Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sought to minimize Wednesday the impact of the failed coup in Turkey and the ensuing purge of military officers on the NATO alliance and the campaign against ISIS.
Despite the recent anti-U.S. rhetoric from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has demanded the extradition of a Muslim cleric in Pennsylvania, Carter said, “We support the democratically elected government.”
The secretary added, “I don’t have any indication” that the failed coup and Erdogan’s tough response would affect Turkey’s continuing membership in NATO. “The alliance is very strong, our relationship is very strong,” he said of Turkey, a founding member of NATO.
Carter also said he expected commercial power that was cut to the U.S. air base at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey following the coup attempt last Friday to be restored shortly, along with full flight operations that are vital to the air campaign against ISIS in Syria.
In a statement, the Pentagon said that Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford phoned his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, on Wednesday and they “broadly discussed operations in Incirlik and the deep commitment the U.S. has to Turkey.”
Carter spoke at a news conference at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, following the opening session of two days of meetings with the defense and foreign ministers of more than 30 nations in the anti-ISIS coalition on the next steps to eliminate the terror group’s remaining strongholds.
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu were no-shows at Andrews. Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kilic, represented his government at the meetings, which will continue at the State Department on Thursday.
After failing to make contact with Isik in the aftermath of the coup, Carter said they spoke by phone Tuesday and he told Isik, “I was glad that he was safe and the ministry was functioning. He assured me very clearly that nothing that happened over the weekend will interrupt their support” for the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
Erdogan responded to the attempted coup with a wide-ranging purge of the ranks of the military, police, judiciary, media and academia.
By some counts, more than 50,000 people have been fired or suspended, and more than 9,000 have been detained on suspicion of supporting the coup that Erdogan has blamed on supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, now living in Pennsylvania.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup, but the Turkish government on Tuesday said that paperwork had been filed with the State Department demanding his extradition. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to review the extradition request while adding that the U.S. would adhere strictly to the law.
The purge has devastated the ranks of the Turkish military, with at least 118 generals and admirals now under detention, including the commander of Incirlik air base, which is shared by the U.S. 39th Air Base Wing and the Turkish air force.
Erdogan told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the attempted coup, which left at least 240 dead and more than 1,000 wounded, was carried out by a minority within the armed forces.
“It is clear that they are in the minority,” Erdogan said. “This organization that we called a terrorist organization [Gulen’s] is trying to make the minority dominate the majority. We have taken all the steps necessary to prevent such an event.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, analyst Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations said the failed coup and Erdogan’s harsh response had reduced U.S.-Turkey relations to their “lowest point” in recent times.
“It’s hard to refer to Turkey as a democracy,” Cook said. The U.S. “has to start asking questions about the value of Turkey as an ally,” but has been reluctant to do so because of Turkey’s membership in NATO and the importance of Incirlik air base in the fight against ISIS, Cook said.
However, “the Turks have been reluctant to get involved in fight against the Islamic State,” Cook said. “By their own admission, they’re much more concerned about Kurdish nationalism.”