In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Turkey expert Dr. Joshua W. Walker.
On July 15, Turkish citizens were startled by the appearance of Turkish armed forces on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Two bridges connecting Istanbul’s European side to the Asian continent were blocked by uniformed soldiers and tanks. Turkish rooftops were buzzed by F-16 fighter aircraft and Cobra attack helicopters.
Simultaneously, Turkish forces fast-roped into Marmaris, a resort town on the Mediterranean coastline where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on vacation, in an attempt to decapitate the government. This was the beginning of the Turkish military’s fifth intervention in the country’s politics.
Turkey’s military has long seen itself as the guardian of secular democracy. Against the backdrop of Syria’s civil war and terror attacks on Turkish soil by Islamic State (IS) militants and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), President Erdogan has instituted increasingly authoritarian policies that have enlarged tensions in the country. It is, therefore, probable that a group within the armed forces believed they were acting in the democratic interests of the nation. But they miscalculated.
Erdogan escaped from his Marmaris hotel alive and narrowly avoided being shot down by rebel fighter aircraft on his return to Istanbul. Despite the fact that the chief of staff of the Turkish military was captured and an official statement from the junta was aired on national television, the coup failed. Erdogan was able to rally his supporters by issuing a video message via Facetime and eventually in-person in Istanbul. The Turkish people responded by occupying the streets and Taksim Square, eventually forcing the largely conscript armed forces to disarm and surrender.
By the morning of July 16, over 240 Turkish citizens lay dead and another 1,541 wounded. President Erdogan immediately blamed Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish cleric, and his allies in the Turkish government. Erdogan has swiftly used the crisis as a pretext to purge all public institutions of threats, both real and perceived. Furthermore, he has now instituted a three-month state of emergency (this interview took place before this announcement).
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Turkey expert Dr. Joshua W. Walker about Turkey’s postmodern coup attempt.
Kip Whittington: What precipitated this coup attempt? Was the coup a reaction to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, his failure to address the rising security issues in the country, a combination of the two, or is there more?
Joshua W. Walker: I think it’s really hard to answer the question of why this coup happened. Many people were surprised the coup happened at the time it did, but maybe not completely surprised that one occurred. Turkey has a long history of coups and, if anything, Turkey is long overdue for one. I think people had forgotten about the intense feelings that lay beneath the surface in Turkish society. At the moment, Turkey is an extremely polarized country. However, I believe many people thought Turkey had turned a corner and that coups had become a thing of the past.
The specific question of the timing is an interesting one. The reason it happened when it did is the group of military officers that committed the coup were very disgruntled. They were part of one particular group that came mostly from the gendarmerie and the air force. One has to understand that in the first week of August, Turkey begins handing out military promotions. All these individuals knew they were not going to be promoted. There is a very petty and personal reason for their actions.
Also, one of the reasons the coup was botched so badly is we now know that the intelligence services got wind of the coup before it was launched, so a lot of things were off from the beginning.
Why would you launch the coup when they did? I think most of these individuals who were about to be purged, we now know, were not senior commanders. And the timing in terms of why they struck when they did was a reaction to this. Normally, coups take place in the middle of the early morning after you’ve rounded up the leaders—you don’t want people to catch wind and come out onto the streets to complicate things. The intelligence service seemed to know this was coming and they seemed to be moving in. That caused a lot of the uncertainty early on.
Having said that, I was actually shocked how much planning went into the coup. There were a significant number of people involved. Indeed, when it first started, it had all the hallmarks of a successful coup, except for one key aspect: have you eliminated the head of state?
Furthermore, the junta didn’t have a leader, there was no public face. Even when they read their statement on national television, it was read by a Turkish newscaster, not by the head of the junta or somebody that would inspire leadership. Therefore, of course, everyone, even the junta’s natural supporters—the secular opposition, the nationalists who historically do not have much love for Erdogan—none of them came to their aid because there was no leader to rally behind. The plotters also miscalculated: They fundamentally didn’t realize the Turkey they were trying to take over is no longer a Turkey of the Cold War era that we are used to seeing.
Whittington: This has been portrayed by many as an amateur coup. Do you see it that way?
Walker: Yes, it was amateur in the sense that if you are going to have coup, you need the entire military on the same page. The fact that they had to kidnap the chief of staff not only shows that it was amateur and unprofessional, but it was doomed from the start.
The only other time in Turkish history that a coup was successful without senior leadership was the 1960 coup. That’s when the colonels rose up, but the colonels were absolutely on the same page in 1960.
In this case, you basically had military-on-military confrontation in barracks and military bases around the country that were, quite frankly, ugly. We are still seeing the ugliness, and I think there is a real trauma and shock to the Turkish nation because the military is the most highly respected institution in Turkey. Now, it has one of the most serious black eyes in its history. How do you recover from that?
Whittington: As someone who was following the coup live via Twitter and the news, my initial impression was the coup was succeeding. What was the turning point?
Walker: I was on an airplane following the news before I had to turn on my airplane mode. When I first heard about it, the bridges over the Bosporus river were closed and there were F-16 fighter aircraft flying over Ankara. Given what has happened over the last couple of years in Turkey, I assumed it was another terrorist attack and the military was moving in to protect against the threat.
