By Ahmet S. Yayla and Anne Speckhard
Barely ten days after a coup failed to oust him from power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been fomenting anti-U.S. sentiment as part of efforts to whip up strong nationalistic sentiment against largely invisible enemies. On July 25, 2016, Yeni Şafak, a major conservative Turkish newspaper and mouthpiece of Erdoğan’s government, ran a picture of U.S. General John. F. Campbell with this headline: “This man led the coup.”
Prior to that the government claimed that Fethullah Gülen had orchestrated the coup. A moderate Turkish Islamic scholar and cleric, Gülen had spoken out bravely against the Islamic State at a time when most in the Turkish government were turning a blind eye. Gülen presently lives in Pennsylvania and has denied involvement in the coup while condemning it. Key U.S. officials have questioned the credibility of Turkish claims, and have refused to extradite Gülen without strong evidence. Gülen and others have in turn cast suspicion on Erdoğan; German magazine Focus reported that texts and emails intercepted by British intelligence showed Turkish government leaders colluding to frame Gülen in the first moments of the coup.
Now, it seems that the pro-Erdoğan media has decided that the United States is also a threat to their “democracy.” Besides accusing General Campbell, Yeni Şafak quotes Turkish “high level government officers” stating that the CIA was likewise involved in backing the coup plotters. This is a major and dangerous escalation in anti-U.S. rhetoric that endangers the significant number of U.S. citizens based in Turkey, which include embassy and military staff, and U.S. businesses. Only last week, a U.S. fire chief working at the Turkish Incirlik airbase fell or was pushed to his death under suspicious circumstances. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the death.
The actions of the Turkish government in fanning the flames of anti-U.S. rhetoric is reminiscent of what happened in Iran in 1979, before the U.S. Embassy was overrun by angry demonstrators. Inciting anger and violence to deflect blame, and creating a common external enemy, are common tactics that have always been used by politicians, authoritarian leaders, and dictators. For Erdoğan, coalescing popular support in such a way is a simple enough thing to do, especially since he controls all the media in the country. This is not the first time he has manipulated fears. Over the past year, Erdoğan has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to gain concessions from the European Union.
Apart from inciting Turks to violence, an unprecedented wave of arrests of police, judges and military, including those involved in counter-terrorism efforts, has dealt a critical blow to security. As part of the government’s three-month state of emergency, those targeted also include professors, judges, and other civil servants, not least of which were military cadets as young as 14 years old. Government figures admit to only 13,000 arrests, although actual numbers are likely far higher. The horrific human rights abuses committed against those arrested are another feature of Erdoğan’s new despotic rule. Amnesty International reported that detainees were held in stress positions for prolonged periods, denied food, water and medical treatment, beaten, tortured, verbally abused, and even raped.
The state purge allows Erdoğan to centralize state powers to himself, and has alarmed fellow NATO members and Western leaders. Erdoğan claims that the arrests are necessary to protect Turkey’s democracy from threats within and outside of the country. His actions damage an important relationship with the U.S., and further isolates Turkey, a formerly key NATO member, from the international community. More importantly, the Islamic State may exploit this moment of weakness to strike at U.S. personnel based in Turkey. Islamic State defectors we interviewed over the past nine months speak of Erdoğan’s government allowing Islamic State to resupply in Turkey and Islamic State recruits and cadres to cross into and out of Syria via Turkey.
Erdoğan is engaging in a treacherous game and playing with fire in a region that is already dangerously explosive. Already Erdoğan has withheld electricity to the strategic U.S. Incirlik airbase, ostensibly for security reasons, but more likely as a warning to the U.S. Although electricity has since been restored, a senior military officer stated such disruptions may not be over. If left unchecked, such actions by Erdoğan will hand victory to the Islamic State, especially if important air bases are not able to continue coalition air support to Kurdish fighters. Based on our own daily monitoring of Islamic State communications through the mobile app Telegram, in the two days when coalition forces’ airplanes were grounded due to the flight ban on Incirlik, about 400 members of the Kurdish militia have already been killed.
The generals who have not been arrested are pro-Russian, and the Saudis have pledged support to Erdoğan. We may see Turkey increasingly pivoting toward Saudi hardline Salafism while Gülen’s more moderate schools are all shut down—giving a stronger foothold to Islamic State recruiters among Turkey’s youth. Likewise, Russia may see a partnership with a full NATO member with veto power as useful to their strategic global aims.
Erdoğan has gotten away with taking over the press, and even now continues to consolidate his power. There may be little we can do about it, but one of the first steps is to find effective ways to ensure greater transparency of media coverage inside Turkey. Ordinary Turks need to have access to the truth, and perhaps only then can they dare to defy an increasingly repressive regime. Western policy makers need to formulate the right combination of disincentives and incentives to deal with Erdoğan, a man well on the way to becoming an anti-American despotic dictator.
Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is co-author with Anne Speckhard of the just released book, ISIS Defectors: Inside the Terrorist Caliphate. He is Deputy Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police and has a 20-year career interviewing terrorists. He is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University and formerly served as Professor and the Chair of the Sociology Department at Harran University in Turkey.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She is author of the books Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and co-author of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters around the world.
[Photo courtesy of Secretary of Defense]