25 July 2016, Kingston, CA

by Chris Murray

The world was caught surprised by the attempted coup in Turkey. While Turkey has had relatively frequent interaction with coups since the 1960’s the events of this past weekend were surprising for a number of reasons. Although probably found elsewhere a brief bit of history concerning the relationship between the Turkish military and civilian government might be worth including for context.

Since the modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923, with Ataturk leading the way, the military has seen itself as a, or perhaps the, core element of the government, the bulwark upon which Turkey relies. This idea is not abstract; this ‘Kemalism’ makes up the core of the founding ideology of the Turkish republic, which persists to this day. It makes up the core of the curriculum of Turkish military schools, which are fiercely nationalistic and secular, remaining strongly opposed to any mention of Islamism.

As such and under this view of acting as the guarantor of the state, the Turkish Armed Forces have repeatedly justified intervening in Turkish politics to act as a moderating hand in the name of combating extremism or corruption. This has occurred not without the ire of the political class who looks to these ‘interventions’, from their perspective, as a symptom of a renegade military mucking up the democratic process.

Military tanks moving in Sincan in 1997
Military tanks moving in Sincan in 1997

Starting in the 1960 coup d’état which saw the military not only overthrow the democratically elected Turkish government but also execute the Prime Minister in response to a move towards Moscow the Turkish Armed forces have regularly and forcefully exerted their influence over the Turkish state. Again there was a coup in 1971 known as the ‘coup by memorandum’ in reference to the military memorandum (as opposed to tanks in the streets) which announced the military’s intentions. This was followed in 1980 by yet another coup aimed at ‘correcting’ the civilian government which led to a three year period where turkey was ruled by the he Turkish Armed Forces through the National Security Council. Finally there was the 1997 ‘Post-modern darbe’, another coup by memorandum that brought down the Islamist government of Erbakan and the Welfare Party. Also of note was the 2007 abortive attempt by the General Staff via the ‘E-memorandum’ to block the election Abdullah Gül.

The reason I was surprised by the coup was different than most – I was surprised it took so long. It should be pointed out that there were some who saw this coming. In the face of an increasingly and quite obviously severely damaged political leadership and with the Turkish Military’s view of its role in the political process the coup was inevitable.

Erdoğan’s track record

Erdoğan’s track record is pretty bleak when you dig past the surface. It is made all that much worse by the high hopes held concerning his ascension to power. Despite having promised an inclusive government that would stamp out corruption and usher in a new era of Turkish democracy, along with greater security in the face of a deteriorating region (which has been an utter failure with regular bombings becoming a feature of Turkish life) Erdoğan’s performance has been anything but constructive. If this were not enough, with Erdoğan’s continued moves to consolidate power the military likely felt their hand had been forced.

To begin with, in part of the effort to stamp out corruption and bias within judiciary, Erdoğan undertook a series of reforms that did anything but bring the Turkish justice system to European standards as it was claimed was the aim. The expansion of the cadre of state prosecutors was said to be aimed at speeding up the justice system but allowed Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to stack it with loyalists and create a justice system that is as politically bent as ever. This reorientation of political bias has seen the seen a huge rise in the number of prosecutions concerning insults to the head of state.

Turkish education has also suffered under Erdoğan who once famously declared “I will raise a religious generation,” dropping any pretence and turning his back on the secular principals upon which Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state. The same secular principals the Turkish military feels compelled to defend. Instead Erdoğan has courted religion when it suits him. Since the AKP took power religious schools have grown fivefold and many non-religious schools have been converted.

Demonstration in the heart of Taksim square. June 3, 2013.
Demonstration in the heart of Taksim square. June 3, 2013.

The most disquieting trend might concern the media in Turkey. By passing legislation and pursuing politically motivated prosecutions concerning what the state deems to be defamation or terrorist propaganda the AKP has in effect taken control of Turkish media. Along the way hundreds of journalists have been prosecuted. This has also meant that when elections come round the AKP enjoys overwhelming dominance with perhaps only three out of the top forty news outlets in Turkey remaining critical of the AKP. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 151 out of 180 countries on its 2016 World Freedom Index. Turkey today now has more reporters in prison per capita than any other country.

Internationally, Turkey has been seriously diminished. Turkey’s relationship with NATO is particularly fragile. Turkish tensions over the Kurds have made efforts in Syria and their NATO relationship incredibly difficult. It has also severely damaged US-Turkish relations. Indeed, all ‘four pillars’ of Turkey’s foreign relations, NATO/ US, the Middle East, Russia, and the EU have all been damaged.

Increasing terrorism and the bitter relationship that currently exists with Syrian Kurds as well as Syria itself has seen Erdoğan, at times, viewing radical groups like ISIS as possible tools but the efforts to manoeuvre internationally for internal aims have been clumsy, miscalculated, and largely disastrous for Erdoğan. With regards to the Middle East, Erdoğan’s pivot to Islam has largely backfired and the situation regarding Syria and it’s refugees, along with the Kurdish question for that matter, has seen a large increase in terrorist attacks inside Turkey. The shooting down of a Russian jet has completely derailed Turkey’s relationship with its largest natural gas supplier and major trading partner. Motivated by the coup and internal instability, Erdoğan’s political survival has moved him to work with haste as of late to repair this damage. Lucky for Erdoğan, he can now place the blame on the failed coup plotters.

Erdoğan and the Military, a rocky relationship

Erdoğan has also had an incredibly tense relationship with the Turkish military which lends credence to the idea that one should not be surprised that the attempted coup occurred. Both Erdoğan and his former ally Gulen suffered at the hands of the Turkish military and worked hard to dismantle military influence in Turkish politics. In doing so Erdoğan has both successfully undermined the military as well as severely damaged his relationship with them. The decision to separate the Gendarmerie General Command from the general staff of the Turkish military and instead attach it to the Ministry of the Interior, for example, has been viewed as an attempt to fill the Gendarmerie, much like the judiciary, with AKP supporters and counter the military.

