Netherlands - Turkey Crisis Explained: What Just Happened Between 400-year-old Allies

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempts to rally expats in Germany and the Netherlands have created a diplomatic meltdown between NATO allies, which may also help boost Geert Wilders.

Young supporters in old military uniforms greet Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives to address a meeting in Istanbul, Sunday, March 5, 2017
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives to address a meeting in Istanbul, days before igniting a diplomatic crisis with the Netherlands. Sunday, March 5, 2017.Credit: Yasin Bulbul/AP

On a mission to rehabilitate its image, Turkey is instead inching closer to being an outcast among Western nations (particularly infuriating the Netherlands and Germany) that seem to understand their NATO ally less and less each day.

Eight months after a failed coup shattered its delicate status quo, Turkey is mounting a concerted but thus far futile campaign to convince the outside world that the horrors of that day justify both its post-coup crackdown and a referendum on strengthening presidential powers to be held on April 16. So too has Turkey been unable to convince the U.S. that the shadowy, exiled cleric it blames for the coup attempt is culpable and must be extradited.

>> Read more: The two people benefiting from the Turkey-Netherlands diplomatic crisis - Analysis | Win or lose, Geert Wilders has won Netherlands' battle for hearts and minds - Analysis >>

Squeezed between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has sought to project an image of a modern democracy that serves as a bulwark against the extremism menacing so many of its Mideast neighbors. Yet a series of self-defeating steps are telling reminders of how wide a gulf still separates Turkey from the Western world.

Erdogan's PR campaign

This past week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stoked tensions further when he accused Germany of "Nazi practices" after Turkish leaders had been prevented from rallying expats in several Germany cities in support of the referendum to expand Erdogan's powers. Many in Europe worry that Erdogan is capitalizing on post-coup fears to push through a more authoritarian system with few checks on his power.

Over the weekend Turkey also sank into a diplomatic spat with the Netherlands, an alliance that has spanned over four centuries and been one of Turkey's most enduring. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called a Turkish allegation that the Dutch acted like "fascists" by banning the foreign minister from entering the Netherlands to campaign "a crazy remark."

"I understand they are angry but this is of course way out of line," Rutte said in the southern Netherlands during a campaign rally for next Wednesday's Dutch elections.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Dutch "do not know politics or international diplomacy" and added, "these Nazi remnants, they are fascists."

Rutte said on Sunday he would do everything to "de-escalate" a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey he described as the worst the Netherlands has experienced in years, after two major incidents on Saturday.

Dutch vote looms large

Rutte, who is running neck and neck with anti-Islam, anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders in Dutch elections to be held on Wednesday, said the Netherlands was within its rights to block Turkish rallies here, as they present a threat to public order.

Around 500,000 Turkish immigrants and their children live in the Netherlands, most of them holding dual nationality and eligible to vote in both countries.

Turkey's leverage

For the West, there are real risks if Turkey feels estranged and mistreated. The country is pivotal to resolving the unrelenting civil war in neighboring Syria, where Turkey and the U.S. are at a logjam over Turkey's distrust of the Syrian Kurdish fighters the U.S. is relying on to fight the Islamic State group. And though Turkey's bid to join the European Union has lost momentum, Turkey holds major leverage by way of its deal with the EU to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, which Turkey has threatened to scuttle.

Turkey's inability to make its case to the West effectively was displayed this week in the capital, Ankara, whose mayor invited a group of American journalists to interview Erdogan and other top officials, including Turkey's foreign minister, intelligence chief and military commander.

After flying to Turkey, the journalists discovered there were no interviews arranged with those officials. Instead, they spoke with other officials, including the mayor, Melih Gokcek, a member of Erdogan's party. He screened graphic videos aiming to reinforce how traumatic the coup attempt had been. Then he offered unfounded conspiracy theories that the U.S. created the Islamic State group and that the U.S. and Israel colluded to artificially trigger an earthquake in Turkey so they could capture energy from the fault line.

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