WASHINGTON — U.S officials appeared caught off guard after an attempted coup in Turkey Friday night.
The State Department scrambled to alert citizens in Turkey, urging them to shelter in place and check in with family members in the U.S. The White House said President Obama had spoken with Secretary of State John Kerry, and both urged “all parties” in Turkey to support the democratically elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and “avoid violence or bloodshed,” but the statement avoided using the word “coup.”
Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the war against ISIS, and also a member of NATO, where it’s considered a critical launching pad for Western operations in the Middle East — and Western officials will be parsing reactions carefully. Turkey is not a major recipient of foreign aid dollars from the U.S. — but it’s a key military ally. It’s one of the top 10 recipients of U.S. military gear, and a critical partner in the fight against ISIS.
U.S. law “restricts assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree,” so the answer to this question would steer the answers to all others.
The State Department has simply called it an “uprising,” carefully avoiding the word “coup.”
Washington punted on answering this question during the 2013 coup in Egypt, when the leader of the Egyptian army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, led an overthrow of then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The White House refused to call it a coup, and quietly continued sending foreign aid to Cairo, which was seen as an implicit endorsement of the new government.
The situation is even more complicated in Turkey, where the U.S. maintains around 1,800 military personnel, at both the U.S. Embassy and Incirlik air base, in southern Turkey, according to United States European Command. If the suspected coup succeeds, and the U.S. maintains its military presence in Turkey, it would be seen as a quiet approval of the overthrow.
If the U.S. did opt to remove military personnel in the event of a successful coup, it would mean an operational reshuffling in the fight against ISIS. Since gaining access to Incirlik air base in spring of 2015, U.S. and coalition partners have been flying out of the southern Turkey base to bomb ISIS strongholds. If it were to opt to withdraw personnel from Turkey, it would have to rely on its Gulf bases to launch attacks against ISIS.
As of Friday night, the attempted coup had “no impact” on the U.S.’s military operations in the country, a U.S. official told BuzzFeed News. "[U.S.] air ops have continued from Incirlik. Literally birds in the sky."
Across Washington, it was clear that responses were purely reactionary — it took more than two hours after first reports emerged of the violence for the White House to make any public statement. In the hours immediately following the attempted overthrow, officials across the White House, State Department and Pentagon simply said they were monitoring as the situation unfolded. If the U.S. was indeed blindsided by the attempted overthrow Friday afternoon, it will have to take a long, hard look at why such a consequential event — with a NATO ally, no less— took them by such surprise.
Mike Giglio contributed reporting.