By Jonathan Landay and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The attempted military coup in Turkey could hamper the United States in its war against Islamic State in Syria and undermine other U.S. goals in the Middle East by weakening democracy and sparking prolonged instability in the NATO pact’s only Muslim member.
With the Turkish military and security services apparently split as gunfire and explosions rocked both Istanbul and the capital Ankara on Friday night, the United States made clear it was siding with the government of President Tayyip Erdogan.
Relations between Erdogan’s government and the U.S. administration have been rocky, but he has broadly cooperated in the fight against Islamic State.
“The United States views with gravest concern events unfolding in Turkey,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday. He later stressed Washington’s “absolute support” for the democratically elected government during a phone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Whatever the outcome, analysts said, the U.S. ally now faces a period of political and economic instability. That could divert the Turkish military and security services from stemming a recent series of attacks blamed on Islamic State, fighting a Kurdish insurrection and shutting off the flow of foreign militants across its border to and from Syria.
“From the U.S. perspective, the worst case scenario might be an ineffective coup that pitches Turkey into a prolonged power struggle,” said Blaize Misztal, the national security director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“Even a quickly executed coup which met little resistance would be destabilizing, but a partial or unsuccessful coup would lead to much more instability ahead.”
Turkey, the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, has NATO’s second-largest army after that of the United States, and is the region’s largest economy. Despite a history of military coups, the country of 75 million people is the region’s oldest democracy, and has helped provide stability in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
“This could be one of the most critical challenges of the Obama administration. A stable Turkey is crucial to American interests in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus,” said Bruce Riedel, of the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst. “A democratic Turkey, even if flawed, is essential to any hopes of political reform in the Middle East.”
Turkey is host to important U.S. and NATO military facilities. They include Incirlik Air Base, from which U.S. fighters and drones hit Islamic State in neighboring Syria, a CIA base from which the agency has been supporting moderate Syrian rebel forces, U.S. listening posts and an early warning radar for NATO’s European missile defense system.
Turkey was scheduled to attend a meeting near Washington next week of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, although it was unclear if the attempted coup would affect that.
U.S. officials have criticized Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism, Turkey’s support for Islamist opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the slow pace in sealing its border with Syria to foreign fighters.
For his part, Erdogan has been angered by U.S. support for Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State that he considers allies of the PKK, the rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds.
“The key point is, the (Obama) administration would always support a democratically elected government in this situation,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and a former senior White House adviser on Turkey.
U.S. interests will suffer no matter the outcome of the coup attempt, said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.
If the coup fails, Erdogan’s “hand will be strengthened and we’ll see more of his autocratic agenda,” Tol said. “And if it succeeds, this means . . . further instability for Turkey domestically.”
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mark Hosenball. Editing by John Walcott and Stuart Grudgings.)