Did a U.S. think tank sponsor a military coup? Turkey thinks so.

People chant slogans as they gather at a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim square, Turkey in July.
(Emrah Gurel / Associated Press)

Bespectacled and slightly balding, Washington academic Henri J. Barkey hardly appears the type to mastermind political revolt and foreign intrigue.

But as Turkey’s government seeks to cast blame for a recent failed military coup, Barkey — and the prominent Washington think tank where he works — have come into Ankara’s cross-hairs.

For the record:

12:50 p.m. Aug. 22, 2019An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Turkey as the lone Muslim country in the NATO military alliance. Albania, which also is predominantly Muslim, joined NATO in 2009.

“Now I plotted the coup,” Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said sarcastically Tuesday.


Barkey, who was born in Turkey, was attending a long-planned academic conference on an island off Istanbul on July 15 when Turkish army, navy and air force units sought to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The failed putsch left about 250 people dead, hundreds injured and widespread allegations that a Turkish cleric living in rural Pennsylvania, the White House, the CIA — and now a widely respected U.S. think tank — secretly orchestrated the attempted overthrow of a key American ally.

In recent days, pro-government newspapers in Turkey have splashed Barkey’s supposed CIA connections across their front pages — he worked on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 1998 to 2000 — all but accusing him of James Bond-like subterfuge.

The accusations “have become more and more salacious, more and more outrageous,” said Barkey, who is a keen and oft-quoted critic of his native land’s politics.

The Wilson Center, which was established by Congress in 1968 as part of the Smithsonian Institution, has denied any involvement, and no proof has emerged suggesting otherwise. In a statement, the center expressed concern about “possible reprisals” against the researchers and scholars who attended the conference.

“Not all that long ago, Turkey was an example of the possibility of democracy in the Middle East,” Barkey’s colleague Haleh Esfandiari wrote Tuesday on the center’s website. “But it has started down the slippery slope of its neighbors. Internal disorders are blamed on CIA machinations. Academic activity is being criminalized.”


For its part, the Obama administration roundly condemned the attempted military overthrow of one of the two Muslim members of NATO. It also has criticized the Erdogan government’s harsh crackdown since mid-July, sparking anger in Ankara.

More than 50,000 people, from generals to schoolteachers and journalists, have been arrested or fired for supposed complicity with the effort to overthrow an increasingly authoritarian government.

Erdogan has accused Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, of fomenting the attempted coup. Turkish officials have publicly demanded Gulen’s extradition, but U.S. officials have given no sign of approving the request.

As anti-American fever has surged, U.S.-Turkish ties have increasingly frayed — a worrisome development for the Obama administration, which uses the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to launch airstrikes against Islamic State positions in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

In what appeared a snub of the White House, Erdogan flew to Russia and met Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, an effort to thaw relations with the longtime rival.

It was Erdogan’s first trip abroad since the coup attempt, and he peppered his remarks at a joint news conference with references to his “dear friend Vladimir.”


The two leaders pledged to mend a diplomatic rift that opened when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane last November on the Syrian border, an incident for which Erdogan had already apologized.

Russia and Turkey will “continue our contacts at every level, and intensify them,” Erdogan said, alluding to joint natural gas and nuclear power projects.

Turkey’s effort to cozy up to Russia is alarming to European allies in NATO, especially given Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and the upper hand he has taken in Syria against U.S. interests.

Turkey’s relations with Europe have been fraught for a decade as its once-bright hopes to join the European Union faded away. And as Erdogan’s rule grew more authoritarian, European leaders and human rights groups have intensified criticism of the erosion of press freedoms and other liberties.

But last year’s migrant crisis — when more than a million asylum seekers headed to Europe — made clear that Erdogan remained a much-needed if vexing ally. Turkey agreed to stem the flow of humanity across part of the Aegean Sea, and to accept migrants turned back by Greece, in exchange for some powerful incentives.

That pact, together with raising physical barriers on the western Balkan route that hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees had used, has dramatically slowed the rate of arrivals to Europe this year, easing political pressure on leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel.


Under the migration agreement, European leaders offered visa-free travel for Turks to Europe’s so-called Schengen zone, but missed a June target for putting that provision into effect. Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks were to have been expedited, and Europe also promised a significant infusion of cash to ease the burden of caring for refugees.

Last month’s attempted coup put sharp new stresses on the shaky accord. Erdogan has repeatedly accused European leaders — as he has Washington — of failing to provide wholehearted support as he seeks to purge his supposed enemies.

Erdogan doubled down on his crackdown by threatening to reinstate Turkey’s death penalty. That is anathema to most European leaders and is an automatic bar to EU membership.

At a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, the Turkish leader told a vast and wildly cheering crowd that if reimposing capital punishment was the will of the people, he would abide by it.

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“Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the nation,” he told the flag-waving throng. “Since you are demanding the death penalty … after our parliament takes such a decision … I hereby express that I will approve it.”


The Turkish leader also stepped up threats to abrogate the migration deal and to refuse turned-back asylum seekers.

In an interview Monday in the French newspaper Le Monde, he accused Europe of not behaving in a “sincere manner” with Turkey, citing the failure to implement the visa waiver on June 1.

“If our demands are not satisfied, then the readmissions [of rejected migrants] will no longer be possible,” he said.

Despite the tensions, some analysts contend the migration accord will survive — if only because Turkey’s economic woes have left Erdogan vulnerable to pressure.

“Fundamentally he cannot afford a really big fallout with the EU,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington. “The economic relationship is too important at this point.”



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