As relations between Turkey and Russia improve following the coup, relations between Turkey and its erstwhile Western allies – the US and EU – are deteriorating rapidly, with claims in Turkey that the US was involved in the recent coup. That in turn opens up the question of whether the US was actually involved in the coup and if so to what degree.
Before discussing the question it is important to say that the answer so far as Turkey itself is concerned may no longer matter. The conviction appears to be taking hold in Turkey – including amongst some members of its government and with Erdogan himself – that the US was in some way behind the coup. That in itself will be enough to cause relations between the US and Turkey to become strained. In international politics very often it is what people believe rather than what is true that most matters.
Was the US however behind the coup?
The first thing to say is that at this stage we simply do not know. The information that would enable us to say for sure is simply not there. The investigation of the coup is still at a very early stage. Coup plotters are still being rounded up and questioned, and paper and electronic trails are still being followed up. It will take months or even years before trials follow – if they ever do – and before we start to get definite answers to the questions like the one about the extent, if any, of US involvement in the coup.
The second thing to say is that when people talk about a coup being US backed they are using a blanket term that covers different things. There are coups in which the US is not initially involved but which it backs after they succeed (eg. the coup which overthrew the Argentinian dictator Juan Peron in 1955). There are coups of which the US has foreknowledge and to which it gives the green light (eg. the Vietnamese coup against President Diem of 1963, the Brazilian coup of 1964 and the Turkish coup of 1980); and lastly there are the coups which the US actively orders and organises (eg. the coup in Iran in 1953 and – despite continued US denials – the coup against President Allende of Chile in 1973). All these coups are in a sense “US backed” but they clearly fall into different categories.
There is no doubt that if the coup against Erdogan had succeeded the US would have backed it after the event, just as in 1955 it backed after the event the coup that overthrew Peron, and to that extent it is legitimate to say that if the coup had succeeded it would have been US backed.
The US has no love of Erdogan, who is far too independent minded for its tastes, and would certainly not have regretted his passing. Besides the US would not want to sacrifice its longstanding relationship with the Turkish military and compromise its position in Turkey – a key NATO ally – by refusing to back a Turkish military government installed by a coup that had succeeded. After a few muffled statements of concern and some token sanctions the US would have quickly come to terms with the new coup-installed government, whilst the Western media would by now be full of stories of what an unbalanced, authoritarian, corrupt and dangerous leader Erdogan was and why it was a blessing – and a true expression of democracy – that the Turkish military had acted to remove him.
What evidence however is there that the US either gave the green light for the coup or actually ordered it? Briefly, at this stage there is none, and everything we know about the situation in Turkey before the coup and about US policy towards Turkey makes it very unlikely.
The US has very extensive and very longstanding links with the Turkish military. Some of the military officers who were involved in the coup were based at the giant air base in Incirlik, which is the single most important US military facility in Turkey. It seems that even the Turkish commander of the base was involved in the coup. It would therefore have been easy for the coup plotters to tip the US off about their plans for a coup, presumably in order to make sure the coup had US backing, and that is what many people think happened. What evidence is there however that it actually did? Again the answer is that there is none, and the facts show that it is very unlikely.
The coup plotters would presumably only have tipped the US off if they had been confident of US support. As it happens in every case I know where the US has given the green light for a coup there have been weeks or even months of intense discussions between the US and the military officials discussing the coup before it takes place. That was true in Vietnam in 1963, in Brazil in 1964 and in Turkey in 1980.
In all of those cases the US was willing to support the coup because it was reasonably confident it would succeed. Would the US have been equally sure the recent coup attempt in Turkey would succeed given Erdogan’s popularity with so many of Turkey’s people and with its business community, and given that Erdogan has the powerful support of the Mosque and of Turkey’s intelligence agencies and of most of its police? Would the US not rather be worried that if the coup failed – as it might easily do – its whole position in Turkey (a key NATO ally with by far the biggest army in NATO after the US) would be disastrously compromised if it became known it was involved? Would the US be willing to take that sort of risk by colluding in a coup which might easily fail?
It is not as if the reasons for backing a coup look particularly compelling. It is true that in the days immediately prior to the coup Erdogan had taken steps to patch up his relations with Russia. However, as I have explained previously, there would simply not have been enough time to organise a coup in the time available since those steps were taken.
Besides would Erdogan’s fence mending moves towards Russia really have sufficed to make the US want to overthrow him? If there is one thing one can say about Erdogan it is that he is unpredictable. He has at various times been Putin’s friend and Putin’s enemy, just as he was once Assad’s best friend only to become Assad’s greatest and most dangerous enemy. He was also once Israel’s enemy but is now becoming Israel’s friend.
Only a few months ago there was worried talk of an armed clash between Turkey and Russia, with credible reports of the Russians warning they would use tactical nuclear weapons if Erdogan ordered the Turkish military to attack their forces in Syria.
How in light of this record could the US be sure that any rapprochement between Erdogan and Russia would be for real? Given the history of bad blood between Erdogan and Russia, would it not have made far better sense for the US to wait until Erdogan and Russia fell out again – as many before the coup expected them to do – rather than take the extraordinary risk of backing a coup to remove him when there was a serious risk that it might fail?
