What Happened in Turkey?
Turkey's failed military coup wasn't in service of democracy — but neither is Erdoğan's countercoup.
On Friday, July 15, at about 10:15 PM, units of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) shut down the two main bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Others, patrolling on the coastal line, announced that people should leave the streets — a state of emergency was to be declared.
Istanbul’s Atatürk airport was captured and closed by the military, which also began disarming police units in the city. At the same time tanks moved into the capital, Ankara, over which fighter jets were flying low. Heavy shelling and fighting broke out.
The Coup Unfolds
It slowly became clear to everybody that parts of the military were attempting a coup. Yet it took the putschists more than an hour and a half before they made an official statement.
Long before that Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made a hasty comment on television announcing a coup attempt by a minority within the military and calling on the people to fight back.
Soldiers did eventually storm the state television and radio broadcaster and read out their own declaration. A “Counsel for Peace at Home” (a reference to Mustafa Kemal’s anti-expansionist slogan “Peace at home, peace in the world”) said that it had taken power in order to restore democratic and secular rule of law, which had been eroded by President Erdoğan’s government.
All the while Istanbul and especially Ankara, where state institutions are located, erupted in fighting. The headquarters of the General Staff of the TSK was occupied by plotters only at around midnight and the chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, was taken hostage together with other top commanders. He was forced to endorse the coup statement, which he did not.
The parliament, the headquarters of the intelligence agency, the presidential palace, and several other state institutions were fired at from helicopters or fighter jets, while tanks patrolled in critical areas. The attack concentrated on the intelligence agency and police special forces headquarters in Ankara — two of the institutions considered most loyal to Erdoğan and the AKP.
It quickly became clear that the coup was not planned by the General Staff itself but took place against the chain of command. The plotters came mainly from the gendarmerie and air force and were assisted by some parts of the armored forces. It doesn’t seem to be the case that high-ranking generals were actively involved in the beginning, indeed many were taken in custody after the coup failed.
When the tide of battle was becoming clearer, many other senior generals, such as the First Army’s Ümit Dündar, slowly began phoning into CNN Turk to condemn the coup, declaring it illegal and traitorous and commanding the involved military units back into the barracks.
Meanwhile, statements of the opposition and other important political figures were pouring in. The fascist-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) all condemned the coup attempt.
Former president Abdullah Gül, often rumored to be close to former imam and onetime AKP ally Fethullah Gülen and a potential rival to Erdoğan, strongly condemned the coup, as did former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who had been sacked and removed by the president just a couple of months ago.
Half an hour after midnight, Erdoğan himself managed to connect to CNN Türk through FaceTime from a secret location. He accused the “parallel structure” and “Pennsylvania” of plotting against him. Those references are well-known in Turkey and refer to Gülen — who has resided in Pennsylvania since 1999 — and his religious community.
Erdoğan also called his people to flock to the streets and airports to fight back. Thousands of civilians did just that. Similarly, on the direction of Mehmet Görmez, president of religious affairs, mosques all over the country implored people throughout the night to take to the streets.
By now government forces — police special forces and loyal military units — began engaging the choke points that the putschists were still holding. They were assisted not only by thousands of civilians, but also by AKP-aligned paramilitaries with light weaponry, who have been frequently seen over the last years in action against mass opposition demonstrations.
Outside of Turkey, it took the international community some time before it commented on the unfolding events. While the first US statement via Secretary of State John Kerry was ambiguous, saying that he hoped for “stability and peace” to prevail, eventually President Obama came out to declare his support for the elected government.
The more statements of this sort that came in from various countries and international agencies the more things started to change in favor of the government. When Erdoğan eventually spoke at Atatürk airport at around 4 AM, he and his supporters could all but definitively claim victory. Fighting was still continuing, particularly in Ankara, but the coup was clearly a lost cause.
Why Did the Coup Fail?
What unfolded over the weekend showed a coup attempt that was disastrously planned and executed. It was hard not to wonder how anybody thought it was a good idea.
1. The coup was poorly planned and lacked legitimacy.
To begin with, there was no political or ideological preparation for the coup. No military coup can take place without it, especially not a coup such as this one, which anticipated broad support on the grounds of anti-AKP sentiment in society and state within the first hours. Although there is a widespread opposition to Erdoğan, there is by now also public opposition to putsches.
For a military coup to be accepted and defended by large parts of society in Turkey today, it would have to be seen as an effective and transitory procedure that would immediately pave the way for a viable democratic civilian alternative to the AKP. There was no alternative built up and no other preparations of any sort.
