Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
In conversation with Robert McMahon, Managing Editor of CFR Editorial, Steven A. Cook, CFR Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, discusses the consequences of Turkey’s failed military coup. Cook explores Erdogan’s possible next moves, provides background on the Gulen movement, and considers potential shifts in the Turkish government going forward. He also examines how the attempted coup will affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States and the European Union as well as their continued membership in NATO.
MCMAHON: Well, thank you, and hello, everyone. Thank you for joining this Council on Foreign Relations conference call on the recent coup attempt in Turkey—excuse me, the recent coup attempt in Turkey and the consequences.
I am Robert McMahon, managing editor of CFR editorial, and I will be moderating this on-the-record call with Steven Cook, who is CFR’s senior fellow for Middle East and African Studies and really one of the leading experts on Turkey. He has an op-ed in the Washington Post that went up this weekend, shortly after the coup attempt played out and failed.
And we will be talking for about 15 minutes on the latest post-coup developments before opening up to questions from those on this call. It is obviously a developing story and we’re going to try to take stock of the latest news from Ankara and the region, discussing what this all means for Turkey, which is a NATO ally of the United States and a vital partner with the European Union on migration, security, and other issues.
And as we’re speaking, a major purge is underway in Turkey. At last report, authorities have suspended or detained close to 35,000 soldiers, police, judges, and civil servants since the coup bid.
Steven, some, including EU’s commissioner for Turkey, have suggested that speed and scale of the purge indicates this might have been a pre-cooked plan. What do you say to that and to the latest round of developments in this story?
COOK: Well, it’s hard to say that any of these things were pre-cooked. In the immediate aftermath of the failed intervention there was a lot of speculation that Erdogan himself had staged this in order to derive the kind of political benefits he is now deriving from the failed intervention.
That being said, I would not put it past the AKP and Erdogan from planning for this potential problem. Erdogan is an extraordinarily careful politician. The Justice and Development Party is an extraordinarily efficient political party, has often thought of absolutely every angle. So it seems to me, without knowing, that it’s entirely plausible that they had a playbook: In the event of a coup, this is what we will do.
After all, Turkey has a history of coups. Islamist political parties and politicians have suffered greatly after each and every one of those interventions. So it strikes me that the Justice and Development Party, if nothing but not careful, Erdogan an extraordinarily shrewd politician, may have put into practices post-coup attempt plans. But again, it’s very, very hard to impute these kinds of things from afar.
That being said, this is an extraordinary moment in Turkey. We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1980 coup. The speed, the numbers of people who have been purged and cashiered and told that they were being let go is extraordinary. These are the ones who questioned—for example, 1,500 or more rectors of universities have been asked for their resignations. Who is going to run the universities? They’re going to open again in six or seven weeks.
So this is—Erdogan is really taking advantage of the opportunities that the failed coup has given him to clean house against real and perceived enemies. I think the upshot is that, one, the military is now Erdogan’s. The military, which up until this point has been autonomous unto itself, is now in chaos and subject to the control of President Erdogan. Two, it is open warfare on the Gulen movement.
MCMAHON: Now, this is—since you mentioned, this is who Fethullah Gulen is, in exile in the U.S., but his movement is, you know, threat number one to President Erdogan, who has blamed him politically.
COOK: Right. Perhaps I should offer a little bit of background on Fethullah Gulen.
This is a Turkish cleric who has been in self-imposed exile in the United States in Pennsylvania since 1999, which is why you may have heard Erdogan refer to Pennsylvania. That is his way of referring to Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen and Erdogan had been partners in bringing the military to heel between the time that the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2003 and 2013, when Gulen and Erdogan, who was then the prime minister, had a falling out. Since that time, it has been a conflict between these two very big men in Turkish politics, and Erdogan has had the better of it. He is now threatening to root out the Gulen movement.
In all of the years that I have been working on Turkey, have been a student of Turkey, I had long heard and learned that the Gulenists had, in fact, placed their activists throughout the bureaucracy, particularly in the Ministry of Interior, in the police services, in the prosecution’s office, in the judiciary, in the intelligence services, but I had never been told or never discovered that there were Gulenists within the military establishment. In fact, the military establishment is an arch enemy of Gulen. One of the reasons why Gulen went into self-imposed exile was because he feared the military and what the military might do to him.
So, of course, anything is possible. There could have been Gulenist cells within the military, although this was a larger coup than people—larger coup attempt, I should say, than people at first imagined. It is entirely possible, given the Gulenist effort to change the character of the state, that they have agents within the military. But it seems to me the focus on Fethullah Gulen is an opportunity that comes out of this crisis, which is the failed intervention.
MCMAHON: Reports today are saying that Turkey has prepared a dossier against Gulen to present to the United States to advance an extradition case against him. But they have not formally requested extradition, is that right?
COOK: Right. Up until this point there has been no formal request for extradition.
What has happened is that in April of 2014, the Turkish general prosecutor opened an investigation into Gulen. In fact, to remind people, this was at the height of the corruption scandal that rocked Turkey from December of 2013 through a good portion of 2014, that fingered four ministers, then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s son, and a number of other prominent people.
