The Turkish Coup and Its Fallout

10 days ago a group of Islamist-inspired military generals and colonels took it upon themselves to overthrow the government of Turkey. The coup largely failed because only a core of maybe 1,000 officers participated in the coup, while enough others vowed loyalty to the current government. Erdogan, returning from a vacation in south Turkey, called on his supporters to take to the streets and prevent the tanks from taking the political buildings, largely with success. The police immediately cracked down and imprisoned the coup plotters. The coup collapsed in less than 24 hours, taking the lives of 200 people. The financial markets recover (RT 2016). But Erdogan’s pushback is harsh. He already fired more than 60,000 academics, judges, soldiers, prevented them from going abroad, and imprisoned and tortured thousands of soldiers suspected to have taken part in the coup against him (Mirror 2016; Mintpressnews 2016).

Erdogan and his followers suspect that a group of Islamists is responsible for the coup (Rodrik 2016). (But are all of the civil servants he fired part of that Islamist group? I think he also just wanted to get rid of any of his critics.) They are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric, who has been in exile in the US since 1999 after falling out with the then-government. Ironically, Gulen was an ally of Erdogan’s AKP, itself considered to be moderate Islamist. Erdogan found the coalition with the Gulenists quite useful, because he wanted to get rid of the Kemalist-secularist establishment, which has pervaded the civil service in Turkey, and replace them with his Islamist loyalists. The secularists have now been largely purged.

But the Erdogan and Gulen faction were always separate power-bases, and the two fell out of favor, when Gulenist civil servants and prosecutors (appointed by Erdogan himself) decided to prosecute people close to Erdogan (including his son) on corruption charges in 2013. Erdogan took revenge by closing down Gulenist schools, which were previously supported by the government. He then went on a purge of Gulenists in the civil service with the exception of the military. There were plans to purge Gulenists from the military staff too, and they probably found out about these plans and decided to risk the coup to get rid of Erdogan before they got to the chopping block (NY Times 2016).

But who are the Gulenists? Gulen does not seem to have a coherent political philosophy, and his Islamic ideology is considered to be moderate Sufism (according to Wikipedia “Fethullah Gulen“). I don’t think that his political ideology is as important as the fact that he wants to influence Turkish politics and work to get rid of Erdogan, who himself has the desire to stay in power for as long as possible (prime minister from 2003 and president since 2014). Erdogan has replaced the quite independent-minded prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, with the loyalist Binali Yildrim. He is proposing to amend the constitution to transform Turkey from a largely parliamentary to a presidential republic, concentrating more power into his own hands. When it comes to policy initiatives, no one hears of the prime minister, only Erdogan.

But even worse than the presidential power grab is the decision to purge the Turkish civil service from Erdogan’s opponents. Erdogan cannot tolerate to have Gulenists in positions of power, who will rival his power in the future. But by carrying out such a massive Stalinist purge, he is also risking to undermine his country by depriving it of technically competent civil servants. Stalin decided to purge his foes (including many former friends) from the Red Army, who were then brutally crippled when the Nazis invaded them a couple of years later. The only capable general to emerge in the battle against Nazi Germany was Georgy Zhukov, one of the few survivors of Stalin’s purge. Most of the generals left in charge were political appointees and junior officers, who had little battle leadership experience, which partly explains why they were routed by the Germans in the initial years of the war. (The Soviets largely won the war with US material support and because they had much larger number of military reservists to call upon than the Germans.)

Turkey is not fighting an existential war with another country, but it is fighting quite a brutal war in the southeast of the country against the Kurdish PKK, who have long called for autonomy if not independence. Erdogan, therefore, needs military loyalty, which might have made him rather reluctant to vengefully purge the military from Gulenists. There are no longer any inhibitions to purge Gulenists since the coup.