The coup was a surprise, even for those who should have supported it. Many people were confused about what was happening or apathetic, for they could see no sense or meaningful direction in the coup, merely a repetition of an old nightmare.
That the putschists had no visible face to be identified and associated with (even their broadcast was made by a public television anchorwoman, not by a participant) only added to the alienation of the people from the plotters.
2. It was politically isolated.
The coup was also immediately isolated in the political arena. All central political and even economic actors condemned the action: the AKP and all oppositional parties (CHP, MHP, and HDP) made declarations one after the other doing so and the leading business union — the representative of the leading factions of Turkish finance capital, the TÜSIAD — joined them. Without this support, it was easy to see why the rebel units were overrun by police and civilians.
3. The soldiers involved weren’t committed participants.
For being such a contested action from the outset, the coup was not executed as brutally as would have been necessary in order to gain the upper hand. The putschists would have had to fire with heavy guns and artillery into the crowds to hold their ground but fortunately they didn’t do so and many soldiers just gave in into the police and let themselves be taken in custody.
From pictures even from central locations of the coup such as the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge in Istanbul, one could see the manpower behind the attempt: low-ranking, non-committed young soldiers who would quickly waver.
Many soldiers, who were supposed to gain control on the streets, later on said that they were told that they were sent out for training missions and were surprised the moment they realized they were part of a coup. Some of them even began to desert when the situation came into view.
4. They didn’t act decisively.
The putschists couldn’t even defend their strong points: they had momentum in Ankara initially and were at first able to dominate the capital’s air space. However, they were not able to execute decisive strikes: they were not able to neutralize the central institutions of their perceived enemy, such as the intelligence agency or police special forces headquarters in the city. They only succeeded in taking the General Staff building. The prime minister and president were safe from the plotters as well, and able to rally opposition to an unpopular coup.
5. Without this early success, leading officers didn’t support the attempt.
It became clear that the General Staff was not involved in the coup planning — but many high-ranking generals would have supported the coup in a stronger and more decisive way if it had been better executed.
As in any coup that begins against the chain of command and does not have revolutionary aims, but merely seeks to change power relations between elites, senior officers tend to join the coup only once it becomes obvious that it will succeed.
A Premature Coup?
All the weaknesses and obvious organizational and procedural deficits of the coup make it plausible that the action was launched prematurely (we dismiss the view that the coup was orchestrated by Erdoğan himself).
President Erdoğan, in his “rallying speech” delivered at Atatürk airport on Saturday morning, called the coup attempt a blessing of Allah for it created the opportunity to “cleanse” the military from cancerous elements. Erdoğan was waiting to do this for quite some time but wasn’t able to do so — the Turkish military remained the last state apparatus somewhat autonomous from the AKP.
As pointed out by journalist Ahmet Şık, as well as many others, there is information indicating that police and juridical operations planned to commence action against anti-AKP elements within the military on July 16. It is also said that those elements were preparing for a coup in advance of the central meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) in August, in which assignments within the military are undertaken and all central issues related to the army are discussed with the involvement of the civilian government.
In other words, after the planned operations on July 16, the anti-AKP elements within the army were supposed to be kicked out of the army and replaced in the YAŞ meeting. Fear of these unfolding actions may have forced these officers to stage their coup much earlier than planned.
Though this seems to be the most plausible explanation for recent events, it still remains unclear who exactly those anti-AKP elements were. What is sure is that they were a minority and not supportive of the course of events unfolding since the late 2015 escalation of the war in North Kurdistan.
Since then, the Turkish military which has gone years without being a political actor, came back to the foreground as organic ties between the military and the rest of the (mostly AKP-dominated) state were forged.
All top military commanders and allies of the military who had been arrested in the AKP’s struggle against the military beginning in 2007 were released from prison, and all cases against them dropped. Erdoğan even declared that the government was misled and deceived by Gülenists, who were responsible for the mass arrests of commanders.
The military’s reputation got reconstituted. Just a couple of days before the coup attempt, the army was even granted, through new legislation, substantially increased authority and legal cover for all its bloody war crimes in North Kurdistan.
This did not mean that the military was being subsumed under the AKP. On the contrary, the AKP was forced to reconstitute the military and go into an alliance with it since it lost its deeply seated partner in the state, Gülen’s religious community, and it became clear that it is not possible for the (AKP-dominated) special operations forces to fight against the Kurdish liberation movement on their own. They needed heavy artillery and commando units to do so and these were (as yet) only available to the military.
