Turkey’s biggest trauma

photo credit: 160801-D-PB383-007 via photopin (license)
photo credit: 160801-D-PB383-007 via photopin (license)

The recent coup attempt in Turkey should be recognised as a “national trauma”, according to regional expert Sinan Ciddi, speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies at SOAS.

“We are still unsure who was behind the coup,” Ciddi said. “We only have certain suspicions that it was instigated by ‘factions’ of the Turkish military.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, it is important to understand, 1) why it failed, and 2) what the implications will be, both long and short-term, for Turkey. The following is a summary of and reflections on some of the key points from the evening’s discussion.

The US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen has been scapegoated for the coup attempt. Some of the perpetrators were loyal to Gülen, that’s for sure. But others were hardline Kemalists forming an ‘unholy alliance’, with Gülen to unseat the AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

The Turkish government only allows us to see a carefully curated view of events, thanks to the strategy of media blackouts that is always swiftly implemented after any incident of civil unrest. Only independent outlets such as Al Monitor can freely publish news about controversial events in Turkey. In recent months most of the events in this category have been terrorist attacks, but a media blackout also happened during the brief hours of the July coup attempt.

Why did the coup fail?
Erdogan broke the blockade of the normal media ban and took to the airwaves via FaceTime to galvanise the people against the putschists. His message resounded heavily with the crowd and propelled them into action. This was the undoing of the coup. In addition, the military made certain logistical failures, e.g. by deploying too few a number of troops, which in some ways didn’t look like a serious attempt.

The prime reason for failure was the widespread lack of military support. Generals did not step up to deploy troops in Istanbul. The coup was doomed to failure from the very beginning and civilian authority was restored overnight. Did the putschists actually intend to succeed? Or was the coup simply a smokescreen for a more sinister political strategy?

What are the implications for Turkey?
Firstly, there is now a general problem of governability in Turkey. The government has put the country under a state of emergency for three months. This means, among other things, that the cabinet can be ruled by decree and is no longer subject to parliamentary approval, nor is it under the purview of the judiciary. Since the state of emergency has been declared, there have been various rulings, which have curtailed the role of the military while enabling civilians to gain control. Military institutions have been handed over to civilian authority, including seemingly harmless ones such as hospitals and schools.

This ‘Erdoganisation’ of the military aims to undercut that institution’s Kemalist structures and construct a new military that is unflinchingly loyal to the president. In pursuit of this goal, the government has conducted a widespread purging of the ranks, with 10,000s of officers removed from their posts. The AKP has also cast a wide net to catch any additional suspected coup plotters, mainly targeting Gülenists, in a process Ciddi referred to as ‘de-Gülenification’. In addition to the military purge, at least 4000 schools, companies, universities and media organisations have also been curtailed and closed down, including the Zaman newspaper group, and Istanbul’s biggest Gülen-linked university, Fatih University.

Turkey is certainly not headed towards greater democracy. Instead, it is systematically removing all actors that potentially threaten Erdogan’s power, including political dissidents and all other opposition figures (mainly Gülenists). The coup attempt has presented the perfect excuse to do this. It is no wonder Erdogan described the event as a ‘gift from God’.

So what will the judicial landscape of Turkey look like once the state of emergency has ended? There is likely to be less and less independent governing by institutions. Instead things will shift towards the creation of Erdogan’s own ‘kingdom’, as he continues to gut Turkey’s institutions and reshape them in his preferred fashion. This is alarming for the future of Turkey’s governance, as the world still does not know what kind of constitution will eventually emerge.

What are the foreign policy implications?
In the West, alarm bells are already ringing as Turkey ratchets up the tension with its Western partners. The US ambassador did not condemn the coup immediately, a move which rankled Turks and stirred up a ripple of suspicion and anti-American sentiment. In contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin hurried to condemn the coup and offer his support. Turks love a good conspiracy theory, and the rising suspicion of the West, especially the United States, is at an all-time high. Some people think: ‘Perhaps the US was actually complicit in the coup. After all, it is currently harbouring the ‘terrorist’ Fethullah Gülen over in Pennsylvania and refuses to give him up to face Turkish justice. Why not?’

But the US ambassador’s move, seen by Turks as failure to empathise with their traumatised country, has not helped matters. In his typical confrontational style, Erdogan quickly seized on this to stoke public sentiment against the West in an attempt to solidify Turks as a nation united against the threat of outsiders. In recent weeks Turkey has started to turn towards unlikely new friends, including Israel and Russia. But at the same time it remains a member of NATO. How long can this uncomfortable dynamic continue?

The relationship between Turkey and the EU now hinges on one issue: refugees. Believing that Europe failed to support Turkey during the coup, Erdogan has threatened to cancel his refugee programme and let them all pour across European borders. With this sword of Damocles hanging over Merkel and friends, the EU is forced to keep Turkey on side, but barely.

So what role does Turkey play in the region now?
Turkey is no longer inspiring much confidence in its Western allies in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict. It is uncertain whether Turkey can actually help in Syria or merely hinder. No-one knows for sure if the Turkish army is primarily targeting ISIS militants or instead the Kurdish forces (Western allies against ISIS), in pursuit of the Turkish state’s age-old ‘Kurdish issue’. After all, having an independent Kurdish-ruled state (Rojava) on its borders is seen by Turkey as a significant existential threat. This begs the question: what is Turkey’s true goal in Jarablus and beyond?

How far will the AKP take the state-of-emergency law?
It  could perhaps be leveraged strategically to fashion a new Turkey, one where Erdogan rules unchallenged and keeps every facet of society firmly within his grasp. Will Turkey cooperate with the western powers in Syria? And will Turkey’s currently weakened government structures be able to help stabilise Syria, or just make it worse?

The feud between Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen goes back only a short time, to around 2010. Before then, the two sides were the strongest of allies. In fact, the Gülenists were fast-tracked into power by the AKP, after the Ergenekon trials ended. Turkey has a long history of ‘deep state’ activity, so why tolerate it for all this time only to make a massive deal of it now? Is it because the Gülenists got too comfortable with their positions of power and began to overplay their hand, eventually antagonising the AKP?

The coup attempt came as a huge shock to most Western observers. Turkey is now in a state of flux and, although we can toss ideas and theories around, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen next. That the AKP will take an even tighter grip on Turkey is one sure thing, especially with greater consensus between the three main parties (AKP, CHP, MHP) as they come together against the coup. Whatever we in the West think of Erdogan, we must not forget that he and the AKP remain highly popular with many Turks. He is still a democratically elected leader, although of course his actions reflect anything but democracy. Turkey remains a conundrum in many ways.

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