The Obama White House walks a tightrope with Turkey

The Obama White House walks a tightrope with Turkey

Obama administration officials are walking a delicate tightrope with Turkey — publicly affirming their support for a NATO ally but privately cautioning Turkish officials to stop allegations that the U.S. encouraged last month’s abortive military coup.

President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior U.S. officials are said to have conveyed their concern to Turkish counterparts that the anti-American agitation puts U.S. citizens at risk in Turkey and is unacceptable. Obama and other administration officials strongly have denied any U.S. role in the unsuccessful July 15 military uprising.

Administration officials are concerned by recent polling data reporting that nearly 70 percent of Turks believe the U.S. was involved in the coup. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Turkey last week to reassure officials there; the White House is considering a fence-mending trip to Ankara by a more senior official, perhaps Vice President Joe Biden, who has tried to maintain good relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Because of concerns about security in Turkey, the State Department has canceled some research grants for Americans there, according to a story in Friday’s New York Times. The State Department has also told U.S. officials that their families and dependents can leave Turkey, if they have concerns about safety.

Beyond the short-term challenge of halting the deterioration in U.S.-Turkish relations, administration officials have several longer-term concerns about Turkey’s security, its budding rapprochement with Russia and its fragile relationship with Europe.

Security is the first worry. Erdogan’s post-coup purge of the military, police and intelligence has swept up thousands of officers and other security personnel. U.S. officials wonder how this sweeping housecleaning has affected the capacity of the military and security services at a time when Turkey faces significant terrorist threats from the Islamic State and other groups. U.S. officials wonder how damaged the military is, by both the plot and the purge, and how it will be repaired.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the Centcom commander, and other U.S. officials have noted that some of the officers arrested in the post-coup dragnet had been close partners in U.S. operations against the Islamic State in Syria, leaving a potential gap in military-to-military cooperation. But American officials are encouraged that coalition airstrikes from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey against Islamic State targets are resuming.

A second longer-term concern is Turkey’s relationship with Russia. The two nations had been feuding over the shootdown of a Russian plane last fall, but Erdogan moved to heal the breach this summer, a few weeks before the coup.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, and U.S, officials are watching this meeting carefully for signs of what’s ahead. The administration’s view is that such contacts are normal and potentially good for both countries. But because Turkey is a NATO ally, U.S. officials want to be sure that Ankara doesn’t seek to align itself with Russia and against its alliance partners.

A third worry is the future of Turkey’s complicated relationship with the European Union. The Turks and Europeans negotiated an agreement earlier this year for Turkey to limit the flow of refugees across its border into Europe, in exchange for financial assistance and the promise of visa liberalization for Turks who want to enter Europe. U.S. officials worry that the terms of this agreement are tenuous, and may be hard for either side to keep. Any attempt by the E.U. to reframe the deal could lead to its unraveling, U.S. officials fear. That could trigger a new surge of refugees into Europe, straining the political fabric there.

Turkey has alleged that the coup was masterminded by Fethulleh Gulen, a self-exiled Muslim cleric who lives in Pennsylvania; Turkish officials have demanded that the U.S. extradite him to face trial back home. Obama and Kerry have responded that the State and Justice departments will follow normal U.S. legal procedures in evaluating Turkey’s request.

The Gulen movement has been severely repressed in Turkey since the coup, with tens of thousands of arrests, and the Gulenists’ public presence appears to have been crushed. The Turkish government has also urged governments around the world to close schools and other activities of the Gulenist “Hizmet” movement, which it claims is a front for terrorist activities.

The cloud over U.S.-Turkey relations predates the coup. Erdogan has been furious that the Obama administration, in its escalating campaign against the Islamic State, backed a Syrian Kurdish militia that is allied with the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist group. That feud was patched over, so it’s possible that the two countries can live with the new tension. But if most Turks view the U.S. as an enemy of Turkish democracy, a stable friendship will be impossible.