Post-Putsch Narratives and Turkey’s Curious Coup
Many of the details of the failed putsch in Turkey on July 15, 2016 still remain unclear. But, although it is possible that there was some form of involvement, there are problems with the narrative being peddled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that it was a purely Gülenist affair. What is clear is that, driven by a combination of opportunism and fear, President Tayyip Erdoğan has seized on the putsch to launch a massive crackdown that could severely destabilize an already very fragile country.
On July 20, 2016, Erdoğan announced a three-month state of emergency throughout Turkey, claiming that special measures were needed to “cleanse” Turkey of the followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been living in the U.S. since 1999 and whom he accuses of masterminding the failed putsch.
The Gülen Movement first began to infiltrate the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in the late 1980s, encouraging teenage boys it had recruited through its educational establishments to enroll in officer training schools. During the 1990s, as the Gülenists intensified their efforts, the TAF began to tighten its vetting procedures for new entrants, while military intelligence constantly trawled the officer corps to try to identify any Gülenists already in the system. Starting in the mid-1990s, the TAF began expelling hundreds of officers, mostly at biannual meetings of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), on suspicion of Gülenist sympathies. The process was often brutal and inefficient. Many of those who expelled were guilty of nothing more than being pious Muslims. But the expulsions did significantly reduce – though not completely eradicate – the number of Gülenists who succeeded in infiltrating the officer corps. There were also occasions when military intelligence used the YAŞ expulsions for its own purposes. At the time, the social stigma attached to being discharged for alleged Islamist activism, meant it was usually only Islamist companies or municipalities run by Islamist political parties that would offer the expelled officers employment. Occasionally, agents would be secreted amongst the expelled officers, in the knowledge that they would then be picked up by Islamist companies and could then feed back intelligence to the military.
After the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in November 2002, its leaders made it clear that they were uncomfortable with the YAŞ expulsions. General Hilmi Özkök, who was appointed chief of staff in August 2002, was considerably less concerned than the majority of his colleagues by the perceived threat posed by Islamism to Kemalism – the ideological legacy of Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Although they initially continued, by the time Özkök retired in August 2006, the vetting procedures had been relaxed and YAŞ expulsions for alleged “fundamentalism” had dwindled to almost nothing. But there had been no decline in the number of Gülenists trying to penetrate the military. On the contrary, encouraged by what was at the time a close alliance with Erdoğan, the Gülenists increased their efforts.
Özkök’s passivity in the face of the perceived Islamist threat led to widespread unease in the officer corps. Through 2003 and 2004 members of the high command canvassed their colleagues about trying to force Özkök into retirement. The idea received considerably sympathy but few were prepared to act – and was eventually, if grudgingly, abandoned. However, despite later claims to the contrary, there was never a concrete plot to overthrow the government. Nor was one deemed necessary.
There had long been awareness in the TAF that the era of military rule was over. Nor was there much appetite for its return. The three years of military rule after the 1980 coup had severely damaged the military’s public standing – and, loathe as many Turks are now to remember it, since the early 1990s the military’s public popularity had become the main instrument by which the high command was able to shape the policies of elected governments. There was also a belief that Turkey’s increasing integration into the global economy and its status since December 1999 as a candidate for EU accession made a direct seizure of power almost impossible. At the time, public support for EU membership was running at 70-75 per cent. The high command was convinced that, if they staged a coup, the economy would collapse and Turkey’s EU candidacy would be cancelled – thus dealing a crippling blow to the military’s popular prestige. Instead, those who had been scheming to displace Özkök were confident that all they needed was an assertive chief of staff in order to bend the AKP to the military’s will. At the end of August 2006 they got one, when Özkök was succeeded by General Yaşar Büyükanıt.
In April 2007, Büyükanıt issued a statement warning the AKP against appointing the then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to the presidency, something they feared would give the Islamists a stranglehold over the apparatus of state. The AKP responded by calling an early election on July 22, 2007. Neither Büyükanıt nor anyone else in the military made any plans to seize power. The assumption was that, following Büyükanıt’s statement, the AKP would suffer massive losses at the ballot box. The opposite happened. When the election was held, the AKP was returned to power in a landslide. A stunned high command could only watch as Gül became president in August 2007.
