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Turkey Turns Back the Clock

The winners and losers in the coup against Erdogan
by Scott Ritter

Jul 27, 2016 | Foreign Policy, Politics


Photo Credit: Vikiçizer


The modern news cycle is short, so what happened three weeks ago in Ankara and Istanbul already reads like an old story. Yet it is a story we ignore at our own risk, because the consequences of the coup in Turkey are considerable and will be with us for a long while.

The roots of the shocking July 15–16 coup lay in Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds, its involvement in the Syrian crisis, and the deterioration of Turkish security that has resulted. While the Turkish Army has long opposed any significant ground incursion into Syria, the Turkish Air Force has been an active proponent of a no-fly zone over northern Syria as the best means of reducing the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey and inducing stability, as well as containing the political aspirations of Syrian Kurds. But Turkey could not create such a no-fly zone on its own or engender any meaningful support from the United States or NATO. The result of the impasse over the no-fly zone is a muddled policy in which Turkey actively supports groups opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including those affiliated with Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, better known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Meanwhile, it’s supporting American efforts to combat Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq, including Al Qaeda and ISIS—all in hopes that the United States will eventually see the wisdom behind a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

The Syrian crisis began in early 2011. It came to a head in terms of direct Turkish military involvement in the summer of 2015, when the Turkish Air Force began bombing ISIS positions inside Syria in response to ISIS attacks on Turkish soil. Turkey simultaneously launched air strikes against Turkish Kurds affiliated with the Kurdish Peoples Party (the PKK, which is pursuing increased sovereign rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority), striking PKK bases in northern Iraq. This bombing was ostensibly in response to earlier PKK attacks against Turkish soldiers inside Turkey. Because of the air strikes, ISIS considered Turkey a valid target for terror attacks, and the PKK declared its ceasefire with Turkey, in place since 2013, null and void. Suddenly Turkey was fighting a war against two enemies—ISIS and PKK—in Syria and Iraq, which define its entire southern border, and on its own soil.

As the battlefield in the Turkish-PKK conflict shifted from the remote mountains of the Turkish-Iraqi borderlands to Turkish cities and towns, Turkish civilians were increasingly caught in the crossfire, and entire Turkish neighborhoods were destroyed in the process. In non-stop fighting with the PKK, Turkey’s paramilitary Gendarme and Special Forces paid a heavy price. More than 500 Turkish security forces have been killed, with hundreds more wounded. The conflict spilled over into Turkey’s major cities as well, with car bombs killing dozens of civilians and wounding hundreds more in Istanbul and Ankara.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 further complicated Turkey’s strategy vis-à-vis ISIS and the Kurds, especially after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter along the Turkish-Syrian border. The Russian response to the downing of its aircraft—the deployment of modern air defense systems and the dispatch of fighter aircraft to escort its strike aircraft flying in Syria—forced the Turkish Air Force to cease operations inside Syria, ending any hope that Turkey or the United States would impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria.

By June 2016, Turkish policy toward Syria and the Kurds was in complete disarray, prompting the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. His successor, Binali Yildirim, immediately sought a ceasefire with the PKK, as well as improved relations with Russia and Syria, in an effort to stabilize the deteriorating security situation inside Turkey and along its borders. ISIS’s bloody attack on the Istanbul airport in late June only underscored the critical situation Turkey found itself in—a situation primarily attributable to the policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which alienated many in the Turkish military.

Erdogan wasn’t out of the woods; F-16 fighters flown by pro-coup pilots locked onto his jet as it flew back to Istanbul.

The true motives of the July coup plotters remain unknown. And Erdogan’s decision to place the blame solely on a “parallel state” linked to the followers of reclusive Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen suggests that those motives are unlikely to see the light of day any time soon. But the military backgrounds of some of the key coup members, together with the composition of the forces central to the coup operations, point to a possible connection to Turkey’s disastrous Syrian-Kurd policy. The 3rd Army Corps—which provided the tanks, armored vehicles and personnel used to seize critical locations in and around Istanbul—was commanded by a lieutenant general who previously headed the Operation Division of the Turkish Chief of Staff in 2014–2015. This position made him a critical player in the Syrian-Kurdish struggle. Indeed, he would often represent Turkey during crucial meetings with the United States regarding strategies for defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Three of the six brigades assigned to the 3rd  Corps played an active role in the coup, something that would have been impossible without at least the passive endorsement of the 3rd Corps commander.

In Ankara, a Special Forces major general led a team of commandos to seize control of the Special Forces headquarters, where he was tasked with issuing critical orders for the deployment of thousands of Turkish commandos, standing by in their bases along the Syrian border, into Ankara to help consolidate control of the capital. The general was killed by a Special Forces sergeant on duty, and the attempt failed. Other commandos, flown in from bases in southeast Turkey, helped capture the Turkish chief of staff and the other heads of the armed forces. Yet their efforts to compel these officers to issue orders to military units across Turkey to join the coup failed and the generals were taken hostage and flown to an air base north of Ankara, where the coup plotters had set up a headquarters. Turkish F-16 fighters were sortied from this base in support of the coup, two of which were flown by the officers involved in shooting down the Russian fighter in 2015.

