Turkish President Recep Erdogan batted away a July 15 coup attempt and promptly imprisoned tens of thousands and purged the highest echelons of Turkish military. The action, while consolidating Erdogan’s power, could pose a significant threat to the U.S. mission to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, experts say.
Turkey shares a border with Syria, is a NATO ally, and is a lynch pin in the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. Use of Turkey’s Incrilik airbase to launch airstrikes is key in this strategy, and Erdogan’s assistance in shutting off the Turkish-Syrian border.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reacted to the Turkish coup with a warning that “Turkey could be the next Pakistan.” The D.C. think tank elaborated “Erdogan will likely deprioritize the fight against ISIS, undermining the counter-ISIS mission in Syria, as he focuses on consolidating power. He may even revoke past concessions to the U.S., including permission to use Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for counter-ISIS operations.”
Michael Rubin, a middle east expert at the American Enterprise Institute, went further than ISW when he told The Daily Caller News Foundation, “Turkey already is the next Pakistan.”
Erdogan has imposed a military state of emergency, purged more than 50,000 people from Turkish civil society, “temporarily” issued a ban on travel for Turkish educators, and demanded the resignation of all University deans. The purges of the judicial, educational, and military hierarchies all point to an authoritarian power grab.
Erdogan’s purges pose a dual threat to the U.S. anti-ISIS mission, Rubin said. Rubin first highlighted the Turkish government’s power shut off at Incrilik airbase for nearly a week. The U.S. launches dozens of strikes per day on ISIS from Incrilik, and power was only just restored Friday. Incrilik airbase is also rumored to house U.S. nuclear weapons. Rubin said the Turkish government’s actions were akin to taking Incrilik airbase “hostage” to pressure the U.S. to process Mr. Gulen’s extradition request.
Erdogan believes the followers of a Turkish imam and U.S. resident, Fethullah Gulen, are responsible for the coup. Erdogan has demanded the U.S. extradite Mr. Gulen, but the U.S. has said any extradition request must be processed through the U.S. justice system, which is a codified due process. Director of National Intelligence Eric Clapper told the Washington Post the U.S. had seen no evidence or intelligence to suggest Mr. Gulen’s involvement.
The second threat to anti-ISIS operations is Turkey’s nationwide purge of its senior military officers, which compromises nearly one-third of the Turkey’s officer corps. “It was already bordering on incompetent,” Rubin said of the Turkish military.
The degradation of Turkey’s professional military officer corps could hinder the countries ability to deal with the internal threat ISIS poses, and its ability to assist U.S. anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. ISW cautioned that “Erdogan may turn to non-state militants for security solutions while he lacks a strong military force behind him.”
Rubin elaborated that the purges of professional military officers leave Turkey exceedingly vulnerable at a time when ISIS has ramped up its Turkish attacks. Rubin believes “as far as ISIS is concerned it could be open season on Turkey.”
Further complicating the U.S. strategic mission is Turkey’s NATO membership. NATO’s decision-making process is basically consensus driven, giving dissenting voices within the alliance outsized power much like the UN Security Council. “Turkey basically has veto power and has become a cancer inside NATO at this point,” Rubin said.
Turkish commitment to the anti-ISIS fight is critical to closing off the vital ISIS foreign fighter flow into Syria from the Turkish border, allowing the U.S. to use its airspace, and enforcing the collective defense of the NATO alliance. As Erdogan focuses on consolidating his domestic power, he may move away from U.S. interests and undermine the U.S. mission against ISIS.
France’s director for military intelligence estimated Wednesday 100 would-be fighters a week enter through Turkey into Syria to join the Islamic State, demonstrating how vital Turkey’s cooperation is.
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