And, in fact, one of the people intimately involved in it was apprehended coming into the United States in the past few months, and there is going to be a case—he’s going to be tried in New York, a guy named Reza Zarrab—that this corruption, this—and at the time, Erdogan blamed the Gulenists for this corruption scandal.
Later that year, in December 2014, there was an actual indictment of Gulen in Turkey, and in late 2015 there was a, quote, unquote, “unofficial request” for extradition. And I’m not a lawyer. I checked into it with a couple of lawyers, however, and from what I understand, that Turkey would have to begin the process by filing papers here in the United States requesting extradition, providing evidence. And then this would be handled by the courts.
It’s not something that the Obama administration, or whoever is the next president, that administration can handle themselves. It would be up to a judge to determine whether that Fethullah Gulen was guilty of the crimes that the Turks are accusing him of and whether that warranted extradition to Turkey. From what I understand, this could take a very long time. Fethullah Gulen is 77 years old. It could take as long as a decade. He may be dead by the time a court decides whether he should be extradited or not.
What I see a lot of this being is political, that Erdogan has again used the opportunity of a failed coup, of a split within the army, a coup that may have been consistent with previous military interventions in Turkey in terms of motivation, and is using it to finally resolve the problem that Gulen represents for him.
MCMAHON: So let’s take a look at some of the challenges this poses. You just mentioned one, which is the U.S. and Turkish relationship is going to go through an especially tricky, sensitive period, it seems like, vis-à-vis the Gulen case. But can you talk a little bit about what sort of strategic importance the Turkish relationship is to the U.S.? What kind of ally is Turkey to the United States at this point?
COOK: It’s a great question, and an important one, especially as things in the Middle East are changing, and changing rapidly. But if you just look at a map and you see that Turkey is located at the geographic center of many of the United States’ most pressing foreign policy concerns, whether it is in Iraq, in Syria, Middle East more generally, the conflict against the Islamic State, Turkey sits at the center of that.
And this is why American officials and others have continued—despite the clear authoritarian turn in Turkish politics, American officials and others have chosen to remain relatively quiet on those issues, because of the ostensible value of Turkey as an ally in the multi-layered complex challenges in and around Turkey, specifically Turkey—Syria, ISIS, Iraq.
MCMAHON: Plus the hosting of a base.
COOK: And the fact that the Turks own Incirlik Air Base is important to the United States. But here is where one has to start asking questions about Turkey as an ally. It took a year of very difficult negotiations for the United States and its allies to gain permission from the Turks to use Incirlik in a way that we have been using it since July 2015. That is to say that between the Islamic State’s storming of Mosul in June 2014 and last July, the United States engaged in negotiations—the U.S. military engaged in negotiations with their Turkish counterpart to open up Incirlik Air Base and other Turkish air bases for coalition air forces to engage in offensive military operations against the Islamic State.
Up until that point, the Turks did not permit anything other than what’s called intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. And it was extraordinarily difficult to get the Turks to do that. And when they finally agreed to do it, there was a kind of nod-nod, wink-wink aspect of it. Although the headlines said that Turkey joined the anti-ISIS coalition, in fact, Turkey gave the United States and its allies access to these runways to do—to bomb the Islamic State, while the Turks, instead of taking part in the anti-ISIS coalition, used the agreement to ramp up its military actions against the Kurdistan Workers Party, known more popularly as the PKK, to which the United States had very little to say. There was this hint of a quid pro quo in that agreement.
Now, the Turks have been reluctant to get involved in the fight against the Islamic State. They don’t want blood running in their streets, although they have had blood running in their streets. There have been 11 terrorist attacks over the course of the last 12 months. I believe six of them can be traced back to the Islamic State. They—and by their own admission, much more concerned about Kurdish nationalism and what the fragmentation of Syria means for Kurdish nationalism.
You’ve already seen tremendous gains on the part of the Syrian Kurds in the northern part of Syria that abuts Turkey. And there’s a real fear that the Northern Syrian Federation that the Syrian Kurds have already declared will have an impact on Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast, where, by the way, there’s a dirty little war going on. And they see the United States as essentially having helped this Kurdish entity in the making happen in Turkey. Of course—in Northern Syria. Of course, had they signed on to the anti-ISIS coalition sooner, we would not have had to rely on Syria’s Kurds.
And then the third reason why they’ve been a reluctant ally is they did not believe that the U.S. anti-ISIS strategy would work because it didn’t specifically target the Syrian regime, which is a bit self-serving, given the fact that the Turks made a big deal of having to bring down the Assad regime. And there’s somewhat of a political tree on this issue, and unable to walk it back.
Now, add into the mix all of this—and there are other problems associated with the Turks—but now you have an unstable country, an officer corps that’s in chaos, and a leader that is intent on a major crackdown. One has to wonder about the efficacy of the intelligence services, the efficacy of the military at this point. What kind of capacity do these two organizations have after massive, massive crackdowns?
The problem for the United States is we don’t really have a plan B. We’ve never been willing to develop a plan B. There are air bases in Romania, but they’re a little bit further afield. There is, of course, airstrips in the Kurdistan Regional Government, but we’ve been so focused on a Baghdad-first policy and trying to hold Iraq together, we never wanted to deploy any forces into the Kurdistan Regional Government in order to directly engage in the kind of fight that we’re in right now.
