Washington: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly emboldened after crushing a coup attempt, is testing his country’s key defence relationship by demanding the US turn over a cleric he accuses of inspiring the uprising.

Erdogan on Saturday challenged President Barack Obama directly to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania, saying the US needs to do what is necessary “if we are truly strategic partners." That came hours after the US and other NATO allies threw their support behind Turkey’s democratically elected government.

Erdogan’s demand, the mention of the two countries’ alliance and Saturday’s closing of a strategic air base used by the US in the fight against Islamic State hinted he may be willing to use Turkey’s role as a key NATO member as leverage to exact revenge after the failed coup. That, in turn, may force the Obama administration to confront anew the uneasy nature of its relationship with Erdogan, who has shown an increasing bent toward authoritarianism while allowing coalition troops on Turkish soil and hosting nearly 3 million refugees from Syria.

Also Read: A failed coup in Turkey, as it unfolded

“You have to begin to be concerned that if the US continues to resist the extradition request and other requirements, would the Turkish government restrict use of Incirlik, would they start impacting our operations against ISIS," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are a crucial ally—the location is very, very important, but they have been an extremely challenging ally to work with."

Strategic location

Turkey’s strategic importance arises from being a majority-Muslim nation positioned between Europe and Asia, a bridge that has served as an entryway for refugees fleeing violence in neighbouring Syria. That border has been a frustration for the Obama administration, which has pressed Turkey to shut it down to stop extremists reaching Syria. The country hosts about 1,500 American military personnel and aircraft at Incirlik Air Base, a staging point for the fight against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.

In a potentially disturbing sign, operations at Incirlik were halted Saturday after the Turkish government closed its airspace to military aircraft and commercial power to the facility was cut off, according to Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. US officials are adjusting flight operations to minimize disruptions in operations against Islamic State, Cook said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday discussed in a phone call the need to ensure operational support in the terrorism fight, with Kerry adding that “public insinuations or claims about any role by the US in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations," according to spokesman John Kirby.

Obama convened a conference call with defence and foreign policy advisers Saturday morning from the White House. He reiterated US support for the democratically elected government and “registered the vital need for all parties in Turkey to act within the rule of law and to avoid actions that would lead to further violence or instability," according to a White House readout of the call. Obama “also underscored the shared challenges that will require continued Turkish cooperation, including our joint efforts against terrorism."

Also Read: Turkey detains 6,000 in crackdown after failed coup

Clashes and explosions across the country’s capital, Ankara, and its largest city, Istanbul, left almost 200 dead in the coup attempt, including several dozen plotters, before the government regained control on Saturday and arrested more than 2,800 military personnel.

Erdogan and members of his administration quickly shifted the focus to Gulen, who was once an ally of Erdogan’s in his battle for control of the country against the secularist army. Gulen, in an interview Saturday on AP Television, denied any role in the coup.

In his speech, Erdogan said Turkey had been preparing an application seeking extradition with details about Gulen’s involvement in illegal activities. “After last night, we have one more thing to add to an already extensive list," he said.

Slim chance

The chances of the US extraditing Gulen, who has lived in the country for nearly 20 years, are slim, said Brett Bruen, a former official in Obama’s National Security Council and now president of the Global Situation Room consulting firm.

“I don’t see a scenario at the moment at least in which he is extradited to Turkey," Bruen said. “The evidence that has been presented that he was somehow behind this coup is still not there. And obviously there would be very real concerns about what would befall him if he were turned over to Turkish authorities."

Kerry said the US anticipates having “some discussion" with Turkey about extraditing Gulen. The justice department declined to comment on whether it is looking into Gulen, and a law enforcement official said a formal request from Turkey will be required to take any action against him.

“The US will obviously be supportive of any legitimate investigative efforts, and under due process and within the law, we will be completely supportive of efforts to assist the government of Turkey, if they so request," Kerry said.

“The natural thing here is to understand what Gulen and his followers actually did, first, and if appropriate, to ensure he is held accountable in some way if in fact he did inspire or encourage a coup," said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

While the US backed Erdogan’s government during the coup attempt, a disagreement over Gulen would only further strain a relationship that has been deteriorating for some time.

Over the last three years, Erdogan had been tightening his grip on power, stifling debate while fighting accusations of corruption. That has polarized the nation and rattled investors. With criticism of Erdogan’s ruling style increasing, Obama this spring declined to have an official meeting with the Turkish leader, who was in Washington for a nuclear security summit. At the time, Obama said Erdogan’s policies risked leading his nation down a “troubling" path.

“To have this country thrown into crisis, that’s bad news for NATO, it’s bad news for the US," said Julie Smith, director of the Center for a New American Security’s strategy and statecraft program and a former deputy national security adviser to vice-president Joe Biden. “We need Turkey for so many of the challenges we face today, and yet we’re going to have to be delivering some tough love as well." Bloomberg

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