The General Staff itself was quite happy with this new alliance and was planning to use it to massively strengthen its position within state and society again. It seems certain that they were not involved in the coup.
However, there were tensions within all sections of the state and within society since the 2013 Gezi uprising. Since then, political and economic instability, a permanent state of social upheaval, and one foreign policy crisis after the other have been taking place all of which are rocking the social and political order in Turkey and risking systemic breakdown.
The latest developments of this crisis consisted of the ouster of ex-prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and an ideologically and politically costly and risky total war in North Kurdistan.
Averting the perceived systemic risk caused by these actions, and stabilizing the bourgeois order, were surely among the main motivations of the coup, especially for those high-ranking commanders who were supposedly assisting the coup or began assisting it in the course of its implementation.
The fact that some higher commanders may have conspired in the coup or joined it in after it was underway, or were at least unsure on which side to position themselves for some hours, points to the fact that the situation within the military is far from clear.
It is likely that some of them only began siding with the government once they saw that the putschists were about to fail. And there is a chance that the difficult and pyrrhic advance of the Turkish military in North Kurdistan was a main element in the discontent within the military.
It seems probable that cadres of the Fethullah Gülen community entrenched within the military were involved in the coup. Although the Gülen community is more known to prefer civilian as much as juridical and police institutions as fields of activity and organization, there is no reason why they should not also have been organizing within the military other than the fact that traditionally the military is a stronghold of Kemalist elites. And if they were organized within the military, chances are high that a standoff could take place between the AKP and Gülenist elements, for that would have then been the last stronghold of the Gülenists within the state.
While it does not seem likely that any of the top commanders allegedly involved in the coup are Gülenists, it is plausible that the two could tactically cooperate: they might not share the same ideology, but they would share a common enemy and a foreign policy perspective (strongly pro-NATO, vaguely anti-intervention).
In any case, the majority of the military and especially the General Staff did not support the coup after all. For them, the current balance of forces was still working in favor of the military’s position within state and society, and they were willing to operate in alliance with the AKP.
The military has already been successful in somewhat forcing the AKP to take on a foreign policy stance that is closer to the military’s classical line (NATO cooperation, but wary of intervention in Syria and hostilities with Russia).
However, both sides still remain partly independent from each other and follow their own agendas. The “cleansing” of the military of the current putschists will not eradicate the possibility of future, more serious, military coups in the near future. That will be determined by the ability of the AKP to control the crisis it has produced.
The battles on Friday and Saturday left over 300 people dead and around 1,500 wounded. After the coup was essentially defeated, the countercoup of Erdoğan and his clique started immediately. A wave of repression against people somehow involved with the coup or otherwise on a “black list” was initiated.
As of Monday, almost eight thousand people have been detained with the accusation of involvement in the coup attempt. Of these, more than six thousand are soldiers; seventy being high-ranking officers, generals and admirals; around 750 from the judiciary; thirty being members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK); two are members of the constitutional court (AYM). 316 of the detained have been arrested as of Monday. The operations are continuing without pause, and the number of detainments is expected to rise, as the minister of justice stated.
Since Friday night, Erdoğan and the government keep calling on people to occupy all major places during the night in order to manifest the “national will.” No other incidence could provide him with the opportunity to mobilize his people on this scale, consolidate mass support, and represent his power as materialization of democratic forces in Turkey. Although the crowds on streets have — after the very first day — remained below expectations, some small but well-organized, militant radical Islamist groups succeeded in capturing parts of the mob.
Many young soldiers who did not even know that they were part of a coup attempt have been beaten, tortured, and almost lynched by the crowd. Systematic beating and torture is still going on in custody as hundreds of videos on social media reveal. Slogans such as “Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu Ekber” (“With the name of Allah, Allah is one”) have been echoing in streets and places since Friday.
It swiftly became clear what this all was supposed to be about: Saturday night, some of the groups started to attack Alevi and Kurdish neighborhoods that are well known as being leftist, such as Gazi or Okmeydanı in Istanbul, Tuzluçayır in Ankara, and Armutlu in Antakya. One group also attacked Moda in Istanbul, a hip neighborhood well known for bars and cafes, shouting slogans against drinking alcohol and the like.
Police supported some of these attacks, particularly as the people in the left neighborhoods fought back. Gazi experienced a violent conflict as left-wing forces took the streets armed to fight back the fascist mob.