The key operation in the coup, however, was an attempt to capture or kill President Erdogan—carried out by another commando force led by an Air Force major general who had helped direct Turkish Air Force operations in Syria and Iraq. The commandos assaulted a hotel in the Mediterranean resort city of Marmaris, where Erdogan was vacationing. The president, however, had been tipped off, and fled the hotel minutes before the commandos arrived. Even then, Erdogan wasn’t out of the woods; F-16 fighters flown by pro-coup pilots locked onto his jet as it flew back to Istanbul, dissuaded from shooting the plane down only by the fact that its crew had re-designated the aircraft as a Turkish airlines passenger plane. Erdogan’s survival doomed the coup, as civilians flooded into the streets in response to the president’s call for help, overwhelming the coup troops, while forces loyal to Erdogan rallied to his cause.

It had been a close-run thing and came ever so close to succeeding. Had the commandos arrived at Erdogan’s hotel moments earlier, had a sergeant not been willing to die in defense of his post, had one or more generals opted to join the coup when confronted by the threat of force, the outcome may well have been different. One thing was clear: the July 15–16 coup was a complex military operation involving the movement of large numbers of troops and equipment over vast territory—not something orchestrated by an aging Muslim cleric sequestered thousands of miles away in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Kemalist officers who led the coup, dedicated to the legacy of the founder of modern secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, called themselves the “Council for Peace in the Homeland”—derived from Atatürk’s famous saying, “Peace in the Homeland, Peace in the World.” (This saying is also the motto of the 3rd Army Corps, which spearheaded the coup efforts in Istanbul.) The plotters rolled the dice and lost. Whether Turkish democracy won as a result is very much in question.

The failed coup was a stunning attack on a democratically elected government. A full investigation is warranted, as is restoring the rule of law by punishing those who violated both the law and their oaths to uphold and defend it. But Erdogan’s response to the coup has raised concerns far beyond Turkey, as 9,000 people have been detained, including hundreds of generals, more than 6,000 officers and soldiers, and thousands of judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and other officials. Tens of thousands of others have been summarily fired from their jobs, including judges, prosecutors and educators, as the numbers of those caught up in the backlash continue to grow. President Erdogan has imposed a three-month state of emergency that many observers in Turkey and around the world fear will be used to further consolidate his executive authority and power, making his government less a reflection of the national democratic values it espouses, and more the manifestation of autocratic personal ambition.

Another casualty is Turkey’s defense forces. In his effort to eliminate the military as a threat to his political ambition, Erdogan has gutted it as a viable defense force. The politicization of national security policy that seems to have motivated at least some coup plotters has helped create a post-coup reality where Erdogan will be compelled to more closely align himself with Syria, Iraq, and Iran due in large part to the diminished capabilities of the Turkish military—not the result the authors of the coup desired. This drift toward the east, when combined with Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, will chill relations with Europe and the United States, killing any dream of EU membership for Turkey and throwing its future as a viable NATO member into question. Isolated, gutted, and lacking a firm ideological compass, it is hard to imagine that the Turkish military will soon recover.

The people of Turkey once held their military in high esteem, and tolerated its occasional forays into the fray of domestic politics because the generals always seemed to step in to save Turkey from itself. The political evolution of Turkey’s democratic institutions since 1997, the last time the military meaningfully intervened in in domestic politics, had lulled many into a false complacency regarding the will of the Turkish military to act as the guardian of the constitution and the security of Turkey. However misguided their intentions, there is no doubt that those who planned and carried out the events of July 15–16 believed they were following in the tradition of others who in the past had taken great risks to preserve the integrity and security of the Turkish Republic.

The reality created by the July coup is that even if the Turkish military would want to intervene against constitutional overreaching by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it no longer can. The result of any such military action would now be a civil war that would further radicalize a significant Muslim population in a manner that threatened the region and the world. The generals would have to destroy what they would set out to save.

The Turkish experiment in building constitutionally based representative democracy in a predominantly Muslim country is under attack, not only from those who plotted the coup, but also from forces now using the coup as a pretext to eliminate all opposition to the political ambition of Erdogan and the AKP.

Erdogan and his party, once considered the vanguard of democratic reform, have been exposed as wolves in sheep’s clothing. This anti-democratic posture is not new to the Turkish president, nor is it a singular result of the failed coup. In March 2016 Erdogan provided a preview of the direction he intended to take, when, facing criticism at home and abroad over his crackdown on journalistic freedom of speech, he publicly chided those who espoused “democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

“These phrases,” Erdogan said, “have absolutely no value any longer.”

If anything, the July coup has reinforced these sentiments.


Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served on the staff of General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War, and as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq.


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