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A widening purge of Turkish institutions in the wake of a failed coup is sweeping up U.S. contacts in the NATO country and setting back cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, top U.S. intelligence and military officials said.
Political turbulence following the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his subsequent crackdown on dissent is "something to be very, very concerned about," General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. Turkish-U.S. relations have been strained by the coup, which Erdogan blames on a U.S.-based political rival, Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition he is demanding.
“Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, also speaking at the annual forum. “There’s no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks" when it comes to intelligence, especially in counterterrorism, he added.
Home of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s second-biggest military and strategically located between Europe and Asia, Turkey plays a vital role for the coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. At least 60,000 people have been fired or suspended from the bureaucracy, military, security services, judiciary, Finance Ministry and academia since the failed July 15-16 coup. An additional 1,600 soldiers, including 149 generals and admirals, were dismissed just hours after Erdogan huddled with the chief of the armed forces.
Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said he spoke with Hulusi Akar, head of Turkey’s military, after the coup attempt. Akar told him the current situation is "stressful" but he was "positive," and underscored Turkey’s commitment as a "solid ally" to NATO, Scaparrotti said, adding that he intends to visit Akar as soon as he can.
"Some of the officers that we have our relationships with in Turkey are now either detained, in some cases retired as a result of the coup," Scaparrotti said. "We’ve got some work to do there."
In a late-night press conference on Thursday, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin announced that Turkey’s military would retain continuity in its top leadership positions after the coup attempt. Akar kept his job as chief of staff, as did the commanders of the three main branches of the military: the army, navy and air force. Thousands of lower-level officers are being replaced, however.
President Barack Obama last week rejected accusations that the U.S. knew about the coup in advance or supported it. He said he told Erdogan on a phone call that “he needs to make sure that not just he, but everybody in his government understand that those reports are completely false because when rumors like that start swirling around, that puts our people at risk on the ground in Turkey and it threatens what is a critical alliance and partnership between the United States and Turkey.”
Gulen, 75, has also rejected any involvement in the attempted putsch.
As a NATO partner, it would be common for Turkey’s military officers to participate in exchanges with colleagues in the U.S. and Europe and take part in joint exercises and missions. Votel said the coup’s aftermath “will have an impact on the operations that we do. I am concerned that it will impact the level of cooperation and collaboration that we have with Turkey."
Lingering “friction" in Turkey is already impacting some of the coalition’s current operations, Votel said. He cited the situation at the Incirlik military base in southern Turkey, which hosts about 1,500 American military personnel and aircraft -- as well as European troops -- where power was cut off for several days after the putsch.
Distrust about the U.S. may also be helping push Turkey closer to Russia. While Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last year, Erdogan has been moving to repair frayed relations between the nations and will meet President Vladimir Putin for talks in St. Petersburg next month. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek this week described Russia as not “just our close and friendly neighbor, but also a strategic partner.”
That change comes as U.S. ties with Russia are also increasingly strained amid reports by cybersecurity companies and some Democrats that Moscow was behind a hack and subsequent leak of thousands of documents from the Democratic National Committee. Putin’s government has repeatedly rejected those allegations.
While both Clapper and Votel declined to comment when asked about Russia’s reputed role in the hack, citing an ongoing FBI investigation, Clapper said the country has a history of trying to influence political processes among its neighbors and it wouldn’t be a “great leap” to imagine they would also try that in the U.S.
"Putin is somewhat of a throwback, not to the communist era but more of a throwback to the czar era," he said. "The Russians have, are now and will continue to employ methods and approaches and techniques below direct military confrontation to fulfill that vision of being a great power on a co-equal basis with us."