This post represents the second in a series examining the implications of the failed coup in Turkey. President Erdogan has extended the State of Emergency for an additional three months and has begun purging the military as well as other sectors of Turkish society in the aftermath of the coup. This series will examine both the short- and long-term implications of likely actions by Erdogan beginning as they relate to Syria and Russia.
Key Takeaway: The failed coup in Turkey has the potential to decrease U.S. influence in Syria and further divide NATO, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will engage Turkey to cement the divide. Turkey’s security crisis may interfere with NATO’s ability to maintain stores of nuclear weapons rumored to be hosted at Incirlik air base, which would grant Russia a symbolic and strategic advantage in reducing NATO’s deterrent capabilities.
The attempted Turkish military coup on July 15, 2016 and subsequent purge of military and civilian positions by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will play into Russia’s hands. Russia aims to reduce U.S. influence in Syria and the broader Middle East and has recently been courting Turkey to drive a wedge between Turkey and its Western allies that will ultimately weaken NATO. After a period of tense relations following the shoot down of a Russian Su-24 jet by Turkish forces in November 2015, Turkey and Russia took steps towards a gradual rapproachment in June 2016. Turkish President Erdogan’s policies following the failed coup are likely to isolate Turkey from the EU and NATO allies. Russia will target Turkey during a time of military and diplomatic vulnerability to accelerate this outcome.
Russia positioned itself during and immediately after the coup as a close ally of the Erdogan regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated the possibility of providing President Erdogan political asylum during the coup, signaling support for the Turkish President before the U.S., Germany and other NATO members. Russian media has been also framing a narrative that Russian intelligence agencies might have provided advance notice of the coup to Erdogan. These allegations have been denied by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, but were initially disseminated by state media agents such as TASS and Sputnik.[i] In addition, Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsiya) lifted the travel ban on flights to Turkey after the Turkish government guaranteed the safety of Russian citizens on July 22.[ii]
Turkey, in its turn, has continued to mend its relations with Russia. Two Turkish pilots who downed the Russian jet in November 2015 were detained over links to the coup attempt. Turkish officials have also come out with the statement that the pilots had made the decision to shoot down the plane independently. The acceptance of this statement by both the Russian and Turkish sides allows for further reconciliation of this point, as well as the ability to identify a common enemy in ‘deviant’ Turkish military branches. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdogan will meet during the first week of August and will most likely discuss cooperation in Syria. Russia may press for permission to use the NATO air base at Incirlik, although it is unlikely that Turkey would be allowed to grant Russia access as long as it remains in the alliance. However, this offer was previously alluded to and then retracted by Turkey in early July. Turkey and Russia could foreseeably reach a compromise regarding support for competing groups in Syria, with Russia agreeing to cease its public support for and alleged supply of weapons to Kurds in Turkey and Syria if Turkey uses its influence over select opposition groups to reduce fighting near Russian basing.
Closer cooperation between Russia and Turkey in Syria would mean that the U.S. could no longer utilize Turkey’s firm stance on issues such as Assad’s removal and support for specific opposition groups to leverage its negotiations with Russia.[iii] The coup also has implications for Turkey’s willingness and ability to fulfill its role as a host of a component of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, which could be used by Russia to show a further division of the alliance. Turkey is rumored to be one of five NATO countries in Europe that hosts B-61 gravity bombs. These weapons are allegedly stored at Incirlik airbase. NATO operations were temporarily halted at Incirlik following the coup and the base was disconnected from commercial electric power supply until July 22. Turkish authorities arrested the commander of Incirlik airbase, General Bekir Ircan Van, who allegedly took part in the coup. Continued disruption of operations or doubts about the security of the purported weapons stores may limit Turkey’s reliability as a host for NATO’s nuclear deterrent in Europe. If these weapons were removed, Russia could foreseeably use this as evidence of Turkey’s shift towards Russia and away from the NATO alliance.
President Putin may use the narrative of guarding against a similar coup taking place in Russia to justify the intensification of ongoing efforts to attack political opposition and tighten control over Russia’s security apparatus. Two pieces of legislation, the “anti-terrorism” bill that was passed in June 2016 and the “foreign agents” law of 2012 provide Putin with substantial powers to track and prosecute potential enemies of his regime. The “anti-terrorism” legislation has not come into effect and only one criminal case has so far been opened under the “foreign agents” law.[iv] It is likely that Putin will begin utilizing these tools to attack political opponents and crack down if protests erupt leading up to the elections in Russia’s lower house of parliament on September 18.[v] The failed coup in Turkey will allow President Putin political leverage by which to tighten his control over Russia’s security apparatus. Putin has already undertaken measures to secure his position against a coup, including creating the National Guard force, which is commanded by Putin’s former bodyguard and responsible to the executive rather than the Ministry of Defense. Turkey’s coup will be used to justify further measures, such as wider application of the new surveillance legislation or expansion of executive powers, to secure Putin’s position against public resistance or a military uprising.
It is unlikely that Turkey and Russia will pursue a long-term partnership as the two countries hold contradictory strategic interests. However, Russia may be able to use Turkey to accomplish short term goals, such as gaining more influence and international legitimacy for its intervention in Syria and driving a wedge between Turkey and its Western allies. As President Erdogan introduces increasingly authoritarian measures in the wake of the failed coup, EU members and NATO allies may increasingly reject Turkey as a partner. Russia can capitalize on Turkey’s isolation by drawing it further from these institutions in order to undermine their unity and reduce their efficacy in countering revanchist Russian policy in Europe and the Middle East.
[i] “Kremlin Unaware of Reports Claiming Russia Warned Turkey of Coup Attempt.” Sputnik, July 21, 2016, http:\\sputniknews.com/world/20160721/1043388268/russia-turkey-coup-warning-denial.html; “Hours Before Military Coup Attempt, Turkey Warned by Russia – Reports.” Sputnik, July 21, 2016, http: \\sputniknews.com/russia/20160721/1043373832/russia-warned-turkey-coup-attempt.html; “Russia warned Turkey of imminent army coup, says Iran’s FNA,” TASS, July 21, 2016, http://tass.ru/en/world/889638
[ii] “Rosaviatsiya removes the ban on passenger flights to Turkey,” Gazeta.ru, July 22, 2016, https: \\www.gazeta.ru/business/news/2016/07/22/n_8909015.shtml
[iii] “Turkey No Longer an Obstacle to the US-Russian Cooperation in Syria,” Sputnik, July 22, 2016, http: \\sputniknews.com/politics/20160722/1043453586/turkey-russia-us-syria-cooperation.html
[iv]“Russia Opens First Criminal Case Against ‘Foreign Agent’ NGO,” The Moscow Times, June 28, 2016, https: \\themoscowtimes.com/news/russia-opens-first-criminal-case-against-foreign-agent-ngo-53466
[v]“Russia’s Justice Ministry Defines ‘Political Activity of Foreign Agents,” January 22, 2016, https: \\themoscowtimes.com/news/russias-justice-ministry-defines-political-activity-of-foreign-agents-51553