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Middle East policy takes a dangerous wobble

By Jacinta Carroll

 As reports came through of a coup in Turkey, John Kerry called for stability, peace and continuity in this key NATO ally. 

Kerry’s low-key and cautious statement belies the serious concern this incident raises for Turkey’s other NATO partners, as well as all those involved in the coalition operations in Syria and Iraq. 

For Turkey is central to security and stability not only in Europe, but around the world.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported the US undertook substantial negotiations with Turkey in May to get Turkish support for US, Arab Kurdish forces to retake Manbij in Syria. Turkish sensitivities surrounding Syria, the border area, and the Kurds were such that the US had to make a number of concessions, including that the liberated city would be Arab—not Kurdish—controlled.

Turkey’s agreement to support the Manbij offensive was the latest signal of a long-hoped for change in Turkey’s sometimes contradictory approach to Syria. 

In July 2015, following intense negotiations, Turkey agreed to base US forces from its southern airbases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir, critical to coalition operations in Syria. 

The same negotiations brought Turkish agreement to focus on fighting ISIL, rather than letting foreign fighters cross its border into Syria, and at times allegedly attacking Kurdish elements on the border under the guise of fighting ISIL.

And on the humanitarian front, as Europe has reeled from the impact of refugees from Syria’s war, it has been Turkey that has sheltered more than any, and currently hosts than two million.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency had appeared to bring much-needed stability to Turkey. He had served as Prime Minister before being elected as President and was re-elected last November. 

But his rule has also been smattered with indications of autocracy: journalists jailed and others in exile; operations against Turkey’s Kurds recommencing in the eastern and southern states. 

But it is the reemergence of religion in Turkish politics that appears to have pushed internal divisions to breaking point.

This is where the military comes in.

The Turkish Armed Forces was established as a central part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular new Turkish nation, established in 1923.

Since then, it has intervened on three occasions—1960, 1971 and 1980—to overthrow the government when coup leaders considered it to be failing the secular vision of Ataturk’s state. After the 1960 coup, the military government affirmed in law its role to safeguard the state and the constitution. And the military has continued to be an influential player behind the scenes: successfully agitating for the removal of the ‘Islamist’ Prime Minister Erbakan in 1997, and asserting during the 2007 elections its right to intervene if Turkey’s secularism was threatened. 

In addition to overt political actions, the military has been accused of conspiracy, with a series of unsuccessful court cases alleging senior military and security officials being involved in a secret nationalist organization ‘Ergenekon’. 

While the attempted coup has failed, it will have serious consequences for the Turkish military. 

For his own survival, Erdoğan needed to respond quickly and strongly, which he has done. 

But he has warned of harsh reprisals for those responsible, threatening to ‘cleanse the military’. 

While this will shore up his political hold over the country and thereby go some way to providing the stability Kerry and others are looking for, it remains to be seen how this will flow into Turkey’s foreign relations including critically, its defence partnerships. 

The US has found it easier to engage with Turkey’s military rather than politicians and will be looking closely to who will be staying and going after the purge is completed.

If Erdogan stays the current course, maintaining its existing arrangements to support operations in Syria and to fight ISIL, we can expect foreign relations to eventually return to their current state. If not, we will likely see the US engage firmly with its partner to shore up its support. The US will particularly keen to ensure that Erdoğan’s military ‘purge’ doesn’t remove the capability needed to manage operations on Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria.

There is some good news for Turkey’s neighbours in Europe as an Erdoğan government is more likely than the military to continue to bear the brunt of the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis.

But the attempted coup has been a wake-up call to all on the substantial divisions within Turkey. Its military partners and neighbours will continue to keep a close eye on Turkey’s domestic politics, while keeping the pressure on Turkey to make good with its promises.

Jacinta Carroll is senior analyst and Head, Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published: Sunday Telegraph. 17 July 2016