Diplomatic Pouch / July 21, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Five days after renegade Turkish military officers tried, and failed, to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a panel of experts gathered at Washington’s Brookings Institution to make sense of it all.
The July 20 conference took place only hours before Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency throughout Turkey, and in the midst of a purge affecting more than 50,000 people — judges, civil servants, university professors, police officers and soldiers deemed disloyal by the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan government.
“These events are so recent that the situation is actually playing out in real time,” said moderator Fiona Hill, senior fellow and director of Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe, as she introduced the four panelists: Kemal Kirisci, director of the institute’s Turkey Project; Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence; Ömer Taspinar, nonresident senior fellow at Brookings; and Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy.
“I would have never thought or expected something of this kind to happen in Turkey,” said Kirisci, an expert on Turkish foreign policy. “This coup attempt did catch the country, and maybe the world and people like us, by surprise. It really was a shock to see. What is also shocking is the level of violence. Never had previous coup attempts targeted the Parliament.”
Erdoğan, who later said the attempted coup was “a gift from God,” has banned all academics from leaving the country. One government intelligence official told the Washington Post that at least 100,000 people were involved in planning the coup, in which aircraft were hijacked and used to attack crucial military and government buildings.
Violent attempts to overthrow the ruling elite are nothing new in modern Turkish history, but Kirisci said the many reforms passed by the Erdoğan government “gave us the impression that the days of military coups were really behind us.”
The events of July 15, in which 265 people died in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, and its capital, Ankara, triggered a dramatic and brutal crackdown — even though many of Erdoğan’s fiercest opponents, including journalists and opposition politicians, came out strongly against the coup attempt.
Erdoğan has blamed the chaos on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and one-time Erdoğan ally who has lived in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania since 1999.
“The government alleges that Gulen’s movement attempted to build a state within a state, and right now, it’s leaning very heavily on the United States to extradite him,” said Kirisci. “The U.S. government appears to be cooperative, but rightly says it has to be done within the rule of law.”
At last count, the government has detained between 118 and 150 out of the country’s 325 generals, meaning that one-third of the upper echelon of the Turkish military is under arrest. In addition, 1,400 out of 40,000 officers have been detained, as well as 15,000 of the country’s 50,000 teachers.
“One pleasantly surprising aspect was the way in which the public and the opposition parties — without hesitation — instantly reacted to the coup, condemned it and stood behind the principles of democracy,” said Kirisci. “You can’t do this to an elected government, especially one elected with such a clear majority. However, the extent of detentions and dismissals creates the very powerful impression that what you’re watching is a witch hunt.”
Taspinar, an expert on Turkey, political Islam, the Middle East and Kurdish nationalism, said that top brass had nothing to do with this coup — yet middle-ranking officers were heavily involved.
“So why do we have so many generals and admirals arrested?” he mused. “This tells me the coup goes beyond the Gulenists. They’ll do their best to blame the Gulenists for what happened, but the sheer numers of those arrested within the military shows there was a much wider level of persecution, and that Turkey narrowly escaped this coup.”
More to the point, he asked, what exactly is the Gulen movement?
“Is it a civil-society organization of individuals inspired by the theological views of Fethulleh Gulen? Or is it, as the Turkish government claims, a terrorist organization which has a secret agenda and intends to overthrow the government?”
If it’s the latter, said Taspinar, why isn’t the United States extraditing Gulen?
“In my opinion, it’s very hard to prove directly that Fethulleh Gulen is involved, because this is not a typical, hierarchical, centralized organization where decision-making comes from the top,” he said. “Mutual fears feed each other. We can’t understand what’s going on without understanding this deeply rooted fear the Turkish government has of the Gulenist movement.”
In Erdoğan’s eyes, said Hamid, Gulen is no less dangerous than Osama bin Laden.
Hamid, who was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, joked that “I never thought being from Pennsylvania would be an issue in the Middle East.”
But indeed it was last year, when Hamid went to the presidential palace in Ankara to meet one of Erdoğan’s top advisers.
“The guard checked my credentials and looked at my passport, where it lists my birthplace as Pennsylvania,” the academic recalled. “He gave me this weird look and said ‘Pennyslvania?’ The state had become the center of the conspiracy.”
While that experienced clearly made Hamid nervous, what’s even more unsettling is the extent to which Erdoğan and his followers want to undo the legacy of Kemal Atatürk, the secular founder of modern Turkey. “One adviser to the foreign minister told me, ‘we need to carry Mr. Atatürk to his grave,’” he recalled, adding that the adviser’s wife couldn’t work at a state hospital until 2013 because, as a devout Muslim, she wears a headscarf. Erdoğan’s own daughters couldn’t attend a public university in Turkey for the same reason.
As Erdoğan’s crackdown continues, the implications for the greater Middle East are huge, said Hamid.
“Turkey is in a nasty neighborhood and is fighting an ethnic insurgency in the south. But there’s no morale, no cohesion left in the Turkish military,” he explained. “How will this army fight now, with a clear sense of vision, when such massive purges are happening? How will it fight the PKK? How will it fight ISIS, which has just managed a spectacular terrorist attack at Istanbul’s airport?”
The consequences for Turkey’s relations with the United States as well as the European Union are far-reaching, said Hamid, whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and other publications.
“If Turkey re-establishes the death penalty, the EU dream is over. And forget about the anti-terrorism law now. Turkey is fighting terrorism by purging everything,” he said. “This is literally an existential problem for the government. Erdoğan escaped a coup and is now a wounded tiger. He will extract revenge — not just domestically but externally.”
Asked if Erdoğan himself staged the coup as an excuse to get back at his enemies, Taspinar said he didn’t believe that was the case.
“A lot of people in Turkey wanted the coup to succeed,” he said. “There’s a sense of despair among the opposition to Erdoğan that he is establishing a system without checks and balances, and turning Turkey into an electoral dictatorship. I don’t think it was staged, but the fact that the question is being asked shows you how much confusion there is — and Erdoğan will use this to his advantage.”