Tension between the US and Turkey has escalated dramatically in the wake of Ankara’s far-reaching crackdown on those suspected to have been involved in Friday’s failed military coup.
In addition to more than 2,000 members of the Turkish armed forces, Ankara has ordered the rounding up of at least 50 high-level civil servants, 8,000 police officers, and 30 regional governors with alleged ties to the coup plotters, according to Reuters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told a crowd of supporters Saturday night that the country would look into reinstating the death penalty for the “traitors” who plotted to overthrow his government.
On Monday, US Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned Turkey against abandoning due process in its crackdown, implying that Turkey’s NATO membership would be scrutinised if the country began to “backslide” away from its democratic principles.
“NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy,” Kerry told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “Obviously a lot of people have been arrested and arrested very quickly. The level of vigilance and scrutiny is obviously going to be significant in the days ahead. Hopefully we can work in a constructive way that prevents a backsliding.”
The warning that Turkey’s NATO membership will be under enhanced scrutiny marks an escalation of the heated rhetoric that has characterised US-Turkey relations in the days following the attempted coup.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Monday that Washington’s statements in the wake of the failed coup attempt and Ankara’s subsequent purges “have been truly remarkable.”
“From the beginning, we saw statements from the US government saying, ‘We’re watching you and we’re concerned,” Schanzer said, referring to a White House statement released on Friday calling for all parties to show “restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed.”
Over the weekend, Turkey called on the US to extradite the Turkish preacher and political figure Fethullah Gülen, who self-exiled to Pennsylvania in 1999. Ankara has accused Gülen of orchestrating the coup from afar, and he warned that anyone who harbours such plotters would be considered “at war” with Turkey. Kerry categorically denied that the US had anything to do with the failed uprising.
“The rhetoric is definitely escalating,” Schanzer said. “And now you have a veiled threat about NATO membership.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby walked back Kerry’s comments quickly on Monday, saying that while NATO will be watching Turkey closely, “it is too soon to say that their membership is at risk.”
Still, Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said on Twitter that Kerry’s comments in the wake of Turkey’s failed coup have been among his strongest.
“Kerry has taken a harder line on Turkey two days after failed coup than he did after Sisi started mass killings against his opponents,” Hamid said. He was referring to the chief of the Egyptian armed forces and current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who — despite notable human rights abuses — has maintained Washington’s support since overthrowing Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Schanzer noted, however, that there is currently no real mechanism for ejecting a member country from NATO.
“There are rules for getting in, but no real rules for getting out,” Schanzer said. “It would not be a clean break, that’s for sure.”
An acceleration of anti-US sentiment
Experts have warned US officials against lecturing Turkey about its commitment to democratic values amid its post-coup crackdown, however, as such statements have the potential to accelerate the anti-US sentiment already pervasive in many parts of Turkish society.
“The messaging being delivered by European and American leaders to Turkey about the importance of its response to the coup attempt being calibrated — and not adding further to polarization — is important,” Sir Peter Westmacott, the former British ambassador to Turkey, said in conference call hosted by the Atlantic Council on Monday.
“But we also need to remember that Erdogan was democratically elected and remains a very popular figure, as evidenced by his ability to get a large number of people out in the streets to counter the coup on Friday night,” Westmacott added. “Many within Turkey may not be Erdogan supporters, but they are nevertheless deeply worried about the effect the Gülenist movement might have on the country.”
Turkey expert Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that many within the country perceive the US as “harboring
Gülen,” and don’t understand why he is allowed to remain in Pennsylvania. That frustration, then, will likely
fester as the US continues to “lecture” Turkey about its commitment to democracy, Stein said.
Matthew Byrza, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, largely agreed.
“Now is not the time to be delivering threatening messages to Turkey,” Byrza said in the Atlantic Council call. “Tension is heating up quite significantly between the US and Turkey, even at the popular level. The national narrative is that the US dismantled the Ottoman empire and is now working to undermine a strong Turkish state.”
To that end, a reporter asked Kirby, the State Department spokesman, in a press conference just last month — before the failed coup attempt — whether the US was working to overthrow Erdogan and his party.
Westmacott put it bluntly: “We need to bear in mind that the mentality in Turkey is that nothing happens in the world without Uncle Sam approving of it first.”
Byrza noted that this lack of understanding about the Turkish mindset has caused Kerry and his European counterparts to “shoot themselves in the foot” as they send strong warnings to Ankara about upholding democratic principles that are ultimately alienating Turkish citizens further.
“US officials are failing to comprehend Turkey’s many psychological complexes,” Byrza said. “That is an argument for taking great care when making official statements, and it is also an indication that relations between the US and Turkey will be rocky for the foreseeable future.”
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