Why Turkey’s coup failed -VOX, Rudaw & Various

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After a night of uncertainty, Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in power. Initial reports seemed to indicate that the coup was well organized and on the verge of succeeding. However the plot came unraveled relatively quickly. In the aftermath, there have been mass arrests of military personnel and political opponents, and reports of vigilante justice handed out by pro-Erdogan mobs. See http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turkish-soldier-beheaded-pro-government-8433319 but be warned, the images are graphic and disturbing.

There are many questions to be answered. The first is why stage a coup? There are a number of reasons why part of the military would want to overthrow Erdogan. Once a major success story, Erdogan’s foreign policy had floundered since the Arab Spring. Not only has Turkey been growing increasingly isolated, his missteps had helped pave the way for Rojava, an independent Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria. They also left Turkey open to terrorist attacks from ISIS. His foreign policy had in fact broken down to the point where the Foreign Minister was sacked and several key policies were reversed. Ties were restored with Israel and overtures made to Moscow and reportedly Damascus as well.

On the domestic front, Erdogan’s reopened the civil war with the PKK, leading to bombings in major cities, and making parts of south eastern Turkey look like Syria. (See: http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/140720162 and  http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/turkey-thousands-kurds-flee-historic-sur-district-diyarbakir-curfew-expanded-1540429  Note: several of the images that cycle through the frame at the top right of this blog were taken in Diyarbakir in 2011 before the most recent fighting). Step by step, Erdogan was also concentrating all of the power of the state within his own hands. In doing so he was undermining the country’s nascent democracy and threatening the remaining secular traditions of the Turkish state that the military had historically preserved. To make matters worse, he had embarked on an anti-Gülen crusade that threatened anyone not loyal to Erdogan and the AK Party.  Muhammed Fethullah Gülen was once Erdogan’s ally, but after a falling out in 2013,  Gülen and his followers were branded as subversives. This may have forced the coup leaders’ hand: Either act, or risk being purged.

Given Tukey’s history of coups (see http://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12204508/turkey-military-coups-history) perhaps the more pressing questions were why did it not happen sooner, and how could it have failed? The answers to the two questions are partially intertwined. Since taking office Erdogan has replaced key members of the military elite, and changed its culture through recruitment and indoctrination. What was once an institution with a strong, coherent secular identity, and a reliable chain of command has become divided -to say the least. There are still some remnants of the old guard, but most of the senior command and a large part of the rank and file are pro-Erdogan, pro-AK. That makes launching a coup so much more complicated. In the past, secular generals could be sure they were all of the same mind and that their underlings would follow their orders. Not any more. As was clearly evident last night, the military was divided with key mobile units remaining loyal to the government. See VOX  (http://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12205352/turkey-coup-failed-why)

As the VOX article discusses, the plotters also made some fundamental errors. Most obviously, they did not capture Erdogan in the initial stages of the coup. As long as he remained free, he could rally the loyal parts of the military and his civilian supporters to his side. In a sense, there was a logic to the plotter’s strategy. Erdogan was out of the capital on vacation, that left him out of touch and somewhat vulnerable. But the plotters did not count on the availability of social media and Erdogan’s charisma. They also failed to take advantage of the brief period when the controlled the regular media. They were not able to convince enough of the military that they were going to win and that they had a plan. (see the blog War is Boring for a discussion of the battle for perceptions https://warisboring.com/turkish-coup-plotters-lost-the-battle-of-perception-fbb695cbe442#.k976qx5br). These were fatal mistakes.

Finally, one of the most surprising elements of the story is the support Erdogan received  from world leaders and even his opponents, including Kurdish groups. (See:  http://aranews.net/2016/07/kurds-turkish-opposition-parties-reject-military-coup/) There is no one answer to this. From a western perspective, Erdogan is the leader of a NATO state and an elected one at that. Turning on him during a coup was never likely. In the Middle East, few leaders like to see a coup take place. Its a bad precedent for them even if they don’t like the leader. For the domestic opposition, certainly there was a realization that a coup meant the end of elections for the foreseeable future and the loss of what ever gains they had made under the system. Finally, the Iraqi Kurds in Erbil have carved out a working relationship with the Erdogan government which also gives them leverage vis-a-vis Baghdad. A new military government would be an unknown quantity. (See David Romano’s piece in RUDAW http://rudaw.net/english/opinion/16072016).

Successful coups rarely give rise to democracy, no matter how awful the established leader was. When they fail, they make a bad situation worse.

More links:

Turkey coup: Who was behind Turkey coup attempt? http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36815476

Turkey was already undergoing a slow-motion coup – by Erdoğan, not the army
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/16/turkey-coup-army-erdogan