Watching events unfold in Turkey over the past few days has certainly been interesting. The attempted military coup of President Erdogan, and the ensuing state of emergency that followed, will certainly have dire consequences for the people of Turkey. During the coup attempt, Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) shut down the two main bridges over the Bosporus in Istanbul. Other routes into the city such as Ataturk airport were captured and closed by the military. In addition to this, police units in the city were disarmed and civilians told to leave the streets. While this was going on, tanks were moved into the capital, Ankara, over which fighter jets were being flown. Heavy shelling and fighting soon broke out. Much as one may rightly be against the regime of President Erdogan, with his war against the Kurds, his persecution of anti-war academics his suppression of freedoms of speech, we should be under no illusions that this coup attempt was a crusade for democracy. Indeed, we should even be happy the coup attempt failed. Despite this, in lieu of the arrests that have already occurred, we can expect President Erdogan to clamp down further on the Kurds and opposition. This blog post will look at precisely what has happened in turkey in these past days, assessing what some of the consequences may be.
How the Coup Unfolded
By the time a state of emergency was declared, it became clear to everyone that the military were attempting a takeover of power. Despite this, it took the people orchestrating the putsch over an hour to make a statement. Before soldiers eventually did manage to storm the state television and radio broadcaster and read out their declaration, the Prime Minister Binali Yildirim of the ruling AKP, made a hasty comment on television, calling on the Turkish people to resist the coup. Meanwhile, Istanbul erupted in fighting. The headquarters of the Turkish Military was occupied by plotters by around midnight. The Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, was taken hostage and forced to endorse the coup. The Parliament and the headquarters of the intelligence agency were fired at from fighter jets, while tanks patrolled in critical areas. The attacks concentrated on the police headquarters in Ankara, an institution considered loyal to the Erdogan and the AKP.
It later became clear that the coup attempt had not been planned by Generals. Indeed, most of the plotters were from the gendarmerie air force and were assisted by some parts of the armed forces. When this became clear, many senior generals, began phoning in to CNN Turk to condemn the coup, declaring it illegal and traitorous, and commanding the involved military units back into the barracks. Statements of opposition to the coup also came from numerous organisations, including the far right Nationalist Movement Party (AHP), the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), and the Pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP). Half an hour after midnight, Erdogan himself manged to connect to CNN Turk, calling on his people to flock to the streets and airports and show loyalty to their president. Thousands of civilians did just that. Similarly, on the direction of the Minister for religious affairs, mosques all over the country implored people to take to the streets. By now government forces, civilians and AKP paramilitaries were able to take back some of the land, held by the military. When Erdogan eventually spoke at Aturuk airport at 4am, fighting was still continuing, but he and his supporters could definitively claim victory.
Why did the Coup Attempt Fail?
So, as I have made clear, the coup attempt was disastrously planned and executed. Indeed, it is difficult to wonder how anybody thought it was a good idea. Firstly, there was no political planning for the coup, despite its base of support being among those angry at the AKP regime. For a military coup to have got the support of the vast majority of the county’s population, it would have to be seen as paving the way for greater democracy and freedom in Turkey. The fact that the coup offered none of this, means that there is now not only large opposition to Erdogan in Turkey, but large opposition to putsches as well.
The weakness of the Coup made it plausible that the action was launched prematurely. After it was clear that the regime in Turkey had won, President Erdogan called the coup attempt a blessing of Allah, for it had allowed the government to purge the military of ‘cancerous elements’. Erdogan had wanted to do this for quite some time, but was not able to, due to the semi independence of the military from the AKP. In addition to this, there is evidence indicating that the police and judiciary, planned to commence operations against individuals within the Turkish military, on July 16. Those elements may have been preparing for a coup in advance of the meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) in August, in which issues related to the Military are discussed with the government. Point being, fear of these actions unfolding, may have led the Military to stage their coup, much earlier than planned.
Who Was Responsible For the Coup?
Though this seems to be a plausible explanation for the timing of the coup and indeed why it was such a huge failure, it also remains unclear who the anti AKP elements in the military were. What we can say for definite however, is that they were a minority, not supportive of the late 2015 escalation, of the war in North Kurdistan. Despite this, all top military commanders, who have been arrested in the AKP’s struggle against the military since 2007, were found innocent and released from prison. In addition to this, just a few days before the coup attempt the Turkish Military had received, through legislation, cover for its bloody war crimes in North Kurdistan. This did not mean that the military was being made more independent. In fact, the AKP was forced to reconstitute the Military and go in to alliance with it. Part of the reason for this was the AKP losing its partner in the state, Gulens Religious community, after Erdogan blamed the Gulen for initiating corruption investigations against him. Following this, it became obvious that the AKP dominated paramilitaries could not fight the Kurdish Liberation Movement on their own. They needed Heavy Artillery to do so. The General Staff were happy with this arrangement, and were planning to use it to strengthen their own position within society. It seems likely that they were not involved in the coup.
