Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Aug 09, 2016
Is Turkey becoming a headache for the US?

The failed coup de ’tat in Turkey has the left the nation of 80 million people, with the second largest military in NATO, deeply traumatised and polarised. Turkey straddles Asia and Europe and continues to be the perennial wannabe member country, at the doorstep of the European Union (EU). Turkey is not new to coups and military rule. Military revolts have been a long established tradition from the Ottoman era, when the Janissaries, the praetorian guards of the Ottoman Sultans, rebelled periodically against the Sultan and the Caliph. Kemal Attaturk, the charismatic leader of Republican Turkey, abolished the Caliphate and sought to establish a Western style secular democracy, with the military responsible for maintaining Turkey’s secular constitution.

The first coup in Republican Turkey was in 1960. The military overthrew and executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes owing to his increasing Islamisation measures. Then on many coups happened in the country and the last attempted one was the fifth coup, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to crush. Before this, in 1997, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign and he banished from politics, also because of his attempts to undermine secular principles of the country.

However, Attaturk’s once staunchly secular Turkey has been sliding further and further away from its secular roots and moving towards a more Islamist polity, ever since the AKP, the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, came to power in 2002. The struggle between the secularist and Islamist forces has brought Turkey to the brink of internal political chaos, adding to the country’s growing menu of problems.

Turkey’s military was heavily westernised and had always regarded itself as the ultimate guardian of secularism. Despite this, President Erdogan has steadily chipped away at secular traditions, beginning with removing restrictions on Islamic traditions like wearing the hijab, growing a beard and similar public display of religiosity. Now, the wives of most AKP leaders appear in public wearing the hijab. Worse, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister has said that women should not laugh in public as it is un-Islamic. Such remarks have been trolled mercilessly in the social media and attracted much ridicule. The higher military leadership has also been gradually purged to make way for Erdogan-friendly and Islamist-inclined generals. The failed military coup may well be the last gasp of a section of the military to usurp power once again. This time the coup failed because the top leadership did not support it, indicating a deeply divided military. Certainly, the top leadership of the military appears to have worked actively to defeat the coup.

The coup is, by no means, mere a manifestation of this secular-Islamist contest alone, but also a political power struggle between rival Islamist leaders within the AKP and outside. Erdogan has directly blamed his one-time Islamist comrade and now arch enemy, Fethullah Gulen, for the coup. Gulen, an Islamist cleric and ideologue, lives in exile in the US and runs an influential network of clerics and institutions. If indeed Gulen is the mastermind behind the coup, then it was certainly not designed to restore secular values. Erdogan’s suspicion about American intentions has been deepening, in the background of fundamental differences between the two countries over a range of policies in the region, principally over the Islamic State (IS) and the utter mess in Syria. Erdogan has obliquely hinted that he suspects the US of working with Gulen to effect “regime change” in Turkey.

There has been a deeply held belief in Turkey, not without some justification, that Gulen is hand-in-glove with the CIA, with the latter using Gulen’s extensive network of clerics and institutions in Turkey and Central Asia to undermine Russian interests. Only this can explain Erdogan’s strident demand for the extradition of Gulen to Turkey, a demand unlikely to be met by the US Administration which has made the usual noises about following procedures and examining evidence. Erdogan is convinced that the US had a hand in the coup attempt, using Gulen’s considerable support within Turkish officialdom and public services. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has warned that Ankara will regard the US as an “enemy” if it continues to harbour Gulen. This also explains the massive purge currently going on in Turkey. Erdogan effectively used “people’s power” to defeat the coup and the purge indicates a plan conceived before the coup, to cleanse the Turkish system of “Gulenists”.

The intense and widespread purge unleashed by the Erdogan government targets, not just the military, but across a wide swathe of the bureaucracy, academia and the judiciary. Over 70,000 officials have been sacked from the Turkish public service to weed out suspected Gulen’s sympathisers. A state of emergency has been imposed in Turkey, as per articles 119 and 120 of the 1982 Constitution. The state of emergency is subject to the approval by the Parliament and will remain in force for three months, extendable thereafter for four months at a time. The state of emergency will be used to safeguard Turkish democracy and the rule of law, according to the Erdogan government. A comprehensive investigation will, no doubt, be launched to identify and weed out officials linked to the “Gulenist Terrorist Organization”, particularly in the military and the police. Fundamental rights have been suspended. The European Convention of Fundamental Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory, has been suspended by the Erdogan government. Anyone arrested can be held without trial from anywhere from four days to four months during the state of emergency.

Media reports in the Arab world and in Russia have disclosed that Russia may have alerted the Turkish National Intelligence organization (MIT) about the imminent coup, giving Erdogan time to send out messages calling out his supporters to flood the streets to thwart the coup. Russia is reported to have intercepted messages between Turkish military officers relating to preparations for the coup. These messages are reported to have included instructions to several military helicopter borne military units, to proceed to the holiday resort at Marmaris, where Erdogan was vacationing and to arrest or kill the President. Observers believe that Russian military forces in Syria would have been eavesdropping on Turkish military communication and stumbled upon the coup plan. Russian military forces in Syria have been on the alert ever since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber over Syria. The advance warning by the Russians may have given time to Erdogan to flee from Marmaris before the helicopter-borne troops reached and attacked the resort hotel. Erdogan himself has not acknowledged any Russian help, but his government has disclosed that the two pilots who had shot down the Russian bomber were under detention for taking part in the coup. This could be Turkey’s way of thanking the Russians.

