The EU and US are paying dearly for their slow reaction to the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15. Turkish commentators this week have started accusing the White House and Brussels of wanting to see the coup succeed, not without a grain of truth, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the excuse of the coup to start a political pogrom and clean out his main opponents, both real and perceived. The lasting result of this diplomatic failure is it will drive Ankara into Moscow’s arms.
“Is Brussels asleep, or just ignorant? That’s the question being asked after European leaders responded tepidly to the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15,” former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt asked in an opinion piece this week. “The EU would be in a far better position today if EU leaders had gone to Turkey immediately to express their horror at the coup, congratulate the people of Turkey for defeating it and sit down with the President, the government, the leaders in the Grand National Assembly and others to discuss how to collectively ensure a democratic and European path for Turkey.”
Instead of standing by what remains a secular Muslim country on the edge of the Middle East and a key Nato ally in the region, the reaction of the EU has largely been one of condemnation for the heavy-handed response to the coup, which so far has led to tens of thousands of arrests and sackings.
Anti-American sentiment has always been close to the surface in Turkey and is now already bubbling up again. Only 29% of Turks approve of the US, according to the last Pew Research Global Attitudes survey and that is one of the highest ratings the country has enjoyed in the last decade. And the White House’s lack of quick action has undermined confidence in the US’ sincerity in its support for Erdogan.
Even after two weeks, instead of congratulating Turkey for surviving its near miss, Europe continues to ramp up the rhetoric. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel accused Turkey of “visa blackmail” on August 1 after the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at the weekend that the deal to stem the flow of refugees into Europe would be over unless the EU delivers on its promise of visa free travel. Gabriel said a visa free regime would only be possible “after Ankara meets European standards”.
“The fact that free visa is only going to be granted when Turkey meets the appropriate European standards is not going to change. And that is not happening at the moment,” he declared, adding: “It is up to Turkey if there is or there isn’t visa liberalisation. Europe should under no circumstances be blackmailed.”
As the mood becomes distinctly acid, Turkey’s politicians suspect that the West is simply playing games. A few days after the coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s close adviser Ibrahim Kalin responded to Western criticism of the government’s counter-actions by tweeting: “Had the coup succeeded, you would have supported it, like in Egypt. You don’t know this nation but they know you.”
The Turkish press have since ratcheted up the rhetoric with banner headlines that flat out accuse the US State Department of colluding with the coup plotters to bring Erdogan’s government down. According to one recent poll, 69% of Turks think the CIA was involved in the plot. The speculation has become so loud in the last week that President Barack Obama has been forced to publicly deny trying to topple the government of a Nato ally.
“[The West’s] reaction on the night of the coup was too little, too late - with Turks having to wait hours for a credible response from the White House, and the EU, et al. I don't care if it was late on Friday night (not in the US) - this is a key NATO ally, get policy makers out of bed,” Tim Ash, head of CEEMA research at Nomura, said in an emailed note. “And then since then the West has been lecturing Turkey, and applying double standards (as ever) - if we had stood with/by Turks on the night of the coup I think we would have had more leverage to manage the post coup environment in Turkey. Instead, Erdogan and Turks are now - disastrously for the West - looking to Putin, and Moscow.”
Anti-US sentiment is strong in Turkey’s neck of the woods and is set to grow after the government lambasted Washington for harbouring the man it claims masterminded the coup attempt. Erdogan has blamed his nemesis, Muslim cleric and one-time ally Fethullah Gulen of organising the coup, and has demanded the US extradite him from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
So far Washington has refused, demanding concrete evidence of Gulen’s complicity first, which has unleashed a backlash that could permanently damage relations. As Gulen is widely seen by the population to be the mastermind of the coup, the US' refusal to extradite him will be seen by many as an admission of US complicity in the coup attempt.
Erdogan is due to travel to Moscow later this month where he is expected to cosy up to the Kremlin, in part to repair some of the economic damage Russian sanctions have caused imposed after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber last year. But the trip is also clearly designed to poke a finger in the eye of both the US and Europe, which has made it clear recently Turkey’s EU aspirations are dead.
Only 29% of Turks approve of the US, according to the most recent Pew Research Global Attitudes survey. That groups Turkey with other countries in the region including Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon that see the US in an equally poor light. And Erdogan will be welcomed in Russia where 81% of Russian disapprove of the US vs 15% that approve. Only the Jordanians hate the US more (83% vs 14%).
The irony is that the dislike is reciprocated. In theory Turkey should made a good ally for the West in a crucial and unstable region. In practice too many Western politicians are simply too uncomfortable with the idea of Turkey as a close ally to give it the support it should be entitled to.
“In the end I think Western prejudices against Turkey, and RTE in particular, have come to the fore - some Western policy makers I think secretly (or not so much) would have rather liked to be dealing with a new regime in Turkey. And that's the crux of the problem,” says Ash.