Yet now Turkey is in chaos, and one can imagine a scenario, given the kinds of things that President Erdogan, the pro-Erdogan press, had said about the United States—Yeni Safak, one of the leading supporters—it’s the newspaper—one of the leading supporters of Erdogan, the editor today wrote that the United States was responsible for the coup and tried to kill Erdogan. Yet we remain somewhat reliant on Turkey, which is proving to be a rather unreliable ally.
MCMAHON: Now, the other important party here is the European Union. They had worked out sort of a crucial deal involving migrants from Syria. That particular—(inaudible)—has been delayed by several—or postponed by several months. There are 3 million or so refugees now from Syria in Turkey. Turkey is still a vital partner in that, in the process of dealing with Syria’s refugees and a whole host of other issues, and was said to be advancing in an accession process to EU.
How do you see that playing out in this crackdown that’s taking place now?
COOK: Right. The Turks have the EU over a barrel, and they’ll continue to have them over a barrel regardless of what happens. It’s just going to be harder and harder for the EU to swallow. But if they don’t want large numbers of refugees coming ashore in Europe, they may have to swallow very, very hard and do their best to overlook this crackdown that’s ongoing in Turkey.
They’ll have to make that decision. Erdogan has been very clear that if the Europeans don’t play ball on this issue, they will be very difficult on this question of visa-free travel. And when they were doing that, he threatened. He said, look, unless you follow through on our agreement to give Turks visa-free travel in the Schengen zone, we’re just going to push 3 million Syrians in the direction of Turkey—in the direction of Europe.
So it seems to me that the Europeans are once again hamstrung. This is going to be a very ugly crackdown. Erdogan’s supporters are demanding a reinstatement of the death penalty, something that was abolished in the constitutional reforms that were undertaken in the early 2000s in order for Turkey to become an official candidate for EU membership. They’re demanding the reinstatement of this. All kinds of seemingly terrible things are going to be happening in Turkey, and the Europeans have no way of holding the Turks accountable at this point. And if they try to, there’s a fear that the Turks will push refugees, as I said, in the direction of Europe.
MCMAHON: All right. Well, Steven, thanks for framing that.
Now, lots more to talk about, but I do want to open up this call now to those on the call. Operator, are there questions in the queue, please?
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, at this time the floor is open for your questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And we’ll give it a few moments for people to queue up. One moment, please.
MCMAHON: Well, Steven, while we’re waiting, I want to just add a follow up, which is, can you talk a little bit more about the EU-NATO process, especially NATO?
There were some initially indications that Turkey’s NATO membership is going to be, you know, there’s going to be a serious look at Turkey within NATO.
You talked about the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Can you talk about the NATO-Turkish relationship?
COOK: Well, Turkey is an important member of NATO, the second-largest military in NATO. I think that what you’re referring to, the statement you’re referring to is one that Secretary Kerry made in fact, that the State Department subsequently walked back, although what they did say was that they were going to be watching very carefully what happens in Turkey.
There have been calls to expel Turkey from NATO on grounds that it has not been a reliable ally in NATO’s kind of core missions as they’re now defined; specifically, its reluctance to get involved in the Libya operation, Syria, the fight against the Islamic state. They very much would like the United States and its NATO allies to invade and bring down the Assad regime.
But I think what Kerry was getting at and what others have been getting at in recent days is that as this crackdown is underway, as Turkey reinforces its authoritarian politics, this is not something new that Turkey has strayed from its alleged profession of fealty to democratic principles.
Over the better part of the last decade, Turkey has strayed from that where it’s hard to refer to Turkey as a democracy other than the fact that it holds a regularly scheduled election.
And that if you look in NATO documents, the 1995 enlargement documents, there are conditions of NATO membership. The question then and something that I have been unable to find in NATO documents and not having read them carefully enough yet is, do those conditions that were set up for enlargement in 1995, does that also apply to a member of NATO, a member at the beginning part of NATO, a member of the alliance in 1952? And that’s unclear.
It’s also unclear if a mechanism for expulsion actually exists, how would you go about expelling Turkey from NATO?
Turkey was obviously extraordinarily important during the Cold War. And there have been some arguments to suggest that given all the turmoil in the Middle East that it’s more important than ever.
But given the quality of Turkish politics, it’s hard to make the argument that Turkey is a model for the Middle East, like so many did in 2011 and 2012, and that more than a decade after getting a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, Turkey looks less like a liberal European democracy than a one-man autocracy that you’d find, you know, in the Middle East, for example.
So it will be interesting to see as Erdogan cracks down whether they reinstate the death penalty, whether there is a significant amount of state violence what both NATO and the EU do and whether the Obama administration takes a strong public stand against Turkey. They have been unwilling, unwilling up until this point, to take a strong public stand with Turkey and preferring private diplomacy.
Because back in 2010 when there were significant problems in the U.S.-Turkey relationship, President Obama met with then Prime Minister Erdogan on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Toronto in September 2010 and they had it out apparently. And they cleared the air and it’s paved the way for 18 to 20 months of very good, close coordination and alignment between the two countries.
And since that time, despite what’s happened in Turkey domestically, despite their reluctance to be an effective ally against the Islamic State, although I should say they’ve been better over the course of the last eight months, the Obama administration has chosen to conduct its diplomacy primarily in private.
