The Russian media comments have speculated in recent weeks on the likelihood of a ‘regime change’ in Turkey engineered by the United States. These speculations could well be wishful thinking or ‘psywar’ – or both – against the backdrop of the deep chill in relations between the two countries following the downing of a Russian jet by a Turkish F-16 aircraft last November.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdoğan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire

Yet, the paradox of rumor is that while it cannot be disproved easily, it also cannot be brushed away as falsehood; it hangs out in the grey zone where fact morphs into fiction. Is the Russian rumor becoming reality?

Indeed, the Turkish General Staff felt compelled to issue an extraordinary statement on March 31 in Ankara refuting that there could be a coup d’etat by the military. The statement said, “Discipline, absolute obedience and single order command is essential in the Turkish Armed Forces. It is not possible there to be any concessions to any illegal or out-of-command chain hierarchy establishment (sic)”.

The statement added that criminal charges have been initiated against those disseminating such rumors. It stressed the Turkish armed forces’ “loyalty to democracy” and regretted that such rumors “naturally demoralize the military personnel”.

To be sure, the current four-day visit by Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan to the US attracts attention. Its outcome will be carefully analyzed because it can impact Turkish politics at a crucial juncture when the Middle East is in deep crisis.

The signs of mounting western pressure against Erdogan are apparent. A song and video, which was aired last week on Extra 3, a satire program on German public broadcaster NDR, titled “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan”, ridiculed the Turkish president, his alleged extravagant spending and crackdown on civil liberties. The footage showed Erdogan’s most absurd public comments interspersed with his crackdown on protestors.

Ankara protested and demanded that the program should be deleted. Berlin knows that hell has no fury like an Erdogan scorned. Germany depends heavily on Ankara to stem the refugee flow from Syria.

In fact, Chancellor Angela Merkel personally piloted the recent deal with Turkey whereby for helping out with Europe’s refugee crisis, European Union will open a new chapter in its moribund accession process and liberalize visas for Turkish nationals plus make a seductive gift of $6.6 billion as financial aid.

Nonetheless, astonishingly enough, Berlin flatly said ‘Nein’ to the Turkish demarche. The German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman retorted, “[It has been] made clear that despite all the interests Germany and Turkey share, the view on press freedom and freedom of expression is non-negotiable for us.”

Meanwhile, European diplomats made it a point to attend the trial in Istanbul last week of two top Turkish editors who have annoyed Erdogan. Erdogan condemned their lack of diplomatic propriety.

But the British consul-general crossed all limits by taking a selfie in the court room and posting it on the social network sites. The French foreign ministry rejected Erdogan’s protest, arguing, “The diplomats follow the news in their country of residence and, in that context, routinely attend judicial hearings as observers around the world.”

The intention, clearly, is to provoke the ‘Sultan’ and draw him out into a nasty street brawl that he possibly cannot win amidst the highly vitriolic western media campaign against him, alternatively lampooning and condemning him. The US state department and White House spokesmen have been regularly making taunting remarks regarding Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent.

Amidst all this comes the unkindest cut of all – US president Barack Obama’s refusal to grant a one-on-one to Erdogan on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Obama will only have an “informal meeting.”

Obama also turned down Erdogan’s invitation to the opening of a newly-built mosque, financed by Turkey, in Maryland. And, on the eve of Erdogan’s departure from Ankara, Washington ordered all American diplomatic and military families to leave southern Turkey due to “increased threats from terrorist groups”.

On the face of it, a war of nerves over the Syrian situation is likely nearing flashpoint. Turkey’s continued support of extremist groups in Syria and its non-participation in the US-led operations against Islamic State in Iraq; Turkey’s perception of Syrian Kurds as terrorists, while US sees them as allies; Turkey’s lukewarm attitude toward the Syrian peace process sponsored by the UN; Turkey’s perceived doublespeak on Syrian refugees pouring into Europe and so on have annoyed Washington.

On the other hand, there is a sense of impotence, since the US-led coalition against the Islamic State operates out of Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey.

But the crumbling US-Turkey relationship has a wider background. The differences over Syria bring out that the US and Turkey have different identities, interests and priorities. Erdogan believes that Turkey should be a ‘stand-alone’ Middle Eastern power, which could have selective cooperation with the US, but the six-decade old strategic congruence has become an ‘a la carte’ choice.

Erdogan’s lurch toward the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and Russia); his inclination to source missile defence system from China; his dalliance with Iran and refusal to identify with US’ containment strategy; his growing disinterest in the EU accession process; his rupture with Israel; his mentorship of Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood – these are symptomatic of a bigger problem, namely, Turkey’s independent trajectory in foreign policies, albeit being a NATO country.

Added to that, the empathetic relationship between Obama and Erdogan has broken down. Erdogan is no more the role model for a New Middle East, as Obama visualized in 2010 – a  “moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West.”

Today Obama sees Erdogan as “a failure and an authoritarian”.

However, the mother of all ironies would be that if the US seeks a regime change in Turkey, it will be to overthrow a democratic-elected, charismatic, able politician with a huge popular base that embraces virtually one half of all Turkey. Washington’s frustration is essentially that Erdogan has spun out of the US orbit. Now, is that justification for ‘regime change’?

Obama overlooks that the Turkish-American alliance is as ancient as the hills. Turkey holds a unique importance to the US in the volatile Middle East. To quote Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute of Middle East Policy,

  • Although Washington has other allies in the Gulf and Europe, Turkey is the only NATO ally that borders Iraq and Syria. Its absence from U.S. war efforts complicates operational logistics and drives up the cost associated with air operations. While Ankara must decide how much U.S. leadership it can stomach, Washington, too, needs to decide how much it wants Turkey on its side.

It shouldn’t be really so very difficult to understand Turkey’s core interests in northern Syria. Are they any less legitimate or vital than Russia’s in Ukraine or the US’ in Mexico? Simply demonizing Erdogan will not do. What we witness here is the efficacy of a multipolar world order.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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