Michael Rubin: Turkey is Headed for a Bloodbath

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, at a Republic Day ceremony at Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey's founder. The October 29 ceremony in Ankara marked the republic's anniversary. Michael Rubin writes that what Erdogan has done in recent days to the police should put chills down the spines of those who care about his intentions and Turkey's future. Umit Bektas/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the failed July 15 coup attempt a "gift from God."

The Turkish government immediately blamed Erdogan's former ally-turned-rival Fethullah Gülen for being behind the plot, the genesis of which remains unclear. But the simple fact is that none of the material Turkish officials have given to their U.S. counterparts has yet risen to the standard of proof—let alone credible evidence—to support Erdogan's charges.

It is noteworthy that the Turkish press purports to describe the U.S. reaction as accepting of the Turkish material, yet no American officials have ever been quoted as saying anything near what the Turkish press describes. Indeed, alternate narratives about the July 15 coup attempt are equally compelling.

The only certainty is that the attempted coup became the excuse Erdogan needed or crafted in order to purge those opposed to or insufficiently enthusiastic about his agenda.

Much of what has been reported in the Western media has focused on the ongoing purge of teachers and university professors. Certainly, there is a newsworthy irony to a man whose university diploma appears to be forged assuming the right to appoint university presidents through a board he has staffed with his cronies.

But it is what Erdogan has done in recent days to the police that should put chills down the spines of those who care about his intent and Turkey's future.

Last week, Erdogan appointed new police chiefs for 61 out of Turkey's 81 provinces. He also assigned 55 police chiefs to central departments that act as police professional bodies. (On page 105 of this book chapter, Turkish academic and counterterrorism specialist Ahmet Yayla explains how these positions relate to Turkish counterterrorism.)

Some of the police chiefs Erdogan fired were religious, and some even supported him. None were followers of Gülen, simply because those who were had long ago been purged. Most of the chiefs whom Erdogan has appointed are fiercely nationalist, very young and relatively inexperienced, and so are likely to more easily defer to Erdogan's orders.

The problem seems to be not that Erdogan believed all the sacked chiefs disloyal—most were not, and he had appointed many in the first place. Rather, he considered them soft and unwilling to use the extreme violence he believes will be necessary to exert not only against Turkey's Kurds but also against many liberal or apolitical Turks as he moves to further consolidate control.

Throw into the mix that Erdogan has also just in the past few days extended the time for which Turks can be detained without access to an attorney to six months. What this sets the stage for is a significant augmentation of torture in custody in order to extract forced confessions, a practice that has become more common since July.

Erdogan's ruling party has also begun issuing weapons permits to loyalists, especially through the Ottoman Youth Authority (Osmanli Ocaklari). I have previously reported Erdogan's appointment of former general Adnan Tanriverdi, the head of SADAT (a defense consulting company), to be his military counsel. Tanriverdi had been dismissed by the Turkish General Staff during the 1997 soft coup and appears bent on revenge against the secular order.

SADAT, which has trained paramilitaries and special forces, is increasingly becoming Erdogan's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Indeed, SADAT appears to have been behind much of the killing of civilians that Erdogan's media blamed, absent any evidence beyond forced confessions, upon Gülenist coup plotters.

All this hints at Erdogan's long game. He appears to be consolidating his own religious control through the Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey (TÜRGEV, a charity on whose board Erdogan's son sits) and Hayrettin Karaman, Erdogan's favorite local Islamic leader.

But, as Erdogan seeks to change the constitution, he also wants to win through the point of a gun what he cannot win popularly.

The issue at hand is not simply the Turkish public—Erdogan believes he has them cowed—but rather Dogu Perinçek, a former Maoist and ultranationalist. Perinçek has been the chief beneficiary of Erdogan's purges, as they have eliminated many of his opponents as well.

Today, Perinçek is effectively the shadow defense minister. He has said he will not allow the constitutional change, which means the terms of the showdown are now clear.

Whoever wins, the only certainty is that Turkey is headed for a bloodbath. The only questions are how soon it comes, and whether Erdogan is more prepared than Perinçek.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen and prewar and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing With the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, examines a half-century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.