From institutional autonomy to partisan decay: Turkey’s foreign service and the 2016 coup as a milestone

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Ali Dinçer*

The failed military coup of July 2016, or the Turkish government’s disproportionate response to it, has made the incident a milestone for the transformation of the entire state apparatus in Ankara. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was no exception.

In some ways, the abortive putsch served as a catalyst for processes that were already underway. In other respects, it was a welcome pretext for setting off what had been premeditated by the ruling elite for a long time. Either way, what would follow from the morning of July 16, 2016 onwards would be unprecedented in every sense.

About a quarter of career diplomats, mostly juniors recruited after 2010, were summarily removed from their jobs by post-coup decree-laws. Many of them are either in jail or living in Europe or North America as refugees to avoid imprisonment in Turkey. Some of them joined together to establish the Institute for Diplomacy and Economy (INSTITUDE) to produce content on Turkey’s foreign policy and to raise awareness about the country’s authoritarian drift.

This article offers a history of the ministry and explores several current themes related to foreign policy and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, particularly in light of the changes that occurred in the post-coup period, with the insights provided by former diplomats at INSTITUDE.

Background

The ministry boasts about recruiting the best and brightest young minds of the country and having always defended Turkey’s interests in the best way possible, whatever the circumstances. Tracing its institutional origins back to the Ottoman era, an introductory text on its website claims credit for such accomplishments as playing a significant role in the conclusion of the Lausanne Treaty, which laid the foundations of the republic, and for keeping Turkey out of the devastation of World War II.

Indeed, particularly in the contemporary republican Turkey, the ministry has traditionally enjoyed relative independence and authority on the making of foreign policy, which remained unchallenged even amid times of political turmoil and during occasional military juntas. Its relatively well-educated and multilingual staff, traditionally coming from the secular higher classes of society (aka “the white Turks”), commanded respect among governments, and Turkey’s delicate Cold War stance as a rigidly pro-Western ally located in the immediate vicinity of the Soviet Union often discouraged elected officials from toying with new foreign policy ideas or putting into question the well-entrenched diplomatic positions devised in the corridors of the foreign ministry.

An unwavering devotion to Western alliances, a prudent and uncomfortable coexistence with the Iron Curtain and a certain aloofness and non-interventionism towards the Middle East outlined Turkey’s foreign policy during the Cold War. Ministerial policy statements defined Turkey’s role as “keeping watch over NATO’s southern flank.” This devotion to the transatlantic alliance persisted well after the collapse of the bipolar world order in the 1990s.

Turkey saw consecutive ruling coalitions in the 1990s, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took over in 2002 as the first single-party government in a long time. Yet, it immediately found in its hands the Iraq crisis of 2003, which led to tensions with the Bush administration. Domestically, the still highly influential secular military establishment deeply distrusted Erdoğan who, despite his renewed liberal democratic discourse, had come from the country’s main political Islamist movement.

In order to turn this adverse outlook around, Erdoğan skillfully relied on the European Union as a counterweight, echoing the Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war and speeding up accession negotiations in order to reduce military influence over politics. The intensified technical talks between Ankara and Brussels as well as ambitious albeit inconclusive diplomatic offensives aimed at settling the Cyprus issue and at normalizing ties with Armenia highlighted the foreign service’s role in the first decade of the 21st century, and the foreign ministers of this period, Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan, respectively, allowed the institution to operate unfettered.

Then, in 2009, Ahmet Davutoğlu arrived. Formerly the chief foreign policy advisor to then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, he was appointed to head the ministry as part of a cabinet reshuffle. The author of “Stratejik Derinlik” (Strategic Depth), a sizeable book in which he outlined his vision for a Turkey whose manifest destiny it is to be a beacon and a natural leader for the states located in former Ottoman territories, this small and bespectacled academic from Central Anatolia made no secret of his disdain for Turkey’s traditional foreign policy, which he often dismissed as overly defensive and unworthy of the country’s potential.

Davutoğlu’s tenure as minister saw the emergence of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of insurgent movements in the Middle East, which he was quick to interpret as an irreversible tide of democratization that would ultimately sweep up the entire region. The most dramatic consequence of this interpretation would be Syria, where, over the years, Turkey evolved from carefully fostering good relations with Damascus to waging a proxy war against it and ultimately to becoming a part of the imbroglio, which happened right after the 2016 coup.