MCMAHON: I’d like to go back to the operator and see if there are questions on the call now, and following up especially this question Steven raised about Turkey’s reliability as an ally and its unique—(inaudible).
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Trudy Rubin with The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Q: Hi, Steve. Thanks so much for doing this.
You know, in line with this question about reliability as an ally, I’m wondering how you assess how Erdogan is likely to play the Gulen issue. Because as you say, it’s likely to drag on for ages and they are unlikely to provide, at least in the short term, maybe ever, convincing evidence.
So is this going to be something that is played up into a break with the U.S.? And how does this, you know, affect any potential for moving against Raqqa or ISIS? And do you think it’s likely also that Erdogan will use this as a club to insist that the U.S. break with the PYD in northern Syria, especially since it looks like he’s going to include them on the enemy’s list of people who he claims were involved in the coup?
COOK: Thanks, Trudy. Those are a bevy of very good questions and very important questions.
I think it’s clear that Erdogan is going to insist on using the Gulen issue to keep Turkey on what is essentially a war footing at this point, a mechanism of mobilization for his supporters, and for those people who aren’t necessarily as supportive, but who are deeply distrustful of Fethullah Gulen.
So the United States is an easy target made easier by the fact that Fethullah Gulen is a resident of your state, Pennsylvania. And it will certainly be a significant source of tension.
And you know, you asked the question, will it lead to a break? You know, in ways that’s hard to imagine. But we’ve lacked a lot of imagination in our policy and in our analysis of the Middle East over the course of the last five or six years or so.
So let’s lay out a scenario, let’s be imaginative. He is using the Gulen issue as a mechanism of mobilization for large numbers of Turks, supporters and otherwise, who are distrustful of Gulen. He has pinned the coup attempt on Gulen.
He has said the United States is in cahoots with Gulen. And one of the editors of the major papers that support him says the United States tried to kill Erdogan. This is not a politically propitious environment for cooperation with the United States.
And one can imagine a scenario when it gets out of hand that something happens in relations between the two countries. I’m not necessarily saying a break, but play that out, play that out. As this purge goes on, as the United States continues to demand clear and convincing evidence, as a formal extradition request continues along, you can imagine not only are we at the lowest point in U.S.-Turkey relations, but Erdogan may be forced by the public opinion that he himself creates to take action.
He has accumulated enormous, enormous personal power, but he is always concerned with his domestic politics and how he derives domestic political benefit from it.
So I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility that there would be some sort of difficulty. Again, it’s hard for me to say break, but some sort of major breach in a relationship between the two countries the longer that this continues.
I will point out that the foreign minister was supposed to be in Washington tomorrow and he canceled his trip. It would look not very good for the foreign minister to show up here in Washington. And I think that was obviously for political reasons, not because the foreign minister is so busy purging people in Ankara.
As far as the PYD and others, these are—and Erdogan, he knows who he wants to go after. The Turks have been extraordinarily uncomfortable with the American relationship with the PYD and the YPG in the battlefield. And he’s going to press this issue, which yet is another one of those issues that is driving a wedge between the two countries. So I don’t want to say that we’re on the verge of a breach in the relationship, but I can imagine it happening.
MCMAHON: Thanks for the question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Lyric Hale Hughes.
Q: Yes. Hello?
MCMAHON: Yes, please go ahead.
Q: Yes, hi. OK. It’s Lyric Hughes Hale, but that’s the same thing. No problem. (Laughs.)
Steven, thank you for this briefing. Really, really wonderful. My question—I have two questions. One, given the presence of tactical nuclear weapons within Turkey, given the lack of reliability of Turkey’s relationship going forward with the U.S. and with NATO, do you think it’s safe for them to be housed there, given that they could be used—you know, held hostage if there is some kind of civil war, if the opposition decides to utilize that? Are they safe given the fact that the base was, you know, in and out of the control of opposition and the government there? And secondly, do you think that the markets have really priced in the economic consequences of what’s going on here? It doesn’t seem to me that they have yet.
COOK: Right. Those are two good questions.
On the first one, about the nuclear—the tactical nuclear weapons, there are approximately 90 of them stored at Incirlik Air Base, which is where the bulk of U.S. operations are, and which was shut down for a period of time over the weekend and Monday because the Turkish commander of the base is implicated in the coup attempt. It’s important to remind people that this is a Turkish base. It’s not a NATO facility. It’s not an American facility. The United States has an agreement with the Turkish government, but as I alluded to earlier in order to engage in offensive military operations against the Islamic State, it had to take an act of the Turkish parliament to give us permission to do that.
Now, I’m not really a guns and trucks kid, so I can’t speak directly to the way in which—and the status of these tactical nuclear weapons. But what I do know is that they are under American control, and that American control is, quite obviously, robust. I can imagine that if the security situation deteriorates markedly in Turkey, or that there is some sort of change in the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Turkey, those tactical weapons would be removed. But I can’t really speak to the kind of technical modalities of that, and when that would happen, and what procedures are in place for that.
