Relations between the U.S. and Turkey, allies since the aftermath of World War II, have soured in the 15 months since an attempted coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s leader continues to blame the putsch on a self-exiled cleric based in the U.S., Fethullah Gulen, whom the U.S. has so far refused to extradite. Further increasing tensions, the U.S. and Turkey are at odds over the war in Syria. This backdrop may help explain why the arrest of a U.S. consular employee in Turkey, on charges of involvement in the coup attempt, blew up so quickly into a major diplomatic rift, with the two nations suspending visa services for each other’s citizens, sending Turkish financial markets plunging.
1. Why is the coup attempt coming up now?
For Erdogan, the events of July 15-16, 2016, are an open sore. The insurrection shook his government. It was put down only after parliament in Ankara came under bombardment, tanks rolled through the streets of major cities, and some 250 people were killed. Turkey blamed the putsch on Gulen followers, saying they’d infiltrated the military and civilian administration. Its efforts over the past 15 months to get him extradited from the U.S. have come to nothing. U.S. officials say the evidence against Gulen, who lives in a compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, is insufficient.
2. Does Turkey hold the U.S. responsible?
Officials in Erdogan’s government have hinted at U.S. involvement in the coup attempt, and one cabinet minister made the accusation openly. Washington has denied knowing anything about it. But in Turkish eyes, the failure to extradite Gulen, despite repeated requests to do so, amounts to less-than-wholehearted support for a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that was the target of a violent insurrection. When Turkey launched a sweeping purge in response, arresting or firing tens of thousands of people, it came under heavy criticism by Western governments, including that of then U.S. President Barack Obama, adding to the estrangement. Some U.S. citizens were caught up in the crackdown.
3. Have things changed under Donald Trump’s presidency?
On the surface, relations seemed to have improved. The two presidents met in New York last month, and Trump said Erdogan “is becoming a friend of mine” and “getting very high marks.” But the current standoff suggests that underlying differences between the countries haven’t been resolved.
4. What are the divisions over Syria?
Under Obama, the U.S. decided that its most reliable ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria was a Kurdish-led militia. It provided extensive support to the group, including air support during clashes. Turkey lobbied hard against that alliance, because the Syrian Kurds have links with a rebel Kurdish group that’s fighting for autonomy inside Turkey — and is classified as terrorist, by the U.S. as well as Erdogan’s government. Turkey called on Trump to reverse Obama’s policy. Instead he doubled down, deciding to directly arm the Syrian Kurds. Turkey forces have attacked the American-backed Kurds in Syria.
5. Is Turkey looking elsewhere for allies?
There are signs of a deepening alliance between Turkey and Russia, even though they’ve been on opposite sides of the Syrian war, and were at loggerheads just a couple of years ago when Turkey shot down a Russian plane it said was in its airspace. Now, Erdogan is on board with a Russian-Iranian plan to bring a cease-fire between government and rebel forces to four areas in Syria, and says he’ll send troops to assist. Turkey agreed to buy a Russian missile-defense system, over Western objections. Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Ankara last month for dinner with his Turkish counterpart and “friend,” Erdogan.
6. What could keep Turkey in the Western orbit?
There are common interests that have prevented past disputes from escalating into a permanent rupture, and they haven’t gone away. Turkey’s economy runs a large external deficit, making it dependent on foreign investors — and many of them are American, or at least take a lead from Washington. Meanwhile, the U.S. is short of dependable allies in the Islamic Middle East, a region where Russia and its ally Iran are ascendant. Trump is promising a much tougher line against Iran, and may not want to push Turkey — which has NATO’s second-biggest army — too far into the opposing camp.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake Q&A on the dispute over the arming of Syrian Kurds.
- A QuickTake Q&A on Fethullah Gulen.
- A QuickTake explainer on Erdogan’s increasing grip on power.
- A Congressional Research Service report on U.S.-Turkey relations.