hospitals and health institutions. The list of persons arrested is also beyond belief: no fewer than 8,000 military personnel, 2,000 magistrates and 1,500 policemen. In total, the number of individuals thrown in jail exceeds 80,000. A large number of them are academics. Education in Turkey has been decimated. Among others, 21,000 teachers from private schools have been stripped of their teaching credentials.
There are many reasons to believe that the proscription lists had been drafted before the attempted coup. Many of the academic and school staffs were targets of the proscription on account of their secret and not so secret support for the Kurdish population in the southeastern region of Turkey where the local population had come under bloody attacks by the army in the past year. If this supposition is correct, the coup had been engineered to prevent the execution of the proscription. The Erdogan executive has proceeded to declare a state of emergency and the temporary suspension of the European Convention of Human Rights. A desperate appeal by a number of members of the European Parliament denounced another dramatic consequence of Erdogan’s subversion of democracy: the thousands who have been arrested cannot even hope to find lawyers for their defense since no lawyer can accept the job without the risk of ending up on a proscription list.
There was a time when Turkey was a candidate country to join the European Union, when it was called to respect the so-called Copenhagen Principles, the presence of stable institutions that should guarantee democracy, respect for the law, human rights and the protection of minorities. Another important call was for the abolition of the death penalty. And now Erdogan even threatens to re-establish it in Turkey. That alone would be the epitaph over any idea of bringing Turkey into the European family of nations. What happened in Turkey has put a damper on any such project, as Erdogan’s iron fist has drastically swept away the functions of any legitimate opposition and its role of democratic vigilance. One more outcome of Erdogan’s overreaction to the bungled coup is that it hits hard at another class of unfortunate people, the mass of refugees that not long ago was trying to reach Europe through Turkey. The same European parliamentarians are now asking the Union’s executive to suspend immediately the agreement with Turkey of last March since Turkey has become even less secure for the refugees and those who intend to ask for political asylum in Europe. Let us be realistic. The United States has no choice but to ice its relationship with Turkey for one main reason, its air base in Incirlik that supports the air offensive against ISIS. The events in Turkey now raise serious questions about security at Incirlik and its usefulness in the future. Unfortunately, the base itself was the operational center of the attempted coup. Its Turkish commander and many officers were arrested and will be tried for treason. While it is true that the deployment of nuclear armed B61s in Incirlik is basically symbolic, their withdrawal would have a profound effect on NATO, especially at a time when candidate Trump raises unsettling questions about the role of the alliance.
The short and long conclusion is that following the establishment of what appears to be an Islamic Republic of Turkey under the intransigent control of Recep Erdogan, Europe is no longer willing to let Turkey in. There is no more hope for democratic liberalization in Turkey and there are no more geopolitical advantages to be gained by Europe by the accession of Turkey. In fact, just one European member state could veto it. As for the United States, the relationship with Erdogan’s de facto dictatorship will reflect tremendous strain; without U.S. support, Turkey will never amount to be the regional power that Erdogan envisaged. For its part, the United States will have to decide what kind of reduced collaboration it may have with Turkey. For sure, it will be an endangered connection that threatens to complicate the already difficult foreign agenda of the next U.S. administration.