What is going on in Turkey right now reminds me very much of the last few scenes in the first Godfather movie, where Michael Corleone is settling all of the Family’s outstanding business. Corleone is seen in church renouncing “Satan and all his works” while he participates in the baptism of his nephew—shortly before garroting the baby’s father, Carl.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is certainly cleaning house. He has used last month’s failed coup attempt as an excuse to eliminate all his political opponents in the government and military bureaucracies, and he has now begun work on cleaning out the universities and the state schools. There have also been more arrests in the already-shackled media, including of senior editors. By some estimates, upward of 40,000 Turks have been arrested, while twice that many more have lost their jobs, and there are reports that the country’s prisons are being emptied of criminals to make room for the new arrivals. There is talk of bringing back the death penalty for those convicted of “treason” in the conspiracy to overthrow the government.
What do we now know for sure about the coup? It was indeed an attempt to overthrow the Erdogan government, possibly including plans to kill the president. It included some air force, army, and paramilitary police units but did not have the support of the major army commands. In my opinion and that of many others, Erdogan clearly had some prior knowledge that it was coming, as he was already preparing to arrest 3,000 military personnel. The news of the impending arrests reportedly forced the plotters to move more quickly, which took Erdogan by surprise, but he managed to rally his supporters, and the coup was put down with fewer than 300 deaths.
Arrests began immediately, with 12,000 detained within 24 hours, suggesting strongly that a list of suspects had been prepared in advance. Erdogan has, politically speaking, been the main beneficiary of the event. He has obtained emergency powers from parliament and is well-placed to be granted permanent unitary executive authority, which will weaken any and all checks and balances in the Turkish constitution—and ultimately benefit both him and his AKP party.
Erdogan and his supporters immediately blamed an opponent, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and has plausibly been linked to the CIA. Gulen heads a movement called Hizmet, meaning “Service,” which has sometimes been likened to a cult. It allegedly includes many military and police officers, judges, and teachers. In my opinion, the clout of Gulen should not be minimized, but the idea that he could or would arrange a coup is a bit of a stretch. The military had plenty of reasons to loathe Erdogan without Gulen’s assistance, most notably the then-prime minister’s holding of a show trial that convicted 330 senior officers back in 2012 without producing much in the way of evidence.
Turkish media, following directions from the government, have also declared that Washington was involved, a viewpoint shared by none other than Zbigniew Brzezinski. The White House has strenuously denied any connection to the coup, and it defies all reason to suggest that the basically timid Obama administration would back a military coup to overthrow the elected government of a NATO member state. If such a coup were attempted and it were to leak, as it surely would, it would mean the end of NATO, a turn that would please many of us but is anathema to the establishment that the White House represents.
The innuendo coming out of Turkey, orchestrated both by government spokesmen and by the tame, officially controlled media, has convinced a majority of Turks that Washington was behind Gulen and also supported the coup attempt. Visits from high-level officials, including U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and more recently Vice President Joe Biden, have been intended to calm the situation, as has a private meeting between Erdogan and Obama on Sunday, but the Turkish president believes he has the winning hand, and he is not interested in hearing platitudes or making concessions. The longer the issue remains at a boil, the more his hand at home is strengthened, as he can always claim that he is being bullied by Washington.
It is clear that some in Washington see Turkey as essential to the “war on ISIS.” Others are inclined to be skeptical, noting that Turkey has been playing both sides of the conflict in Syria, while its role in NATO is much diminished in an alliance that has largely lost its raison d’être. It also might be observed that Turkey has long pursued its own interests, buying Iranian oil when that country was subject to sanctions and more recently assisting ISIS more than opposing it. Understanding that, the Turkish government’s oft-repeated assertion that the U.S.-supported Kurdish militias in Syria are connected to the insurgent PKK inside Turkey and are terrorists as much as ISIS should have been setting off warning bells in the Pentagon and also at CIA.
All of which leads one to question how the White House managed to get into its current contretemps with Erdogan. The Turkish president clearly couldn’t have cared less about what the White House wanted when he recently made the decision to invade northern Syria. Joe Biden arrived in Ankara as the attack was beginning, a clear signal that Erdogan considered coordination with its American ally an irrelevancy. Biden dutifully supported the offensive and also committed to keeping the Kurdish militias behind the Euphrates in deference to Turkish sensitivities, but it was all political theater. Erdogan’s main target in Syria was never ISIS at all. Political Kurdistan, represented by America’s Kurdish allies, is and always will be enemy number one for Erdogan, for the very sensible reason that a newly created Kurdish state would inevitably obtain a large part of its population and territory from Turkey.
The Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield on the border region on August 24, initially rolling over the town of Jarabulus, which was reportedly controlled by ISIS. The army units were aided by militiamen from the CIA-trained Sultan Murad Brigade. The U.S. had been discussing a cross-border operation with Ankara since 2015, but, uninformed of the impending assault, the embassy as well as Biden were taken by surprise when the Turks actually moved into Syria. Washington belatedly provided limited air support, which terminated when the Turkish army drove south into Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled territory and the true objective of the incursion became clear.
What followed was Washington’s latest nightmare. Two groups of rebel fighters supported and trained by the U.S., the Kurdish YPG and the Sultan Murads, wound up shooting each other. The Turks are clearly trying to carve out a “safe” or buffer zone all along its border with Syria, which will be both ISIS- and Kurd-free, a task that they are describing as “cleansing” the area. How they expect to maintain that and repopulate it without Kurds is unclear, and the danger that embedded U.S. advisors will be killed in the process has preoccupied the Pentagon. The White House is now calling the Turkish incursion and its cleansing of Kurds “unacceptable” and a “source of deep concern,” but it is wrapping its complaints in a broader critique that the internal fighting is not helpful in the war against ISIS, which means that it is essential toothless.
There is, of course, no solution to the Syrian farrago short of the obvious way out: working with genuinely committed players who actually have skin in the game to end ISIS and stabilize the political situation. That would mean cooperating with al-Assad, Russia, and the Iranians. The Turkish incursion into Syria demonstrates that a capable army well-supported can mop the floor with a debilitated ISIS, but the politics of the situation mean that eliminating the terrorist group has become secondary to other, unstated objectives. As President Erdogan has made clear that he will unhesitatingly do what will sell well with the Turkish public, his turning on the Kurds as enemy number one should not surprise anyone, yet Washington is consistently caught flat-footed by what should be obvious to any competent observer.
And the White House is not the only party that is clueless. Hillary Clinton is likely to be the next president and is dedicated to confronting ISIS, Russia, Iran, and al-Assad simultaneously, so the prospects for pulling together any viable coalition to end the bloodshed do not look good.
* Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.