06/01/2020 No. 156
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Turkey’s coup and geopolitics
By Binghe Shui Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
October 1, 2016

Binghe Shui says Turkey's coup was a turning point; if it had been successful, the United States would benefit, but unfortunately it failed.


After the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately accused the Islamic sect leader Muhammed Fethullah Gulen living in Pennsylvania, USA, of being an evil backstage manipulator, and asked the US to extradite him back to Turkey (Gulen strongly denied the charge). Meanwhile, Erdogan quickly arrested a large number of judges, teachers, police and military personnel; the total number was up to tens of thousands. Erdogan accused these people of being accomplices of the Gulen movement (an Islamic transnational religious and social movement) and of being ordered by Gulen to start the coup. In order to have prison cells available for these political prisoners, Erdogan even released 38,000 prisoners.  For those of us who pay little attention to Turkey and do not understand much about this country, exactly who Gulen is and how he was able to remotely control so many believers does sound really like a fairy tale.


The Internet information says that this old man lives in a mansion somewhere in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, and established assets worth more than two billion US dollars. Although he has lived a leisure life in the United States for over twenty years, he has not only established many schools in Turkey to promote his religious ideas, but also built many schools and mosques around the world to teach Islam. He advocates peace and democracy, so his Islamic thinking seems able to coexist with the Western democratic system and is accepted by the West. The Internet information claims that he maintains a close relationship with the CIA. Probably for this reason, the Turkish domestic newspapers even openly accused the CIA of being behind the coup.


In order to clarify the circumstances surrounding this matter, we have to know the time sequence. First in the middle of 2015, the United States and the Arab Gulf States (mainly Saudi Arabia) finally were about to achieve the purpose of overthrowing Bashar Hafez al-Assad, President of Syria. This was after having encircled and suppressed the Assad regime for more than four years, mainly by providing weapons and intelligence to the many so-called "moderate groups" (moderate or not may only be a terminology game, because they were killing each other and paid allegiance to different leaders). Unexpectedly, Putin injected himself into the conflict at this critical time. He saw that Assad’s regime in Syria could not be maintained and the Russian military base in the Mediterranean probably would be forced to close. So he decided to provide the Assad government military aircrafts and artillery while accusing the United States of being ineffective against the Islamic State because of US’ real purpose of overthrowing the legitimately elected Assad government. As soon as Putin’s aircrafts and artillery arrived, the Assad regime was stabilized, whereas the "moderate groups" supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries were attacked and pushed back. Efforts by the United States during the previous four years were thus wasted. The US domestic right wing sharply attacked Obama by saying that he did not fully support the "moderate groups", so that Putin gained the opportunity to make the first move.


From a geopolitical point of view, the situation was indeed disadvantageous to the United States. Namely, under the US leadership, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (5 + 1) had just negotiated with Iran and succeeded in forcing it to strictly limit its nuclear test, while lifting the international sanctions against Iran. But now, after Russia stabilized the political situation in Syria, an alliance of Iran, Russia and the stabilized Syria begin to form like an arch encircling Turkey. The alliance is to deal with the anti-Assad "moderate groups." Even though on the surface, the common enemy of all countries is still the Islamic State.


We can look at the map to understand this. We know that Turkey is kind of sitting in the middle of this arc of Iran, Russia and Syria and blocks Russia to Turkey’s north from connecting to the Middle Eastern countries, which gives it an extremely important position. Even though, as a NATO member, Turkey should stand firmly on the side of the Western countries, the reality is not so simple. Over the past few years, all the stupid guys who sneaked from Europe into the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State first went through Turkey to join the Islamic State, and the Islamic State's oil was also transported through Turkey to re-export to other regions. Therefore, Turkey has been a double dealer. On the one hand, Turkey allows the United States to use its air bases to combat the Islamic State; while on the other hand, it helps the Islamic State to get troops and financial resources. Based on this, the United States and other NATO allies have been very dissatisfied with Erdogan, and do not trust him.


However, this discontent is not only one way. Erdogan hates domestic Kurds the most and regards them as harmful. He has been secretly supporting the Islamic State to eliminate the Kurds who occupy northern Iraq. It should be noted that the Kurds are an ethnic group that was assigned forcefully by Britain and France to three countries after WW I. This ethnic group has been eager to unite the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey to establish an independent state. The Kurds inside the Iraq territory are basically independent, and a staunch force against the Islamic State. They are a force that the United States has also been trying to use. Given Turkey's opposition, the US aid to the Kurds was timid, but is turning more and more active, and now almost supports their independence. This is unacceptable to Erdogan. So his grievance against the United States has existed for a long time.


In such complex polygonal relations, Russia’s intervention in Syria caused great anger in the US military. It was quite obvious that the West was about to win and to get Assad ousted so that a pro-Western "democratic" government could be fostered in Syria.  But unfortunately this beautiful prospect was brutally destroyed by Putin. In fact, it was not easy for Russia to provide supplies to Syria.  The best route was through Turkey. Therefore, not giving Russia the access to cross the Turkish border was an effective strategy to obstruct Russia. This led to Turkey shooting down in November 2015 a Russian bomber aircraft flying through Turkey’s airspace. This of course was beyond all expectations - how dare Turkey do this?


