A week after a failed coup rocked the country, what is going on in Turkey?

On Friday 15th, around 9 p.m. local time, reports began to surface on social media that military units were establishing road-blocks in Istanbul and Ankara, while combat helicopters and F-16 fighter planes conducted low-altitude flights over Turkey’s two largest cities. In Istanbul, soldiers reportedly blocked the bridges over the Bosphorus, fighter jets and helicopters were seen flying over, and armored units moved in to Atatürk International Airport. In Ankara, tanks positioned themselves at critical intersections and several helicopter gunships began patrolling the sky. Clashes took place between “junta” forces and military and police units loyal to the government.

Around 11:15 p.m., Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım  announced that an attempt to overthrow the government was under way. Then, an army’s faction stated, via a public broadcaster, that it had seized power to protect democracy from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was on vacation at the Aegean town of Marmaris. In the aftermath, Erdoğan himself, connected with media outlets via FaceTime and called upon citizens to march against the junta. As a result, crowds filled the streets. Around that time, an anchorwoman read the junta’s statement on TRT (curiously, the junta could not air its statement on other TV channels or Radio stations). Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., TV channels showed the armed units blocking Bosphorus Bridge were firing at civilians who had heeded Erdoğan’s call. In Ankara, helicopters fired at crowds who had gathered near the new presidential palace and the national assembly even as members of parliament were holed up inside. Everything happened quickly after that. Erdoğan gave a speech to the crowd at the Atatürk International Airport; all four political parties in parliament, including both the left-wing pro-kurdish HDP (AKP’s mortal enemy) and the kemalist People’s Republican Party (CHP) condemned the coup attempt; and military and police units in Ankara stormed the junta’s positions. Around 6:45 a.m., TV channels showed troops —consisting mainly of conscripts, who later claimed to have been told by their commanders they were taking part in military exercises and did not know a coup was being attempted, media reports say — surrendering to police on Bosphorus Bridge.

As the coup plot was developing on Friday night, Erdoğan appealed to religious sentiments of the majority of Turks, rallying his supporters to launch a sort of counter-coup. On his orders, calls for prayer were issued from Turkey’s over 80,000 mosques at 1:15 a.m.—not a canonic time to pray. The strategy worked out as a call to political action, and religious Turks took to the streets in defiance of the secularist military. Together with pro-government police forces, they overpowered the military’s botched effort. Tim Arango, Ceylan Yeginsu and Ben Hubbard wrote on the New York Times that the government has arrested nearly 18,000 people in all, 6,000 members of the military, including over 100 high-ranking generals and admirals, has dismissed over 3,000 judges and prosecutors, while 7,850 officers have been suspended in probe.

Thousands of public employees suspended after failed coup attempt in Turkey
Thousands of public employees suspended after failed coup attempt in Turkey.

In order to succeed, the coup needed the support of a significant part of a society which no longer politically or intellectually identifies itself with the traditional view of the military, seen as the embodiment of Mustafa Kemal’s ideals. A wider military backing was also pivotal but it did not materialised. In the early hours of Saturday morning, groups of soldiers involved in the coup attempt surrendered, and abandoned their tanks with their hands up. The Security Forces, mainly the Police, took back key installations and bases, including the military headquarters. By Saturday evening, jubilant Erdoğan supporters filled up the streets and took the key strategic points that had been occupied by the military on Friday night. Since July 15th, pro-Erdogan sentiments in Turkey have been running high. Calls to prayer continue throughout the day (Islam requires only five calls to prayer at set times daily), reminding religious Turks of their political duty to stand with the president, even attacking Alevis and other minorities, mainly Armenian and Greek Christians, but also schools and buildings belonging (or perceived as owned by) the Hizmet Movement and HDP offices throughout the country.

According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, «Erdogan supporters are not the garden-variety conservative AKP supporters, but rather Islamists, and even jihadists. Over the weekend, pro-Erdogan mobs captured and beat soldiers who had supported the coup. Images were reportedly posted online, in the Islamic State style, of a soldier who had been beheaded. Unfortunately, jihadist sentiments in Turkey have become increasingly noticeable lately, in no small part due to Mr. Erdogan’s education policy, as well as his Syria policy, which has allowed Islamist radicals to use Turkey as a staging ground. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 27% of Turks don’t view Islamic State unfavorably. Mr. Erdogan can now harness these forces to usher in an Islamist revolution. […] Religious fervor is running high; mosques continue to call for prayers throughout the day. Islamists and jihadists who are angry at the military roam the streets, while most Turks of other political outlooks are scared to leave their homes». Pro-Erdogan Turkish citizens rallied in Germany and in the USA as well.

The government blamed Fethullah Gülen, a powerful, reclusive US-based Muslim cleric it accuses of fomenting unrest. Mr. Gülen denied the claims and has condemned the coup. Fethullah Gülen, who lives in a self-exile in Pennsylvania since 1997, is the founder and spiritual leader of the Hizmet movement, a global initiative that includes nongovernmental organizations, that spawned a global network of schools and universities operating in more than 100 countries, including the US, Uganda and Mongolia. It also runs hundreds of secular co-ed schools, free tutoring centers, hospitals and relief agencies around the world. These are credited with addressing many of Turkey’s social problems. Mr. Gülen helped and supported Erdoğan and the AKP since the beginning of its political adventure, just to regret its support after the constitutional changes of 2011. In fact, the Gulen movement has also close ties with the Zaman, the largest-circulation newspaper, part of a group that includes TV stations, gold mines and Bank Asya, a very well-quoted Turkish bank. Now, the Prime Minister himself threatened to wage war on anyone who assists or give shelter to Gülen (i.e. the US), and sent an official request on extradition of the cleric, rising serious questions on the role and weight of Turkey within NATO.

