As Turkish President Erdogan desperately awaits President Biden’s call, it remains to be seen if Biden will be able or even willing to work through the numerous issues currently straining bilateral relations. Over the last couple of years, the tension between the US and Turkey has remained high due to significant disagreements over the US’s Kurdish allies in Syria, Turkey’s aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the issue of S-400 missiles. Experts on US-Turkey relations urge both countries to resolve each individual problem to put relations back on track. But these experts do not pay adequate attention to the underlying reasons that led to these particular issues in Turkish foreign policy. The current disagreements are, in fact, symptoms of a larger problem related to a recent fundamental shift in the balance of power in domestic politics in Turkey.
One of the most impactful incidents that has given rise to such a shift is the so-called attempted coup on July 15, 2016. It is still uncertain whether a “coup” even accurately captures the July 15 incident. An increasing number of journalists, former officers and scholars question irregularities on the day. Some, including well-known academics, even argue that it was a false flag operation. Notwithstanding that debate, many agree that July 15 was a “gift from God” for Erdogan because it offered him a golden opportunity to purge anybody he thought may not be loyal to his one-man rule. Judges, teachers, doctors, diplomats, and those from many other occupations were purged in Erdogan’s witch hunt.
Along with civilians, officers have been the group most impacted by this purge. Thousands of junior and mid-level officers in Turkey as well as staff officers who were deployed in NATO headquarters in Europe and the US have been dismissed from their job. In addition to officers who were actively deployed, officers receiving graduate education in the US — including myself as a former first lieutenant — and those in European countries have also been sacked from our jobs.
Initially, those of us posted to the US or Europe were recalled home on short notice. Some who complied with the recall order returned and were immediately arrested, such as Cafer Topkaya, who was working in the NATO headquarter in Brussels and was later jailed for more than 16 months upon his return to Turkey. The vast majority of officers — including myself — didn’t return home due to the significant risk of persecution. When we didn’t return to Turkey, many of us were dismissed collectively in a series of executive decrees.
The vast majority of officers – including myself – didn’t return home due to the significant risk of persecution. When we didn’t return to Turkey, many of us were dismissed collectively in a series of executive decrees.
Many of the officers studying in American and European universities were originally sent to be equipped with a Western education that could contribute to the professionalization of the Turkish military as well as imbue the military education system with Western principles. As a result, a common characteristic of these purged officers, particularly those in the US and Europe, was their adoption of a Western-oriented stance in the military, meaning they believed that Turkey’s strategic interests lay in solid relations with the US and NATO. These officers also opposed the idea of following an aggressive foreign policy that would undermine Turkey’s relations with NATO and the West.
In addition to junior and mid-level officers, many senior officers, particularly generals, were dismissed by these executive decrees. Almost half of the generals of the Turkish military were sacked as part of this purge. Similar to junior and mid-level officers, these generals were also advocates of deeper relations with NATO and the US, and opposed the idea of rapprochement with Russia and an aggressive foreign policy that would undermine Turkey’s relations with the West. Take Akin Ozturk, for example. He was a former head of the Turkish Air Force and known as a strong opponent of military intervention in Syria. His close aide, former Major Ibrahim Kocaman, who was also working at the NATO headquarters in Brussels when he has been dismissed from his job due to the purge, recounts in one of his speeches that Ozturk said, “I would have been called a traitor if Turkey was militarily involved in the civil war in Syria.” Ozturk’s prediction came true. Immediately after July 15, he was declared the head of the “coup plotters” and charged with treason, although he was spending time with his grandkids in his daughter’s home while the “coup” was underway. He was later severely tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment. Another Western-oriented four-star-general who had similar opinions to Ozturk concerning the Syria intervention was Adem Huduti. He was also sacked from his job and sentenced to a 15-year imprisonment.
The elimination of these Western-oriented officers has allowed Erdogan to implement his aggressive policies outside of Turkish borders. It is widely known that these officers restrained Erdogan’s foreign policy to prevent Erdogan from involving the military in the war in Syria. Furthermore, since these officers also opposed rapprochement with Russia because it threatened to undermine Turkey’s relations with NATO and the West, Erdogan wasn’t able to develop close ties with Putin.
Why Erdogan has unleashed his desire to follow more aggressive foreign policy after the July 15 incident partly lies in the answers to who replaced the purged officers. When these officers were brutally purged from the military, Erdogan replaced them with those much more loyal to him, as well as to his new domestic partners. These new partners are the head of the far-right nationalist party, Devlet Bahceli and Dogu Perincek, an ultra-secularist and advocate of strong relations between Turkey and Russia. Both advocate for policies that may further strain Turkey’s ties with the West. For instance, Bahceli said, “It won’t be the end of the world if Turkey is not a member of NATO.” Perincek, in one of his campaign rally speeches before the presidential election in 2018, said they would end Turkey’s NATO membership and have Turkey become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Thus, Erdogan’s new alliance and a lack of opposition from the military has granted Erdogan considerable leeway to pursue an aggressive foreign policy.
Indeed, before the July 15 incident, Turkey rarely resorted to military force and made unilateral moves in the foreign policy realm. Immediately after, in August 2016, Turkey started its series of military operations in Syria. In late 2017, Turkey signed the S-400 deal with Russia. In late 2019, Turkey signed the unilateral maritime agreement with Libya, and the Turkish military conducted a military incursion into northern Syria, where the US’s Kurdish ally, the YPG, operates.
At the end of the day, the US and Turkey may find a middle ground to discuss these issues and keep the diplomatic channels open. The recent meeting between Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicates that. However, the cost of dealing with the international crises caused by Turkey’s unilateral foreign policy is getting higher for the US and NATO. Rather than being stuck in resolving individual issues, focusing on Erdogan’s domestic coalition with Eurasianists and far-right nationalists would help President Biden and his foreign policy team to diagnose the source of the individual crises between the two countries. Consequently, the US will need domestic actors in Turkey to balance Erdogan’s foreign policy ambitions and unilateral moves, suggesting that it may be in Biden’s interest to support Turkey’s increasingly popular opposition parties.
While ending decades-long military tutelage would be good news for Turkish democracy, totally eliminating the people in its ranks that would restrain Erdogan’s ambitions would enable Erdogan to initiate even more foreign policy misadventures. Thus, for the US to keep its alliance with Turkey strong, Biden should encourage Erdogan to embrace the dissent in his military’s ranks and recognize that change in Turkey’s foreign policy abroad will be achieved first and foremost by those crafting it at home.
Mustafa Kirisci is a professor of political science at Chatham University. He specializes in terrorism, civil-military relations, international relations, civil conflict. His published works appear in Government and Opposition, International Negotiation, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Political Violence @ a Glance.