The Turkish Military Coup That Wasn’t

by Dan Darling, International Military Markets Analyst, Forecast International.

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On the evening of Friday July 15, an event occurred in Turkey that during the four decades prior to the new millennium would have been considered de rigueur inside the country: a military-led coup d’etat. Only this time the effort failed, unlike previous such efforts (1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997), which proved successful.

With the dust settling from the disastrous attempted coup – one that left President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ever more entrenched in power and politically emboldened – the post-affair results are being released for all to see: 9,000 police officers fired, 3,000 judges suspended, 6,000 military personnel arrested (including 103 generals and admirals), the forced suspension of 15,200 education staff members, and a government demand for all public university deans to resign.

In short, the only thing that the coup attempt appears to have achieved is the end of the nearly 100-year Kemalist era – the secular republic shaped by Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, or “Father of the Turks” – which emerged from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire in 1923.

The Kemalist goals were to build a modern economy and state that would be modeled more on Europe than on the Middle East.  Political Islam was seen as anathema to the Kemalist establishment and its secularist constitutional ideals, something to be prevented by the firewall between mosque and state provided by the country’s powerful military.

The model worked well for decades as Turkey became a member of NATO, began the (slow) accession to the European Union, modernized its economy and, through the strength of the military, prevented the rise of radical Islam within its borders. Today Turkey boasts the world’s 18th-largest economy (per 2015 figures of the World Bank), and its per capita wealth, while low by most European standards, has risen upward since the early 2000s.

But beneath Turkey’s republican foundation lay political fissures threatening to crumble the entire democratic edifice.

Foremost has been the natural tension between the Turkish military and Mr. Erdogan, founder of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has ruled Turkey ever since the 2002 elections. Buttressed by an economy that grew threefold between 2002 and 2008, Erdogan and his AKP built up political capital, won election after election, and slowly but steadily moved to bring the military under civilian control – the latter a crucial element in meeting the European Union’s accession requirements.

The AKP’s political success and its efforts to dilute the military’s traditional secular guardianship role created a natural tension between the government and the armed forces.

In one notable instance, in April 2007 the military posted a public statement on its website warning the AKP against backing Abdullah Gul for the presidency. The end result was the parliamentary election of Gul and an early general election that saw the AKP’s share of the vote rise by 13 percent.

This failed attempt to intervene in Turkish politics – later referred to as the “e-coup” – eroded the military’s standing with the general public and provided Erdogan with the ammunition to begin emasculating the armed forces.

Thus began a series of criminal investigations aimed at the armed forces brass by Erdogan’s judicial allies, the Gulenists, followers of septuagenarian Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a shadowy figure now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The investigations examined high-ranking military officers alleged to have conspired in the overthrow of the AKP government.

These show trials – the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prosecutions – ran from 2007 through 2010, ultimately triggering the mass resignation of Turkey’s military high command in protest in late July 2011.

Eventually the country’s high court, citing fabricated evidence, would dismiss the entire Sledgehammer case and the jailed generals would be released – but not before allowing Erdogan and his government to skim off the top layer of military brass tied to the old secular order and replace it with officers from the lower ranks on up either loyal to him or less Kemalist in outlook.

As a final step toward shrinking the institutional power of the Turkish military over the state, Erdogan had the military’s Internal Service Code amended, thereby stripping the armed forces of special powers previously seized upon by the military as a pretext for conducting coups.  The particular rule in question – Article 35 – had been cited by the Turkish military in the previous coups as legal justification for toppling governments deemed by the military to be violating the republic’s secular tradition.

Then there was the split between Erdogan and his political ally, Gulen, in 2013. Although having fled Turkey in 1999 in anticipation of being arrested by the military, Gulen assiduously supported Erdogan while in exile and aided his rise to power.  In a parallel march with the AKP to the top of the Turkish state, Gulenists started filling state positions with a heavy emphasis on the courts and police.

As time passed, Erdogan’s public persona grew more messianic and his political acumen – though still deft – became tainted by paranoia.

When civil unrest and public protests erupted in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May 2013 over the demolition of a park (Gezi Park) in order to replace it with a shopping mall, a public change appeared in the (then) prime minister. With the protests morphing into anti-AKP demonstrations, Erdogan had security forces turn water cannons on the Gezi Park protestors and use tear gas to clear them out. Then he publicly began blaming a host of enemies – the West, Israel, internal dissenters – for the uprising and Turkey’s now-struggling economy. Social media sites such as Twitter were shut down and the large-scale jailing of journalists followed.

Meanwhile, in December 2013, when Gulenist law enforcement officials began looking into the possibility of corruption within a circle of Erdogan associates that included his son, the exiled cleric suddenly became Erdogan’s principal enemy. Once again, a large-scale purge followed, this time of Gulenist sympathizers accused of having tried to establish a “parallel state within a state” in Turkey. Little went untouched as Erdogan and his loyalists worked to topple the Gulenist network, or hizmet: besides the foreign, interior and other ministries, media outlets, educational establishments, and businesses all succumbed to a large-scale purge.

As he neared the end of his three-term limit as prime minister in 2014, Erdogan – in an effort to maintain legitimacy to his hold on power – called for the country to hold its first direct presidential elections. After putting himself forth as a candidate for what was traditionally a ceremonial role in Turkish governance, Erdogan once again proved successful at the ballot box, capturing 52 percent of the overall vote.

