An attempted military coup to overthrow the autocratic Islamist regime of Turkish President Recep Erdogan was soundly defeated. A combination of mass street protests by Erdogan supporters and pushback by military and police forces loyal to his regime caused the coup to collapse in less than 24 hours from when it started. Erdogan’s regime also received unequivocal backing from President Obama and his senior officials, as “the democratically-elected, civilian Government of Turkey." This, despite the Islamist regime’s repressive policies targeting political opponents and journalists with brute force or imprisonment and his backing of jihadists fighting in Syria and elsewhere.
At least 190 people reportedly died during the melees, including 47 civilians and 104 people involved in the coup. Erdogan’s government wasted no time in cracking down. 2,745 judges and prosecutors whose loyalty has been questioned were detained. At least 2,839 soldiers and officers were arrested. No doubt, there will be show trials of the “traitors” involved in the plot and more extensive purges to come. Erdogan will not hesitate to root out any remnants of possible disloyalty in both the military and the police forces. Political opponents and journalists will suffer even harsher restraints and reprisals.
Erdogan has accused his exiled rival, the cleric Fethullah Gulen, of being behind the attempted coup. Gulen, who is presently living in Pennsylvania, denied the accusation. He suggested in turn that Erdogan may have staged the whole thing as a pretext for imposing even more stringent restrictions on civil liberties. Erdogan is pressing for the Obama administration to arrest Gulen and extradite him to face charges in Turkey. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Obama administration would give serious consideration to the request for Gulen’s extradition, if based on any proof of Gulen’s involvement in the coup. “We stand by the government of Turkey,” Kerry declared.
The coup stood little chance of success from the get-go, in part as a result of unforced errors on the part of the coup organizers, and the officers and soldiers who took part. They struck while Erdogan was on vacation, but failed to take him out of action completely when they had the chance. As the saying goes, you shouldn’t strike a king unless you can kill a king – or at least force him into permanent exile out of the country.
The soldiers and officers who participated in the coup had thought their control of state television would at least keep Erdogan off the airwaves. Erdogan managed to end-run them by communicating via his mobile phone with a private television station and through social media. He was able to call on his mobs of supporters to turn out in the streets for him, which they did. “Civilians responded by surrounding the tanks and tying them down until loyal troops moved in,” DEBKAFile reported. This bought Erdogan enough time to return to the capital and re-assert control.
Assuming the coup was not some sort of staged choreography by Erdogan himself to bolster a further grab of power, it does reveal continuing discontent within the Turkish military and police. Erdogan’s purges to date have not eliminated all opposition. The economy has been suffering. Terrorism has increased, with the recent massacre at the Istanbul airport still fresh in the minds of the Turkish people. There is a widening divide between the more secularist elements of Turkish society, some of whom are still represented in the military, and the Islamists led by Erdogan and his AKP Party. Once hailed as a model of a modern Muslim country governed under relatively democratic institutions, Turkey has veered sharply under Erdogan’s rule towards becoming an autocratic Islamic state.
The coup, whatever its source, will embolden Erdogan to further increase his powers and move in an even more theocratic direction. His present position as the country’s president, after years of serving as Turkey’s prime minister, is officially a symbolic post, but he has remained Turkey’s de facto ruler. Erdogan’s effort to turn the presidency into the government’s unchallenged power center, by ramming major changes in Turkey’s constitution through the parliament that his party controls, is likely to get a big boost after Erdogan managed to emerge victorious over the failed coup.
President Obama’s predictable support for Erdogan paralleled the stance his administration had taken towards the successful overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Because both Erdogan and Morsi had originally become the leaders of their countries through “democratic” elections, any attempt to overthrow their governments by force was unacceptable in the eyes of the Obama administration. However, despite the Obama’s misplaced optimism, both Morsi and Erdogan began to subvert the pluralistic democratic governance process under which they had been elected because they saw it as incompatible with Islamic law and theology.
Erdogan said that, "Democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off."
Erdogan also rejected the secular principles upon which the modern Turkish republic was built, and which the military had historically been committed to defend until Erdogan purged the more secular military leaders. "You cannot be both secular and a Muslim!” Erdogan declared. “You will either be a Muslim, or secular! When both are together, they create reverse magnetism [i.e.they repel one another]. For them to exist together is not a possibility! Therefore, it is not possible for a person who says ‘I am a Muslim’ to go on and say ‘I am secular, too.’ And why is that? Because Allah, the creator of the Muslim, has absolute power and rule!"
The Egyptian people themselves rose up against Morsi, which led former army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to oust Morsi from power and succeed him as president. Sisi has cracked down on Islamists who seek to return to power and has courageously called for Muslim theologians to reform Islamic ideology that has fueled the global jihad.
Erdogan, unlike Morsi, survived the attempt to remove him from power. He had already managed over the years to defang the influence of the most able parts of the opposition in the military and retained enough popular support to rally against the remnants who revolted.
If the military coup had succeeded, it is quite possible that the United States would have had a more reliable NATO partner committed to fighting ISIS than Erdogan has proven to be. Despite some bumps in the relationship with the Sisi regime in Egypt, the Obama administration is finding more convergence of strategic interests in the region than was the case with the Morsi regime. On the other hand, the divided military in Turkey and strong Islamist presence could have led to further instability in the country, which ISIS would be poised to exploit. Advanced U.S. weaponry located in Turkey, including tactical nuclear weapons, could then have been at greater risk of falling into the wrong hands.
Turkey is an important NATO ally geopolitically, spanning two continents in the midst of the most volatile part of the world. Prior to the coup, Erdogan had begun to make some constructive changes in his foreign policy, such as resuming diplomatic relations with Israel, reaching an agreement with the European Union to help stem the flow of refugees heading for Europe, and allowing the U.S. to use an air base in Turkey to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria. Whether Erdogan’s increased willingness to support with deeds, not just words, the fight against ISIS after both the Istanbul airport terrorist attack and the coup remains to be seen. In the aftermath of the coup, Turkish authorities suspended the U.S. military’s use of the Incirlik Air Base to conduct air operations aimed at ISIS fighters in Syria.
Referring to the coup, Blaise Misztal, national security director at the Bipartisan Policy Center was quoted by Politico as saying: “It will considerably complicate U.S. efforts to coordinate with Turkey in fighting ISIS, and lingering instability, anger and hostility toward the United States would further sabotage efforts moving forward."
Now that Erdogan has survived the coup, we have little choice but to live with him as best we can for the foreseeable future, even as he tightens his iron grip on the country’s political, military and civil institutions to ensure that his power is never challenged again. And he may insist on concessions such as the extradition of Gulen as conditions for resuming cooperation in the fight against ISIS. However, the alternative of full-scale civil war and ISIS expansion in Turkey would likely present an even worse scenario.