Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, was put in the position Friday of denying that he backed the attempted coup in Turkey following a tirade aimed at him by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"Any reporting that I had anything to do with the recent unsuccessful coup attempt in Turkey is unfortunate and completely inaccurate," Votel said in a statement.
"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," he said in response to Erdogan's inflammatory remarks accusing him of "taking the side" of the coup plotters.
Erdogan, speaking at a police headquarters that was bombed by the coup leaders, took issue with an interview Votel gave Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado in which he said that there was "friction" in U.S.-Turkey military relations since the attempt to bring down the government.
"We have certainly had relationships with a lot of Turkish leaders -- military leaders in particular," said Votel, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command and one of the most respected officers in uniform. "I am concerned about what the impact is on those relationships as we continue."
Referring to Votel, Erdogan said, "It's not up to you to make that decision. Who are you? Know your place! You are taking the side of coup plotters instead of thanking this state for defeating the coup attempt" on July 15 that left more than 300 dead on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara.
The immediate concern raised by Erdogan's outburst was for continued flight operations out of the U.S. airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey against ISIS in Syria. Turkey briefly halted flights out of Incirlik following the coup and also cut off commercial power to the base. The power was restored five days later.
"The coalition would prefer to fly out of Incirlik" against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, but could compensate from other bases in the region and naval aircraft, said Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. "We're able to mitigate and deal with instances where we're unable to fly from certain locations," he said.
On Thursday, at least 500 demonstrators – Turkish media gave varying estimates on their numbers -- were at the gates of Incirlik burning U.S. flags and demanding an end to the U.S. presence. Pentagon officials said flight operations continued during the demonstrations.
In March, about 600 of the 700 U.S. military families in Turkey were evacuated. Last week, Pentagon officials said about 100 dependents remained in Turkey. Cook said he was not aware of any changes in the status of the dependents still in Turkey.
At a Pentagon briefing defending Gen. Votel, Cook said the "U.S. has repeatedly condemned the failed coup in Turkey" and added that "we continue to have excellent military relations with Turkey." Any suggestion that Votel was involved in a coup against Turkey, a close NATO ally, "would be absurd," he said.
Cook said U.S. military officials were in constant contact with their Turkish counterparts but could not cite any contacts since Erdogan made the charges against Votel. He said that the last time Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik was on July 19.
Turkish suspicions about the U.S. have been heightened by the presence in Pennsylvania of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and former ally of Erdogan who turned against him and went into exile. Turkey has demanded the extradition of Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup.
Erdogan lashed out at Gulen again on Friday, and accused the U.S. of being ungrateful to him for putting down the coup by a faction of army leaders. "Instead of thanking this government for thwarting this coup attempt, and for democracy, you are standing by the putschists," Erdogan said of the U.S.
He made clear that the main "putschist" to him was Gulen. "The putschist is already in your country, you are looking after him. This is a known fact," said Erdogan, who has ordered a crackdown since the coup attempt that has led to thousands of arrests, including those more than 150 generals and admirals.
At the Aspen forum on Thursday, Votel made reference to the loss of contacts with many high-ranking Turkish officers since some were now behind bars. "Yes, I think some of them are in jail," Votel said.
The general said he was concerned that the coup's aftermath "will have an impact on the operations that we do. I am concerned that it will impact the level of cooperation and collaboration that we have with Turkey."
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, offered similar views in his own remarks at the Aspen forum. "Many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested," he said.
"There's no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks" when it comes to intelligence, especially in counterterrorism, Clapper said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.