But it’s I think something—given the fact that the Turks cut off power to the base for 24 hours or so—I think it’s something that at least we should be worried about. I feel fairly confident that the Pentagon has thought through a variety of scenarios of this. Or, it should be pointed out, however, that although there are 90 tactical nuclear weapons on Turkish soil, the Turks have no capacity or means to actually use them. They need to be swung under the wings of aircraft. And they don’t have the technical capacity to do that. Only American F-16s or other airplanes can do it. The Turks don’t have that. So they couldn’t possibly use them. They’re just there. Someone—you know, one could—some type to steal them, but again, from what I understand, they’re safe.
Now, as far as the markets go, I took a look earlier today at the last few days. So, Friday the Borsa closed at 82,825. On Monday it was down to 76,957, and earlier today it was up in mid-77,000 territory. You know, what concerns me, more than what the Istanbul—what the market is doing—is the kind of broader economic impacts of instability in Turkey. And it’s two things. One, Erdogan—Turkey is now Erdogan. There were few checks and balances on him to begin with. This is, as I said before, provided opportunity for him to go after his opponents, even people who are internally reasonable in their analysis. Turks who are reasonable in their analysis of what’s going on have been forced to publicly pronounce things that seem to be out of character because they don’t want to be accused of being sympathetic to Gulen.
And so under these circumstances, Erdogan is perfectly positioned to carry on his kind of campaigns against the independence of Turkey’s Central Bank. During the Gezi Park protests, when Erdogan railed against the interest rate law, he wasn’t talking just about international bankers, Zionists, Jews, whatever. He was talking about central bankers in his own country who wanted to raise interest rates. And for him, low interest rates are extraordinarily important, because they are the—they are the key to Turkey’s economic growth, which is in part related to his economic success—his electoral success.
Then the second big question I have is, we’re looking at a country that’s now unstable. Not only do you have a war going on with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, not only do you have a country that has experienced at least 11 significant terrorist attacks over the course of the last 12 months, separating out those terrorist attacks from the things that the PKK has done, six of those attacks related to the Islamic State. You have an officer corps that’s in chaos, and a massive, growing, widespread crackdown in the country. I’m not an investor. I’m a political scientist and an analyst. I’m not sure, though, that this is a country that international investors are going to be flocking to.
And, as you well know, Turkey has a structural current account deficit. And they need foreign direct investment in order to finance that big current account deficit. So there are economic problems associated with Turkey, a country that now is quite unstable in ways that it hasn’t been since the period between 1976 and 1980, when there were almost 5,000 Turks killed in violence between leftist and rightist forces.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question. Just as a reminder, this is a Council of Foreign Relations on the record conference call with Senior Fellow Steven Cook. We have about 25 minutes left on the call and a number of question in the queue. So I’m going to request the questions be limited to one full-bodied question, and Steven will get to as many as he can. Operator, do we have another question coming up, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Elise Labott with CNN. (Background noise.) Elise Labott, your line is open, if you could mute your background noise and ask your question please.
Q: Hello, can you hear me?
MCMAHON: Yes, we can. Please go ahead.
Q: Oh, thanks. I just want to follow up a little bit on Trudy’s question. I mean, it does seem as if maybe the Turks are kind of using it as an excuse on Incirlik that, you know, they’re not really sure necessarily about the military that’s at Incirlik. And it sounds like the power has been cut off there. I’m wondering if you think they’re going to use Incirlik as a chip to make the U.S. turn over Gulen, or what are they doing there? Because there are some rumors that perhaps the U.S. military is getting set up, that they could think about pulling their aircraft and their personnel out of Incirlik.
I mean, do you see something—do you see it ramping up to that level? I mean, you would think—even though I understand what you say about the Turks not necessarily being a full-throttled partner in the campaign against ISIS—I mean, I would think that they wouldn’t want, you know, a kind of break with the coalition in that way. And do you think that they’re willing to, you know, push the Gulen so that Incirlik becomes, you know, a major sticking point?
COOK: Thanks so much. I should point out that operations against ISIS resumed on either Sunday or Monday, and have been uninterrupted since that time. Although, I think that the surrounding of the base and the cutting of the power was clearly about apprehending the commander of the base, who is implicated in the coup plot, given the fact that there are allegations that the F-16s that were used in the failed intervention were refueled from aircraft operating out of—Turkish aircraft operating out of Incirlik.
When it comes to—but I think a secondary thing was to demonstrate to the United States that the Turks have some leverage over the United States. As I said earlier, in order for the United States to conduct the kinds of operations it’s been conducting against ISIS over the course of the last year took a year of negotiations and an act of the Turkish Grand National Assembly. And what the Turks can give, the Turks can also take away. And this is a subtle way of applying pressure on the U.S. with regard to Fethullah Gulen. But as—also as I pointed out, you just can’t hand over Gulen. It has to go through the courts.
Now, as far as the U.S. military being fed up with the Turks, they’re not growing fed up with the Turks. They were fed up going in. And you know, from what I understand—
Q: No, I mean on this particular—on this particular—I mean, obviously they’ve been invested for some time.
COOK: Yes, and—
Q: And I mean, on their kind of obfuscating on Incirlik, and the power, and stuff like that, I meant. Like, is this the final straw?
COOK: I don’t believe that the U.S. military is going to get up and go of its own volition. Incirlik is extraordinarily important, given its proximity to Raqqa and Mosul. It’s much more expensive to operate from the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, or from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean or in the Persian Gulf. It’s expensive. There’s a lot of wear and tear on the pilots. You have to refuel. It is much more advantageous.
