Pentagon’s Top General Seeks to Cool Anti-American Sentiment in Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey (The Washington Post) —
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a campaign update from a U.S. service member near Erbil, Iraq, on Sunday. (Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro/The Washington Post)
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a campaign update from a U.S. service member near Erbil, Iraq, on Sunday. (Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro/The Washington Post)

The chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff visit with top Turkish officials here Monday was, for the most part, conciliatory, despite growing anti-American sentiment following last month’s coup attempt and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent public scolding of U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel.

The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Turkey following the failed coup, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford arrived at the joint U.S.-Turkish air base in Incirlik Sunday before proceeding to the capital, where he met with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, chief of the Turkish General Staff; Prime Minister Binali Yildirim; and Ismail Kahram, the speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

Dunford said the Turkish general described the night of the coup to him, saying at one point that he was drugged and had a gun held to his head by the plotters. According to a senior defense official, some of the Turkish military faction behind the attempted overthrow of the government called Dunford’s office in Washington from Akar’s phone number, but Dunford was visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan and did not receive the call.

“The tone in all three meetings was very positive and non-accusatory at all,” Dunford said to a small group of reporters accompanying him on the trip, adding that Erdogan’s remarks about Votel, the current commander of the U.S. Central Command, did not come up in any of his conversations.

Centcom is responsible for overseeing U.S. operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

On Thursday, while speaking at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, Votel said that he was worried about the “longer-term” ramifications for joint U.S.-Turkish counterterrorism operations following the failed coup, adding that many of the Turkish generals arrested in the days after had worked with the United States.

Votel’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Erdogan the next day.

“Instead of thanking this country which repelled a coup attempt, you take the side of the coup plotters.” Erdogan said. That same day, Votel issued a statement of his own refuting any notion that he was involved with or supported the coup.

The seemingly heated exchange between a high-ranking U.S. general and the president of Turkey is the latest example of what appears to be a growing distrust of the United States in Turkey following the July 15 coup attempt. In the days after the coup, Turkish authorities cut power to Incirlik, a key U.S. installation in the fight against the Islamic State, and proceeded to close the airspace over the base as Turkish officials rushed to account for any of their aircraft used in the coup. Though operations resumed relatively quickly, the base was force to run on generator power until July 22.

Despite the Pentagon’s attempt to play down the base’s temporary closure, a U.S. official in Iraq, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue, said that combat operations, especially around the Syrian city of Manbij, were significantly impacted as the coup unfolded.

“Having Incirlik back open is a major thing,” the official said. “To say that Incirlik closing wouldn’t have a significant impact on our operations is not a true statement.”

In the days since, protests near the front gate of Incirlik have called for the United States to vacate the primarily Turkish facility. Social media campaigns, including some stoked by the mayor of Ankara, have called for American forces to leave. Yet despite the public outcry, Dunford reaffirmed Monday that the American presence at Incirlik will continue with strong support from the Turkish government.

Dunford added that his conversations with Turkish officials also included repeated references to Turkey’s request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by officials here of orchestrating the coup attempt. Gulen, a reclusive Turkish preacher, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish officials have said relations with the United States will suffer if Gulen is not extradited.

Dunford said that he emphasized to the officials here that he would ensure that the Turkish perspective on Gulen is relayed to Washington.

The anger over Gulen’s presence in the United States — and what many Turks view as the Obama administration’s halfhearted condemnation of the coup — has whipped up anti-American sentiment. And some Turkish media outlets have fed the outrage with reports that blame U.S. generals and other Americans for orchestrating the coup, including Votel and Gen. John Campbell, who recently led U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

For instance, one government newspaper — Yeni Safak — reported that it was the United States that planned to give Erdogan’s coordinates to a Turkish kill-or-capture squad on the night of the assault. And in an indictment of alleged coup plotters, a local Turkish prosecutor claimed that the suspects had been trained by both the FBI and the CIA.

“Whether the U.S. has any direct or indirect ties with the July 15 coup attempt will remain a critical subject matter,” columnist Burhanettin Duran wrote in the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper on Monday.

“The use of Incirlik Air Base on the night of July 15, and the reluctance displayed in the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, will keep the subject alive in many people’s minds,” he wrote.

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