The United States is making the first move to break the ice in the relations with Turkey. That is the obvious message behind the trip to Ankara later today by the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. But there are sub-plots hidden from view.
No doubt, Dunford is undertaking a challenging mission. Why should a general be deputed for this mission, which impacts on a much wider canvas than war and peace?
The short answer will be that it is Dunford who happens to have at this sensitive juncture an effective interlocutor in Ankara – in his Turkish counterpart General Hulusi Akar, who, interestingly, will retain his title as the number one Pasha in the Turkish armed forces, as announced by the government following the crucial Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Thursday.
President Recep Erdogan reposes trust in Akar who was of course his hand-picked choice for the job in August last year. The General drew some flak recently for breaking protocol to act as ‘witness’ at the wedding ceremony of Erdogan’s daughter in Istanbul in May.
In fact, there is a move to bring the Turkish armed forces directly under the presidency. Akar conducted himself with quiet dignity under extreme pressure during the July 15 coup attempt and was steadfast in his loyalty to Erdogan and the country’s democratic system.
Now, away from media glare, Akar has been in continuous touch with Dunford and has even been telephoning him a few times through the recent turbulent fortnight since the coup attempt, notwithstanding the public acrimony in the US-Turkish relations, with a couple of ministers openly alleging an American hand in the July 15 coup attempt.
Conceivably, Washington sensed that Akar could have acted only with Erdogan’s knowledge and approval to keep a sequestered mil-to-mil line open at the highest level with Washington in these troubled times.
And, it should not cause surprise at all if Washington figured out a way to use Akar as a ‘back channel’ to Erdogan. After all, Americans and Turks go back a long way as allies through thick and thin.
To be sure, Dunford’s mission signifies that Washington feels it necessary to upgrade the level of communication with Ankara, which is indicative of both a sense of urgency and a reasonable degree of confidence within the Obama administration that the Turkish leadership is still very much amenable to persuasion.
Dunford’s agenda will be three-fold – one, extradition of Fetullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric whom Turkey has named as the mastermind behind the coup attempt; two, the anti-terrorist operations out of Incirlik air base; and, three, Turkey’s standing as a key NATO member country.
Indeed, the most sensitive issue today concerns Gulen’s extradition. Ankara has underscored repeatedly and unambiguously that any reluctance on the part of Washington to extradite Gulen will cause a serious setback to Turkish-American relations.
Turkey pulled back from the expected visits by its defense minister and foreign minister to Washington ten days ago to attend the anti-terrorism coalition’s ministerial meetings. Clearly, the relationship is frayed at the edges and is in a state of animated suspension, pending the Obama administration’s decision on the Gulen issue.
But then, there are straws in the wind.
The point is, Britain, which is Turkey’s traditionally closest friend in Europe, has taken a stance – and more importantly, in full public view – which is completely sympathetic to Turkey’s concerns.
The British ambassador in Ankara Richard Moore, who is an experienced ‘Turkish hand’ in the UK foreign office, put on record in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper that the failure of the July 15 coup attempt is to be seen as a vindication of Turkey’s “democratic maturity.”
He said that the on-going crackdown on Gulen’s supporters within the government and the military is quite understandable and is even legitimate, which is why London has refrained from voicing opinions.
Ambassador Moore said:
· Turkish authorities’ claim regarding Gulen’s involvement in the attempted coup is credible; “emerging evidence suggests that conclusion”; and, there seems to be “a pretty convincing case”;
· It is not “a complete surprise” that Gulenists had infiltrated the Turkish military as well, and such a thing is not “difficult to understand”;
· There could have been disgruntled elements other than Gulenists among the plotters. ”But do I have any trouble in accepting the Gülenist movement played a part in this? No, I don’t, frankly.”
Ambassador Moore categorically ruled out any US role as such in the coup attempt, calling such imputation in the media as “ridiculous”, “pretty ill-informed and not very high quality.”
On the other hand, he expressed full understanding for the revamp of the Turkish military top brass in the wake of the coup attempt (“You can’t just carry on as if nothing happened.”)
What emerges is that the British assessment is a highly nuanced one in comparison with the expressions of alarm over the scale of the Turkish purges by the US and the European Union.
The stunning thing about Ambassador Moore’s remarks is that he chose to speak ten days after the visit to Turkey on July 20-21 by Britain’s Minister of State for Europe and the Americas in the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan, a front-line politician in the Conservative Party who was appointed to the new position only on July 17.
Duncan is not new to the world of diplomacy, having held government positions over the past quarter century in Conservative Party governments, and was deputed for the mission, given the delicacy over British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s controversial standing among Turks.
It is entirely conceivable that London shared the feedback from Turkey with American interlocutors.
Curiously, US Secretary of State John Kerry actually had visited London on July 18-19 and a second time on July 27 – that is, both before and after Duncan’s trip to Turkey.
Clearly, the decision to dispatch General Dunford to Turkey is a well-founded decision that factors in Britain’s advice to the Obama administration to constructively engage Erdogan without any further loss of time.
The US cannot overlook that in just about a week’s time, Erdogan is traveling to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s pivotal role as a NATO ally is such that any gravitation on its part to the Russian camp will tear asunder the overall US regional (and global) strategies beyond repair.
Nothing less than the future of the western alliance system is at stake here.
Suffice it to say, the moment of reckoning has come over the Gulen issue. Now, what compromise formula Dunford would be relaying to the Turkish leadership remains to be seen.
But if Ambassador Moore’s remarks give any clues – and, indeed, taking into account the ‘special relations’ between the US and Britain, they have a habitation and place in the overall matrix – well, then, Dunford is likely carrying some ingenious formula to cross the Gulen hump in Turkish-American relations.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu may have poked Uncle Sam on the ribs when he said on Friday, “Relations with Russia are not Turkey’s alternative to NATO and EU.”
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.