Turkey: Three Years After the Coup

This article appeared in Center for Global Policy on July 14, 2019.
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On the night of July 15, 2016, millions of Turks (myself included) found themselves in the middle of a sort of drama – one they thought they had left behind in the past century: a military coup. Around 10 p.m. local time, a faction within the armed forces began arresting top commanders, taking over strategic positions such as the Bosporus Bridge and the Istanbul Ataturk airport. Soon they forced the state TV, TRT, to read a declaration that the “Peace at Home Council” had taken control of the state. Around midnight, one could have thought that a military coup had really happened and the government of then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was gone. 

However, in just a few hours, the coup attempt was overturned. Other factions of the military and the police force proved loyal to the government. Perhaps most decisively, civilians took to the streets, partly after a televised call from Erdogan calling on all Turks to resist the attempt to topple his government. About 248 of these civilians paid with their lives, as the putschist soldiers opened fire on crowds and crushed some with tanks. Today, they are commemorated in Turkey as “July 15 Martyrs.”

July 15 was a major trauma for the people of Turkey — a point which, I believe, has not yet been quite understood outside of Turkey, especially in the West. Meanwhile, the ferocious post-coup crackdown — one of the darkest eras in the history of the Turkish republic — triggered a wave of anti-Western, particularly anti-American, nationalism that threatens Turkey’s at least 150-years-old Western orientation. Here is a brief overview of why this has been the case, and what U.S. policy makers would be advised to do.

Was This A Real Attempt?

I believe so. Because the alternative theory — that this was a “theater” set up by Erdogan to make use of it later — is too fantastical. (It is like claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, because it was later utilized by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration to occupy Iraq.) Hundreds of officers put their lives into this attempt, only to end up with jail sentences for life. It is hard to imagine that they hoped to achieve anything other than a real takeover.

Yet it was a shabby attempt. Turks well know the first rule of a successful coup: It begins when most everybody is asleep, not when everyone is awake and probably watching TV. But there is an explanation for this oddity: “Turkish intelligence identified unusual activity among military cadets the afternoon before the coup, forcing the plotters to initiate the coup at the rather inconvenient hour of 9 p.m. (as opposed to the planned 3 a.m.),” as secular-liberal Turkish journalist Asli Aydintasbas put it in a good overview. That premature start disrupted various aspects of the plan to mount the coup, which could have otherwise been more successful.

Who Was Behind It?

The Turkish government immediately pointed to the religious group led by Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric, as the main culprit. Many in the West saw this as one of the many outlandish conspiracy theories of Erdogan and his propaganda machine,. However, in Turkey, there is almost a national consensus that the Gülenists were, at least, the main component of the coup. This consensus is shared by all opposition parties, along with many secularists, leftists or liberals who are bitterly opposed to Erdogan on most other  issues.

One of those liberals is Sedat Ergin, a longtime columnist for mainstream daily Hurriyet who is famous for meticulously studying and analyzing Turkey’s often notoriously partisan political indictments. I strongly recommend reading this interview with Ergin, where he summarizes all the key evidence for Gülenist leadership of the coup. “It is not so easy for the Western public and decision-makers to understand it,” he adds, “as it is difficult to find a similar organization to which they can compare [the Gülenists].”

Did the Government Exploit the Post-coup Reaction?

 Absolutely. Under the state of emergency declared a few days after the coup, Turkey soon turned into the proverbial “republic of fear,” where Erdogan’s prior tilt toward authoritarian rule evolved into absolute power. In fact, right after the coup, there were a few weeks of national unity. All parties agreed that a “de-Gülenification” of the state (as I described it) was justified, but without launching “a paranoid dictatorship’s mindless witch hunt,” as I also explained. The latter, however, is exactly what happened.