So I think, as much as the U.S. military has—was frustrated with the Turks even before they got access to Incirlik in the way that they now have it—and just as an aside, they were slow to alter what they call ATOs, or Air Tasking Orders, to ship into Incirlik because they were unsure of what the Turks were going to do, even after giving the U.S. permission.
But now that they’re there, they’re not going to leave of their own volition. I’m sure they’re extraordinarily annoyed by the cutting off of the power. But it probably will be—if there’s some change, it will probably come from the Turks first.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, do you have another question on the line, please?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir, our next question comes from Roger Kubarych with the Craig Drill Capital.
COOK: Hi, Roger.
Q: Good to talk to you—very, very excellent presentation and interesting questions.
I’m asking about the business community—the local business community, the wealthy families like the Koç family. Are any of them being draw into this dragnet, maybe not the very top, but is the business community or parts of it—did they support this attempted coup?
And second, and a related question, is, you know, hundreds of thousands of Turks work for joint venture companies and other elements of existing foreign direct investment, which is vast, particularly from Germany and some of the other neighboring countries to Germany, and how are they being affected by this dragnet?
COOK: Thanks, Roger. Those are very, very good questions.
And to the first one, you know, I have not heard that any of the big families—the Koçs or the Sabancis or any of the other well-known people of that—in that community have been directly targeted, although it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if they were. And I had not been made aware that they were supportive of a military intervention.
I think what’s important is there are a lot of people who are opposed to Erdogan but are against a military intervention and military rule. And I think the baseline for this conclusion can go back to 2007, when the military tried to block Abdullah Gul from becoming the president because he’s a member of the AKP, because he’s an Islamist, because his wife wears the hijab. And Turks came out to the streets and they said they didn’t—they wanted neither Islamic law nor military rule.
So I don’t know for sure. Those are some of whom I know, but those are people who I have not been in touch with directly. But one can imagine a situation where people dislike Erdogan, dislike Erdogan intensely, but are—do not want military rule, which in the past it’s been very difficult for everybody in Turkey.
Now, as far as your other question goes to ventures, the business, that goes on. It’s interesting to me how Turkey has often had political difficulties with countries or the European Union yet business continues without much of a problem.
And one of the—one of the prime recent examples of that is Israel. You couldn’t have gotten in a worse way in two countries, short of going to war, than Israel and Turkey. And of course I’m exaggerating for effect, but while they were downgrading relations and there was a war of words going on, business ties and trade between the two countries continued to expand.
The airline that has the most connections to the most convenient places, flying out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, is not EL AL, the Israeli airline, but Turkish Airlines. So I don’t expect those kinds of ventures to be affected.
MCMAHON: Ties with Russia too continue.
COOK: Exactly. And I think, you know, if the United States and the Europeans are on the defensive on—as a result of this, I think the Russians are actually in a fairly good place.
Erdogan is clearly afraid of Vladimir Putin, and he can muck about with him on the Kurds. There has been a weakening of the Turks—although it’s political strengthening of Erdogan, a weakening of the Turks on Syria because they’re now consumed by their own domestic politics.
So, yeah, I think the Turks will have an interest in continuing things with the Russians.
MCMAHON: Roger, thanks for that question.
Operator, do you have a question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes, our next question comes from Marisa Lino with Northrop Grumman.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon, and thank you very much.
If you permit me, I just want to say one thing with respect to the nukes in Incirlik. They have survived—they have survived three other coups. But my question has to do with an article by a gentleman named Grenville Byford, which raises two issues that I think I haven’t heard or seen mentioned anywhere else.
One is his speculation that Erdogan’s suggestion of citizenship for the 2.5 million Syrian refugees may have played a part in causing resentment amongst nationalists. And the other is his speculation that, in the long run, the fact of this attempted coup is weakening Erdogan over the long run. Your comments would be appreciated.
COOK: Well, it’s clear to me that this was a military intervention that was long in the planning. And as I said, it was bigger than initially believed to be, mostly on the part of the air force and Jandarma as well as some land forces—elements of land forces.
So the relatively recent suggestion about citizenship for Syrian refugees is probably not a precipitating factor in the coup, although one can expect, given what we know about the Turkish military, that there was unhappiness in the ranks over a variety of issues, whether it was the religious disposition of the AKP; whether it was the fact that the government seemed to be failing in protecting the country, given the string of terrorist attacks; whether it was the accumulation of Erdogan’s power at the expense of others. After all, the Turkish military has long been the locus of power and authority in the political system, and Erdogan has undermined that.
So I think that any suggestion about the potential for citizenship for Syrian refugees should remain within the realm of what you suggested: speculation. I think it’s going to be hard for us ever to know exactly that happened, because half of the country is—or more than half of the country is firmly in the belief that Fethullah Gulen and his followers were behind the coup, and another big portion of the country believes that Erdogan himself was behind the coup in an effort to create the situation in which he now finds himself, where he has basically a clear lane to dispose of his opponents.
I think neither of those things are true, but those are going to be the narratives that people settle on, and if the Turkish government has its way it will be the first one at the expense of the former.
