Five Ways of Understanding the Failed Coup in Turkey

A screen shows President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's head during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday. Michael Rubin writes that Erdogan is on the warpath. He believes he has a carte blanche to target enemies at home and perhaps abroad as well. Baz Ratner/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On Friday, as Turks were out and about to mark the start of the evening, elements of the Turkish military sought to stage a coup.

There was reason to see such violence coming. Last March, we speculated here at AEIdeas about the possibility that a coup might be brewing. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president and strongman, has only grown increasingly dictatorial and erratic since.

What really happened, though, remains unclear, and conspiracies swirl. Below are five questions to consider as Turkey teeters on the precipice:

  • Why is this coup different from others? The coup was unlike any coup Turkey had ever witnessed, and Turkey has seen four over the past decades. The Turkish military has timed past coups for the early morning hours (in 1980, the coup began at 5 a.m. on Sunday) in order to detain sleeping political leaders at their homes). It has closed airspace and shutdown the media. In each of the past coups, the coup leaders themselves made the announcement. On Friday evening, however, a Turkish anchor made the announcement after being handed a note by low-ranked soldiers.
  • Who is responsible? There are three main suspects. The smoke had not cleared before Erdogan blamed Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric and former Erdoğan ally. Gülen preaches peace and tolerance, although his critics believe he has a hidden agenda.

My own views are more conflicted. Erdogan could never have consolidated power the way he did without the assistance of Gülen's allies, but once Erdogan turned on Gülen in 2013, the Pennsylvania-based cleric recognized the danger of Turkey with its constitutional checks-and-balances dismantled.

Regardless, Gülen denies any role in Friday's events. Nor has he ever had a power base in the military. Indeed, the Turkish General Staff has long vetted officer candidates to prevent Gülen's followers from rising through the ranks.

The second are traditional Kemalists, those who follow the secular and pro-Western principles laid out by modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. While Erdogan has eroded both the Turkish military's power and promoted Islamists within its ranks, it is possible that secularists in the military acted alone without the coordination of the top, Erdogan-appointed brass.

Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to transform Turkey into a religious republic. As he consolidated power, Kemalists may have calculated that this was their last, best chance to save the old Turkey. If so, the units involved may have counted on popular support to overcome gaps in their plan. After all, the military traditionally polls as the most trusted public institutions in Turkey while the public trusts the political class far less.

The third possibility might be that Erdogan himself sparked the coup as a sort of Reichstag fire. Sustaining this theory is the sheer incompetence of the coup plotters, as well as the fact that Erdogan apparently had lists of thousands to detain compiled ahead of time. That he called the coup plot a "gift from God" only feeds the conspiracy further. So too does the fact that Erdogan's supporters were armed and ready to go immediately after his televised call to take to the streets.

Turks know that there is little spontaneity in their politics. For example, after Erdogan blew up at Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009, thousands greeted him at the airport waving Palestinian flags, the metro hours having been mysteriously extended for that day only. Even in a city as bustling as Istanbul, it would normally be hard to find thousands of Palestinian flags at 3 a.m.

  • What is Erdogan's end goal? Whether or not Erdogan planned the coup himself in an orgy of Machiavellianism, one thing is certain: He is now the winner and will consolidate power even further.

What Erdogan's end goal is remains open for debate, however. Eight years ago, it appeared he aspired to be the Turkish equivalent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More recently, Turks have suggested that his goal was grander, think caliphate or Islamic republic. Whatever Erdogan seeks, separation of powers does not appear on his agenda.

  • What's next for Turkey? Erdogan is on the warpath. He believes he has a carte blanche to target enemies at home and perhaps abroad. Turkey already has the high proportion per capita of imprisoned journalists. Expect prisons to become more crowded. The danger is that Turkish society is still divided. Erdogan has never won more than 50 percent of the vote.

The Kurdish insurgency is only growing more virulent. The terrorist attacks that have rocked Turkey in recent months may only be the tip of the iceberg. Here's my biggest fear: The closing of Turkey's political space may herald a new era of political assassination inside Turkey.

Elections were once the escape valve but, with Turks no longer able to campaign openly and with atrocity fanning the flames of animosity even further, opponents, ideologues and those who feel they must rectify personal or political grievance may turn to the gun. Not only will Erdogan be a target, but also the heads of all major political parties, newspaper editors, television anchors and civil society leaders.

  • What does it mean for the United States? It's time for some serious introspection in Washington. If the coup attempt caught the State Department and intelligence community by surprise, it's responsible to ask why? Are diplomats talking to themselves or Turks? Are their contacts relevant and broad, or are they trapped in an elite circle?

Likewise, what are the base assumptions that blinded U.S. intelligence? Erdogan's actions will challenge U.S. policy in other ways. When President Obama declared that all parties should support Erdogan, it is doubtful he meant to give the Turkish leader a green light to imprison thousands of opponents. And even though Obama came out against the coup plot, the Turkish government has redoubled anti-American incitement in recent days.

Turkish media suggests that the United States must have had a hand in the coup attempt because Gülen resides in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has renewed calls for Gülen's extradition, and appears willing to tie U.S. use of the Incirlik air base to his demand. In effect, this means, Erdogan is holding the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) hostage to his domestic political aims. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, equivocates.

Let us hope Obama and Kerry are students of history. When Jimmy Carter considered acquiescing to Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini's demand to extradite the shah who, like Gülen, came to the United States seeking medical treatment, the result was not peace but rather a sense that blackmail was an effective tool.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

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