One Year Later, Turkey’s Coup That Wasn’t Yields Strained Relations with Europe and the U.S.

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rally in Istanbul's Taksim Square in July 2016 following a failed coup

On the one-year anniversary of the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is clear that deteriorating relations with Europe and the United States are part of its legacy.

On the Turkish side, these tensions are exacerbated by a sense that Turkey’s NATO allies did not do enough to support Erdogan during and after the coup. Turkey’s ambassador to the United States said on Wednesday this lack of immediate total support was “the greatest disappointment I have ever suffered,” and expressed outrage that the U.S. State Department effectively told Ankara to exercise restraint in dealing with terrorists.

The Turkish government routinely applies the terrorist designation to exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers – indeed, their official name for Gulen’s Hizmet movement is FETO, the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. They are also prone to describing Gulenists as the “parallel state” or “parallel structure,” clearly implying they are traitors to their country.

Erdogan’s government dismisses Gulen’s protestations out of hand and has conducted a heavy-handed purge of Gulenists, which it expects Europe and the United States to assist with. European and American hesitation to hand over accused coup supporters, most notably Gulen himself, is bitterly criticized by Turkish officials. Some Turks have portrayed America’s unwillingness to extradite Gulen as evidence that the U.S. government actually supported the coup attempt.

Western criticism of the breathtaking scope of Turkey’s Gulenist purge – and suggestions Erdogan is using the coup as an excuse to consolidate power, maintain a perpetual “state of emergency,” and crush legitimate political opposition – enrages the Turkish government. It does not help that Turkish officials are fond of talking about the need to broadly suppress subversive elements, but swiftly retreat into talk of the coup and their existential struggle against Gulen’s powerful cult when accused of authoritarianism.

The July 2016 coup occurred at a time when Turkey sought membership in the European Union but bristled at European criticism of Turkish politics. Erdogan’s response to the coup has effectively ended its decade-long bid for E.U. membership.

“Everybody’s clear that, currently at least, Turkey is moving away from a European perspective,” European Commissioner Johannes Hahn said of Turkey’s application in May, putting the situation as delicately as possible. The less delicate way of describing Turkey’s status is to say that it no longer meets even the minimal qualifications for being considered a European-style democracy, even though its economy has been doing well. If there was any chance Turkey might turn away from the authoritarianism that displeased the European Union, Erdogan’s response to the coup scuttled it.

Erdogan’s successful bid for greatly enhanced powers after surviving the coup attempt increased the distance between Turkey and Europe, especially since Erdogan was very aggressive about campaigning for support among Turks living in other countries and Turkish officials lashed out with the vilest insults when European governments interfered with his plans.

Erdogan himself called the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists” when they would not allow his ministers to hold rallies among the 400,000 Turks living in the Netherlands. He also described Europe in general as “fascist and cruel” for interfering with his political agenda, and blatantly threatened to retaliate by unleashing another horde of refugees from the Middle East.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Erdogan out and told him to knock off the Nazi insults. Pro-government media in Turkey responded by dressing her up as Hitler.

Erdogan was not exactly conducting a charm offensive in the United States while he was antagonizing Europe with his remarks about a rising tide of fascism. Tensions reached a low point when Turkish security guards assaulted protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in May, leaping past astonished D.C. police officers to punch and kick male and female demonstrators alike. Turkey blasted the U.S. government for even thinking about pressing charges against the goons and blamed American authorities for not doing enough to hold the protesters at bay.

Erdogan’s foreign policy increasingly puts him at odds with the West, most seriously in the case of Syria, where Turkey has launched airstrikes and artillery barrages against forces allied with the United States. Turkey views the Kurds in particular as a strategic threat and denounces Kurdish groups allied with the U.S. as linked to the violent Kurdish PKK separatists in Turkey. The Turks are anxious to ensure the Kurds do not end up occupying strategically vital territory recaptured from the Islamic State.

Exacerbating these tensions is the fact that many high-ranking Turkish military officers who worked closely with American officers in the past were imprisoned after the coup. “Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested. There’s no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks,” former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper accurately predicted a few weeks after the coup was put down.

Turkey is also strongly supportive of Qatar in the current Gulf diplomatic crisis, where President Donald Trump has been critical of the emirate. Erdogan denounced the Saudi-led coalition’s ultimatum of thirteen demands to Qatar – one of which would require closing Turkish military bases in the country and expelling Turkey’s troops – as a violation of international law.

Erdogan proclaimed himself “disillusioned” with the United States after the coup, saying the Obama administration “failed to rise to the occasion and handle these issues seriously” when Turkey demanded Fethullah Gulen’s extradition. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, severely strained before the coup, has warmed tremendously as Erdogan grows more alienated from the U.S., European Union, and NATO.

Erdogan has expressed his appreciation for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s swift support after news of the coup broke. It has long been rumored that Russian intelligence gave Turkish officials a crucial early warning that the coup was about to be launched. Observers of a more conspiratorial mindset wonder if Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey provoked the coup, or even if Putin deliberately caused the coup as part of a scheme to break Turkey away from NATO, or perhaps helped Erdogan surreptitiously hatch the coup as a pretext for seizing more power and smashing his political opponents. Whatever the case, the past year has clearly seen Ankara growing closer to Moscow.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this week that he believes Turkey and the U.S. are “beginning to rebuild some of that trust that we lost in one another.”

“I think each meeting things are getting a little better in terms of the tone between us,” Tillerson said of his three meetings with Erdogan to date. He was, however, speaking only two weeks after Erdogan said American weapons given to the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria were likely to find their way into Turkey, and he would hold the suppliers of weapons given to “terrorist organizations” responsible.

In the year since the coup, Erdogan and his government have grown more paranoid about internal and external threats, more energetic in suppressing political dissent, and more determined to project iron strength at all times. Another 7,000 police, civil servants, and academics were fired in the latest round of purges on Friday. The distance between Turkey and the West grows as the resemblance between them fades.