In terms of weakening Erdogan, what I have to say, and what I’ve always said in my analysis, is you never count Recep Tayyip Erdogan out, that he has—one of the reasons why this coup failed was because he has the country wired and knew it was coming once it began, and that he has accumulated so much formal and informal power that it’s hard to imagine a weakening over time.
I fully expect that within the next year, at least, there to be new elections where the AKP will then reach 330 seats or more, necessary to bring a new constitution to the Turkish people on a referendum, or if they get really lucky, enough seats in the Grand National Assembly, where they don’t even have to bring it to a referendum. That will establish the presidential system as opposed to the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system they have now, in which all of the power will flow to Erdogan.
I think that the interventions on the part of the military—and I have a piece coming at Foreign Affairs’ website on this exactly—it actually betrays the manifest political weakness of the Turkish military, setting aside the kind of often destructive forces they can bring to bear.
MCMAHON: Thank you.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Blaine Holt with—president of Million Air.
Q: Hi. This is Blaine, Steve.
I just wanted to get your views. I left NATO six months ago. It was my retirement job as the deputy military representative at NATO. And I can’t help but think that a way to keep Turkey in the international community the way we would like, and yet not be on the offensive or so accommodating with Erdogan, would be to propose some sort of suspension of Turkish NATO privileges, maybe keep them in a (cool ?) status at the mission and in their military delegation, not above the rank of lieutenant colonel, while Turkey gets a chance to work out its democracy issues and internals with the Turkish military.
You know, in my Air Force career, going back well before my flag officer time, the tension between working with the Turkish military across many operations, going back decades, has been real, and it has been very tough to operate at Incirlik. And I can’t help but see that Erdogan is on a path, using our defensive posture in the West to his advantage, and yet Putin, the opportunist, could roll in and take great advantage of that, if we don’t do something to get Erdogan back on track into the community of nations that we have.
So it’s more aggressive in terms of an approach, but we have worked on accommodation with the Turks for many decades. And I’d be interested, with your expertise, as to how you view that.
COOK: Thanks, Blaine. An interesting set of points and an interesting perspective that you bring to the table on this. I think that—I, one, have been an advocate for a more public and forceful approach to Turkey and its—because of its domestic politics and its U-turn on reforms. And I’ve also through, you know, my own research had become aware of the difficulties of dealing with the Turkish military. I always kind of get a kick out of it when I read somewhere, you know, the pro-Western Turkish military. The only people who—the only people the Turkish military is pro is the pro-Turkish military.
But I wonder whether the kind of aggressive stance that you suggest—which, to be completely honest with you, is intriguing and actually may satisfy some of those who are clamoring for Turkey to be thrown out of NATO—I wonder, though, if it does not risk pushing the Turks further from the community of nations, as you point out, further from that Western anchor, and into the arms of Putin. I know that that’s hard to imagine, but prior to the Turkish Air Force shooting down that Russian bomber, that was something that people actually worried about. And there is actually important factions within the Justice and Development Party who would like to see a closer relationship with the Russians, despite the long and unhappy history between Turks and Russians. And I think that that’s part of—that’s part of the more recent ambivalence that the Turks have demonstrated towards the United States.
But it’s certainly worth a public airing of that option. I kind of like the daring and aggressiveness that would be. Honestly, why don’t you write it up? Let’s throw it up on my blog, or even better, put it in The New York Times, if anybody from The New York Times is listening.
Q: I appreciate that. I’ll work on that. (Laughs.)
MCMAHON: Thank you. Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Jill Dougherty with the Kennan Institute.
Q: Well, thank you very much, Steve. Coincidentally, obviously you talked about this subject that I wanted to talk about. I’m in Moscow right now. And I did want to ask about how Russia might take advantage of this situation because we’ve had the rapprochement after a very difficult period when the Turks shot down the Russian plane. And they’ll be talking. Erdogan and Putin are going to be talking in August. They just talked a few days ago. So there’s a lot more normalization of the relationship. Is there anything else that you could sum up how you think this could change, vis-à-vis, let’s say, the United States, you know? How Putin could triangulate, let’s put it?
COOK: Right. Well, Jill, you know better than I would about Putin and his strategies and the way he triangulates things. But it strikes me from the Turkish perspective, and watching that relationship in—especially in contrast to the relationship with the United States and the EU. Second, the only person that Erdogan fears is Vladimir Putin. And was extraordinarily surprised, not as so by the Russian response to the shooting down of the Russian plane, but what the Turks perceived to be a relatively weak NATO and American response to the shoot down, primarily because everybody here, and I would imagine in Brussels, thought it was an extraordinarily stupid thing for the Turks to do.
So once Erdogan—once enough time lapsed and it wasn’t going to hurt Erdogan politically, a rapprochement was clearly coming. I think that, knowing what I know about the Russians, just from what I read in the paper, it seems clear to me that they will take advantage of the situation in two ways. One, I think Putin will press the advantage that he has on Syria on the Turks, and play the Kurdish card that he also seems to have, and put pressure on Erdogan, who really has no place to go. And his inclination is to run away from the West right now, because they want to tie the United States, in particular, to Fethullah Gulen. So I think that the upcoming conversation between Putin and Erdogan is all to the advantage of Putin. And Erdogan will use it as publicly to further demonstrate, whether real or apparent, a distance between Ankara and Washington. But I’d love to have another conference call with Russia experts to tell me what the Russians are going to do with this relationship now.