Would a rapprochement between Erdogan and Russia anyway justify a coup? Though Erdogan was making moves to mend his fences with Russia, he never before the coup questioned Turkey’s loyalty to NATO. At NATO’s recent Warsaw Summit he co-signed the appalling NATO Declaration branding Russia an aggressor and he has staunchly supported the US regime change policy in Syria. He even recently expressed regret for Turkey’s failure to support the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Whatever view the US has of Erdogan, he was hardly before the coup a disloyal ally, and it is difficult to see why his very tentative moves to patch up relations with Russia would in themselves have made the US want to overthrow him. On the contrary, if it is true that the conflict between Turkey and Russia over Syria during the winter became so bad that the Russians felt obliged to give Erdogan a nuclear warning, then the US might well have looked upon the limited rapprochement underway between Turkey and Russia with a measure of relief.
Last but not least, would a coup in Turkey, even if it had succeeded, really serve US interests? Would it not be far more likely to destabilise Turkey further, with much of the population bitterly resenting the overthrow of a democratically elected and popular President? Turkey already faces multiple security threats from violent jihadists, from its large Kurdish majority and – potentially – from its large Alevi community, which is known to be unhappy with Turkey’s role in the war in Syria. Is this a good time to add to the instability by overthrowing the country’s democratically elected, constitutional and popular government? Might that not risk a civil conflict or even a civil war in a country whose cohesion and stability is vital to the Western alliance?
I would add at this point that any US decision to give the green light to the coup would definitely have needed Obama’s approval. Given the stakes involved it is inconceivable that any US official or agency would have acted without the President’s approval. In all the previous US backed coups which I have discussed US officials were careful to keep the President informed and to consult him in advance. Would Obama in the last months of his Presidency, at a time when he gives every impression of wanting to avoid an international crisis so as to secure his legacy and give Hillary Clinton a clear run to the White House, really risk a colossal crisis in a country like Turkey? Would he not have acted instead immediately to squelch the whole crazy idea, just as he has acted to squelch far less crazy ideas for interventions in places like Syria and Ukraine?
Overall, despite what some say, I simply do not see in Erdogan’s moves towards the Russians grounds for the US to take the gigantic – indeed existential – risk of backing a coup to remove him. Those moves were tentative and carried out within definite limits and did not compromise the US’s position in any fundamental way, whilst the risks involved in backing a coup against him were so enormous as to make it crazy to have done it.
In summary, though it would have been possible for the coup plotters to tip the US off about the coup on balance I think it is very unlikely that they did, precisely because if they had I am sure the US would have told them that it strongly opposed it. In that case it would surely have been impossible for the coup to have taken place.
I suspect the coup plotters knew this perfectly well, which is why they almost certainly did not tell the US about the coup before it happened.
All the same arguments obviously hold true to an even greater degree against any scenario that involves the US actually instigating the coup. Would the US really have taken the extraordinary risks of planning a coup against the popular leader of a key NATO ally when there were no compelling reasons to do so? Would Turkish army officers really have put their lives and reputations on the line to carry out US orders in such a case? I can certainly see why they might have risked everything in a coup against someone like Erdogan if they thought they were doing it for their own reasons. Would they however have done it simply because the US ordered them to?
Before leaving this subject there are two further points I do however want to make.
The first is that my whole case obviously depends on the assumption of at least a measure of rationality on the part of Obama and his officials. Against that I have to accept that US policy in recent years has become increasingly detached from reality. Indeed I have written about this at length. However if US policy makers really are now so detached from reality that they took the frankly crazy step of instigating or colluding in a coup against Erdogan in Turkey, then they are much crazier and more dangerous, and the situation in the world is far worse and far more dangerous, than up to now I or I suspect anyone else has suspected. It really would be a case in that case of us needing to reach for our fallout shelters. Fortunately everything we know about the coup suggests otherwise.
My second point concerns the Gulen movement. Erdogan and his government blamed the Gulen movement for the coup whilst it was actually underway, and have continued to do so since.
I have previously expressed my doubts about this. The statements of the coup plotters suggest a Kemalist secular ideology far removed from that of the Gulen movement. I frankly doubt that the Gulen movement’s penetration of the Turkish state and military can have been so extensive as to enable it to carry out a coup of this sort.
Discussion of the Gulen movement’s exact role in the coup has however diverted attention from the far more interesting question of what it actually is. No-one so far as I know has explained how Fetlhullah Gulen, a self-exiled scholar and cleric, has managed single-handedly to create the massive organisation that the Gulen movement has become.
Whilst it seems that Gulen does enjoy some support from the Turkish business community and from Turkey’s Deep State, the most obvious explanation is that he has been able to build up his organisation because he has US backing. The US after all is the country where he is based and where he lives. The ideology of the Gulen movement makes it appear rather like the sort of religious based anti-communist pro-business and pro-free market movements the US actively sponsored in order to defeat Communism during the Cold War. It would not surprise me if the US as part of its “soft power” policies used Gulen to set up that sort of organisation in Turkey to mould opinion there, and possibly also in other neighbouring states under Turkish influence.
If that is correct then it is at least possible that Gulen is a US intelligence asset, in which case that fact is likely to be well known amongst political insiders in Turkey.
In that case Erdogan’s constant criticisms of the “parallel state” Gulen supposedly runs in Turkey should be understood as coded criticism of the US and its role in Turkey. Certainly that is how they look to me.
If so, then going back to my original point, it hardly matters anymore in relation to the situation within Turkey whether the US really was involved in the coup or not. Whilst I think it is very unlikely it was, Erdogan’s comments about the Gulen movement show he thinks it was. Needless to say it is what Erdogan thinks not what I think that matters, irrespective of which of us is right.
That does not mean that the question of whether or not the US was involved in the coup is not important. On the contrary it is very important because its likely non-involvement will effect the way the US responds to whatever Erdogan is now going to do. The nature of that reaction will however depend on Erdogan’s moves, which will become clear over the course of the next few weeks.