1 – The military entanglement in Syria

 Around 2012 Davutoğlu had full confidence that the newly established Free Syrian Army would prevail over Bashar al-Assad. He famously claimed on a few occasions that Assad would be gone in a matter of weeks. While Turkey did strongly advocate an international military intervention against Damascus in those early years of the conflict, it refrained from signaling an intention to go in by itself. Yet, in a conversation leaked from the ministry in early 2014, Turkey’s intel chief was allegedly heard explaining to Davutoğlu and a top general that his agency could conduct false-flag operations if necessary to create a pretext for a military invasion.

Later that year, Erdoğan was elected president, choosing Davutoğlu to succeed him as prime minister. Davutoğlu’s ministerial office was filled by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, an ordinary and uncharismatic figure from the political ranks who did not have much to bring to the table other than his loyalty to Erdoğan’s leadership.

The Syrian landscape began to fundamentally change in 2014. The first game changer was the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the north, which paved the way for the local Kurds to gain prominence as the only viable partner for countering it on the ground. The next year, Turkey’s peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down, and clashes erupted in the predominantly Kurdish provinces, which ruled out a positive dialogue with the Syrian-based People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen in Ankara as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. The same year, Russia began a military buildup in Syria to shore up Damascus.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan grew uncomfortable with Davutoğlu’s insubordinate ways and forced him to step down as prime minister in April 2016. A few months later, the coup attempt unfolded. After the coup, Turkey undertook three separate military incursions into Syria: first in August 2016 against ISIL-held Al-Bab; secondly in January 2018 against Kurdish militants in Afrin; and in October 2019 against Rojava, which was cut short after an international backlash. Turkey also deployed troops around the rebel-held Idlib as part of a deal with Moscow. The interventions left Turkey bogged down in a stalemate with the YPG in the northeast and with the Syrian army in the northwest, where sporadic escalations claimed the lives of many Turkish soldiers and Ankara found itself increasingly pressured by Moscow to evacuate the rebels from Idlib province. Turkey later deployed some of these irregular militia in its involvement in the Libyan theatre and most recently in the clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the South Caucasus.

Some have argued that it was the post-coup purges in the military that made the cross-border incursions possible as high-ranking officers who opposed getting involved in Syria were dismissed as part of these purges. Hüseyin Konuş, a former diplomat and the director of INSTITUDE, agrees with this assessment.

“It is especially true of the military,” Konuş says. “It was known that the government and the intelligence agency were in favor of going into Syria while the armed forces opposed the idea. The leak in 2014 confirms this. It is not a coincidence that the first military operation took place a month after the attempted coup.”

Ömer Güler, another former diplomat, disagrees. “I don’t see a direct link between the purges and the military interventions. Before the July 2016 coup, Erdoğan and his ruling party were already powerful enough to force their will on the bureaucracy.” Yet others who wished to remain anonymous say they believe the ultimately purged military and civilian bureaucrats could obstruct instructions that were legally unjustifiable, which could be why the government wanted to ensure full bureaucratic loyalty before embarking on its projects.

Servet Akman argues that the damage the coup inflicted on the armed forces’ image might have created an incentive to prove that the Turkish military was still strong, by projecting power in Syria.

The general impression is that the resistance was confined to the military, and the former diplomats do not believe that the high-level diplomatic staff opposed the government’s designs in Syria.

“In the 2010s, the foreign service was inclined to tell the ruling party exactly what it wanted to hear, to say nothing of resisting its policies,” Güler says. “Senior career bureaucrats were drafting memos and policy papers that looked like political party manifestos.”

Konuş agrees. “Anyone who knows the foreign service knows that its employees typically care about their careers and next appointments above everything else. That’s why they are reluctant to warn the political power against mistakes,” he said.

Akman says the ministry suffered from a serious lack of expertise on the region to adequately inform and guide decision makers.

They also agree that the ministry is no longer in a position to play an influential role in the Syria policy. Güler believes the diplomatic ranks partly brought it upon themselves. “For instance, the appointment of ambassadors from outside the ministry is often criticized. Yet, I don’t think there would be a gap of competence between a political appointee and a career ambassador when their job is to tell the government what it wants to hear,” he says. “On the contrary, non-career ambassadors can be more confident in offering their proposals if they feel better connected politically.”