Grapevine news told us that Turkey itself did not have the ability to promptly detect Russian aircraft while it was flying across the border. Without this ability, how could it calculate the precise time and send its own fighter jet to intercept and shoot down a Russian plane? A very reasonable conclusion is: it must have received intelligence provided by a US spy satellite. This enables us to deduce that it was also possible for Turkey to have obtained acquiescence from the United States and NATO. At least, with NATO as a protector, Putin could not take any revenge against Turkey.


This judgement was clearly wrong. What followed was that Putin was furious. He immediately cut off all relations with Erdogan, forbade Russian citizens from traveling to Turkey, refused Turkey’s imports, and also stopped offering Turkey Russian industrial products, which resulted in a severe blow to Turkey's economy.


Meanwhile refugees from the Middle East and North Africa continued to flock to Europe. In order to prevent the entry of these refugees, while at the same time taking care of their highly exalted humanitarianism, the EU reached an agreement to offer money to Turkey for accommodating these refugees. Thus, inside the territory of Turkey about three million refugees were stranded. Presumably Erdogan might have been very displeased with this. On the one hand, Turkey’s economy suffers sanctions by Russia, while, on the other hand, the refugee influx continuously rises and terrorist attacks within the past year continuously occurred, at least a portion of which were carried out by the Kurds. Erdogan might have felt that he was being used. In any event, in June, he decided to make a public apology to Russia about the incident of shooting down the Russian plane and killing its pilot. This was certainly a huge shift expressing his willingness to reconcile with Putin. Exactly how much was behind this change, we do not know. In short, it is conceivable that this change has disturbed the United States very much. But, in the end is this sufficient to cause the US to secretly support the coup? We also do not know. What we do know is that Erdogan believed that the coup was launched by Gulen and the US was likely to have supported him. Why? Because the coup took place within a month of his apology to Putin.


The online sources also said that Russian intelligence agencies had warned Erdogan before the coup took place, saving him from assassination. Whether this was true or not will wait for future authors to discover the evidence. What we do know is the reason why the coup failed and it was mainly due to iPhone’s contribution. Erdogan used CNN’s broadcast facilities in the territory of Turkey and issued his appeal to the Turkish people through his iPhone. He asked them to walk to the streets and the city squares to block the tanks and the soldiers. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, regardless of their affiliated political parties, all walked to the streets in the middle of the night and they blocked the rebels. By the time Erdogan returned from his vacation place to Istanbul, the coup had failed.


The success or failure of the coup was a serious matter. If the coup was indeed launched by Gulen and had been successful, Turkey would certainly be more pro-Western, as Ukraine did earlier. Now that the coup failed, I believe that the United States must refuse to turn Gulen over to Erdogan, and this will make Erdogan turn toward Russia. The possibility of him letting Turkey withdraw from NATO is unlikely. But there have been signs indicating that he might be willing to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization led by China or the Eurasian Economic Community led by Russia.


The coup took place on July 15.  On August 6 Erdogan flew to St. Petersburg to meet Putin. This showed his rapid change of mind. According to reports, they had good talks and removed all previous ill-feelings. They restored tourism and trade, discussed security cooperation and how to solve the problems of civil strife in Syria. In addition, the Iranian Foreign Minister also shuttled between the two countries. It seems that Russia, Turkey and Iran reached some consensus and agreements, because a few days later, according to news reports, Russian bombers took off from an airport in Iran and executed bombing missions against the Islamic State. It was said that this was the first time that Iran allowed foreign military aircraft to use its airports for military purposes. There is no doubt that the US military was alarmed.


International relations are changing all the time, and the process of change often has some turning point. For example, when Britain did not consult the United States and suddenly joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it was a turning point. Britain's move has led other European countries to follow suit, and laid the foundation for the “one Belt, one Road” initiative as advocated by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The European countries’ acceptance of the AIIB certainly has isolated the United States and Japan. This indicates that China can successfully establish a financial system independent of the World Bank. Brexit was also a turning point, expressing that the international community is becoming divided, not united. Turkey’s coup was also a turning point. If it had been successful, the US would benefit. But unfortunately it failed. The defeat itself may not matter much, but it has changed the whole situation in the Middle East. Turkey’s repositioning also told us that a multi-polar world is bound to arrive gradually.

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Binghe Shui was born in Lanzhou City of the Gansu Province of China in 1942. He moved with his parents and all other family members to Taiwan in 1949 and settled in Hsinchu. After graduating from the Hydraulic Engineering Department of Chung Yuan Christian University, he went to the United States to study and changed his major to politics. After passing the qualifying examination as a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan, he entered the United Nations services until retirement. For over thirty years, his commentaries appeared throughout the press of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US. For a long time, he used the pseudonym Peng Wenyi (彭文逸) to write commentaries for the column "Beneath the Statue of Liberty" of The Nineties, a Hong Kong-based magazine. He has done editorial work for two U.S.-based magazines, The New Earth and Intellectuals, and for the Hong Kong-based bimonthly magazine Dousou (Stir Up《抖擻》). He now lives in Las Vegas. E-mail: b.h.shui @ gmail.com
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