Russian President Putin telephoned Erdogan to convey solidarity, opposed the coup and wished a speedy return to normalcy. Media reports also suggest that the Russian warning may have saved Erdogan, though the Turkish military plotters had advanced the coup by six hours, fearing that their plans had been compromised. These developments have taken place in the backdrop of Erdogan’s apology to Putin for the shooting down of the Russian bomber which led to sanctions by Russia. Turkey’s tourism industry, heavily dependent on Russian tourists, had suffered a grievous blow after Putin had banned all travels by Russians to Turkey, after the downing of the Russian bomber. Russia is also an important energy partner for Turkey, with oil and gas pipelines planned from Russia via Turkey to Europe.

A week before the coup attempt, Erdogan had done a U-turn and apologised to Putin, after refusing to do so for quite some time. Erdogan realised that his policies towards Syria and the IS had been effectively run aground by Iran-Russia collaboration and his relations with the US and the EU was going downhill. Erdogan’s regime change approach towards Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was going nowhere and the rebels and terrorists, including the IS, that Turkey had supported were being battered badly and losing ground. Erdogan chose the path of rapprochement with Iran and Russia.

Media reports also point to an Iranian angle in advising Erdogan to call out his supporters into the streets and confronting the military till the coup is defeated. Iranian officials have drawn a parallel between the coup attempt and the 1953 CIA-engineered coup against the popular government of Mosaddegh in Iran. Driving a wedge between the US and Turkey helps Iran and Russia. Clearly, Turkey’s U-turn on Syria and the IS has intensified regional rivalries.

Turkey is an important member of NATO and the air base near the Syrian-Turkish border is a NATO military base. It has been the nerve centre for implementing the plan for regime change in Syria. The CIA’s operations in Syria and the bombing of Syrian targets have been undertaken from Incirlik. During the coup, Turkey closed the air space over Incirlik and also cut off electricity. The Turkish base Commander of Incirlik has since been arrested for supporting the coup. It is rumoured that he had sought asylum in the US just before the coup. Erdogan has obliquely hinted in his post-coup interviews of foreign involvement in the coup, mentioning even that more than one country might have been involved. There is speculation about the roles of UAE, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Turkish coup.

The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that Incirlik houses American nuclear weapons, including the massively destructive Hydrogen bombs. The exchanges between the US Defence Secretary and the Turkish Defence Minister on this issue did not yield any immediate result. The Turkish Defence Minister avoided attending the meeting in Washington to formulate the final strategy against the IS that was attended by Defence Ministers of over 30 countries. The Incirlik base is likely to become a bone of contention and a source of leverage for Turkey, vis-à-vis Gulen, since the US has conducted its bombing campaign against the IS from this base.

The geopolitical implications of a major NATO country, like Turkey, at odds with the US is a vexing issue for the Western military alliance system. The EU has voiced concern about Turkey being an unreliable ally. Turkey has caused much discomfort to EU countries by allowing Syrian and other refugees to enter Europe via Turkey. The UK’s referendum verdict, Brexit, to leave the EU, though not relevant to NATO, is still a geo-political earthquake that further undermines the Western alliance system. The US cannot afford to let Turkey go cold on NATO. The US has been making aggressive moves against Russia and without Turkey’s active participation, the US’s strategy against Russia, as well as the IS, will never succeed. This also explains the alacrity with which Putin has acted to grasp Erdogan’s hand.

Military coups are no longer popular globally and there has been virtually unanimous global support for Erdogan, as a democratically elected leader. Undeniably, however, there is an undercurrent of concern about Erdogan’s desire to concentrate all power in his hands. Erdogan has publicly claimed that the failed coup is a “gift from God” and he will exploit this opportunity to reinforce his power. He will become more and more like an elected dictator. In this endeavor, Erdogan is likely to be supported by over 50% of the Turkish population that has benefitted from reforms in the social welfare system implemented by the Erdogan government and may not worry too much about erosion of democracy.

Erdogan has hinted that he will bring back the death penalty. This will immediately lead to confrontation with the EU and kill all chances of Turkey becoming a member of the EU. Erdogan’s government has already trampled upon human rights extensively and the coup’s failure will lead to draconian measures that will severely undermine democracy in Turkey. The Constitution will no doubt be now amended to convert Turkey into a Presidential form of government and Erdogan will be less and less accountable to the Parliament. During the past five years of political turmoil in the region, Turkey has come into conflict with practically all of its key partners. It has involved itself in Syria’s internal intrigues, provoked a sharp escalation of Kurdish dissatisfaction to the detriment of its own economy which had enjoyed impressive growth.

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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