As of now, these attacks have been unsuccessful and were resisted everywhere, yet they highlight an aspect to the mobilization of masses to streets by Erdoğan. He does not just want to eliminate the coup plotters; he wants to strengthen his grip on all defiant oppositional layers of society, and reestablish his broken hegemony through right-wing mass mobilizations.
The same mobs interrupted Erdoğan’s speeches over the weekend time and again with one very specific slogan: “We want execution.” Erdoğan’s response was almost affirmative: “It is your right to demand it.” Obviously, if the death penalty is reintroduced for “terrorists” and “traitors,” it will not be difficult to find victims. The Turkish government is an expert in classifying almost any oppositional act as a terrorist one.
For now, Erdoğan appears to be the clear winner. An event like this was exactly what he needed to regain credibility and the initiative. It is no surprise that he called the coup attempt a “blessing from God” that would allow them to purge the army.
Yet more importantly, he appears to be a democratic hero now, capable of rallying the people behind his administration. The initial countercoup signifies just that. The government is now firmly insisting on Gülen’s extradition to Turkey, while US secretary of state John Kerry emphasized that the Turkish side has to provide them with legitimate evidence proving the imam’s involvement.
Moreover, there is no doubt that he will use this opportunity to push even harder for the presidential system. Since his popularity seems to have peaked, it is probable that he will want to have a snap election or referendum in late autumn or winter.
In the meanwhile, in the twinges of his distrust of the army, he will try to build up an even stronger department of police and special forces totally faithful to himself. Yet in terms of “material” strength he made no significant gain.
On the contrary, many leading generals of the war in North Kurdistan were arrested. This included most notably a high-ranking general who was hailed as a hero just a few months ago, because he had led the operations in Cizre and Sur, two bedrocks of the Kurdish movement, where violent clashes between the Kurdish militias and the state forces took place for months.
Having successfully “cleansed” Cizre and Sur — which makes him responsible for numerous crimes and violations of human rights — he is now declared to be a traitor. Additionally the highest-ranking officers in Hakkari and Şırnak have been detained. Those two provinces are among the regions where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is at its strongest and the de facto dominating force in many areas.
The fact that factions within the air force rebelled is also important, as fighter jets are an important advantage for the state in the war against the PKK. It is interesting, to say the least, that so many of the soldiers waging the war in North Kurdistan were among the rebels and it might indicate that the war is going rather badly for the Turkish state.
The PKK released a statement early in the morning on July 16, claiming that the coup attempt is a fight between rivaling forces within the state and that the Kurds and all democratic forces should stay out of this conflict.
It would be more than surprising, however, if the PKK did not immediately take all measures to use the situation for its own gains. There are other units on the ground such as police special forces and even private armies, but without the heavy weapons of the army the balance of forces shifts significantly in favor of the Kurds.
We cannot know what the PKK will do on the battlefield, but it appears as if it is approaching the situation calmly without hesitation. It might also survey how Erdoğan proceeds. If he will intensify the war, they will respond in fashion.
However, there is the possibility of a new opening for solution talks if the military balance of forces has shifted to such an extent that continuing the war is no longer feasible for the Turkish state.
Additionally, while there were large crowds in the streets in support of Erdoğan, it appears as if more were expected. In other words, while there were many celebrating, many more stayed home. Probably because they did not believe the AKP’s warnings about a persisting threat, as the coup attempt was defeated so easily. But surely also because the AKP still not as strong as it would like to be.
Whatever happens, the next days and weeks are crucial. Erdoğan might use the impetus of his countercoup to not only eradicate the putschists themselves but push forward for a stronger mobilizations and an intensified attack on the entire opposition accompanying it.
This is so obvious that US secretary of state John Kerry explicitly expressed his concerns that Erdoğan will use the failed military coup to crack down on democracy. That for sure would be an overstretching of his capacities triggering another severe crisis, maybe even another, this time more serious, coup.
Similarly, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned the Turkish government on Monday that the coup attempt is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law. She also added that the introduction of the death penalty would pose problems in terms of Turkey’s ties with the European Union. In the same press conference, Kerry followed her warning, saying that the violation of democratic governance would put Turkey’s NATO membership at risk.
All in all, what happened within the last days and what is to follow in the next days was neither a military coup for democracy nor democracy against a military coup.
It was and remains a war between coup and countercoup, developments that will further authoritarianism and deepen instead of solve the hegemonic crisis. What seems to be a massive comeback of Erdoğan might prove to be a poisoned chalice.