Turkey coup puts West an awkward position

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist and executive director of PS21. Views are his own. Follow him on Twitter

If exhausted and overstretched US and European officials could have done without one thing this weekend, it would have been a military coup in Turkey.

Turkey had remained relatively stable during the “Arab Spring” convulsions that have wracked the rest of the region since 2011. Indeed, its messy but in some sense is functional democracy was seen as one of the few role models for nearby states. Now, those assumptions will have to be undone.

Idiosyncratic, deeply divided and always a difficult partner, Turkey is central to the West’s strategy for dealing with a host of major crises, particularly the conflict with Islamic State and Europe’s refugee crisis. It is central to handling the war in Syria in particular and a crucial NATO ally when it comes to facing down Russia. It sits astride key energy shipment routes and is home to vital US bases.

All of those have been managed – just – with sensitive diplomacy and always potentially unstable deals. It’s whatever its feelings about a military takeover, the West will have little choice but to deal with whoever winds up in charge.

But that, of course, assumes the entire country does not collapse or erupt into conflict. For now, that remains probably unlikely – but far from unthinkable. If the coup shows nothing else, it is that the outside world is still all too often caught on the hop when countries unravel in ways that should have been predictable but were largely not seen coming.

An incomplete, failed coup could perhaps prove even more destabilizing. For now, talk of clashes in the streets and possibly between different elements of the military helps fuel a sense of chaos.

How things will play out in the coming hours and days is hard to say. Much will depend on whether the military commanders who have declared themselves in power can lock the country down. President Tayyip Erdogan remains at large – location far from clear – and has cooled for his supporters to take to the streets. With Turkish society brutally divided, some of the worst-case scenarios could be truly bleak.

Assuming the military is able to secure control, perhaps the simplest scenario might be a rough repeat of what happened in Egypt after its military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi. Then, the US – which, as in Turkey, has long had a relatively cozy relationship with the military establishment – initially protested heavily at the removal of a democratically elected government but swiftly accepted it. Military aid resumed, diplomatic relations continued and many US officials were quietly relieved at the relative return of stability.

Something similar could happen here – in fact, it seems likely that those behind Friday night’s takeover will be counting on it. Western frustration with the increasingly autocratic Erdogan has been rising for years, with growing frustration over what was seen as a trampling on human rights and free speech. His moderately Islamist AK Party was also seen tearing up what was once Turkey’s secular character [the Turkish military has long seen itself the guardian of those institutions.]

US and European governments could probably live with a military government in Turkey. For sure, it would end for now – perhaps forever – talk over the country joining the European Union. But particularly with a backlash on the continent against widespread migration, that was hardly looking likely in any case. The US will want to retain access to its base at Incirlik, the EU will be desperate to maintain the deal whereby Turkey keeps as many migrants as he can within its borders.

Depending on one’s definition, Turkey saw three or four military coups between 1960 and 1997. None of those stopped it being members of NATO. For some within the country and beyond, the periods of military rule are still regarded with affection. The situation now, however, may be much more complex than in previous eras.

Western states might hope a military government would step up its game in closing the Turkish border regions to Islamic State militants. That was something Erdogan’s government was seen reluctant to do, largely because the Turkish leader believed ousting Assad, rather than combating the militants, should be the top priority. That had begun to change in recent months, however, in part because of several brutal IS attacks within Turkey itself.

The most recent of those, a June 28 attack on Istanbul Airport, killed 45 people as well as three attackers. The risk now, however, is that public anger amongst even relatively moderate supporters of the AK Party might offer Islamic State a window to further grow its support and influence.

Analysts who follow IS and other militant Internet forums say the news from Istanbul on Friday – like the truck attack in France 24 hours earlier – was greeted enthusiastically by online supporters. If nothing else, the broader narrative of chaos, conflict and collapse is seen helping the jihadists just as they face up to losing terrain in Iraq and Syria.

That might only be the start of the problems. A more assertive military government might well also inflame conflict with ethnic Kurds and perhaps even a divided Cyprus, where the prospect of offshore gas exploitation has already been quietly ramping up tensions. Then there is the always messy relationship between Turkey and Russia, made more difficult in the last two years by Moscow’s military activities in Syria.

Even if things do calm down quickly, 2016 already looks to be taking its place as a historic year of instability. And with more than five months left to run, officials in Washington, Whitehall, Moscow and beyond will be nervously asking themselves what comes next.

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