By Barbara Slavin
When news of an attempted coup in Turkey first broke on Friday, some Turks thought President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had planned it himself to distract attention from his many failures and justify a further doubling down of his authoritarian rule.
Now, three days later, it is clear that the coup attempt was real, albeit ham-handed. Unfortunately, Erdogan, true to form, has so far reacted by intensifying a political witch hunt, further compromising what remains of Turkey’s judicial system and raising new doubts about the reliability and stability of a front-line NATO ally against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The government has detained thousands of members of the military suspected of involvement in the putsch, including former commanders of the Turkish air force and coast guard and the current commanders of Turkey’s largest field army, its main NATO base at Incirlik and the contingent that patrols Turkey’s borders. At the same time, a body called the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors announced on Saturday that it had fired 2,745 judges.
Erdogan is pointing an accusatory finger at his once ally, now nemesis, Fethullah Gulen. The 75-year old Muslim cleric leads a large movement in Turkey that supported earlier purges of the military. Gulen fell afoul of Erdogan in late 2013 after Gulenist prosecutors tried to go after corruption in Erdogan’s family. Gulen lives in exile in Pennsylvania and Erdogan has called for his extradition by the United States. The Barack Obama administration is likely to reject Turkish calls to extradite him absent hard evidence that he was involved in the failed coup.
Erdogan’s transformation from a hopeful avatar of Muslim-ish democracy to neo-Ottoman autocrat began nearly a decade ago with the start of a suspect prosecution of key military leaders. It intensified in 2013 when he sent security forces to bombard peaceful environmental demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park with tear gas and water cannons. Then came the break with Gulen and an escalating crackdown on journalists who had the courage to question Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial rule. Dozens of newspapers have been closed or taken over by Erdogan supporters; scores of journalists have been fired and/or arrested.
Malaise within Turkey has been exacerbated by misadventures abroad.
The ruling Justice and Development party or AKP, as it is known by its Turkish initials, came to power in 2002 promising a policy of “no problems” with neighbors and a redirection of Turkish attention toward Arab countries that had once been part of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan and the intellectual father of the policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, initially saw their positions vindicated by the 2011 Arab spring and especially, the revolution that overturned President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt’s first real democratic election.
Erdogan also provided crucial support to Islamists seeking to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another former Erdogan friend who lost favor in Ankara after he refused Erdogan’s suggestions to negotiate with peaceful protestors. Erdogan’s willingness to close his eyes to the dangerous radicalism of some of the Syrian opposition contributed to the rise of ISIS, whose foreign fighters easily entered Syria via Turkish airports and porous borders.
When the Muslim Brotherhood was crushed by a coup in Egypt in the summer of 2013 – a coup that had widespread popular support because of the failures of President Mohamed Morsi — Erdogan condemned the new military strongman, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Turkish-Egyptian relations remain strained even as Erdogan has begrudgingly patched up relations with Russia and Israel. (Erdogan apologized recently for the death of a Russian fighter pilot shot down by Turkish forces last year after it strayed into Turkish airspace. Turkey broke relations with Israel in 2010 after Israeli forces killed nine people on a Turkish ship trying to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza.)
Perhaps Erdogan’s worst miscalculation came a year ago when in response to the killing of two Turkish police officers by members of a Kurdish militant group, the PKK, the Turkish military unleashed a full-scale new war against PKK forces in Syria and northern Iraq. A cease-fire between the Turkish military and Turkish Kurds that had held for several years – and contributed mightily to Turkey’s economic and political renaissance – crumbled. The renewed conflict has brought devastating raids on the Kurdish areas of Turkey and terrorist bombings in Turkish cities that frightened away tourists even before last weekend’s events.
ISIS, too, has joined the long list of Erdogan enemies, claiming responsibility for hideous attacks, such as the recent suicide operation at Istanbul’s main international airport. The violence follows Erdogan’s belated decision to allow U.S. forces to fly missions against ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq from Turkish bases.
In the aftermath of Friday night’s coup attempt, Turkish authorities temporarily halted missions from Incirlik air base. There is widespread concern in Washington that post-coup purges of the air force and other Turkish military personnel could compromise the anti-ISIS campaign just when it appears that U.S.-led forces are closing in the remaining “capitals” of the group’s ersatz caliphate.
The only good news from last weekend’s events is the way Turks of all political persuasions came out largely in opposition to the coup attempt, ironically profiting from social media channels Erdogan has tried to control. Even those who hate Erdogan hate even more the prospect of a return to military rule in a country that has gone through repeated coups in its brief democratic history.
A wise ruler would be grateful for this popular support and reach out to Turkish society as a whole rather than intensifying a crackdown. But if Erdogan were wise, he would never have begun the crackdown.
The United States is left, as usual, trying to deal with the consequences of serious instability in yet another country key to U.S. interests in the Middle East, without making itself a target for more anger. In a statement, President Obama lamented the loss of life, called for all parties act within the rule of law and “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for the democratically-elected, civilian Government of Turkey.”
U.S. diplomacy will require exceptional skill and tact of the sort so far not demonstrated by Donald Trump, who is about to be nominated this week as the Republican Party’s candidate for president.
At an event to announce his choice for vice president on Saturday, Trump reacted to the coup attempt with a frightening lack of sophistication. He said he had friends in Turkey, called the Turks a “great people,” and added, “We wish them well … hopefully it will all work out.”
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.