“While Erdoğan has the ultimate say, Hakan Fidan [the intel chief] and Hulusi Akar [the defense minister] are in a strong position, much more influential than Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu,” Akman points out. “When foreign policy is centered around security, it is inevitable for the foreign service to take a backseat to the military and intelligence.”

2 – The ever-growing rift with Washington

 The coup attempt and the government’s initial reactions took place in the last months of the Barack Obama administration in the US. Donald Trump, who replaced him, famously had warm personal feelings for Erdoğan. Yet, the relations between Ankara and Washington were plagued to such an extent that no amount of camaraderie between the leaders could offer substantial remedy.

The post-coup imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been living in Turkey for decades and who faced terrorism-related charges, was ultimately resolved after a harshly worded letter and threats of economic repercussions from Trump.

Demands to stop a New York federal court case in which Turkish state lender Halkbank is charged with defrauding US banks as part of an alleged scheme to circumvent US sanctions on Iran and to secure the extradition of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt, have been constant items on the Turkish side’s bilateral talking points though they have produced no outcome in Ankara’s favor thus far, despite reported attempts by the Trump administration to halt the Halkbank case.

Finally, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian-made S-400 missile defense system led to many apprehensions in Washington and other NATO capitals, prompting a series of US sanctions. Ankara’s recent attempts at defusing the situation seem to have failed.

New US President Joe Biden gave a cold shoulder to Erdoğan in his first few months in office and did not call him until April.

Since the coup attempt, Turkey’s government executives and pro-government media frequently accused the US, either overtly or implicitly, of being behind the putsch, pointing at the US refusal to extradite Gülen as evidence of collaboration. Washington has often been quick to respond and deny any involvement and expressed readiness to extradite Gülen in the event Ankara provides sufficient evidence.

Former diplomats generally believe that Erdoğan and his government’s hostile rhetoric is mostly aimed at consolidating the voter base by capitalizing on the Turkish public’s susceptibility to nationalistic discourse and that Turkish officials have a completely different line in bilateral meetings with US counterparts.

They also think the Turkish government is serious in its request to have Gülen extradited. Güler points to a meeting between Turkish officials and Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn at which they discussed Gülen’s abduction.

“I think the government really thought that Gülen could be extradited at first,” Konuş says. “Because of their mentality, they were unable to conceive of a judiciary independent from the political will.” Konuş adds that after Trump’s departure, it has become even more unlikely for Erdoğan to get what he wants.

The Biden administration has thus far tried to tone down the practice of “summit diplomacy” that prevailed in relations with Ankara during Trump’s term in office. When asked whether this might bring a renewed prominence to the foreign ministry and allow it to repair ties with Washington, the former diplomats were doubtful.

“I don’t think Erdoğan and his office will allow this. And the foreign ministry would not be so eager to take the initiative, either, even it was offered to them,” Güler says. “To prevent any communication failures, it would be wiser for the US to conduct relations with Turkey through Erdoğan’s presidential office.”

Konuş says Turkey has almost no more friends in Washington because of the problems on the bilateral agenda and Erdoğan’s authoritarian drift.

“There is nothing Erdoğan will not do to have a positive relationship with Biden. He could open up more room for maneuver to the foreign ministry if he thinks it would serve that purpose,” Konuş says. “However, as much as the foreign ministry has become his mouthpiece, I don’t personally think he trusts them completely.”

The diplomats also pointed out the recent appointment of Murat Mercan, a political figure from the ranks of Erdoğan’s ruling party, as the new Turkish ambassador in Washington, which they believe is indicative of Erdoğan’s intention to adopt a hands-on style for dealing with transatlantic relations.

3 – The diplomatic isolation

The rift with Washington, the increasing isolation in the Middle East and the reduction of relations with the European Union to a simple give and take on migration, have significantly narrowed Turkey’s diplomatic prospects. After the coup, Ankara was able to further its ties with only a handful of countries such as Qatar, Venezuela and, most interestingly, the United Kingdom.

After the failed coup, the rapprochement with London was palpable, and it took place against the backdrop of growing Western distancing and criticism of Ankara’s constantly worsening human rights record. Some have argued that the UK was seeking to exploit Turkey’s isolation and to use Ankara as a battering ram against the European Union and to thwart Russian designs in Ukraine and the South Caucasus.

