Has anyone ever been as preternaturally well prepared for a coup as Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have been in the last 24 hours?
The key to understanding what just happened is the handful of things Erdogan did, immediately, that he didn’t have to do, as a response to a coup attempt by the military.
Until a few hours ago, we might have thought the prompt detention of more than 2,700 judges and prosecutors in the Turkish judicial system was chief among those. That’s a lot of judges and prosecutors to run out and arrest right away – within hours – after a coup planned by a rogue element in the military. It sure looks like someone was just waiting to execute an order on that one.
But the picture is clearer now. And it’s obvious that the most important thing Erdogan did was allow one of the government’s ministers to blame the United States for the coup attempt.
Erdogan’s corollary (not premise; corollary) to that completely unnecessary move has been that the shadowy Islamist cleric Fetulleh Gulen is behind the attempt (a proposition that looks iffy, at best), and the U.S., where Gulen has taken refuge, needs to turn him over to Turkey at once, or risk Turkey’s wrath.
Erdogan is using that corollary now as a justification to shut down operations at Incirlik Air Base, from which U.S. and Coalition warplanes fly for ops against ISIS in Syria.
But that’s not his major objective, or his biggest concern. Erdogan doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about ISIS, which is useful to him but far from essential. He wouldn’t issue ultimatums to Obama as a way of shielding ISIS.
No, Erdogan’s biggest concern is something hardly anyone noticed on this side of the Atlantic in the past week. It really matters that the “something” changes everything, from Erdogan’s point of view. As our vice president might say, it really effing matters.
That something is the disclosure that Obama is seriously planning to subordinate U.S. operations in Syria to Russia’s leadership.
That’s a huge move – a break with 70 years of policy and the underlying premise of NATO. (It’s a break with the Truman Doctrine, for that matter.) Obama can’t just do that without consequences. And Erdogan’s over-the-top reaction to the coup attempt on Friday is the first one.
I’m going to sit out the debate over whether Erdogan himself engineered the coup, as a sort of Reichstag fire. It’s not impossible, and it would be a very Ottoman-Turkish thing to do. But it doesn’t really matter. The coup could have been a window of opportunity Erdogan had reason to expect, even if he didn’t plan it himself. (And it’s not new information about his intentions, if it was Erdogan’s “Reichstag fire.”)
What matters is what Erdogan chose to do to exploit the situation – which clearly is what he’s doing, by rushing to blame the U.S. and open up a rift with us unnecessarily.
Erdogan is opening that rift because he wants to. Not because it’s necessary as a reaction to the coup attempt. And the reason he wants to is that the partnership with the U.S., for addressing the outcomes in Syria and Iraq, isn’t working for Erdogan’s Turkey anymore.
The Obama legacy: With weakness comes loss of usefulness
There’ve been two core reasons for Turkey to actively work with the U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq. One is that, until a short time ago, the U.S. was the principal patron of the Kurds. Working with us gave Turkey visibility and some semblance of a vote on how the Kurds were being empowered across the territory they want to establish “Kurdistan” on.
The other reason was that working with the U.S. made Turkey part of an armed effort in Syria and Iraq that was separate and independent from Russia’s effort. The U.S.-led Coalition was a counterweight to the Russia-Iran axis.
Turkey, being Turkey, didn’t want to cold-shoulder Russia so much as have a foot in each effort. Russia is a very inconvenient bad neighbor. Better to keep avenues open with her and be in a constant state of negotiation – especially if you’ve got an independent outside patron like the United States to strengthen your hand.
In the last few months, Russia has made Turkey pay dearly for maintaining that dynamic equilibrium. Turkey’s hope of still having cards to play lay in the utility of her alliance with the U.S.
But recent events have undercut both of the main reasons why that alliance was to Turkey’s advantage. One thread is the U.S. weakness that has Obama ready to let Russia dictate the terms for our military operations in Syria.
The other is a trend even less noticed in America: the increasing – and increasingly public – patronage of Russia in the Kurds’ fight for an independent state. (An Arab diplomat complained in May that Russia is actually supplanting the U.S. as the Kurds’ main patron.)
I beg you to try to “get it” here. None of this, for the regional players, is about loving freedom or caring about anyone’s welfare. Russia hasn’t suddenly become a champion of Kurdish independence. The world in which those factors defined international relations is gone. They are intrinsically important and meaningful, to be sure. But dominant American power was the only thing that made their ascendance possible. (I fear that deluded populations celebrating their “people power” will soon be finding that out in ugly and terrifying ways.)
Rather, arming the Kurds – which is why the Kurds are turning to Moscow – is a way of having Russian hooks in every player in the game. It’s a way of setting a pincer around Turkey. It’s a way of sitting athwart the territorial line of sensitivity between Turkey and Iran, where the Kurdish question will be decisive. It’s a way of setting Russia up as the main broker of every active faction in her near abroad.
For the Kurds, it’s a way of getting arms delivered to them, instead of to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. That’s been the big drawback with U.S. patronage. The U.S.-Gulf coalition supporting the Haider government has been reluctant to provide the most-needed weapons directly to the Kurds. But Russia isn’t.
Having Russia become a major, direct patron of the Kurds, and get a writ of submission from Obama on Syria, is too much for Turkey to sit still for.
The larger NATO alliance hasn’t been of any help on this matter. In fact, Turkey and Germany have been nursing a big rift of their own in the last few weeks – one over which Germany is now threatening to withdraw her anti-ISIS forces from Turkey. That’s a Big Effing Deal in itself, and is integrally related to Erdogan’s decisions in the last week.
A breaking point for Turkey – and NATO
For reasons Turkey can’t just pick up and move away from, the situation with Obama’s Coalition has become untenable. It’s committing Turkey, de facto, to things she can’t let herself be bound to.
This is a breaking point for Turkey – and it would have been, even if Erdogan weren’t in the driver’s seat there. It might have been handled differently, but it would still be a watershed. Being stuck with the U.S.-NATO status quo has become unacceptable, for reasons explained by history and the map. The status quo leaves Turkey increasingly at Russia’s mercy. Saving NATO isn’t as important now as charting a new course, even though that course will be disruptive.
Regarding the course, we can expect it to have radical elements. Erdogan isn’t just reacting as a frustrated Turk to a worsening situation. He has a radical agenda in view: his own vision for a restored Ottoman caliphate. He’s made a very big decision here, not just to forego the NATO status quo, but to embrace liberation from the constraints of the past. This is a jolt forward, like being connected to the next track on a roller coaster – even if we don’t see much action at the beginning.
In a formal sense, the mechanisms of NATO aren’t going to collapse overnight. But this 24 hours’ work sounds the death knell for the alliance in its 1949-2016 incarnation. There will probably be a period of shuttle diplomacy and closed-door consultations, and some sort of agreement-to-keep-talking that allows the Atlantic alliance to avoid too abrupt a public crack-up.
But the bottom line – the ugly truth – is that in the situation as it is, NATO doesn’t have a way to pay the price Turkey would exact, to affirm solidarity and keep going on the same basis as before.
My sense is that more people are ready to see these realities now than were a few years ago. As shibboleths collapse around us, people are at least readier to accept that it’s possible big pillars of order can really break up. With Erdogan’s excellent adventure, NATO has encountered the problem it can’t handle, at least not in its current incarnation. This existential challenge for the alliance is real, and the pendulum is not going to start swinging the other way. From here, the only path goes forward.