John Kerry addresses Turkey’s comments over the cleric Fethullah Gülen as countries’ fragile relationship grows more strained.
Turkey has allowed US warplanes to resume airstrikes in Syria and Iraq from the Incirlik airbase, the Pentagon announced on Sunday, after a failed coup and arrests shut down the base and shook the already fragile relations between the countries.
“After close coordination with our Turkish allies, they have reopened their airspace to military aircraft,” the Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said. Airstrikes against targets in Syria and Iraq have resumed “at all air bases in Turkey”, he added.
The government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan only agreed to let the US fly from its bases last year, months after a US-led campaign began against Islamic State and other jihadi groups.
In the aftermath of the coup, led by a faction within the military, Turkish officials said officers at the Incirlik base had been arrested. There was no suggestion that American troops were in involved in any way but missions were halted, raising concerns about the future of the allied campaign.
“Apparently there may have been some refuelling that took place with the Turkish air force with planes that were flying with the coup itself,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, told CNN on Sunday. “It’s not focused on us.”
Kerry added that he had spoken with his Turkish counterpart.
“They have absolutely assured us of their commitment to the fight against Daesh,” he said, using another name for Isis.
But Kerry also offered an unusually harsh rebuke of Turkish officials who have made a slew of demands and insinuations about the US and the coup.
“It’s irresponsible to have accusations of American involvement when we’re simply waiting for their request,” Kerry told CNN’s State of the Union. “The United States is not harboring anybody. We’re not preventing anything from happening.”
In the aftermath of the failed putsch, Erdoğan demanded that the US arrest or deport one of his oldest political enemies, Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who left Turkey in 1999. “I say if we are strategic partners then you should bring about our request,” he said.
Even while protesters wrestled with soldiers in the streets and the outcome of the coup was far from certain – much less who was behind it – Erdoğan and his allies blamed it on Gülen, who now lives at a compound in the quiet Pennsylvania town of Saylorsburg.
“I have a message for Pennsylvania: you have engaged in enough treason against this nation,” Erdoğan said on Saturday. “If you dare, come back to your country.”
That same morning, the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, made an oblique warning to the US at large.
“I do not think any country would support [Gülen], the leader of a terrorist organization,” he said. “Countries standing by this person will not be a friend of Turkey.”
In Saylorsburg, Gülen told a small group of reporters that included a Guardian writer: “I don’t believe that the world believes the accusations made by President Erdoğan. There is a possibility that it could be a staged coup and it could be meant for further accusations [against Gülen and his followers].”
On Sunday, Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, went so far as to predict the US would quickly accede to Erdoğan’s demands.
“The United States would weaken itself by protecting [Gülen]. It would harm its reputation,” he said.
Kerry was emphatic, however, that though the US would consider a petition, “we’ve never had a formal request for extradition”.
He added that such a request would also require proof of wrongdoing that met the legal standards of American courts.
“Give us the evidence. Show us the evidence,” he said. “We need a solid legal foundation that meets the standard of extradition in order for our courts to meet the request.”
Gülen “categorically” denied any involvement in the attempted coup, and denounced its plotters.
“Now that Turkey is on the path to democracy, it cannot turn back,” he said.
But Turkish demands, made while its president has had more than 6,000 officers, soldiers, judges and prosecutors arrested in mass purges, have worsened worries in the US that the Erdoğan is using the failed coup as an opportunity to crack down on dissent and democratic rights. On Saturday, Erdoğan called the crisis “a gift from God” because it would let him “cleanse the army”.
“We’ve expressed that concern that this not fuel a reach well beyond those who engaged the coup,” Kerry told ABC News, “but that they strengthen democracy in the country, strengthen the process and use this as a moment to unite the country.”