Why Turkey’s coup attempt matters big time for the United States

Updated 2:42 PM EDT, Sat July 16, 2016
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrender on Bosphorus bridge with their hands raised on July 16, 2016  in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul
PHOTO: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JULY 16: Soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrender on Bosphorus bridge with their hands raised on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's bridges across the Bosphorus, the strait separating the European and Asian sides of the city, have been closed to traffic. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced an army coup attempt, that has left atleast 90 dead 1154 injured in overnight clashes in Istanbul and Ankara. (Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Obama convened an emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room Saturday

Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has the second-biggest armed forces in NATO

(CNN) —  

The Turkish government appeared to be regaining control of major cities Saturday the morning after a faction of the Turkish military tried to take over the country. A failed coup in Turkey – a longtime ally of the U.S. and member of NATO – could have significant and wide-ranging implications for the U.S.

That’s particularly the case, since Turkey is one of the world’s few Muslim majority democracies and it sits at a key crossroads between the West and the Middle East, with Turkey playing a critical role in the fight against ISIS in Syria, the handling of Syrian refugees and in serving as a transit point for foreign ISIS fighters.

The impact was felt almost immediately as a key asset in the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign, the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey just 60 miles from the Syrian border, was forced to halt operations amid the uncertainty.

As of Saturday morning, Turkish military authorities had closed the airspace around Incirlik, making it impossible for U.S. airstrike missions against ISIS from that location, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement.

RELATED: Turkish government says situation under control

“U.S. officials are working with the Turks to resume air operations there as soon as possible,” Cook added.

He also said the U.S. military was working to adjust its counter-ISIS operations “to minimize any effects on the campaign.”

A U.S. defense official told CNN that the Pentagon is looking to conduct operations out of other bases in the region because of the Incirlik shutdown, which the military specifically needs to operate drones to fight ISIS, also known as ISIL.

Even once the airspace is reopened, though, the U.S. military may be reluctant to restart operations until it is certain who is in control of the Turkish armed forces.

Additionally, tensions between the U.S. and Turkey could increase as an extradition battle now looms. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, who currently lives in Pennsylvania, of being behind the coup and demanded the U.S. hand him over, though the exiled cleric has denied any involvement.

Here is a look at what else this could mean for the U.S.

White House concerns about Turkish democracy

President Barack Obama convened an emergency meeting in the White House Situation Room Saturday morning to discuss the events in Turkey. According to an official White House statement, the President was briefed on the latest developments on the ground in Turkey and “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for the democratically-elected, civilian government of Turkey.” Obama also underscored shared challenges such as counterterrorism “that will require continued Turkish cooperation.”

The U.S. came out early in favor of the Turkish government, led by its democratically elected president, Erdogan.

Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement Friday night saying he spoke with the Turkish foreign minister and that he had “emphasized the United States’ absolute support for Turkey’s democratically-elected, civilian government and democratic institutions.”

Another statement from the administration noted that Obama had spoken to Kerry about Friday’s events: “The President and secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected government of Turkey.”

U.S.-Turkish relations could get a lot worse

But even though the Obama administration doesn’t want to see one of the world’s few Muslim-majority democracies taken over by the military, it has experienced increasingly frosty relations with Erdogan, whose Islamist party has reversed years of Turkish secularism, maintained power for more than a decade, clamped down on the free press and dissidents, and shown less than full-throated support for the U.S. effort to rout out ISIS and other Islamist extremists.

Now things could get even worse between the two capitals, representing a considerable downgrade from years of strong U.S.-Turkish ties.

During the decades of the Cold War, the two countries enjoyed close relations, with the U.S. successfully collaborating on a range of issues with both democratically and military-led governments headed by many pro-western secularists.

In contrast, the U.S. has struggled with Erdogan’s AKP Party and its moderate Islamist policies, including his diplomatic spat with Israel and his outreach to Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

And Erdogan’s more anti-Western tone and authoritarian behavior – it now ranks behind Russia, Venezuela and Algeria in press freedom – has concerned the U.S. “It’s no secret that there are some trends within Turkey that I have been troubled with,” Obama said in April.

Now there are fears that Erdogan could go much further.

In an early warning sign, the Ankara chief public prosecutor’s office took nearly 200 top Turkish court officials, including members of the supreme court, into custody, Anatolian News Agency reported Saturday. Though Erdogan has frequently railed against and curtailed the judiciary, there has yet to be any evidence that has indicated that its members were behind the coup.

If Erdogan continues to crackdown aggressively on the opposition and jail dissidents not involved with Friday’s events, this could further strain in U.S.-Turkey relations.

U.S. military cooperation with Turkey could suffer

Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has the second-biggest armed forces in NATO and is one of only two Muslim-majority members of the 28-nation defense alliance.

Turkey and the U.S. have had a very close military relationship, with the U.S. operating several military installations there, including the Izmir Air Station and Incirlik Air Base. NATO’s Allied Land Command headquarters, led by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, is also located in Izmir. And NATO announced last week at its summit in Warsaw, Poland, that it would deploy its AWACS reconnaissance planes to Turkey to help combat ISIS.

The spokesman for U.S. European Command, Capt. Danny Hernandez, told CNN that five U.S. military installations in Turkey, including Incirlik, had been placed under the highest threat warning.

The decision to move to the highest level, Hernandez said, was not only because of the current situation but also based on potential threats to U.S. citizens, service members, families and other personnel.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took to Twitter early Saturday to announce that all NATO personnel were safe and accounted for. He also issued his support for the democratically elected government.

And NATO’s top military officer, U.S. Gen. Curtis Scapparotti, said Saturday that “Turkey is a strong NATO Ally and an important partner in the international Coalition against ISIL.”

The Turkish Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, is “highly regarded” in the U.S., Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C., told CNN.

During the coup attempt, Erdogan said Akar had been held hostage by the plotters. Akar appeared with the prime minister on Saturday, signaling strong backing of the government.

But the fallout from the failed coup could have a disruptive impact on this military-to-military cooperation.

“This is not supposed to happen in a NATO country,” Stein, who specializes in U.S.-Turkey relations, said.

Still, Turkey is no stranger to coups, with the military seizing power in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The military was also instrumental in convincing the government to resign in 1997.

During those previous coups, the Turkish officers, largely pro-Western and secular, sought to maintain close relations with NATO and the U.S.

Some of the officers involved in Friday’s putsch said they intended to maintain Turkey’s NATO commitments according to an announcement made on state TV in the early hours.

In contrast, the U.S. has had difficulties working with Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented AKP, which has opposed some U.S. moves in the Middle East. Washington has often felt that Ankara could do more to crack down on Islamist groups in Turkey, stop the flow of forei