The government not only targeted the junta members and the covert, illegal side of the Gülen group, it also declared the whole Gülen group (including its “civil society” side, consisting of schools, NGOs, and media) “a terrorist organization.” Then, the pro-government media began targeting any strong critic of the government as a “crypto Gülenist,” giving prosecutors the legal basis to go after government critics. This witch hunt was justified with an unabashedly self-serving legal criteria: The Gülenists were thought of as “terrorists” only after December 2013, when Erdogan’s decade-old alliance with them turned into “open war.” So, while the Erdogan loyalists could save themselves from being labeled “crypto Gülenists” or “Gülenist collaborators,” almost everybody else could be blamed for anti-government actions..

Russia, meanwhile, used the coup to strengthen its ties with Turkey. Guess who the first major world leader was to call Erdogan after the coup and offer support? Vladimir Putin, as the Turkish media have kept reiterating since then. Pro-Kremlin Russian media also began manufacturing fake news about CIA involvement in the coup, which the pro-Erdogan media unsuspectingly copycatted. The very fact that Gülen is based in the United Statesmade many Turks assume that the Gülenists could not have launched a coup on their own. This deep distrust, amplified by Washington’s support for Kurdistan Workers Party-affiliated Kurdish militia in Syria, boosted anti-Americanism in Turkey. That should make it easy to understand why Turkey has bought and deployed S-400 missiles from Russia, despite all the objections from Washington.

What Is Likely to Happen Now?

 Erdogan, his inner circle, and millions of his die-hard supporters really believe that Turkey has been the target of a colossal foreign conspiracy in the past six years. In this view, as Istanbul’s chief prosecutor recently told to pro-government daily Sabah, the July 15 coup is only one episode in a long, nefarious plot to topple Erdogan.  The theory is that Gülenists, along with ISIS (yes, ISIS!) and other terrorist organizations that have attacked Turkey are all being orchestrated by “foreign intelligence services,” a euphemism which often implies the CIA..

But while the U.S. establishment is such a treacherous frenemy, there is one silver lining in the United States that Erdogan and his team have looked to during the past three years: an anti-establishment leader who defies  his own “deep state” — President Donald J. Trump.

This is why Erdogan has given great importance to his friendship with Trump and has hoped to avoid or at least moderate the U.S. reaction to the  S-400s thanks to him. After meeting with the U.S. president recently in Osaka, Erdogan was happy to note, “Trump assured no sanctions over Russia S-400 missile deal.”

However, Erdogan could be wrongly perceiving the U.S. political system as what Turkey has become: a place where the president defines everything. So, while President Trump may indeed try to minimize the damage U.S. sanctions have on Turkey, it is also probable that the damage will be serious, deepening “Turkey’s Long, Painful Economic Crisis.” And this, unfortunately, is likely to provoke more anti-Western nationalism in Turkey, which may result in stronger authoritarianism.

What Should the United States Do?

Some hawks think that under Erdogan, Turkey has become an anti-Western “Islamist dictatorship” that should be treated as such: targeted with the harshest sanctions and pushed out of NATO and away from Europe. But all that, I would argue, would mean pouring fuel on to the fire — and giving Putin a gigantic geostrategic victory.  Instead, the fire needs to be tamed.

In other words, I would advise more engagement with Erdogan’s Turkey and less confrontation. This engagement should begin by acknowledging that Turkey has legitimate security concerns — from the Gülenists to the Kurds — but then urging Ankara to deal with them within the boundaries of rule of law. That would give more hope to the thousands of innocent political prisoners in Turkey’s jails, rather than Ankara’s realignment with Moscow and Beijing.

Meanwhile, it should not be forgotten that Turkey will not be “Erdogan’s Turkey” forever — as I also argued after Erdogan’s major electoral defeat in Istanbul. Yes, Erdogan has amassed more power than any other Turkish leader since Ataturk, and seems to aim for permanent rule. But his populist wave cannot last forever, and he doesn’t have the natural resources to build and sustain a fully autocratic state. So, at some point, there will be a post-Erdogan Turkey. Until then, we all should try to minimize the damage done to Turkey’s people and the nation’s long-established ties with the free world.

Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, where he focusing on the intersection of public policy, Islam, and modernity.