Turkey, Erdogan, and the Coup that Wasn’t
World Policy Journal article by ICSVE Deputy Director Ahmet S Yayla, Ph.D.
By Ahmet S. Yayla
Friday’s unsuccessful attempt at a military coup in Turkey unfolded against the backdrop of continued struggles between Erdogan and the AKP Government. However strongly Western democracies may oppose military intervention, it is essential that we examine the underlying causes of this attempt in order to better understand what it means for Turkey and for the world.
Turkey has fallen into turmoil after having isolated itself from its Western allies over the last few years. Beginning in 2014, Erdogan has resorted to increasingly repressive measures against domestic opposition groups and placed extreme limitations on free media, both steps that have eroded the foundations of democracy in Turkey. Erdogan’s policies regarding the Syrian conflict have also worsened Turkey’s isolation, in addition to its deteriorating relationships with the EU and Russia. This seclusion from the world, combined with instability in the country and the region, have caused enormous economic stress.
Turkey has deemed it in its best interests to grant open and hidden support to terrorist groups including Al-Nusra and ISIS. In fact, the bloodshed in Syria might have been far less had Turkey not allowed the passage of foreign fighters through its borders and provided logistical and military support to terrorist organizations. Erdogan’s threats to open Turkey’s borders and send Syrian refugees to Europe have also strained its relationships with the EU.
In addition, an international crisis that closely affected Erdogan erupted in Miami, Florida. Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab was arrested by U.S. federal prosecutors in New York and charged with money laundering and banking fraud to evade sanctions on Iran. He is currently in U.S. prison and faces a maximum sentence of 75 years. What makes Zarrab’s case significant for Erdogan is a December 2013 Turkish police investigation which accused Zarrab of similar charges, including bribing many of Erdogan’s ministers and those in his inner circle.
President Erdogan, meanwhile, has pushed for constitutional changes that would consolidate his authority as President. He also recently sought to modify the constitution to grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution. However, he has been losing ground in Turkey as recent polls show diminishing support; a recent failure to produce proof of a university diploma, a constitutional requirement for the presidency, raised eyebrows on social media.
The coup attempt on July 15 unfolded against the backdrop of all of these international and domestic struggles. The coup itself was unusual in several aspects. Firstly, it started at 10 PM, when most people were still awake; almost all prior coups in Turkey had been executed around 4 AM. The perpetrators of the coup did not shut down the Internet or other means of communication—a known requirement of a successful coup. Soldiers were unable to prevent Erdogan from taking off in his private jet as he became aware of the coup attempt. Most notably, the F16s bombing several targets across the country failed to restrict Erdogan’s plane from landing at Ataturk Airport. Meanwhile, during the coup attempt, no government officials, not even the Prime Minister, were arrested for speaking freely on TV stations.
Just hours after Erdogan left Ataturk Airport, a considerable number of military personnel were arrested, totaling 1563 arrests in less than ten hours. Generals and high-level military officers from across Turkey, including some who had publicly opposed the coup and others who had been on vacation, were among them. 2700 prosecutors and judges were also arrested on the same day, accounting for almost a fourth of all such officials in the country. These mass arrests, which began just after the coup attempt was defeated, made it clear that all the lists were prearranged, and that warrants, if they existed, had been specified beforehand.
The causes for suspicion are clear. The coup attempt arrived just in time to save a leader struggling both internationally and domestically, and might now permit him to consolidate enough power to secure a constitutional amendment, crush his opposition inside the country, provide legal immunity for himself and his family, and eventually be remembered as a democratically elected leader who thwarted a coup instead of a corrupt and authoritarian one.
Immediately after the coup attempt, Erdogan fiercely targeted Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blamed Gulen and his supporters for being behind the coup attempt, just as he had after the Turkish National Police filed corruption charges against him in December 2013. Gulen denied any role in the coup attempt to international media. The Gulen movement is known mostly for its educational activities across the globe. Erdogan has cracked down on Mr. Gulen and his supporters partly by going after his institutions: almost all of them in Turkey, including the media outlets, Bank Asya, and several universities and schools, among other entities, were either closed or had trustees installed to take control from the foundations. Gulen and his followers have also been known to denounce terrorism and violence; Gulen himself was quoted as saying in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that “a terrorist cannot be a Muslim and a Muslim cannot be a terrorist”. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine that Gulen had a vast and powerful base of support in the military. Besides, had he been able to amass such support, why would he have waited three years to throw out Erdogan or force him to negotiate instead of watching while all of his institutions in Turkey were demolished one by one?
Among the many reactions to the coup attack, the most striking came from ISIS social media accounts. Many ISIS-affiliated accounts on Twitter and Telegram expressed their support for Erdogan, calculating that a military administration would be worse for their operations inside Turkey. Erdogan and his ministers also did not hesitate to blame Washington for being behind the coup attempt, fueling more hatred and anti-American sentiment among the supporters of terrorist organizations including ISIS. The NATO base at Incirlik, where coalition forces used to carry out counterterrorism operations, was also shut down immediately after the coup attempt. Perhaps not incidentally, the weakening of military and gendarmerie (rural military police) forces by the arrests, in tandem with the chaos created by the detention of hundreds of officers, will also impact Turkey’s ability to position itself against terrorist organizations, which in turn may result in allowing more ISIS terrorists to find their way through Turkey back into Europe.
After this incident, Turkey must clearly state its position in regards to the West, the United States, and NATO. The words of Turkey’s leaders have not been in sync with their actions, especially with regards to international terrorism. This coup attempt seems as though it was destined to fail, and perhaps was a staged attempt from the very beginning. It certainly leaves plenty of questions unanswered. The soldiers involved in the coup must have been aware that a failed attempt would be the end of their lives, or at least their freedom. The question, then, is why they gave up after having their tanks patrol the streets, unnecessarily bombing the National Assembly, and positioning several F16s over the country even when Erdogan was landing at Ataturk Airport. It is obvious that the coup attempt afforded Erdogan the ultimate opportunity. As Erdogan himself addressed the crowd at the airport, this was “a gift given by God to him” – a mandate to crush his opposition until all forms of resistance have been completely wiped out, advancing his authoritarian rule to a level he could never have attained through democratic means.
Ahmet S. Yayla is co-author of the book ISIS Defectors: Inside the Terrorist Caliphate and Deputy Director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He is the former Chief of Counterterrorism and Operations Division for the Turkish National Police and Professor of Criminal Justice.[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]