BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
If I were a much better humorist/comedian/caricaturist, I think I would have created all kinds of jokes about the latest coup in Turkey. Most would center on how farcically short and amateurish it was. Things like: “How many days does a Turkish coup d’etat last? We’ll never know, Turks can’t count that high, they only know hours;” or “How many Turkish air force pilots does it take to shoot down a plane? They can’t, because they don’t know how to press the button to fire their weapons;” (playing off reports that pilots participating in the coup had a lock on the plane carrying President Erdoğan but never shot it down); or even “How far away do you have to live to plot a Turkish coup? About 5300 miles (8500 kilometers) — the distance from Ankara to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania (where Fethullah Gulen resides, whom Erdoğan is holding responsible for the attempt).
Gulen’s role in this mess is a hot topic. It’s certainly possible that he and/or his minions had a role in the coup. The Gulen Movement is quite large and dispersed. There is also the infamous recording of Gulen himself, many years ago, saying something to the effect that his people must penetrate the centers of power and when the time is ripe, take control. Of course this was achieved in a way when the movement helped Erdoğan and his AK Party come to power fourteen years ago. But since then Gulen and Erdoğan have had a falling out and Erdoğan has been working intently on breaking the power of the movement in Turkey. He knows full well how extensive that is.
But are the coup plotters really from that religious, Islamist, sector of Turkish society? They are from the military, which is known for its secular bent. They perceive themselves as guardians of Ataturk’s secularist legacy. Then again, Erdoğan and the AKP have been defanging the military since they got into power precisely because they fall on opposite sides of the religious/secular divide. In the process, it could well be that elements within the military whose roots are on the religious side have risen in power, and may even be Gulenists.
Here, another oddity rears its head. The Turkish military has been quite adept at organizing coups (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997). Why was this one so unsuccessful? Is it because the most competent leaders have been sidelined in recent years through the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases that were found, ultimately, even by Turkey’s not-too-independent courts, to be based on forged evidence? Why was Erdoğan not shot out of the sky when the coup-supporting pilots had his plane in their sites (as referenced above)? Why wasn’t he the first person targeted, strongly, especially since he was on vacation, out of the capital where he would have had more resources? Why weren’t other government leaders and AKP structures quickly knocked out of commission? These and other strange manifestations have led many to assert that this was a fake coup, staged by Erdoğan himself. We’ll get to the “why” in a bit.
It could also be that the coup plotters were forced to move fast, advancing their plans, because of certain key upcoming developments. Imminent was the annual meeting of Turkey’s High Military Commission, and fears/rumors that Gulenists and/or more of the old line secularists (or ultra-nationalist Ataturkists worried that this was their last chance) would be purged may have prompted the plotters to act hastily, before they were fully prepared.
Of course Fethullah Gulen along with all the other, opposition, parties in parliament condemned the coup and defended Turkey’s so-called democracy. Each of these entities has its own, cynical or sincere, reasons for opposing military intervention. Getting into these details would be too confusing for this article.
Erdoğan’s motives for staging a faux-coup would create an opportunity, a window, in the post-coup period to further consolidate power in his hands; get rid of Gulenists who are in the judiciary, military, police, and other parts of the government; and using the whole situation to finagle (through staged elections or otherwise) a more compliant parliament to change the Turkish constitution to create an executive rather than nominal presidency, giving him the power he craves.
The US role in all this is also the topic of much discussion. Did the coup plotters have Washington’s approval? Did D.C. hope the coup would work, explaining the slow response in the form of Kerry’s statement about upholding democratically elected governments? Did the U.S. use Gulen? Did Erdoğan take advantage of the kissing-and-making-up-with-Israel to implement his faux-coup calculating that the Americans would now be more flexible? Maybe he hoped to just get Gulen extradited back to Turkey, a long-standing desire, by making it look like Gulen caused the coup.
All of these plots within plots and counterplots seem possible in the absence of hard facts, which are very hard to come by. Other than the obvious events, there are only a few poignant tidbits. In the course of the coup, Turkey’s anti-ISIS military leader was killed (remember that Erdoğan and the AKP are considered by many to be ISIS/Daesh supporters) and now, Erdoğan has declared a three-month state of emergency with powers resembling those of a post-coup junta in his hands. He will be able to rule by fiat. Tens of thousands of military, police, judges, teachers, education and finance ministry staff, university deans, and even staff from the Prime Minister’s office have been sacked or told to quit. In addition, academics are banned from travelling outside the country. While many of these may not seem as strange when viewed through the lens of Gulenist activity, the speed with which it has happened lends credence to the rumors that lists of people to expunge from government had been drawn up before-hand, i.e. not in response to the coup. This in turn lends credence to the faux-coup hypothesis.
So whether the events of July 15-16 are a joke or a plot, they are certainly another blot on Turkey’s record as a “democracy” and should be used to urge Western, especially the American, governments to revamp how they perceive and interact with Turkey.
Much more nastiness may be forthcoming with a host of currently unanswerable questions awaiting answers. How will Russia use these events in its activities in the region? Will the Kurds now be even more targeted by Erdoğan? What will happen to the anti-ISIS/Daesh efforts operating out of Turkey? And finally, was the timing of the police-station takeover in the Republic of Armenia linked to the “coup” in Turkey? Was there a perceived window of reduced threat/risk from Turkey that suggested to those holding the police hostages that they should strike when they did?
It is now the time to follow INTENSELY the developments in Turkey and use them to initiate a down-grading of the perceived value Ankara enjoys in ALL capitals, from D.C. to Moscow, to Beijing and beyond. Let’s get to diplomatic work.