Recep Tayyip Erdogan will benefit greatly from the “foiled coup” in Turkey. It has created a rift between the military and the people. The expected lynching of soldiers after the event will confirm the purpose of the coup in due course. A real military coup much less likely as a result; it also gives Erdogan an opportunity to proclaim that his form of “democracy” is mightier than the military, a situation unique in Turkish history. Oddly enough, this also gives him the platform from which to further his campaign of recreating the Ottoman Empire.
It remains to be seen (if it ever will be) who the helping hands were – designing a coup which would fail spectacularly was no mean feat in a country where coups always succeed, and has seen enough of them to expect that. It was a well-managed operation, and the number of poor folks, approximately 250 killed, a number which is probably within the acceptable parameters laid down in the standard playbook for such stunts. The only question is where did Erdogan get that playbook from, and what will be expected of him in return?
Erdogan will use this stunt as an excuse to consolidate power and rubber stamp all he has done to date. He has said, as you would expect, that those involved in the coup will be dealt with severely, if they have not already been in the streets, suggesting he could reinstate the death penalty. But he will then have to explain how those he says were involved thought they would gain from it more than him, and there he will be on uncertain ground, with his own populace as well as with the international community which Turkey has a history of courting desperately whilst doing the opposite of what it wants.
As Veterans Today, a military journal, has noted in recent articles, there are many questions to answer about this alleged coup. It had no apparent leaders, and no-one came forward to make statements to the public or try and garner support. This suggests that whoever was behind it did not want to publicly criticise the regime they were allegedly trying to remove, thus destroying the point of any coup.
Military coups in any country generally succeed when they get to the point of blocking off the streets. This isn’t simply because the rebel soldiers have more weapons than their civilian opponents. It is because the military are a world within themselves, living and working apart from the population, and thus able to draw up sophisticated ploys without anyone knowing as “underground” groups often do. It is also because they know where to hit and how to take control of those places, whereas it is much more difficult for civilian governments to defend their institutions without military assistance.
So how did Erdogan resist this coup? A small group of military rebels will not attack unless they expect to succeed. Either they think the rest of the army will let them pass or they have the people behind them.
As Erdogan consistently wins elections the latter option wasn’t likely. If the plotters had been given false assurances by others in the army, the coup would not have got as far as it did, because it would have been snuffed out before it began by those who wanted promotions for remaining loyal to the regime, or simply respected their military oaths.
So this whole deal was a pantomime, a set-up designed to bolster Erdogan’s regime after it had suffered a series of foreign policy failures.
It puts the Great Leader in the unique position of having proved able to resist the latest in a long line of attempted military takeovers in Turkey. This will make his writ run without question, both in Turkey itself and throughout a region disfigured by terrorism, and rehabilitate him as an international leader overnight.
Protective reaction to real coup
Erdogan denounced the “attempted coup” by a group of rogue military officers as an act of treason in a live, televised speech. Upon his return to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport Erdogan said that Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had given orders to “eradicate” soldiers involved in the uprising, and that many arrests of officers were underway.
Early in the story the deposition of the Turkish president was considered a possibility, and it was suggested that he was trying to find a safe landing in a country that would give him refugee status. Germany was his first choice, as the narrative goes, a move designed to link him with Ataturk, still considered inviolable in Turkey, whose pro-Axis legacy saw Turkey fight on Germany’s side.
But even at that point the unfolding of the events was rather too convincing for comfort. For example, the plotters took over bridges, a very visible action, but failed to take other actions you would expect, such as taking over facilities from within or under cover of darkness, before making a public show of force. Similarly there appears to have been neither an ultimatum given to Erdogan to surrender or leave or any attempt to prevent him fleeing the country, despite the alleged coup allegedly being aimed at him.
For many, the Turkish military appeared to be the good guys in this coup. It is a Turkish tradition for the military to step in when necessary, and though abhorrent in principle, such interventions are frequently welcomed by the people who have to put up with the civilian politicians. But that too is just what Erdogan would want the people to think. The mere fact that the military has deposed governments before would lead everyone to assume it was happening again, whether or not the army had any actual intention of doing so.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was recently quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that “the attempted coup is utilising “illegal methods” and constitutes an “an attack against democracy”. The New York Times quoted him as having said that “the stability of Turkey means the stability of many other countries, and the stability of Turkey means the stability of a safe haven for millions of refugees. If it is harmed, the domino effect cannot be prevented.”
But Davutoglu’s liberal use of buzzwords like democracy and stability simply confirmed suspicions once more. He knows full well, and knows that his audience knows, that the political infighting in Turkey is about how much to restrict democracy, and has done more to destabilise the region and its democratic apparatus than any one force.
It is being reported in the Turkish media that the soldiers involved in the coup thought they were taking part in military maneouvres and only understood the country had been told they were staging a coup when civilians start blocking and climbing on their thanks. But the folks at CIA Headquarters in Langley must be laughing. The US Embassy posted an emergency message for US citizens, as is to be expected, but somehow knew where those citizens could go and what assistance they would receive. How was this worked out without co-operation with the host government? In all probability, this coup was known about in advance.
Bah, the thing is quite simple
Turkey’s actions in the leadup to this coup, such as appeasing the Russians by apologising for shooting down Russian military aircraft, laid the groundwork for it. If Turkey apologises it puts itself above things like terrorist actions and coups. But the apology was also supposed to pay off in terms of tourism, and the Antalya coast is all but empty. This gesture came too late to affect people’s holiday plans, so to make it work for him Erdogan had to continue showing he is above terrorism by creating some of his own, terrorism he could crack down on publicly rather than prevent at source, as counter-terrorism work is designed to do.
Now Turkey will beef up its security and crack down on all enemies, external and internal, real or perceived. Erdogan is hoping will present him as a strongman, standing up to inevitable hostile forces, rather than weak enough to have allowed non-inevitable hostile elements to gain a foothold in his country. He is now aware that he has put himself in this position by calling his internal enemies, such as the Kurds, “terrorists” whilst failing to neutralise them with tough-guy terrorist actions of his own.
Given Erdogan’s previous track record, he is not likely to take much notice of laws or treaties to pursue his goals. Already he is dismissing almost 3,000 judges who are alleged to be somehow involved in the coup, in addition to arresting top military officers. These judges will have to be replaced somehow, and the obvious move would be to install people who can find legal justifications for his actions, should they even be noticed when he will now be presented as a bulwark of democracy who has defended it against military aggression.
Manna from Heaven
Erdogan’s Turkey has emerged as a regional power capable of making Istanbul the centre of half the world once again. This has been achieved through a combination of military alliances, trade and diplomacy. But Erdogan has run into problems by failing to balance these elements. He has been too willing to follow the lead of Washington on the one hand and then antagonise it on the other, which has led to political and military failures in Syria and Iraq which have dented his ambitions.
Erdogan describes Turkey’s growing isolation as an international plot against his country. The EU, Germany, the US, the Pope, the Crusaders, the Phoenicians, the Sumerians, you name it, they did it. Consequently he needs to hit the weak spots of those countries, and at the same time pretend he is bigger than that, to turn this around.
He has now challenged then to support democracy, as they say they do, by supporting him in the aftermath of the coup regardless of what they might have against him. If they do, this will simply confirm his original accusations that his accusers were part of a plot – if they had anything real against him, they would still have it now, and if they still do, they are not democrats, so he will claim.
For now, Erdogan is out of jail. How he plays his hand from hereon in will determine his fate. But the most likely outcome is not victory but martyrdom: if things go sour, he is less likely to be deposed by his own military or intelligence service but more likely to engineer his own removal by somebody else’s.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.