But the war against the PKK is another strange twist of fate for Erdogan, which I think was foolish and unnecessary. Turkey had largely abandoned the war against the PKK and negotiate a peace settlement since 2012. Then in June 2015, the Kurdish-based HDP under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtas surpassed the 10% mark (quite a high threshold) to receive 80 seats (13%) in the parliamentary elections, thus diminishing Erdogans AKP majority. Some CHP (Kemalist, secularist) voters had apparently defected to HDP to weaken the AKP, which had been in power for over a decade (since 2002). Every normal democrat would consider this to be a win for democratic pluralism. Erdogan saw it as a threat to his power. He immediately called for new elections and suspended peace talks with the PKK, which was linked to the HDP. The November 2015 elections reduced HDP vote to about 10%, but they still had 59 MPs. These MPs now have their immunity revoked by Erdogan, which resulted in some physical clashes in the Turkish parliament, creating a sham of democratic institutions.

In July 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group detonated a bomb, killing 20 Turkish Kurds, who promptly accused Turkey of supporting ISIS. The PKK assassinated two Turkish police officers in revenge. Erdogan found his casus belli against the PKK. On the military front, Erdogan deployed 10,000 Turkish troops to the southeast of Turkey, pummeling the PKK stronghold around Diyarbakir, which turned into a ghost city following weeks and months of fighting between the military and the militants. PKK can at most be weakened but unlikely to be defeated, because the PKK is a guerrilla organization, hiding in the villages and in the mountains and striking Turkish troops (who are clearly visible with their military gear) when they are the most vulnerable.

The Kurds are also in an unusually strong position securing strongholds in neighboring Iraq and Syria, which has to do with the western military interventions in Iraq and Syria. The logic is as follows: under Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, the Kurds in Syria (10% of population) and Iraq (15% of population) could never have hoped to have their own province or state, and were subsequently oppressed and disadvantaged in resource access. Then the US invaded Iraq and the reward for backing the US in overthrowing Saddam was to get a province in the northeast of Iraq with the capital Arbil. The Kurds now had their autonomous province and their share of oil revenues.

That proved crucial when the Islamic State made gains in Syria and threatened the Rojava, the Syrian Kurds, in the northeast of Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan deployed the peshmerga (with US financing), crossing Turkish territory, i.e. receiving the explicit backing of Erdogan, who find Iraqi Kurds to be a valuable ally to rout Assad as opposed to Turkish Kurds, who threatened his power in Ankara. The Syrian Kurds held their ground, and whatever post-ISIS arrangement will be negotiated, the Syrian Kurds now have their own little territory. All that naturally gives a moral boost to Turkish Kurds, who are more inspired than ever to have regional autonomy since the resumption of military hostilities last year. Erdogan has played with fire unnecessarily, and would be better off to return to the negotiating table with the PKK.

What is going to happen next in Turkey? Will we see another military coup? It could very well be the case. But what is more likely over the short term is that the massive internal purge will result in a consolidation of power for Erdogan. After the failed coup against Hitler in July 1944, Hitler was as secure in power as he never had been and could now only be removed by complete Allied annihilation which happened in April 1945.

Erdoganis similarly interested in power consolidation. He never had a liking for free-roaming journalists, and was prompt to imprison 42 journalists, who apparently threaten “national security” (Reuters 2016). L’etat c’est moi- I am the state, proclaims Erdogan, which is not uncommon for authoritarian rulers. He calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, which he cancelled in 2004 as a precondition to initiate talks on Turkish EU membership.

But that effort had been put on ice long ago. First, many European governments are wary to accept a majority Muslim nation into the EU. Second, European countries did not want to deal with the crisis in the Middle East, which they would have to engage in with Turkey in the EU, because it borders all the other crisis countries. Third, Erdogan sees himself in a strong position now that he controls the border to the EU, where most refugees are headed. The EU showered Turkey with concessions, primarily visa-free travel for Turkish nationals in the EU (not yet implemented) and 6 billion euros in EU subsidies to stem the refugee tide. EU appetite for more refugees is unlikely to be increased after the string of terrorist attacks in Belgium, France and Germany, some of which were carried out by refugees. Erdogan can cancel the refugee agreement with the EU anytime he wants to.

The EU will talk tough about the many human rights and freedom of speech rights violations by the Turkish government, but they really don’t have much leverage against their NATO partner. I would not find any EU intervention helpful either. Turkey is facing a constitutional crisis following Erdogan’s consolidation of political power, but the Turks have to figure out themselves how they want to manage the situation and restore democratic institutions, which is unlikely to happen with Erdogan (only 62 years old) at the helm. I wish them the best of luck.

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