Overall the level at which the AKP has eroded the military’s influence since coming to power in 2002 has certainly left the military with reasons to be resentful.  Measures have been taken by the AKP to place the military firmly under civilian control to meet EU criteria. This has included limiting the jurisdiction of military courts in favour of their civilian counterparts.

More offensive still in the military’s view has been the active role the civilian government as played in the appointment of top military personnel. In was in the face of this last move that the military issued its E-memorandum which backfired and damaged the military’s standing with the Turkish public, something upon which it has always depended. The damage has been made more severe by the judiciary’s response to the E-memorandum which was to launch criminal investigations of senior military officers under what is known as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prosecutions of an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government which led to the imprisonment of a number of current and former military officers. It should be recalled that this led to a mass resignation of Turkey’s high command in 2011. This has all left the military in a precarious position, both weak and divided, which would largely suggest why the coup might have failed. It would also explain why it occurred, a last ditch effort while they still had the blood to do so.

In this writer’s opinion, the coup’s failure should be lamented. It is unfortunate that it came to this point but more unfortunate that the coup was unable to right the ship. Instead Erdoğan has come out it stronger and now with the justification and motivation for a response that, to his character, is going to be neither thoughtful nor measured. Instead, it has led already begun to lead to an orgy of arrests and has become far more than a prosecution of the coup plotters but a useful excuse for a full blown purge, something Erdoğan was obviously thrilled to receive like manna from heaven.

Going Forward

Since the coup’s failure, Erdoğan has undertaken what can only be called a purge to cleanse the country of critics. Here are some numbers; 60,000 people were arrested, sacked or detained following last week’s failed coup, 7,500 military personnel already arrested, 1/3 of the country’s generals, 11,000 police officers and judges, 36,000 teachers, university deans, and educational staff, not to mention thousands of government workers have been removed from their posts. All of these individuals are apparent members of what we are supposed to believe is some sort of shadow Gulen network of massive proportions.

The Turkish cabinet has declared a three-month state of emergency the implications of which remain to be seen. It’s anyone’s guess what Erdoğan will do or what Turkey will look like when/if it comes out of this ‘state of emergency.’ By now most of those who praised the Turkish population and breathed a sigh of relief that the coup had failed so Turkey could ‘remain stable’ are probably quietly and regretfully choking on their words. Pro-democracy/anti-coup rallies have been held, but their organization may be influenced by a mixture of the influence of the political parties and the fear of being arrested. The full scope of the purge has yet to be seen, but elements of the Turkish population (and the wider international community) are gravely concerned.

Erdoğan is far more dangerous than people (especially the Turkish people) seem willing to appreciate. In the long run his slip towards religious, reactionary, right wing, authoritarianism might win him power but (to borrow from star wars) like sand, as Erdoğan tightens his grip more will slip through is fingers. Eventually this will turn very bad for Turkey. In the short term the success of the coup might have proven difficult for Turkey but in the long run it would have prevented the long slow decay into a sort of quasi-Islamic authoritarianism that Erdoğan promises to usher into existence. Just what that region needs to be sure. A stable militarily governed Turkey would have been far more useful in the short term (regardless how uncomfortable it may have felt) in quelling the spreading chaos and holding Turkey together. As opposed to what Erdoğan promises, which is simply to pour gas on the fire.

The reality is that, in this author’s opinion, Turkey’s long term interests would have been better served had the Turkish military been able to succeed in carrying out it’s traditional moderating role within the body politic.

Erdoğan said early in his career that democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination. He’s well on is way there so really how different is the alternative he offers to what the coup would have brought with it? The big difference being the military would have actually been concerned with maintaining and promoting Turkey’s traditional secular values (desperately needed in the region) and a truly secure state, not to mention it would not just talk about security with the West while doing everything in it’s power to undermine that security.

The one light that might be on the horizon is that as Erdoğan pursues his brutal crackdown and more chaos ensues there might be growing public demand for the military to take action. With that public support the military might be forced into intervening in another coup by memorandum that would be bloodless but effective in removing the AKP by pressuring them to resign (one would hope). Thus modern Turkey could avoid the junta (it might need) but see the military step back into its proper role as guarantor of the Turkish state and its core values. That however is a long time off as the AKP and its authoritarian air still enjoys considerable public support in Turkey’s democracy (although one wonders why). One only hopes that when the time comes the military, which is critically important given the chaos in the region, has not been completely undone by Erdoğan.

Feature photo / “Anti-coup protesters after 15 July 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt in Bağcılar, İstanbul, Turkey.” – Wikipedia, 2016

Inset Photo / “Military tanks moving in Sincan in 1997” – Wikipedia, 2016

Inset Photo / “Demonstration in the heart of Taksim square. Events of June 3, 2013” – Wikipedia, 2016

Inset Photo / “List of Turkish armed units that have lost their commanders– Aldin Abazović,  Twitter, 2016

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By Chris Murray

Chris is the Assistant Editor at DefenceReport and Senior Analyst. He holds a PhD is Defence Studies from King’s College London, an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, as well as both an Ba in Anthropology and an HBa in History from Lakehead University. He specialises in irregular conflicts, guerrilla insurgencies, and asymmetrical warfare. His areas of focus include the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, but are primarily aimed at the Balkans. Chris is an Associate Member of the of The Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College London, a Member of the Second World War Research Group at King’s College London, as well as an Associate of King’s College London. Chris has formally served as a defence and foreign policy advisor in the Canadian House of Commons to the office of a Member of Parliament. [email protected]