Just like successful coups, failed coups can have a major impact on countries’ foreign and security policies. Turkey’s botched putsch has already heightened the likelihood that critical milestones will soon be reached in the country’s relationship with the US and Europe. According to Soner Cagaptay, «in the two most recent elections, Mr. Erdogan’s AKP has maxed out at 49.5% support, and although the president’s popularity has risen since the coup, there is no guarantee that this bump will last until the next elections, which, depending on when Mr. Erdogan calls them, could be as late as next year. […] The coup gives Mr. Erdogan an excuse to press ahead with his plans to cobble together a parliamentary majority; he intends to amend Turkey’s Constitution and take over the posts of prime minister and AKP chairman in addition to being president. […] the botched coup will have repercussions on Turkey’s ability to contribute to regional security.»

Turkey is a cornerstone of NATO, it plays a key role in the Syrian conflict and in the containment of Russia, and for the EU is an important partner in its attempts to solve the migrant crisis. Thus, any upheaval has major consequences. After the coup was foiled, some Turkish officials, including the Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, accused the US of being involved in the organization of the coup, allowing Erdoğan to highjack Washington. Ankara has long called on Washington to exert pressure on Russia over Syria and insisted on Assad’s resignation. Moreover, Turkey has asked the US to increase support for Syrian opposition and help Ankara resolve the Kurdish problem. So Turkey could temporarily leave the Syrian game. The coup has therefore brought a new urgency to the need for the two NATO allies to settle this important dispute. A failure to find common ground under these changed circumstances would weaken prospects for cooperation at many levels. The effectiveness of the joint fight against Daesh, which relies heavily on air strikes originating from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, would doubtless be jeopardized. More broadly, a breach in this bilateral relationship would weaken NATO’s policy towards Russia, with Turkey seeking to move beyond the confrontational framework set out at the recently concluded Warsaw Summit.

Even though the White House has been disappointed by Erdoğan’s foreign policy from time to time, Washington still needs Turkey as a useful ally both in the Caucasus-Black Sea Region and in the Middle East, since the US continues to support some opposition groups in Syria with the effective help of Turkey (through the Turkomans and other rebel groups). Russia accuses Ankara of helping al-Nusra Front and Daesh itself, in order to topple President Bashar Assad, sooner or later, and to make this possible, the US needs to convince Russia to stop airstrikes against those groups. So Washington’s game in Syria results very complicated after the coup attempt, and has intensified differences within the coalition and between different opposition groups in Syria. The Turkish turmoil may very likely bury US and Russian efforts to settle the Syrian crisis forever. The consequences of the failed coup are also likely to affect Turkey’s relationship with the EU. In March, Turkey and the European Union agreed on an ambitious package of measures designed to stem the flow of refugees to Europe. But, while the arrangement has been a clear success, it remains politically vulnerable. For Turkey, the biggest prize was the EU’s commitment to lifting visa restrictions on Turkish citizens traveling to the Schengen Area, a move scheduled for June. Instead, visa liberalization has been postponed to October, owing to Turkey’s refusal to comply with a few remaining conditions. But the post-putsch environment will reduce the government’s willingness to amend Turkey’s anti-terror framework. As a result, a diplomatic crisis by October is likely, with Turkey claiming that the EU has failed to honor its commitments. The entire refugee package, under which Turkey continues to host more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees, could then come under threat, with consequences for the flow of asylum-seekers.

If Mr. Erdogan were to pump up religious fervor further, he could convert the religious counter-coup d’état into an Islamist counter-revolution, ending Turkey’s status as a secular democracy, and destroying every real opposition to his personal power, or even any dissent coming from the very same ranks of the AKP. Adding to the temptation is the fact that the military, divided and discredited in the public eye following the failed coup, is in no position to prevent a counterrevolution. The same military who were celebrated as heroes for their brutal operations against both PKK guerrilla fighters and Kurdish civilians in Diyarbakır and in other major cities of the South-east, are now detained and humiliated by the same authorities.

Moreover, among the generals and regional commanders who have been arrested, there are both the current commander of the Incirlik Air Base Berkin Ercan Van and the former Commander Akın Öztürk, who is considered the Mastermind behind the coup. In the Incirlik Base, sealed off to the US Personnel,are stockpiled circa 50 nuclear tactic warheads, causing further troubles for the US.

According to the Government, at least 208 people, including members of the security forces and civilians, were martyred in Istanbul and Ankara and nearly 1,500 others wounded as they protested against the attempted coup. If the purge will continue undisturbed, Turkey could be very likely stripped of its NATO membership, exposing the country to nearby enemies, including Russia, something the US cannot allow. If so, it would also almost certainly lead to an economic meltdown, hurting Mr. Erdogan’s power base. The chances of an Islamist revolution have never been higher in Turkey.

Federico De Renzi

Master’s degree in Turkish Language and Literature (Sapienza University of Rome)


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