When it first came to power, the AKP had sincerely feared that it could be overthrown by a coup at any time. This changed with the July 2007 election. The Gülenists too became emboldened. Starting in September 2007, Gülenists in the judiciary and the police launched a barrage of criminal investigations – most notoriously the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations – that led to hundreds of serving and retired military personnel being imprisoned on patently fabricated charges. Not only was the high command unable to free them but, under General Necdet Özel, who served as chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, it made little effort to do so. The officers were only released following the collapse of Erdoğan’s alliance with the Gülenists in late 2013. The result was a considerable resentment in the officer corps against the high command. Previously officers had been confident that their commanders would always protect them. Now there was simply distrust. If the high command had ordered the military as an institution to stage a coup on July 15, the overwhelming majority of the 130,000-strong officer corps would have refused.
At time of the attempted putsch, Gülenists already had an established presence in the military, even if they still accounted for only a minority of the officer corps as a whole. In addition, the Gülenist presence was pyramidical, with a considerably higher concentration in the lower ranks – particularly amongst officers who had been commissioned after the AKP came to power. As of July 22, a total of 7,423 military personnel had been detained on charges of complicity in the attempted putsch. These include conscripts, most of whom appear to have believed they were participating in an exercise. However, 118 of Turkey’s 358 generals and admirals had been detained, of whom 99 had been formally arrested.
Although it has never been completely homogenized, the current officer corps is considerably more diverse than a generation ago, whether in terms of levels of religious commitment, attitudes towards the political authorities or opinions about Turkey’s place in the world. But much of this diversity is highly fluid and individualized (with, for example, an officer agreeing with a colleague on one issue but disagreeing on another) rather than fragmenting the officer corps into a mosaic of discrete factions. It is only amongst Gülenists and hardline Kemalists that the degree of shared ideological commitment is rigid enough to form the backbone for the creation of a cabal that could stage a coup.
There is no doubt that the attempted putsch of July 15 was genuine and carried out in the name of hardline Kemalists. The pustchists who released a statement justifying their actions described themselves as the “Yurtta Sulh Konseyi”, or “Peace at Home Council”, a clear reference to Atatürk’s famous maxim “Yurtta Sulh, Cihanda Sulh”, or “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. The word used in modern Turkish for peace is “barış” not “sulh”.
There is also no doubt that, although they would have been sufficient to assassinate Erdoğan, the forces deployed on the night of July 15 were only a tiny fraction of those that would have been required to take over the country. The AKP has claimed that the coup was originally planned for 03.00 on July 16 but was brought forward to 22.00 on July 15 amid fears that the plot had been discovered. This would explain why not all of the putschists’ planned forces were deployed. But there is still too great a disparity between the forces that participated in the attempted putsch and those that would have been needed for it to succeed. The most logical explanation is that the initial actions of the putschists were designed to serve as a catalyst, in the expectation that others who were not part of the original conspiracy – amongst both the military and the general public – would then rally to their support. Nobody did. But, even if they had, given that the putsch was done in the name of Kemalism, it would have galvanized Kemalists not Gülenists. This means that, if it was a false flag operation by Gülenists, they must have assumed that there was sufficient support for a pro-Kemalist putsch for it to succeed. This delusion is present in Turkey, but amongst a tiny number of diehard Kemalists, not Gülenists.
Many of the details of the July 15 putsch still remain clear. Although it is difficult to understand how an organization that has spent decades creating a vast global network on the foundations of a commitment to non-violence and dialogue would risk it all by staging a coup – even a false flag one – it is nevertheless theoretically possible that the Gülen Movement was responsible. It is also possible, though not proved, that a handful of Gülenist officers were panicked by rumors that had begun to circulate that they would be purged at the next YAŞ meeting on August 1, 2016 – and had acted independently of the movement as a whole. But there are problems with the AKP’s simplistic narrative that the putsch was a purely Gülenist affair – not least because at least some of the officers who have confessed to playing an active role are known to be hardline Kemalists.
Nevertheless, after years in which Erdoğan repeatedly tried to attribute his policy failures to imagined conspiracies, he has now been faced with a real one. His response – which appears to be driven by a combination of opportunism and genuine fear – has been to purge not just alleged Gülenists but anyone not considered sufficient loyal to himself. As Erdoğan continues to gut the apparatus of state, the concern is that the purges will expand into mass persecutions that could further destabilize an already very fragile country.