Anti-Americanism surges in Turkey, fueled by politicians and zealous press

US Vice President Joe Biden will visit Turkey Wednesday to try to reassure President Erdoğan they still stand together against terrorism – and the coup attempt in July, about which conspiracy theories abound.

Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service/Pool/AP/File
US Vice President Joe Biden (r.) talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to their meeting at Yildiz Mabeyn Palace in Istanbul in January 2016. Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with Mr. Erdogan again on Aug. 24 in Istanbul.

Just days after Turkey’s failed coup attempt on July 15, pro-government newspapers splashed front page “news” that CIA agents had orchestrated the bid to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from a resort island near Istanbul.

The luxury Splendid Palace Hotel, an Ottoman-era landmark with two silvery rooftop domes, may seem like an unlikely and high profile staging post for regime change – and in fact it is.

But anti-Americanism has surged in Turkey, where Vice President Joe Biden arrives on Aug. 24 to reassure the NATO ally that the US and Turkey still stand together against terrorism. He’ll try to assure the country also that the US stands with President Erdoğan against the coup attempt, which has prompted a host of fresh conspiracy theories and new enemies in the popular imagination, from the island foreign policy conference to the White House.

Such rhetoric is not new: It has grown since 2013, prompted by Washington’s criticism of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed crackdown on Gezi Park protests that year. Later came disputes over the Syrian war, with the US critical of what it saw as Turkish encouragement of Islamic jihadist fighters. More recently, US military support to Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists, attracted Turkey’s ire in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State.

Washington nonetheless maintains its high-level ties to Ankara. Turkey allows US jet fighters to use its Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against IS in Syria and Iraq. And Washington has provided satellite intelligence in recent years to enable precision Turkish attacks on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq.

But even as Turkish politicians and pundits alike publicly suggest that such cooperation may be at risk, with Turkey hinting at a “strategic rebalancing” toward Russia and Iran, analysts say close financial and strategic ties will limit how far Turkey’s anti-Americanism can go.

Mr. Biden’s visit may be key to finding that limit. Turkey-US relations “are medium sugar now,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told journalists over the weekend, referring to a semi-sweet version of Turkish coffee. Noting that the US is a strategic ally and that “every family experiences problems,” he said Biden “is coming to Turkey to make the coffee sugary.” 

Top of Turkey’s agenda will be demands for the extradition from Pennsylvania of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric and friend-turned-foe of Erdoğan whose return to Turkey to face charges has become a litmus test for improving US-Turkey ties.

During 16 years in exile in the Pocono Mountains, Mr. Gülen has marshaled a network of followers – accused of infiltrating all pillars of the Turkish state – who are widely blamed here for the coup attempt. Tens of thousands of Turks have been purged from the bureaucracy, judiciary, and military, with some 17,740 arrested at last count on suspicion of links to what Turks now call the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization,” or FETÖ.

“When the US asks us to extradite someone with an arrest warrant, we do not ask about evidence,” said Mr. Yildirim, noting frustration at US legal requirements to provide clear evidence in order to proceed with extradition. “We think the enemy of my friend is my enemy, too.”

Besides any evidence of Gülen’s role in the coup given by Turkey, US officials must by law weigh up the likelihood of a fair trial, and chances of mistreatment.

Charges of US involvement, analysts say, feed a broader conspiratorial mindset in Turkey that has crystallized since the attempted coup, which was foiled when Erdoğan called on loyalist supporters to take to the streets and disarm the would-be putschists.

Since then, as Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated this “victory for democracy,” they have also let anti-Americanism run wild, fanned by politicians and media apparently bent on blaming outsiders.

At the highest levels, this may not make much difference. The AKP is adept at separating negative popular attitudes from elite-level cooperation. “They compartmentalize,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, calling it a “dualist approach.”

Still notes Mr. Hakura, “Erdoğan has been … whipping up this anti-American feeling and the proclivity of Turkish society to [believe] conspiracy theories.” But there is also “a tendency among the ruling party … to attach credence to some of these conspiracies.”

That could have long-term consequences.

“Anti-Americanism in Turkey is at its peak and turning into hate,” Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said on Aug. 9. “It is up to the US to stop this by extraditing Gülen.”

Failure to return the aging cleric – who has lived in the US since 1999 and holds a green card – would mean “the US has chosen a terrorist over Turkey,” he said.

Gülen “delivered the coup into the hands of the CIA … there is more than enough evidence in the hands of Turkey,” the minister said on Aug. 19,  NTV Haber reported. “The CIA knows even the gender of the black flies flying around [Gülen’s] mansion … to tell us [they] did not know [of this plot] ridicules the … Turkish nation.”

The street has got the message, and reflected it at post-coup rallies organized by the AKP every night for weeks after July 15. A common poster read: “America = out / People = in.”

“If anything this big happens, Turks believe someone else was behind it, like the CIA,” says an architect at one rally, who said he did not want to give his name because he was suspicious of a journalist who was American.

Indeed, the perception that Washington and Europe were slow to oppose the coup attempt because of their dislike of Turkey’s abrasive, democratically elected president, has created fertile ground for accusations.

“The US tried to kill Erdoğan,” proclaimed İbrahim Karagül, editor of the pro-AKP newspaper Yeni Şafak, in late July. “I repeat: The attack aimed at martyring Erdoğan was planned by the US, in the US, directly through Gülen’s terrorists.”

The pro-government Akşam joined others in taking up the CIA-team story at the Splendid Palace Hotel, turning a two-day conference to discuss the Middle East one year after the Iran nuclear deal into a lurid tale about a “highly secretive” meeting.

The conference coincided with the coup attempt but was organized last December by the Wilson Center, a well-known Washington think tank, and a Turkish university.

Scores of such conferences take place in Turkey every year, and the 15 or so participants at this one were seasoned foreign policy experts. But Akşam labeled each foreign participant a “CIA agent,” published photographs gleaned from the internet, and claimed – inaccurately, along with many other demonstrable falsehoods – that the delegates all took a private boat to the island “to avoid being recorded by security footage.”

The Wilson Center rejects “categorically” any link to the coup attempt, and said in a statement that the island meeting “was very much removed from the center of the crisis.”

“Perhaps the most suspicious name in the conference,” Akşam reported, was that of this reporter, who was confused with the American death row inmate of the same name who killed his pregnant wife, Laci, in 2002.

One front page showed that Scott Peterson wearing a suit and tie, in court; another wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, superimposed over San Quentin prison.

“How such a hardened criminal was removed from America’s most secure prison arouses big question marks in the mind,” the newspaper wrote. “Intelligence authorities … believe he escaped to Greece via a sea route.”

US Amb. John Bass has repeatedly rejected accusations of any US role, or of advance knowledge of the coup attempt. The US Embassy said a photo circulating of Ambassador Bass supposedly meeting a coup-plotting colonel the day before was fake. One report alleged that the CIA made payments to anti-Erdoğan putschists for six months from the Nigeria-based United Bank for Africa; another headlined, “Terrorists were entertained at the White House!”

Such allegations would be laughable if their ramifications weren’t so serious. Pro-government newspapers and politicians alike have suggested that the anti-Americanism may push Turkey’s foreign policy interests away from the US toward actors whose geopolitical goals differ sharply from those of the US.

Still, says Hakura, military hardware from NATO’s second-largest army comes from the US and Europe, as does the bulk of foreign investment and most economic ties.

“Turkey has an umbilical cord to the West, and to the US, so it cannot afford to rupture relations with its US and European partners,” says Hakura. “And that limits any attempt by the ruling party to break off relations or limit ties with Washington.”

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