By NAHAL TOOSI, Politico.eu
The Obama administration has a message for Turkey: Tone it down.
A day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed frustration that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had yet to visit his country in the wake of a failed coup attempt, a State Department official said the U.S. is increasingly concerned about the language emanating from its longtime NATO ally.
Much of that language has been deeply anti-American, with Turkish media peddling allegations that the Obama administration was behind the coup attempt and even suggesting a Washington think tank had a role in it.
Erdoğan has, to some extent, fanned the flames, while simultaneously reaching out to U.S. rival Russia, which he visited Tuesday.
“This sort of conspiracy theory, inflammatory rhetoric … is absolutely not helpful,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said during Tuesday’s daily briefing. She also told POLITICO: “We’re very focused on lowering the temperature. We understand that this was a serious situation, but at the same time the rhetoric doesn’t help advance the situation.”
Her admonition hints at growing frustration within the Obama administration over how to deal with an increasingly fickle — but still important — partner in the fight against Islamic State. It’s a frustration shared in Congress, where aides say bipartisan skepticism about Turkey’s reliability has hardened since the mid-July coup attempt.
In the weeks since the putsch, President Barack Obama and his aides have repeatedly condemned the coup plotters while also voicing concern about Erdoğan’s subsequent imprisonment and firings of tens of thousands of alleged coup sympathizers, many of them journalists and teachers. In Turkey, however, America’s balanced reaction has been taken as an insult.
“Western people should not bother about the number of people that were arrested or dismissed,” Erdoğan told France’s Le Monde, in an interview published Monday. “We are struggling against a coup attempt, against terrorists. The Western world must understand what we are dealing with.”
Too little, too late
Erdoğan also blasted the U.S. in particular for not quickly extraditing Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Muslim leader whom Turkey says masterminded the coup attempt — with some Turkish officials saying the U.S. is putting its entire relationship with their country at risk over Gülen.
In his talk with Le Monde, Erdoğan alluded to reports — which the State Department will not confirm — that Kerry will visit Turkey later this month. “It is late, too late,” he said. “This makes us sad. What more do Americans need? Their strategic ally is facing a coup and it takes them 45 days before sending anyone over? This is shocking.”
Perhaps the Turkish president’s biggest poke in the U.S.’s eye, however, was his visit Tuesday to Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has infuriated the Obama administration by militarily shoring up Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria and through its ongoing presence in Ukraine.
That Erdoğan, who has long pushed for Assad’s ouster, wants to mend fences with Putin, was a strong signal of how angry he is with the United States. Just last November, Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border, an incident that badly damaged ties between Moscow and Ankara.
Some observers said the Obama administration’s measured reaction shows it isn’t willing to be pushed around so easily.
Despite Erdoğan’s frequent complaints in the past about U.S. cooperation with Kurdish fighters battling the Assad regime in Syria, the U.S. hasn’t stopped working with those rebels. And Obama himself has warned Turkey’s leaders to stop promoting the notion that the U.S. backed the coup attempt.
“This administration already made up its mind that Erdogan needs them more than they do need him,” said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute.
Others described the administration’s response overall so far as “passive” — and said it doesn’t seem to be working well to ease the tensions.
“My guess is they’re saying, ‘Let’s be quiet. If we respond, it’ll make things worse. And we still need the Turks on Syria and other things.’ Although those other things are a mystery,” said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. uses the İncirlik military base in Turkey to help it launch airstrikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq. But it took months for Turkey to agree to let the U.S. use that base, and if Turkey decides to kick the Americans out, American officials and observers privately admit that the U.S. could rely on bases in other countries.
At the same time, if Turkey decides to lessen its cooperation with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State, it is likely to suffer more because it’s closer to the main theater of operations used by the terrorist network, which already has staged attacks in Turkey.
Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center said the coup attempt and its aftermath “are threatening to break up this ossified pattern of U.S.-Turkish relations,” which he said had long been built around the notion that Turkey was a “necessary, if undesirable partner.”
“The possibility that Erdoğan has gone too far is finally being openly discussed in Washington,” he said.
A congressional aide confirmed that unhappiness with Turkey is spreading in Congress, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers had long been alarmed about Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies. The notion that Kerry should rush to Turkey following the allegations made against the United States is absurd, the aide said.
“I’m not sure why they would send somebody to be used as press opportunity for the Turks to further berate for actions that we’re clearly not responsible for,” the aide said.
Trudeau said she had no information to offer on any potential Kerry trip to Turkey, but she also pointed out that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, did visit the country earlier this month. (A Pentagon spokeswoman also alluded to that visit, insisting high-level engagement remains robust.”)
Dunford is one of two U.S. generals named in a complaint filed by a Turkish lawyer who alleges that the U.S. military helped conspire with Turkish coup plotters.
U.S. officials also insist they cannot extradite Gülen without giving his case a proper legal review.
Some Turkish media outlets have questioned whether the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a D.C.-based think tank, was involved in the failed coup because its scholars had organized a conference in Turkey that was held the same weekend as the July 15-16 attempt to overthrow Erdoğan.
In a blog post Tuesday for the Wall Street Journal, Haleh Esfandiari, a top scholar at the center, dismissed the allegations and compared them to the types of conspiracy theories promoted by longtime U.S. nemesis Iran.
“Paranoia is spreading like a virus in the region,” she warned.