Long-standing partners in NATO and officially fighting side-by-side against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, the US and Turkey have endured severe strains in recent months that were aggravated by the foiled coup in mid-July.
The commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, issued a statement Friday asserting that he had no link to the coup attempt in Turkey, an unusual move by one of the highest-ranked US military leaders.
“Any reporting that I had anything to do with the recent unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey is unfortunate and completely inaccurate,” Votel said.
“Turkey has been an extraordinary and vital partner in the region for many years. We appreciate Turkey’s continuing cooperation and look forward to our future partnership in the counter-ISIL fight,” the general said, referring to the Islamic State group.
Votel’s comments came after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier in the day directly linked him to the overthrow attempt.
President Barack Obama’s administration also weighed in, with White House spokesman Eric Schultz saying of Erdogan’s accusation: “It is entirely false.”
Obama considers Erdogan “a close ally,” the spokesman said.
“We work together on a number of the president’s international priorities” including the fight against the Islamic State, he added.
Erdogan on Friday accused Votel of siding with Turkey’s coup plotters, a day after the general reportedly commented that the country’s turmoil could downgrade military cooperation with Washington.
“You are taking the side of coup plotters instead of thanking this state for defeating the coup attempt,” Erdogan said in angry remarks at a military center in Golbasi near Ankara, where air strikes left dozens dead during the failed putsch on July 15.
According to US media reports, Votel had said the coup bid and subsequent round-up of dozens of generals could affect American military cooperation with Turkey.
In particular, Votel reportedly suggested the US had lost key Turkish military interlocutors who are now in jail and accused of being behind the coup.
On Thursday the Turkish government undertook a major shake-up of its military forces after the July 15-16 coup attempt.
It fired nearly half of the generals and arrested hundreds of officers, accusing them of having links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames as the mastermind of the uprising.
The White House said Friday that officials had received documents from the Turkish government requesting extradition of the cleric from Pennsylvania.
“That is being assessed through the proper channels,” Shultz said. He declined to say when a US decision would be made.
Turkey is a key member of the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State jihadists in Syria, with its Incirlik air base used as a launch hub for raids on the group.