How the failure of the Turkish coup matters to Syria

A military coup against an elected government unavoidably arises questions about the country’s future and about the possible external consequences that this situation might bring about. The recent case of the Turkish coup d’état has represented a warning to the international and regional stability in political, military and strategic terms. In the night of 15 July 2016 and throughout the early morning of 16 July, a faction of Turkey’s armed forces attempted a coup against the country’s institutions in order to seize control of the government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This golpe was carried out by a group within the Turkish Armed Forces that was organized under a committee called the Peace at Home Council, which was supposed to become the governing council during and following the coup. The attempt failed in its purpose of overthrowing the government, that under the rule of Erdoğan had been accused of being antidemocratic, of having distanced itself from the principle of secularism (laicity) on which the Republic of Turkey had been based since its birth; of having disregarded human rights and of having lost its credibility in the international arena. The Council cited all these matters as reasons for leading the coup that eventually was blocked and repressed by the forces loyal to the government. The international community strongly condemned the military coup of 15 July. The US,  NATO, the EU, France, the UK, Germany and other major international powers have expressed their dissent, denouncing any attempt that would have changed the democratic order in Turkey by force. The Turkish coup d’état has had many domestic consequences along with international ones. Domestically, almost 300 people were killed in the clash and 2.100 were injured. Mass arrests followed. After the imprisonment of the military personnel that was directly involved in the coup attempt, the government has started to foil, dismiss and detain many other elements of the Turkish Armed Forces, as well as civil personnel. These latter actions involved individuals who were allegedly part of the Gülen movement, an Islamic transnational religious and social movement that the government of Erdoğan blamed for the coup. As far as the external consequences are concerned, we have to bear in mind that Turkey is a very important country in the international arena; its strategic location between Europe, the Middle East and Asia plays a big role in the politics of the country. Turkey can boast economic success and development that allows the  country to maintain good relations with European, Arab and Western countries. Moreover, since 1952, Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with a contingent only second to the American one and, for decades, it has been a strategic partner of the United States. Even in the frame of the neighbouring Syrian conflict, Turkey has been representing throughout five years of conflict a very important player. Hence, for many reasons, the events occurred in Turkey between 15 and 16 July have been crucial and impacted not only on the country’s internal level, but also on the international. Most of them are related to the possible twisting in the dynamics and developments of the neighbouring Syrian conflict, specifically in terms of alliances and strategies. In this respect, Turkey took part in the Syrian war in 2011, opposing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad together with the United States and regional players like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Along with these powers, it supported the efforts of the Syrian rebels, stationed in the northern part of the country, in their war against the government. At the same time, Turkey has continued its battle against the Kurds, who are today’s greatest allies of the US against Daesh. In this light, the events occurred last July in Turkey have pushed the country and the government of Erdoğan to take several measures that might consequently influence the evolution of the Syrian conflict. The recent purge within the Turkish army has left a sort of vacuum in the military control all over the border along Syria and Turkey. In the past few years, the border between South-East Turkey and northern Syria has been used by the so-called “foreign fighters” coming from western countries as a bridge to cross and flow to Syria in order to join Daesh militias. Moreover, this border has also represented a sort of passage for the Turkish military aids destined to the Syrian rebels. The Second Army of the Turkish army was charged with the task of managing and controlling all border activities, securing the country from southern tensions and attacks. Hence, it served the crucial purpose of preventing the passage of foreign fighters towards Syria and, in the meantime, of providing a channel from which Turkey could restock and supply the rebels. The ongoing arrests of Turkish military personnel and, above all, the detainment of the Second Army Commander General Adem Huduti under the charge of treason, further contributed to weaken the controls and protection of the border. Obviously, this might create favourable conditions for foreign fighters to join Daesh more easily and lessen the flows of military aid toward the Syrian rebels. Moreover, the Turkish coup d’état has contributed to accelerate the deterioration of the relations between Turkey and the US; in fact, President Erdoğan has accused cleric Fethullah Gülen of having plot the coup in order to seize control of his government. Although Gülen denied all allegations, the Turkish court issued his arrest. Fethullah Gülen has been living in the US since 1999. He runs a worldwide educational network and, as one of the most influential personalities in the Muslim world, he has tens of thousands of followers, including many belonging to senior roles in the Turkish government, the judiciary, law enforcement and the media. After the failed 15 July coup attempt, Erdoğan has arrested thousands of Gülen’s followers, fired or suspended thousands of others from their governmental offices and has demanded the US to extradite the cleric to stand trial. However, the United States has refused the extradition request because it was principally based on political motivations. In response to this refusal, on 16 July Turkish authorities temporarily cut electricity to Incirlik, a large NATO air base in southern Turkey, interrupting the American-led bombardment against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. If relations between Turkey and the US further deteriorate, this would probably weaken the international anti-Daesh coalition and its effective capacity of destroying the targets in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has accelerated a process of reconciliation with Russia, that represents the greatest supporter and ally of Assad’s regime in Syria. Relations between the countries had deteriorated at the end of 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along their border. After the failed coup attempt, Erdoğan expressed his will to improve relations with Moscow and during his visit in St. Petersburg on 9 August both Erdoğan and Putin renewed their willingness to reopen dialogue and restore the relations between the two countries, in the interest of Russian and Turkish peoples. Hence, whereas the July coup attempt has triggered tensions between Turkey and the West, it constituted the turning point of Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia. It is not clear what will be the consequences of this reconciliation on the Turkish support to Syrian rebels, who represent today’s main target of Russian bombings in Syria. If Turkey lessens its military aids, it is almost sure that the rebels in Syria would suffer the loss of a crucial ally and would have their capacity to contrast the adversary decreased. To conclude, the recent events occurred in Turkey and the failed attempt of overthrowing the elected government of Erdoğan, have not only produced consequences on the internal balance of power of the country. Something that has been tackled less, but that is foremost important, are all the effects that the attempted coup has had, is having and will have on the foreign policy of the Turkish government and, in particular, on the Syrian war.

Federica Gagliardini

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS Guido Carli)

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