However, there were tensions within all sections of the state, and within wider society. Since the 2013 Gezi Uprising, political and economic instability has constantly risked social upheaval. The latest developments in this crisis include the ousting of ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and a costly and risky war in North Kurdistan. Averting the risk caused by these actions and stabilising the bourgeois order, were surely among the main motivations of the coup. The fact that some higher commanders may have conspired in the coup, or were at least unsure what side to position themselves, makes clear that this is a complex situation. It is likely that some commanders only began siding with the government, after they saw that the military was going to fail. It is also likely that followers of Gulens religious community, within the military, were involved in the coup attempt. However, if they were organised in the military, chances are that a standoff could have taken place between the AKP and Gullenist elements. As such, while the top commanders in the military were probably not followers of Gulen, it is plausible that the two groups could cooperate, as despite not sharing the same ideology, they share a common enemy, are strongly pro NATO and both have a vaguely anti interventionist foreign policy. In their collaboration with the AKP, the military has already been successful in forcing Erdogan to take stances in Favour of NATO and wary of intervention in Syria. Despite this, both sides still remain partially independent of each other. The cleansing of the military by the AKP of those who conspired in the coup attempt, will not eradicate the possibility of a second one. That will be determined by the ability of Erdogan, to control the crisis he has produced.
After the attempt to institute a military led government in the place of the AKP’s was essentially defeated, Erdogan started his countercoup almost immediately. A tide of repression against those supposedly involved in the coup attempt, or people ‘blacklisted’ by the government, had started.
In the space of one day following the coup attempt, almost eight thousand people were arrested. More than six thousand of these were soldiers. The number of people being detained and arrested is also expected to rise, as stated by the minister of justice. Since Friday night, Erdogan has kept asking people to occupy major places, in order to show loyalty. No other incidence could have provided him with the opportunity to mobilize his people on this scale, and consolidate his support. Many young soldiers, not all of whom were necessarily part of the coup, have been beaten and tortured by the crowd. Saturday night saw some groups attacking Kurdish neighbourhoods, some of which are well known for being left wing. One group also attacked Moda in Istanbul, a town well known for its bars and cafes, shouting slogans about the evils of drinking alcohol. Police supported some of these attacks, particularly when people in left wing areas began to fight back against the fascist mob. These same mobs interrupted Erdogan’s speeches over the weekend with the slogan ‘we want execution’ to which Erdogan replied ‘It is your right to demand it’. So far, these attacks have been unsuccessful and were resisted everywhere. Despite this, these factors show that Erdogan does not just want to eliminate the coup plotters, but to tighten his hold on all defiant sectors of society, and re-establish his authoritarian status through mass right wing mobilization.
What can we expect to Happen Next?
So, we have established so far that Erdogan appears to be the clear winner. An event like this was what he needed to regain credibility. More importantly however, he now appears to be a democratic hero, capable of rallying the Turkish people behind him. The countercoup signals exactly that.
Amongst all this, there is no doubt that Erdogan will use this opportunity to further consolidate his power. This is so obvious that US secretary of state John Kerry, explicitly expressed his concerns that Erdogan will use the failed coup attempt as an excuse to further crackdown on democracy. That would clearly be an overstretching of his capacities, triggering a severe crises, or even another coup. Since his popularity has peaked, he may call for a general election as soon as late autumn. In his distrust of the Military, he will try and build up a stronger department of police and Special Forces, loyal to the AKP. However, he has made no significant material gains. Many leading generals of the war in North Kurdistan were arrested. These included a high ranking generals who were hailed as a war heroes, after successfully leading operations in bedrocks of the Kurdish community, incidentally making them responsible for war crimes. They are now declared to be traitors. It is interesting, that so many of the soldiers waging war in North Kurdistan, were amongst the rebels. This might indicate that the war is not going too well for soldiers.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), released a statement on July 16h declaring the coup a war between rivalling factions of the Turkish state, and that the Kurds and all other democratic forces should stay out of the conflict. However, it would be more than surprising if the PKK did not use this situation to their own advantage. There are other units on the ground such as the police, but without the heavy artillery of the Armed Forces, the balance of power shifts heavily in favour of the Kurds. While we cannot know exactly what the Kurds will do at this point, it appears as if they are currently approaching the situation with care. While Erdogan may be unwilling to talk to the Kurds, the black hole left by the arresting of military personnel may leave him with no option, but to try and reopen peace negotiations with the PKK.
Overall, whatever happens in the coming days and weeks will be crucial for Turkey. Erdogan is likely to use the opportunity not only to arrest the plotters, but to push forward for stronger mobilizations and an intensified attack on opposition. It is important to remember that, what happened in the last two days was not a military coup for democracy, nor democracy against a military coup. It was and remains a war between a coup and a countercoup that will deepen, rather than solve, authoritarianism in Turkey.