For Güler, the rapprochement is an enigma given Turkish conservatives’ traditional dislike and distrust of the UK.

“The British tend to explain their developing ties to Turkey based on their post-Brexit impetus to establish new trade relationships,” Güler says. “Yet, this rhetoric does not really add up as Turkey is a member of the Customs Union, meaning that any deal between the EU and the UK will also define the trade relationship between Turkey and the UK.”

Güler points out that London’s embrace of Erdoğan prompted domestic reactions in Britain, such as a 2017 report by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee that contained significant criticism. He believes that Richard Moore, the chief of MI6 who was the ambassador to Turkey during the 2016 coup, might have been personally influential in the British policy towards Turkey.

Turkey’s post-coup purges in the military and its purchase of the S-400s from Moscow also strained its relations with NATO. Konuş says Ankara’s credibility within NATO has seriously diminished. He points out recent moves by Turkey to obstruct criticism of Belarus and impose its veto on critical decisions to enhance Allies’ security in the Baltics, which have even led some to describe Ankara as a “Trojan horse” within the alliance.

“Turkey’s membership is being questioned on a rather rhetorical level,” Konuş adds. “It is unlikely for this to materialize as NATO does not have an internal mechanism to expel a member.”

4 – The ministry as a tool for transnational repression

 After the attempted coup, the Turkish government’s crackdown on dissent was not limited to Turkey’s national borders. Over the past five years, people in the government’s crosshairs have been harassed in various ways.

Several reports noted Turkey’s attempts at abusing INTERPOL mechanisms to target its critics living abroad. Leaked documents showed that Turkey’s diplomatic representations spied on government critics in several countries including in Europe. Some journalists and politicians living in Europe were on the receiving end of death threats and actual physical assaults in what many suspect to have been orchestrated by machinery under Turkey’s control. In Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia, dozens of members of the Gülen movement were abducted and rendered to Turkey through intelligence operations in which local Turkish diplomatic missions sometimes openly confirmed their participation.

Former diplomats generally agree that these acts, some of which amount to violations of international law, will cause a long-lasting image problem for the Turkish foreign service.

INSTITUDE Secretary-General Mehmet Bozkaya points out that none of the Turkish diplomats involved in the abductions have faced repercussions such as being declared persona non grata, which he attributes to the host countries’ complicity in the incidents. Bozkaya adds that even though the current climate of impunity inside Turkey protects them from prosecution, the diplomats involved in the abductions are supposed to be legally liable, even if they were merely following instructions.

5 – The purges and the institutional degeneration

In addition to the mass dismissal of about 500 career diplomats due to their suspected links to the Gülen movement, another trend that characterized the post-coup era was the exponential proliferation of posts occupied by non-career officials, appointed from among the ruling elite. Of the three current deputy ministers, one is from outside the diplomatic ranks. The appointment of outsiders to embassies, which in the past used to be an exception confined to low-risk countries, is gradually becoming the rule. Political appointees now serve as Turkey’s ambassadors in such important capitals as Washington, The Hague and Beijing.

Simultaneously, some career diplomats, particularly those who are active on social media, grew increasingly partisan and chauvinistic in tone, arguably in an effort to shine in an intensifying competition for embassy assignments. Some career diplomats began to engage in aggressive and unprofessional behavior on Twitter, such as Ali Onaner, the former ambassador to Tunisia who during tension between Turkey and France last year rudely told French President Emmanuel Macron in a tweet to “move along.” A few months later, Onaner was rewarded with reassignment — to the embassy in Paris.

The purges came at a time when Turkey’s network of diplomatic missions was steadily growing and the existing personnel were already overstretched. Harun Güngör, another former diplomat, says many embassies in remote regions such as Africa and South America were already operating on a 1+1 or 1+1+1 basis, meaning that the head of mission was accompanied by only one or two career diplomats, often juniors who were on their first overseas assignment. These new recruits often carried most of the workload, and that is why Güngör believes it was inevitable that there would be a decline in institutional performance, although it’s impossible to measure.

Konuş says the resulting turmoil shortened the duration of appointments, which is traditionally two or three years, to a few months in some cases. He says the ministry could not even update its website for a while after the purges.

*Ali Dinçer lives in Belgium and previously worked for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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