Turkey’s failed coup changes nothing and yet everything

Turkey's counter-coup has concentrated state power in the hands of President Erdogan, thrown state services into turmoil and unsettled Turkey's allies. 

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The aftermath of Turkey’s failed coup attempt of July 15th is proving to have far-reaching and unsettling consequences for Turkey, as the state apparatus tries to root out coup-plotters and their potential support base in a massive crackdown. A state of emergency has been declared for three months, allowing the government to rule by decree and continue purges within the military. De facto and de jure, the failed coup now concentrates all state power in the hands of the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The government is blaming the coup on the clandestine followers of U.S.- based cleric Fethullah Gulen within the military and has asked for his extradition. This has created tensions with Washington, while the arrest or dismissal of tens of thousands of state employees means human rights concerns will loom large in Turkey’s relations with the European Union.


Security services in turmoil

The attempted coup on July 15 is the most serious plot since 1980 and involved units from Land, Air, Navy, and Gendarmerie, mobilizing up to 10,000 soldiers. It failed because it had to be executed at an earlier hour, after the Turkish intelligence identified unusual activity among military cadets and some units, setting in motion a series of counter-measures. The aftermath of the coup is resulting in a major shake-up of Turkey’s security apparatus and army. AKP’s decade-long policy of beefing up the police force as a counterweight to the military proved to be a life-saver for the government on the night of July 15, when armed police managed to resist the putschists in several key skirmishes.

Although senior force commanders and the Chief of Staff did not participate in the coup and were taken hostage by putschists, suspicions of a wider support base within the military are having an impact on the government’s decisions about current movements and future plans for the military. Among the 7000 detained soldiers, over a hundred are generals— roughly a third of the command structure. The nerve-center of the junta was an airbase in Ankara and there was significant collaboration from fighter-jet pilots and Air Force commanders, also stalling decisions about the use of the Air Force. In addition, questions about an intelligence failure in identifying the coup plot ahead of time are being asked out loud within the governing party and might lead to the creation of new security structures or a second wave of reshuffling beyond the putschists. Right now, the government of Turkey is consumed first and foremost with investigations and security.


Democracy interrupted

A successful coup would have put an end to Turkish democracy, but the post-coup response has also severely distorted governance. The government declared a state of emergency on Wednesday night, preventing legal challenges to arrests and dismissals and allowing President Erdogan to assume all executive powers and to rule by decree – raising questions about the enormous consolidation of power.

The post-coup crackdown has penetrated every state institution and government office. There have already been nearly 8,000 detentions of military, police, and judiciary figures. In addition, almost 60,000 state employees have been dismissed, including 35,000 teachers, 1,500 university professors, and 2,745 judges and prosecutors – a third of the Turkish judiciary. State employees and government officials are not allowed to leave Turkey at the moment. With such widespread arrests there are fears about collapse of state services in security and education, and of interruption to judiciary proceedings.


A shadowy enemy

Turkish authorities believe that at the core of the coup effort was a network of followers of U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen. In reality, it was most likely a wider network. The coup involved an extensive mobilization at the core of Turkish armed forces, involving chief of staff and aid-de-camps of all the force commanders and the Chief of Staff of Hulusi Akar, and the military aid-de-camps of President Tayyip Erdogan. The government alleges that these were sleeper cells loyal to Gulen, who were able to hide their real identity for decades.

Gulen is a former ally of Erdogan and runs an opaque religious order with concentric circles of loyalty – with schools, universities, media, and NGOs at the outermost level. The group follows a moderate version of Islam and believes in secular education, based on the teachings of Fethullah Gulen. The 75 year-old lives on a remote compound in the Poconos in rural Pennsylvania. At the height of its powers, the Gulen organisation was said to control a net worth of $25 billion (through a network of volunteers and businessmen) and over a thousand schools across the world. The Gulenist have traditionally been encouraged to go into public service and concentrated in police, judiciary and intelligence.

While Erdogan now demonises the Gulenists, it was under AKP that the group came to become a major force within the state. For much of the past decade, the Gulenists provided the “human resources” needed by the AKP in their effort to purge Kemalists, hardline secularists and Alawites from the military and bureaucracy. With high-profile trials such as Sledgehammer, Ergenokon, Poyrazkoy, and Military Espionage between 2009 and 2013, the AKP-Gulen coalition removed thousands from the rank-and-file of the Turkish armed forces in circumstances that generated questions about judicial proceedings and authenticity of evidence. While the trials reduced the influence of the military in Turkish politics they also introduced a significant degree of manipulation into the judicial system and significantly altered the command structure of the military on all levels.

The AKP-Gulen partnership blossomed despite critics’ long-standing concerns that the clandestine nature of the Gulen organization and its concentration in the judiciary, police, intelligence, and IT departments presented a national security threat. Since the mid-90s, Turkish officials have been raising fears about the Gulenists having formed a parallel structure to the state apparatus working to control state institutions. But it wasn’t until 2014 that a fallout between the AKP and the Gulen group erupted into public view, when Erdogan saw corruption investigations of those in his inner circle as back-stabbing by Gulen. Erdogan has been purging his known followers since then. The officers now blamed for the coup are largely from the ranks of those who were promoted to replace secular officers during the period of AKP-Gulen partnership.


