In late Friday’s evening, reports about a military coup in the main Turkish cities broke the news. The soldiers accompanied with armored vehicles were blocking the bridges in Istanbul, capturing the airport and headquarters of the state broadcaster, TRT. A drama intensified after videos of the military helicopters striking some buildings of security apparatus emerged and the army declared control over the country.
Indeed, such a setting would suggest that this was a well-organized coup which, after all, is nothing new considering a history of military rule in Turkey. An order for the coup might have also been well-timed when the world was still overwhelmed by the terrorist attack in France’s Nice where the truck driver rammed into a crowd, killing over 80 people.
Soon enough the Turkish president and co-founder of the ruling Islamist party AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then vacationing in southern Turkey, found a way to reach out to citizens through the mobile chat feature. He called for his supporters to take to the streets and reject the putsch attempt.
He warned that those involved in the coup will “pay a heavy price”. Some even received text messages sent by Erdogan’s telecom service which were urging Turks to “take control of military vehicles”.
This was at the time when the army imposed a curfew and social media, including Facebook and Twitter, appeared to stop working. Mosques in Istanbul and Ankara were calling for prayers and civil disobedience against the soldiers. Shortly after, the streets in these cities were full of protestors supportive of the AKP.
People also appeared in studio of TRT, the very same television station that was supposed to be in the hands of rebelling army. Meanwhile, an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Erdogan loyalists in the air force reportedly shot down the helicopter that had bombed the Turkish police.
Mosques in Istanbul and Ankara were calling for prayers and civil disobedience against the soldiers.
The icing on the cake: around 3:30 a.m. Erdogan safely landed at Istanbul airport where he was welcomed by his fans and almost prophetically declared, “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army“. Yes, again the same airport that was reported to be occupied by the military. Not very typical coup-behavior if you ask me.
Have we learned from the previous coups throughout Turkey’s history?
As mentioned above, the mistrust between Islamist leaning parties and the Turkish military has been marked by several coups throughout the past. The army used to be a protector of secular character, such as the heritage of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Historically, the army was opposed to political movements promoting Islamic conservative values into politics. In 1960, the military staged the first coup when it deposed Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party, the opponent of Kemal’s Republicans, which was democratically elected ten years before. Following the trial, Menderes was executed.
After a short period of civilian rule another coup followed in 1973, and then again in 1980, with the latter accompanied by widespread violence and repressions. General Kenan Evren remained in power as president until 1989.
In 1998, a military coup deposed another elected pro-Islamic Welfare party and Erdogan was banned from politics until 2003, when he finally becomes prime minister leading AK Party. In the meantime the military leadership, challenged by another Islamist win, declared itself “an absolute defender of secularism”.
Erdogan, fearing the coup, insured his power with early elections in which he won the majority and began the process of getting rid of “disloyal” army officers with prison sentences and trials. At that time, the AKP enjoyed support of Fettullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric, whose movement heavily influenced the police and judiciary.
Slowly, the high-ranking military officials were replaced by those loyal to Erdogan. However, in 2013 the Gulenists launched its own “judiciary coup” against him, citing corruption in the AKP government.
With new elections only one year later, Erdogan consolidated power by winning presidential elections and trying Gulen, living in self-exile in the U.S., in absentia. Then the new president had devised a clear plan, which was to implement a presidential system in Turkey.
Since 2011, Turkish involvement in the Syrian war has been another factor affecting domestic politics. AKP has leanings towards the Muslim Brotherhood movement and in Syria it has supported the opposition Islamist and Salafi groups fighting the Assad government.
Later, while shooting down a Russian jet near the Syrian-Turkish border and killing two Russians in the process, more accusations emerged regarding Erdogan’s establishment. Many believe that Erdogan’s administration is secretly aiding terrorists from the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in order to weaken Bashar al-Asad.
Pro-Gulen media traditionally criticized Ankara’s Syrian policy and some members of the army were wary that support for the Islamic militants would backfire, jeopardizing Turkey’s security. Indeed, several deadly bombings in the key cities, perpetrated by either ISIS or Kurdish separatists, put into question the government line of toppling Assad.
