by Michael Rubin,
Assassinations of American diplomats are thankfully rare. So too are attacks on American troops in friendly host countries. However, that may all be about to change.
American diplomats and military personnel in Turkey are in increasing danger as Turkish officials incite violence that can quickly spin out of control.
Bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States have been in precipitous decline since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ascended to power. The Iraq War, of course, was deeply unpopular among Turks, although much of the anti-Americanism surrounding it was gratuitous and deliberate.
In July 2003, anti-Americanism in Turkey soared after members of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade intercepted a Turkish special operations unit in Iraqi Kurdistan, zip-tying and hooding the Turkish operatives until their identities could be established.
Turkey was in the wrong in that incident. The unit was aiming to assassinate local leaders to sow discord. Nor were they there legally. Indeed, after all the polemics, Turkish defense journalists say none of those involved were ever promoted. Then-Prime Minister Erdogan used the incident to whip up anti-Americanism. What could have been quietly resolved was instead leaked widely to the Turkish press for that purpose only.
The following years, Metal Storm took Turkey by storm. It’s a novel about an American invasion and attempted partition of Turkey. The Turkish heroes, however, counter by stealing an American nuclear bomb and destroying Washington, D.C. After American troops seize Istanbul, Turkish resistance bogs them down in urban combat. Russia and China rally around Turkey, and the United States is forced to retreat.
Nor was Metal Storm alone. In 2006, Turkish directors Serdar Akar and Sadullah Senturk released “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” a fictionalized film about a Turkish commando unit tracking down the American commander responsible for “the Hood event.” The film, which starred Gary Busey, included a subplot embracing Jewish blood libel. Senior members of Erdogan’s political party financed the film, and Erdogan’s wife endorsed it.
Erdogan has long found anti-Americanism a useful tool: It is far easier for him to blame his failings on some external plot than either acknowledge failure or confess to corruption. But he has used two recent events to take anti-Americanism to a new level.
The first was the abortive “coup” of July 2016. While evidence points to the coup being more of a Reichstag Fire-type plot than a serious plot, Erdogan blames former ally Fethullah Gulen (a Pennsylvania-based theologian) and has demanded his extradition. Gulen is no angel, but none of the evidence provided by Turkey shows direct links between Gulen and the events of that evening. Thus, the American judiciary has refused to send Gulen back to Turkey, much to Erdogan’s annoyance. He has taken the refusal of the U.S. courts to abide by his demands as evidence of U.S. complicity.
Second, he has accused the United States of sponsoring terrorism because it has partnered with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia with close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984. Here, Erdogan has a right to be angry.
The PKK is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group (although that designation had much to do with diplomatic nicety at a time Turkey was an ally). But then again, he and his supporters should ask why the Pentagon, after decades of working with Turkey and assisting its counterterror operations, decided to work on an albeit limited basis with the YPG. Here, the fault is Turkey’s. The overarching American regional goal between 2015 and 2017 was to defeat the Islamic State. Yet, rather than work with the Americans to do so, Erdogan worked against the United States. He allowed the Islamic State free transit across Turkey’s territory and held the Pentagon’s use of the Incirlik Air Base hostage at key times. It was against this backdrop that the United States began its partnership with the YPG as a last resort.
The Turkish military, long partners of the United States, has also made a deliberate decision to fan anti-Americanism and, more broadly, anti-NATO sentiment. The three most influential figures for the Turkish military are Dogu Perincek, Adnan Tanriverdi, and Hulusi Akar.
Perincek is a former Maoist turned staunch Turkish nationalist who sees Turkey’s future with Russia and seeks an exit from NATO. He is perhaps the most influential figure among top Turkish brass today.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has hired Tanriverdi, a former brigadier general fired in 1997 for his links to Islamists, to be his military counselor. Tanriverdi has worked assiduously to transform SADAT, his Islamist private security company, into a Turkish equivalent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. On the evening of the 2016 coup, for example, witnesses suggest it was SADAT, and not Gulenists or low-level soldiers, responsible for many of the civilian deaths.
Akar, for his part, has subordinated the principles to which he once swore for personal ambition. He is a weak, indecisive figure who seeks not to lead but only to ingratiate himself to Erdogan.
Perincek and Tanriverdi especially spin wild conspiracy theories about plots hatched by U.S. and NATO forces at Incirlik as well as NATO plots against Turkey. Perincek’s newspaper, for example, last week called for the arrest of American personnel in Turkey’s NATO facilities.
Others, sensing Erdogan’s desires, pile on. Egemen Bagis, a former minister and top Erdogan advisor, for example, has declared that Turkey is fighting American forces, and not just the YPG, in Afrin.
For Turks who only receive their news from Turkish outlets controlled by Erdogan, this makes Americans in Incirlik or walking down the street in Istanbul legitimate targets.
Incitement matters. When U.S. Navy ships have docked in Turkey for port calls, Turkish nationalists have attacked U.S. sailors. Russia’s experience in Turkey also illustrates: In December 2016, against a steady drumbeat of incitement against Russia at the time, a young Turk raised on Turkish propaganda shot the Russian ambassador several times in the back, killing him (Erdogan calls the Turkish suspect a Gulenist, but this is a common tactic to eschew responsibility and there is no credible evidence to support Erdogan’s charge).
At present, the United States does not have an ambassador in Turkey, relying instead on a charge d’affaires. Frankly, it would be unsafe to send a new ambassador. U.S. ambassadors must often rely not only on their own immediate security details but also on host country security. On this issue, Turkey can no longer be trusted. Nor are Ankara or Istanbul safe for American personnel.
If Erdogan or Perincek ordered a mob into Incirlik, Turkish forces would stand down and the base would be overrun. To be assigned to Turkey as an American diplomat or military officer is increasingly as dangerous as being asked to reside in Libya.
Simply put, if President Trump doesn’t want his own Benghazi to tar his legacy, it may be time to scale back the diplomatic presence and transfer U.S. forces out of Turkey and into Jordan, Romania, and other regional countries.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.