Since then, Erdogan has remained the most powerful force in Turkish politics and has advocated for alterations to the Turkish Constitution in order to shift the center of political gravity from Parliament to the office of president – an executive-based system under which he could operate unchecked in full accordance with the law.

The bungled coup attempt will now afford him pretext to undertake just such a constitutional reordering.

Precisely because the coup failed so completely and left Erdogan unscathed and emboldened, the conspiracy-minded in Turkey (and outside Turkey) have questioned whether or not the entire affair amounted to stagecraft plotted by Erdogan himself to finalize his government’s long march toward complete centralization of power.  Though unlikely, the larger question becomes, what happens next?

Turkey remains confronted by multiple immediate security challenges ranging from Islamic State attacks on its soil to a multi-front Kurdish insurgency. As the military, the gendarmerie, and the police forces all undergo purges of any element deemed disloyal to the AKP government, Turkey’s security capabilities may suffer operational shortcomings in the near term. This would render the Turkish military ever-more susceptible to operational weaknesses at a time when it confronts a resurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group that has killed some 600 Turkish security personnel since a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire abruptly ended in July 2015.

Regional policy will be affected in the post-coup aftermath as well. Turkey’s national security focus during the past decade has been on relations in the Middle East and with Russia, the U.S., and the European Union.  Relations with the latter two have come under strain in the coup aftermath due to Erdogan’s aggressive purge of any real or imagined enemies throughout Turkey’s societal spectrum.

Relations with Israel and Russia, however, have been rekindled following ruptures in 2010 and 2015 that saw diplomatic ties frozen. The latest incident in Turkey and its aftermath are unlikely to have much effect on Turkish-Israeli ties, and even less so on Russo-Turk relations.

Erdogan has gone on record stating that if Parliament passes legislation to reinstate the death penalty in light of the coup attempt, he would immediately sign it into law. Such a step would naturally provoke a diplomatic backlash from the West.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government has made it clear that it seeks the extradition of Gulen – whom it blames for the coup attempt – back to Turkey for trial. Turkish officials have gone on record stating that any country that harbors Gulen – meaning the U.S. – is technically at war with Turkey.

Military-to-military relations between the Pentagon and its Turkish counterparts have been extremely limited in the short window since July 15. This stance has a negative knock-on effect regarding the U.S.’s Operation Inherent Resolve involving the American military and partner nations fighting the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. and its partners utilize Incirlik Air Base inside Turkey’s borders in order to mount daily air strikes against IS. After the coup attempt, the Turkish government had commercial power to the base cut off for four days. Thus in effect, Erdogan attempted to use the U.S.-led anti-IS mission as a bargaining chip in his domestic political power-play – a step unlikely to go down well in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere. On a particularly crucial note, the base is utilized not only by NATO, but also by American forces, which store nuclear weapons (about 50 B-61 hydrogen bombs) at the facility.

Furthermore, considering the large-scale military equipment still on order from European and U.S. vendors, such as A400M airlifters and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, one wonders whether any of these projects will be halted by the supplying countries – though at the moment, that possibility remains unlikely. More likely, perhaps, is that future large-scale military acquisition programs will be pushed to the right or placed in abeyance by the Turkish government as it takes stock of the loyalties of the armed forces.

Leaders in North America and Europe will let the situation in Turkey play out with only minimal interference, concentrating their vocal criticism on respect for law, human rights and democracy. All sides recognize Turkey’s importance to NATO, due to its large military (second-largest in the Alliance) and the country’s geographic position straddling two continents and widely different regional cultures.  All these factors make Turkey a crucial linchpin for NATO.  For Europe in particular, Turkey has played a crucial role in assisting the EU in migratory pressures emanating from the Middle East.

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Ultimately the events unleashed on July 15 amounted to a military coup that wasn’t.

Only a very small portion of the armed forces appears to have been involved, and those that were confined the fighting to the major urban centers of Ankara and Istanbul. The latter city – the primary political base of Erdogan, who formerly served as its mayor – witnessed protestors coming out in waves to challenge soldiers after being called to mobilize by local imams.

With the military having been defanged by Erdogan and his cronies over the past decade, the oddity is less that a coup was attempted but that the military waited so long to undertake one.

Moreover, a final irony is that after the parliamentary building was bombed by the insurrectionists on July 16, representatives of Turkey’s four main political parties – the ruling AKP, the majority opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Kurdish-focused HDP, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – came together to issue a joint statement condemning the coup attempt. Thus the Turkish people and the country’s politicians were placed in the position of having to choose between an effort to unseat a democratically elected leader and a ruler bent on utilizing the ballot box as a means to aggregate and cement greater power at the expense of the Kemalist-modeled secular republic.

Ordinary Turks, who have had to deal with swings ranging from illiberal leadership to political coups for most of the past six decades, now confront the possibility of a weakened legislature and a “super presidency” perhaps molded on the Russian model of Vladimir Putin. In the end, the coup attempt not only failed, but it likely took down the last vestiges of the old Kemalist order in the process.

Please feel free to use this content with Forecast International and analyst attributions, along with a link to the article. Contact Ray Peterson at +1 (203) 426-0800 or via email at ray.peterson@forecast1.com for additional analysis.


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