NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 17 JULY, 2016
A Failed Coup in Turkey, But Does it Spell the End For Erdogan?
Some critical developments have recently taken place in Turkey, which have significant international ramifications. It would be useful to understand why these events have happened, and how they will affect the region and beyond.
A coup attempt began on the evening of Friday, July 15, with simultaneous action in Ankara and Istanbul. The Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Bridge in Istanbul were both closed around 1930 hrs. on Friday by soldiers involved in the coup. Around 1950 hrs., gunshots were heard, and military jets and helicopters were seen flying overhead in Ankara. At 2025 hrs. a Turkish army faction announced that it had assumed the power to protect democratic order. At 2105 hrs. a military statement said a new constitution would be prepared, and accused the government of eroding democracy and the secular rule of law.
President Erdogan was holidaying in the Mediterranean resort town of Marmaris when the attempted coup began. Soon after these developments, he boarded his Gulfstream jet from Bodrum's airport and kept circling in the skies in Turkey’s north-west for several hours, till the situation came under control. Erdogan then landed at Istanbul airport and addressed the nation via a video calling service, appearing on the smartphone of a CNN Turk reporter who held it up to a studio camera. He called upon his supporters to turn out in large numbers on the streets of Istanbul to demonstrate their support for him.
In the early hours of Saturday, July 16, Erdogan addressed a large gathering of his supporters outside Istanbul airport. He told them that the coup had failed and that the situation was under control. By then a large number of people, not only from his own party but also from other parties, had come out on the streets of Istanbul in response to his speech. Many of them brutally attacked and even killed some soldiers who had taken part in the coup. This show of widespread support played a major role in crushing the uprising.
The coup was launched by a small faction of the Turkish military. Five Turkish Generals and twenty-nine Colonels were taken into custody, along with more than 2800 soldiers. More than 290 people, including 104 coup plotters, 41 police officers, and 47 civilians were killed, and 1400 were wounded. 2745 judges were dismissed from their posts. In total, around 6000 people have been detained. Erdogan vowed that those involved in the coup attempt would face severe punishment including capital punishment, which he is expected to re-introduce in Turkey.
This is the fifth time that a coup has been attempted in Turkey. Earlier, four successful coups have taken place in 1960, 1971,1980, and 1997. Erdogan himself was imprisoned in the aftermath of the 1997 coup; he was the Mayor of Istanbul at that time.
Erdogan has blamed Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who leads an Islamic movement known as “Hizmet,” of being behind the coup attempt. Gulen has a wide following in Turkey that includes military, police, and judges. He has been living since 1999 in a gated compound in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains in the US. He is widely believed to be a CIA asset.
Gulen has denied any involvement in the attempted coup and condemned it. Erdogan has demanded his extradition to Turkey, which is unlikely to happen. In a statement issued by the White House, President Barak Obama called on Turkey’s leaders to respect “the rule of law” after the coup attempt, and “to avoid actions that would lead to further violence and instability.”
In an unusually strong statement, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Turkey considers itself at war with any nation that stands by Fethullah Gulen. He said: “Any country that protects Fethullah Gulen will be an enemy to Turkey.” Turkish Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu alleged that the US was behind the failed coup attempt. US Secretary of State Kerry, however, asked the Turkish government to “present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny, and the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgements about it appropriately.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that soldiers at the Incirlik air base in Turkey, used by the US to conduct air strikes in Syria, had also been involved in the coup attempt and that they had been arrested. It was reported that Turkey had temporarily stopped the use of the Incirlik air base by the US military, which has around 2000 troops deployed there. Turkish authorities have also shut off access and power to the base. The US has tactical nuclear weapons in Incirlik.
Rising Discontent and Opposition
Though Erdogan may have managed to crush the attempted coup, there have been indications that opposition to many of his policies, both domestic and regional, had been building up in the country during the last several months. This opposition involved not only the Turkish military, traditionally the guardian of "Kemalism" in the country, but also sections of the Turkish people from all walks of life.
There was considerable resentment against Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, manifested in the arrests of journalists, academics and others, who were critical of him or his policies. Many saw him as an Islamist dictator, who was steering Turkey away from secularism towards Islamism. The country's economy, too, is in a bad shape. There was increasing polarisation in the country, between supporters of the army and those of Erdogan. The coup attempt appears to have been a desperate attempt by a faction of the Turkish military to restore Kemalism in the country.
Erdogan’s Syria policy is also an important reason behind Turkey’s current troubles. Since early 2011, Turkey has played a crucial role in providing arms, training, and funding to Jihadi groups such as ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham, and infiltrating them into Syria to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Of course, Turkey has done all this on behalf of the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others, but it is Turkish soil that has been used for the destabilisation of Syria.
The above policy failed to enlist the support of large sections of the Turkish people as also the military, which was lukewarm to regime change in Damascus. It resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians and a massive inflow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, which destabilised Turkey itself. There are currently almost three million Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey, causing socio-economic strains and putting pressure on the country’s infrastructure.
Large numbers of Syrian refugees have also been trafficked by smugglers from Turkey to Greece, from where more than a million have made their way to Germany, Sweden, and other EU countries in search of refuge and livelihood. This has caused severe problems in Turkey’s relations with the EU, and was one of the reasons behind “Brexit”.
