Australian Outlook

The Ottoman Caper

21 Jul 2016
By Dr Bruce Mabley

Turkey’s military coup of 15 July was foiled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supporters. However, the aftermath is anything but forgiving. The president has declared war on Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he accuses of being behind the coup, and is punishing his supporters in their thousands as well as demanding Gulen’s extradition from the US. The country seems to have returned to a civilian dictatorship.

The dust has yet to settle on Turkey’s latest failed coup d’état. President Erdogan has blamed the coup on supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has been in a self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. The coup, which was overturned during the night of 15 July by police and paramilitary units loyal to President Erdogan, was also opposed by throngs of Islamist ruling AK party supporters rushing into the streets to where the military coup units were in play.

In the end, the putschist military units were unable to secure the streets and attempted to “decapitate” the AK Party ruling leadership. Both were fatal errors. This allowed President Erdogan to land at Istanbul airport in the middle of the coup itself and assert his authority by requesting that supporters occupy the streets of Turkey. Thus the coup was foiled.

Now the aftermath is anything but forgiving. President Erdogan has declared war on Gulen insisting on his extradition from the United States and has fired or imprisoned tens of thousands of suspected coup plotters and fifth column Gulenists.

Let us first reflect on how average Turks must feel today. One has only to imagine the contradictory sentiments swirling in their minds: doubtless proud that the vicious cycle of military coups has been defeated by the democratically elected government in Ankara yet fearful that the failed coup attempt will only speed up the transition to one-man rule and ultimately undue the democratic elan of the Turkish people. Perhaps this explains why the secular youth of the Turkish spring and the Gezi Park protests of 2013 were conspicuously absent from the streets during the coup. Fortunately, for Erdogan, his Islamist supporters had no such ambiguous feelings and confronted the soldiers with conviction and determination.

Since 2013, things have been heating up between the ruling AK Party and Gulen supporters. AK Party relations with the Kemalist military were even worse, punctuated by supposed coup scandals (such as Ergenoken) planned by military leaders and equally scandalous judicial proceedings led by meek state prosecutors. Erdogan had already begun purging his ruling AK Party of Gulen’s influence; for example, former President Gul is gone along with many others. Was the coup engineered, as Erdogan has suggested, by military officers and Gulenists together? This is highly unlikely despite the fact that both groups are instilled with Turkish nationalism. The very laic nature of the Kemalist military and its faith in Ataturk’s desire to secularise Turkish society makes the military antithetical to Gulen’s soft Islamist supporters.

The Gulen movement

What is the Gulen movement? Is it really that powerful? The answer is a resounding yes. In the West, the Gulen movement is hardly known at all and all one sees most of the time is the tip of an iceberg. Built on an Islamic version of multi-confessionalism, Gulen has spawned a worldwide movement that has turned into a financial empire. Whilst the Gulen movement and its considerable commercial and political activities in the West go almost unnoticed (much like the old Free Mason influence on trading), inside Turkey the situation is very different. Most Turkish political observers agree that the Gulen movement is part of the “deep state”, part of a conspiratorial vision of the Turkish state. Gulenists are active in all major sectors of Turkish political, social and economic life. Erdogan is not incorrect in judging that the Gulen movement possess the strength to unseat him and his cronies from power. This explains the present purge of tens of thousands of judges, police officers, lawyers, teachers and bureaucrats (even 10 per cent of the AK party). The question that the failed coup attempt has raised for Erdogan is this: has the failed putsch and Erdogan’s massive repression of the pro-Gulenist elites only awakened a sleeping giant, the only one now capable of challenging one-man authority in Turkey?

What did Uncle Sam know?

Did the US Embassy in Turkey know about the impending coup? The US State Department vehemently denies it but some Turkish politicians are pointing the finger. In Turkey, the major international player is, and will always be, the United States. Not everything that happens in Turkey is known to the US Embassy. Yet, it is hard to imagine that high-ranking coup members did not send feelers out to the Americans to gauge their level of support. Some of the more prominent 15 July coup leaders were from the Turkish air force, which shares a base at Incirlik with US planes and personnel engaged in the war against ISIS. Moreover, Turkish air force contacts are well known to be strongest with their US and Israeli counterparts, much to the chagrin of AK Party leaders. Despite all of this, President Obama’s foreign policy strategy of “leading from behind” would have been unlikely to give much encouragement to the rebels.

The American card is also in play given the Turkish extradition demand for Gulen who is presently exiled and living in Pennsylvania. Clearly, if Erdogan’s government re-instates the death penalty, this would complicate US-Turkey relations considerably.

Coup consequences

Turkey plays a key political and economic role in several regions of conflict and tension. Turkey is first and foremost a Mediterranean power exerting influence over the key Bosphorus straits and into the Black Sea. Turkey is also a player in the Middle East as exemplified by its role in the Syrian conflagration. Finally, in addition to being a European power and member of NATO, Turkey has influence in the East where Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are located.

The world needs an active, democratic and just Turkey in order to manage numerous regional conflicts such as Syria, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kurdish national aspirations, the unpredictable Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, relations with Russia and others. The failed coup attempt and its aftermath do nothing to assuage fears of one-man rule by President Erdogan.

Turkey’s key issues and the need for real progress on them remain much the same now as before the coup: solving the Armenian genocide question by relegating it to study by a “Comité de sages”; releasing imprisoned journalists (they were clearly not responsible for the coup); concluding an enduring peace with the Kurds (who are themselves divided along generational, national and tribal lines) as one of the surest ways to prevent the establishment of a country called Kurdistan; becoming a player in the Arab-Israeli conflict to actualise its regional role as a peace maker; modifying Turkey’s Syria policy to support not only the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (an early and costly mistake) but the wealth of democratic opposition forces including the youth movement and assist in arming these democratic factions; and establishing a no-fly zone along the Syrian border and enforcing it with or without NATO allied support.

Dr Bruce Mabley is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau Group think tank based in Montreal which is devoted to analysis of international politics. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.