Transatlantic alliance under strain

Erdogan suspects that the U.S. knew of or supported the coup – on grounds that some aircraft that took part in the coup attempt were allowed to refuel at Incirlik (a significant NATO base used in the fight against ISIS) and that the U.S. administration did not condemn the coup on the night it happened. The Wikileaks release of AKP emails and the fact that several major U.S. papers have focused on Erdogan’s overreach in their post-coup coverage are feeding the paranoia that the coup-plotters were supported by outside powers.

Tensions with Washington are now being amplified by Erdogan’s public request that Washington hand over Fethullah Gulen; a message also privately relayed to President Barack Obama in a phone conversation this week. Washington cannot simply package Fethullah Gulen without proper due process or evidence and send him back to Turkey. While managing that process will be the task of the next U.S. administration, Washington will likely try to treat this as a legal matter; while the Turkish government regards extradition as a political issue. Turkey has several times demanded Gulen’s return publicly but failed to present a formal request with sufficient proof of illegality. They now have presented a request. But the necessary proof is hard to produce because of the informal nature of links between Gulen supporters, millions of whom have been inspired by his sermons or attended his schools but have no current ties to the organizational hierarchy.

The relationship with the U.S. will also be affected by Turkey’s likely decreasing involvement in the fight against ISIS in Syria, with intelligence and counter-terrorism units focused on uprooting the coup plotters rather than on international cooperation against terrorism.

Nonetheless, a serious rupture in Turkish-US relations or Ankara withdrawing from NATO are unlikely, despite the suggestions of some AKP advisors. Turkey briefly restricted use of the Incirlik air base over the weekend but has since allowed the resumption of flights. And Erdogan recalibrated the anti-US sentiment in his previous statements by underlining the importance of Turkish-US partnership and stressing that “Relations between states are not based on emotions” on television last night.

However, it is reasonable to expect to see Turkey returning to a more independent path and once again pursuing allies outside the Transatlantic alliance – including closer ties with Russia and Iran. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, condemned the coup on Saturday and called Erdogan on Sunday, further rekindling the relationship impaired when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last November. The two Turkish pilots involved in that incident were also arrested in the recent purges.


European aspirations on hold

European countries will have difficulty balancing concerns about human rights and democracy against their alliances with Turkey. Visa liberalization for Turkish citizens by October looks less likely, if not impossible, under the current circumstances, but early indications are that Turkey will continue to honor the refugee deal signed with the European Union last March. Turkey might, however, ask European governments to give the promised $3 billion in aid directly to the Turkish state in return for upholding the deal, instead of sponsoring civil society projects to improve the lives of Syrian refugees.

In the heady days after the coup, Turkish president Erdogan introduced the idea of death penalty and continues to rile up masses in speeches broadcast on large screens in town square rallies. However, this is not likely to happen and seems to be more of a crowd-pleaser than a real agenda item. EU officials and European leaders have made it very clear that the introduction of capital punishment would end Turkey’s accession process. Given that the law could not be applied retroactively and it would complicate the extradition of Gulen, the government is unlikely to pursue this. Nonetheless, the scale of human rights concerns means Turkey’s accession process with the EU will be frozen for some time – in practice if not on paper.


Putschists’ motivations

We have little idea about the ideological underpinnings of the coup, if there were any. It was not Kemalist, although there are certainly secularists who have aligned themselves with Gulenists. In the communiqué read on state television by putschists on the night of the coup, there were the usual references to NATO, democracy, media freedoms and friendly relations with neighbors – but none indicate a concrete political identity. Some have suggested disagreement over dealings with Russia or the Kurdish issue as possible motivations, but the military and government are united on foreign policy issues and a hardline position against the PKK. A more likely explanation is that the coup was a response to Erdogan’s increasing centralization of power and that the plotters saw an opportunity to remove him before a possible final constitutional overhaul, calculating that the international community would not react to the removal of AKP. The coup followed widespread reshuffling within the judiciary and came in advance of a planned purge of Gulenists within the military, due to take place in August. The government asserts that the underground followers of Gulen had been waiting for this moment for decades and had retained secret connections to the organization, often providing intelligence to their contacts or planting eavesdropping equipment in the offices of generals and chief of staff.


What next for Turkish politics?

Shortly before the coup attempt, Erdogan had postponed plans for a constitutional referendum for a presidential system, as the proposals did not enjoy sufficient support in parliament or society at large. All that might change now. With the failed coup, Erdogan not only consolidated his power, but also created a new narrative of resistance and heroism that is mobilizing his base. Those who heeded Erdogan’s call on the night of the coup and went out into the streets to resist the putschists were primarily Islamists and core AKP loyalists, but over the past few days, ongoing festivities and constant rallies have drawn larger crowds from conservatives and nationalists.

Still there will be no rush for new elections and it is too early to say whether Erdogan will capitalize on the counter-coup momentum to push through a referendum on a presidential system or go for a snap general election. Emergency law is in place for three months and the priority will be “cleaning up” the military, judiciary and academia “from viruses.” The future political course will likely emerge after that.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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