During the campaign for Brexit, these refugees were successfully conflated with European legal immigrants into Britain by supporters of “Leave”. Last March Turkey reached a deal with the EU to prevent trafficking of Syrian refugees to Europe, in return for Euro 6 billion in financial aid and visa-free entry of Turkish nationals into the Schengen area. The deal has worked so far, but could break down soon because the EU will not be able to fulfil the latter condition.
Turkey had also developed a cosy relationship with ISIS in Syria, whereby ISIS was smuggling large quantities of Syrian oil from areas under its control to Turkey, which then sold it to Israel and other countries on the black market. Unfortunately for Turkey, the Russian military intervention in Syria in Sept. 2015 disrupted this oil network and destroyed large sections of ISIS military infrastructure. There were indications of strains in Turkey-ISIS relations after Russia’s military campaign in Syria.
These strains were manifested in bomb attacks in Istanbul in the last few months, including one at Istanbul airport in June, in which 46 people were killed. Turkey also retaliated against Russian destruction of its oil smuggling network by shooting down a Russian fighter aircraft in Nov. 2015, claiming that it had violated Turkish airspace. This was denied by the Russians, who imposed economic sanctions against Turkey in retaliation. Relations between the two countries were severely strained, with President Putin alleging that Turkey had “stabbed Russia in the back.”
It was becoming clear that Erdogan had antagonised several influential players—Russia, EU, NATO, Iran and perhaps even the US, by bombing the Syrian Kurds, who had fought effectively against ISIS and other Jihadi groups in Syria. Internally, too, Erdogan had made many enemies, as mentioned above. The unexpected result of the Brexit referendum also increased his isolation, as Britain under Cameron was one of his strongest supporters. Brexit was, among other things, also a vote against Britain’s adventurism in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Erdogan’s Policy Changes
In recent weeks, therefore, Erdogan felt the need to mend fences with some of those he had antagonised, to lessen his isolation. He officially apologised to Putin, promised to pay compensation for the death of the Russian pilot killed in Nov. 2015, and normalised relations with Israel, which had been strained after the “Mavi Marmara” incident in May 2010. The new Turkish Prime Minister also some made conciliatory noises regarding relations with Syria. This may not have pleased certain countries, especially the US and its Western allies.
Clearly, Erdogan had sensed that things were going against him. But it was not clear if the situation had become so critical as to trigger a coup. But it appears it had.
Ramifications of the Coup
As mentioned above, Turkey appears to have carried out a major reassessment of its foreign policy, particularly its relations with Russia and Israel, both of which are major players in Syria. Erdogan has also been alarmed about the growing closeness between the US and the Syrian Kurds, who have provided an air base to the Americans in the Abu Hajar airfield in northern Syria, where large US transport aircraft have been landing with US special forces and equipment. This base could reduce US dependence on Incirlik—an unpalatable scenario for Turkey.
Above all, the creation of an autonomous Kurdish province of Rojava is unacceptable to Turkey, as it is to Syria. On this issue, the interests of the two countries coincide. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main political party representing the Syrian Kurds, proclaimed the establishment of an autonomous province of Rojava on March 16 this year. The military wing of the PYD--the YPG--has received weapons and training from the US, and has been conducting joint military operations with American forces against ISIS in northeastern Syria. This has annoyed Turkey, which has occasionally conducted covert cross-border military action against the Syrian Kurds.
Some bad blood seems to have been created between the US and Turkey because of Turkish-Russian rapprochement and US-Kurdish closeness.
Turkey’s relations with the EU also appear to be going downhill. As mentioned above, Erdogan has said that the capital punishment might be reinstated, to be applied to the coup plotters. If that happens, it would automatically disqualify Turkey from EU membership. Moreover, it is highly unlikely, after the recent terrorist attack in France, that the EU would agree to visa-free entry of Turkish nationals in the Schengen area. This was one of Erdogan’s main demands in return for controlling the flow of Syrian refugees from Turkey to Greece. The EU’s reaction to the abortive coup, too, would not have pleased Erdogan; it has called for the restoration of the “rule of law” in the country, an indirect criticism of the strong action taken by Erdogan resulting in the deaths of around 300 people.
As it happened, John Kerry was in Moscow when the failed coup took place in Turkey, discussing the situation in Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. After two days of talks, they announced agreement on “unprecedented cooperation” between them regarding future military action in Syria, without disclosing the details. It would be rather surprising if the two sides manage to increase collaboration between them dramatically; their goals remain divergent. The US is still fixated on regime change in Syria. Its immediate objective seems to be buying time, as the situation in the country is not shaping up in its favour.
Suddenly, the outlook appears to have brightened for Assad, who could get some much-needed respite from his trials and tribulations. If Turkey gives up its goal of regime change in Damascus, the game could change. After Brexit, the UK and EU are likely to remain preoccupied with their own problems, at least for some time. If Obama decides to focus on legacy issues, he could embark upon some serious damage control, and make sure that Hillary Clinton is unable to cause further mayhem in Syria if she comes to power. The only spoiler that could still ruin everything is Israel. It would be a folly to underestimate the mischief it is capable of.
Though Erdogan has survived this attempted coup, a great deal of damage has been done, both to him and to Turkish institutions. He has fallen out of favour with the US, his main backer. This incident may be the beginning of the end of his rule in Turkey.