Q: Mmm hmm. Thanks.
MCMAHON: Thank you, Jill. Thank you. We can fit in probably a couple more questions. Operator, is there another question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jack Aldrich with BlackRock.
Q: Hi. I was wondering if you could touch upon what the reaction has been from the world capitals to the east of Turkey. Wondering how this news has been digested in Baghdad, Damascus, the Gulf, et cetera, and what their strategic considerations might be.
COOK: Well, it’s a great question. And I can tell you, as things were unfolding on Friday night, all I wanted—the only place in the world I really wanted to be was within the suite of offices that are occupied by Egypt’s most senior generals. The chortling must have been extraordinary. There is—and that’s—what I’m saying is there’s not a lot of love lost for Erdogan in the Middle East. Up until not long ago, he had—and continues to have—difficult relations with them, and difficult relations with almost all the major countries in the region. Despite patching things up with the Saudis and the Israelis, and the Emiratis, no one really quite trusts him. In Egypt, there’s obviously—they regard Erdogan as a security threat to the country.
So I don’t think anybody would have been unhappy to have seen this coup succeed, although at the same time in a place like Qatar, where they have good relations with the Turks and there’s a Turkish base there now, it would have been a further setback for the Qataris within the region. The Saudis and the Emiratis have pursued a rapprochement with Erdogan if only because they feel that there’s no way to get any resolution to the problem of Syria without the Turks being onboard. My sense is that they calculated as the coup was unfolding that they could work with essentially anybody on that issue. I think that’s wrong, because you have the rest of the Turkish political elite, who are (Assadist ?). The Republican Peoples Party, at the outset of the conflict in Syria, sent delegations to visit Bashar al-Assad.
Here’s what I know at the best least, the very base: They regard Erdogan as an extraordinarily difficult interlocutor, and have no joy in dealing with him, and it’s very difficult for the Gulf states in particular to bring themselves—
Q: And in Iran?
COOK: I think Iran is somewhat separate. I think Erdogan uses the Iran cause as he needs to. He visits Tehran and says it feels like home when he wants to apply pressure in other places. But there’s always going to be that Iranian-Turkish kind of competition underway. But really the issue is in the Arab world and in Israel, basically, wouldn’t have been unhappy to see him go. They would have been unhappy with the consequences, however.
MCMAHON: We’re getting near the end of our call. I’d to have one more question, though. Operator, could you see if there’s another question in the queue, please?
OPERATOR: Certainly. Our next question comes from Michael Igoe with Devex.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much for squeezing me in under the wire. I appreciate it.
My question is somewhat similar to Roger’s about the business community in Turkey, though for a different audience of development professionals. Turkey has been a base of operations for a large number of NGOs and U.S. government partners and other international aid donor partners providing humanitarian relief to Syria and elsewhere in the region. Have you heard any reports or do you have any insight into how these groups’ operations might be affected by Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt? Is there any reason to expect that the crackdown might extend to international NGOs or humanitarian relief groups working from Turkey? And are there warning signs they should be watching for? Thanks.
COOK: I have not—you know, unlike Egypt, which is—whose leaders are kind of maniacally focused on NGOs and international organizations operating there, I have yet to hear the Turkish government connect Gulen to any international NGO, other than ones that were validly and openly associated with the Gulen movement. So that’s good news for those who are providing relief—providing relief to the Syrians and other humanitarian efforts. And nothing has come up since Friday that I’ve heard of. I haven’t read absolutely everything, but I imagine that this is something that would have come to my attention.
What I would look for, really, is what is being said in the Turkish press. What is being said in the pro-Erdogan press? Which is now, you know, like 80 or 85 percent of the press. But what they’re saying about international organizations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a crackdown on those organizations is in the offing. It’s just—it may, in fact, be, again, one of these things where, you know, it’s about politics. It’s about keeping our society on a war footing. It’s about connecting people to Gulen for specific political purposes rather than a coming crackdown.
But if I were you and I were your partners, I would be paying very careful attention to that because very often that’s the place where this—the government kind of throws it out there to see what’s going to happen before, you know, doing anything. But, you know, unlike other countries in the region—specifically Egypt—I have not seen the kind of crackdowns on international aid organizations and NGOs in Turkey. They’ve generally been respectful of their work.
And, after all, you have almost 3 million Syrian refugees in the country. It is taxing for the Turks. They’ve spent a lot of money. They need the help. So, of course, you know, people calculate their politics and their interests differently in crises than they would under more normal circumstances. But unless you start seeing those kinds of things happen in the press, getting warnings from people who are closely identified with the government, I would keep your heads down and continue to do the good works that you and your colleagues are doing.
MCMAHON: Well, Steven, thank you for taking us into overtime.
This concludes the Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record conference call on the ongoing situation in Turkey post-coup. There will be a transcript of this call going up, we hope, shortly—in short order on the website. You can always follow Steven, by the way, on his blog on CFR.org and, as you mentioned, a forthcoming piece on ForeignAffairs.com. He has a Washington Post piece up, and he’s writing quite a bit on this issue. So thank you all for taking part in this call, and this concludes a CFR conference call on Turkey.