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Turkey's ongoing siege mentality

Chase Winter
August 7, 2016

Turkish politicians and media were quick to blame the West for the failed July 15 coup. The idea that world powers have designs on Turkey has been around for over a century - and it's not totally without basis.

Image: Reuters/B. Ratner

In the weeks since the July 15 coup, Turkey's government has cracked down domestically on the network led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Many officials and media outlets have taken things a step further, implicating the imam's American hosts in the coup - an idea that has gained some traction.

The concern expressed by US and EU leaders about massive purges in three weeks after the coup has been interpreted in Turkey as a lack of support and only furthered conspiracy theories. It is not a new thing that some media outlets, politicians and segments of the population blame a nefarious and foreign "They" for meddling in Turkish affairs.

At any given point in recent history, Turkey has accused a dizzying array of international bodies of conspiring against it. Topping the list are the United States, Iran, Israel, the EU, Russia, Greece, Armenia and Syria. Traditionally many accusations have been leveled over Kurds, who are viewed as a potential fifth column, susceptible to foreign meddling to weaken Turkey.

Türkei Anhängern Erdogans verbrennen Bildnis von Fethullah Gülen
Anti-coup protesters burn an effigy of US-based cleric Fethullah GulenImage: Reuters/A. Awad

The Sevres Syndrome

The idea that foreign powers seek to weaken and divide Turkey is a powerful force in domestic and foreign policy. The Ottoman Empire dissolved at the hands of ethnic nationalism and foreign interference. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ottoman lands in the Balkans succumbed to national liberation movements, often with the support of European powers.

At the same time, Ottoman territories in Arab North Africa were lost to the machinations of European powers, and, by the eve of World War I, the empire was a shadow of its former self. During the war, British-backed Arab revolts left an indelible mark on Turkish minds of the dangers of foreign instigation on emerging national consciousness. Even today, many Turks view Arabs as traitors.

The experience of losing the Ottoman Emptire to ethnic nationalism has created hypersensitivities to external meddling within Turkey and on its periphery, with regard to Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and most recently in Syria.

Infografik Treaty of Sèvres (1920) Englisch

At the close of World War I, the allies imposed the Treaty of Sevres on the Ottomans. Sevres envisioned the division of Anatolia into zones occupied by the victors, leaving a mere rump state for the Turks in central Anatolia. In addition to an Armenian state, Sevres also called for the possible creation of a Kurdish state.

Foreign designs on Anatolia were only subverted through the War of Independence, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the only man able to dictate the terms of peace, unfurl the yoke of imperialism and save the nation.

This narrative is taught in schools, stoked in media and used for political purposes as part of nationalist mythmaking. It can be encapsulated in the well-known Turkish saying, "A Turk has no other friend but a Turk."

'Disturbed and offended'

Since coming out of the coup attempt stronger than ever, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has helped stoke the notion that the coup was part of a bigger international plot, calling Gulen a "pawn" controlled by a greater "mastermind."

Stating it bluntly recently, Erdogan said: "Unfortunately, the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters."

The United States has denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the coup, but the accusations have set the stage for a further deterioration of relations between Washington and Ankara so long as the United States refuses to extradite Gulen.

Last week, US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass said he was "deeply disturbed and offended by the accusations without a shred of fact in so much of the commentary in this country."

Indeed, pro-government media has fueled anti-Western sentiment and freely peddles conspiracy theories. In some ways, the rhetoric is a reflection of the anti-Turkish and Islamophobic sentiment that comes out the West.

Yeni Safak Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Karagul, who is close to Erdogan, wrote that the US was directly behind the coup and had declared war on Turkey by bombing the parliament, shooting people and attempting to assassinate the president.

Karagul has accused the US and Europe of working on a "scenario" to prepare the "invasion and occupation" of Turkey. Preparations for the "siege," a second invasion of Anatolia, started with the "Crusade intervention" throughout the Middle East in the 1990s, he wrote. Karagul's other recent articles contain subheadlines such as "European Union now a threat to Turkey" and "US intends to destroy Turkey."

Surrounded by instability

Turkey lives in a dangerous neighborhood that, over the past three decades, has witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, the disintegration of Iraq and the slow-motion meltdown of Syria. Adding to this is a 35-year insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Syrien Kurdische Kämpfer in Tel Abyad
A Turkish soldier looks across the border at Syrian Kurdish positionsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Pitarakis

From the perspective of some in Turkey, the United States has been a major driver of instability in the Middle East, especially through its second war in Iraq, which has heightened sectarianism across the region and given birth to a quasi-Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

But it is in Syria - where Turkey attempted to oust President Bashar al-Assad - that Ankara feels abandoned by its allies. The conflict has led to heightened tensions with United States over its backing of Syrian Kurdish groups tied to the PKK who have carved up autonomous regions along its border.

From Ankara's perspective, the United States is now backing two factions that it considers terrorist groups: the PKK-aligned YPG Syrian Kurdish militia and the Gulen movement, which has its headquarters in the state of Pennsylvania.

This is not to say that Turkey hasn't contributed to its own problems and those in the region. Certainly, the country's leadership seeks to externalize problems for domestic political reasons. Nor does it discount real concerns over the authoritarian direction that the country is taking under Erdogan. However, it might behoove the West to at least understand the drivers - both real and imagined - behind the perceptions in Turkey.