In recent days a possible shift in foreign policy has appeared. After an initial uncompromising stance, and when Russian sanctions started to hit Turkish economy, Erdogan made a loose apology for the pilots that had been killed.
Many believe that Erdogan’s administration is secretly aiding terrorists from the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in order to weaken Bashar al-Assad.
A few days later the new Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, suggested that Turkey wants to normalize relations with its neighbors, including Syria.
How does Friday’s coup attempt fit into the picture?
After Erdogan triumphantly returned to Istanbul and police stood with the anti-coup protestors, obviously confused soldiers occupying bridges and tanks in the streets started surrendering and leaving their positions. The detained soldiers told the investigators that their commanders told them they were participating in military exercise and have no information that they were implementing a coup.
Of course, in the army you cannot question decisions of the superiors or ask for explanation, you simply listen to and follow the orders. If these young soldiers occupying Istanbul and Ankara were really not aware of the coup plot, who came with the idea first? How could their commanders be successful with the coup if they did not control own soldiers?
The previous historical experiences with coups in Turkey prove that the head of the state should be captured first. Now it was not the case. In today’s world of social media, which even in time of repression can be by-passed using a virtual private network, political mobilization of masses is no longer a breakthrough.
So why didn’t the putschists shut down the Internet in Turkey altogether? With these questions considering, this coup attempt could not or was not intended to succeed. And who benefits? Clearly, president Erdogan.
At least 260 people were killed, 2,839 members of the army had been detained and more than 2,700 Turkish judges have been removed from duty. It’s unclear if the low-ranking military officials who gave the order for `military maneuvers´ conspired themselves or simply listened to someone from `higher places´.
A question remains how did Turkey’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was not able to prevent the planned insurrection within the army. In 2014, Erdogan suspected that MIT could have been infiltrated by the Gulen movement when the media close to the Turkish cleric published a leaked recording between then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, key general Yasar Güler and Hakan Fidan, the head of the intelligence service.
Together they discussed possibility of a military intervention in Syria if the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, which is a Turkish exclave, is attacked. Turkish social media speculated that the MIT is simply preparing the invasion of its southern neighbor based on the false excuse. During the coup attempt the headquarters of the MIT was among the objects targeted by the rebel helicopters. Vzglad, the Russian newspaper dedicated to military affairs, pointed out the MIT has itself recently undergone purges, much like the army.
Many figures with military background were replaced by Erdogan’s loyalists who themselves coordinated “military support for Islamist groups in Syria, dealing with the Kurds and transporting crude oil across the border”.
On Saturday, the mayor of Ankara Ibrahim Melih Gokcek declared that among those involved in the coup in previous day was an officer of the air force who shot down the Russian SU-24 and who was under influence of the Gulenists.
According to Gokcek, the movement stood behind deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations. At first, it might seem as a bizarre claim given that Erdogan officials first insisted that the attack was justified.
However, at the same time Erdogan blamed the exiled cleric for the coup attempt and implying that those who harbor him, meaning the U.S. government, cannot be a friend of Turkey. Fettulah Gulen suggested that this questionably organized coup attempt was in fact staged by Erdogan who wanted pay way for holding an absolute power.
So what is the end result of the failed coup?
Erdogan who succeeded to mobilize the Turkish public to oppose the military rule now has the opportunity to cleanse the army from `traitors´. By removing thousands of judges he disposed of a large part of judiciary that has been considered to be support base for Gulen.
With the latest claims, which worsened relations with Russia, stating this was a `plot´ outside the government’s control, it might appear that Erdogan received the much-needed scapegoats for his political missteps. And who knows where targeted the MIT agents responsible for arming Syrian insurgents ended up after the coup’s chaos.
As the saying goes, “if you cannot beat them, join them“. The Turkish president has perhaps also realized that Russia is a too-powerful player in politics and economy, which is not going to change its Syrian policy anytime soon. It’s assumed that he also acknowledges that those Islamist militants in Syria are not really worthy of keeping Turkey’s second largest trading partner as an enemy.
Truly, this coup was the “gift from God”.