But then I landed in Washington and found out it was a legitimate coup because they read out a statement of their intentions. But, to me, the fact that they read out a statement of their intentions without having fully secured the head of state and without having the country under full control caused me to have doubts. I’m not going to lie and say that I knew immediately it was a failed coup, but as someone who has lived and worked in Turkey for a long time, I thought a lot of the signs were off.
One of the more frustrating things was to watch the way the Western press immediately jumped on the bandwagon. Right up until the morning in Turkey, there were many people who were basically talking about, and analyzing, a successful coup, as opposed to being a little more circumspect and saying, “Let’s wait and see what happens.”
The coup conspirators came from the major military bases in the Ankara region. That’s why, initially, Ankara seemed the most likely to fall. In my estimation, Istanbul did not face the same danger.
I certainly wasn’t one of those who jumped out immediately and said “the coup has failed.” But I read the same tweets you are talking about which was, “Erdogan is in the air and we don’t know where he went,” and the next thing we know he is on Facetime talking to the nation. I was watching his speech live and I was amazed because we saw a coup play out in real-time, which is exactly why it was doomed to fail. The coup plotters couldn’t control all the media channels that were broadcasting live, and the president and the prime minister were capable of getting their message out via the press. Friends in Turkey informed me [that] every cellphone received a text message saying, “Come out and support your leaders.” Even the minarets in various communities were broadcasting, “Get out onto the streets, we need your help to defeat the anti-democratic coup” that is taking place. Coups are clearly not how they used to be in the 1980s.
Whittington: It’s ironic that President Erdogan had to utilize social media, a medium he has cracked down on in the past. We have seen the power of digital media in the Arab Spring and now in a modern-day coup attempt. How has digital media helped shape major global events where anyone can watch or participate in real-time?
Walker: The irony that you are pointing out is exactly what I was watching as well. Erdogan has railed against social media and its “evils” in the past. Yet social media is essentially what saved his presidency. Had he not gotten on the television via Facetime and reassured the Turkish people, there might have been other people that switched sides, people who might have thought to themselves, “Well, clearly the coup is winning, we might as well join.”
But, instead, the first thing the Turkish people saw is the president come out defiantly saying, “I told you there was going to be a threat against me because I am trying to do what’s good for the Turkish nation. Look what has happened, they have plotted against me. Come out into the streets for your honor, for your Turkish nation, etc.” Then you see the president triumphantly returning to Istanbul and giving this amazing press conference with a large portrait of [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk literally sitting right behind him. Lots of people, especially the secularists, thought to themselves, “Wow, Erdogan just took the amazing symbol and imagery of Atatürk and owned it for himself.”
I think that is one of the major frustrations the opposition to Erdogan have because now Erdogan is painting anyone who is anti-Erdogan as being pro-coup. That’s going to be a legacy that stays with Turkey for quite a while now because of the polarization.
I think the trauma and shock of watching the coup play out live and the way in which people reacted to it is something that is maybe not unusual to Egyptians or to other countries that have gone through it in the new digital age. Except for Turkey this was something brand new. I believe this was the first time the world has seen what could be called a postmodern failed coup.
Whittington: The anti-coup demonstrations were notably conservative and religious in nature. Does this signify a significant split in the country between secularists and religious conservatives? Or do you feel that the majority of the Turkish people didn’t want to see their country under the leadership of another military junta?
Walker: The problem is that polarization has already existed for a long time; therefore, in that sense, this is nothing new. But you are right: One of the things the Western media didn’t quickly pick up was the nature of the tens of thousands of people listening to Erdogan speak in Istanbul. It’s significant that Erdogan stayed in Istanbul because he was a successful mayor there. Even people that don’t like Erdogan from a secular point of view can admit that Erdogan was a master politician and a great mayor. Erdogan, therefore, stayed in his home base.
When you look at his supporters in the streets, 99% were Turkish men with a mustache, and they all somewhat fit the build of a Turkish nationalist. Many came out onto the streets, stayed up all night, and went to Taksim Square and other parts of Turkey that they probably didn’t reside in, but they came out because they were called by their leader.
This once again demonstrates the strength of Erdogan’s loyalists versus the fractured anti-Erdogan crowd. Erdogan has won every election he has participated in but, notably, he always wins by 50%. Therefore, if there was a unifying figure on the other side, you might have had a different story. But because the opposition can’t unify itself, they all came together and condemned the coup. This was quite striking because this was the one thing that brought them all together when they could have used the opportunity to unify against Erdogan. The reaction we are seeing now is troubling for a lot of different reasons, but that is because we have to understand the trauma and the shock of the Turkish people at this moment.
Whittington: You mentioned that President Erdogan stayed in Istanbul because he has substantial support there. Do you see that as the primary reason he failed to return to Ankara immediately, or is it due to security concerns?
Walker: I think there are major security concerns. The coup conspirators came from the major military bases in the Ankara region. That’s why, initially, Ankara seemed the most likely to fall. In my estimation, Istanbul did not face the same danger. Ankara is where parliament was attacked and that’s where a key airbase was used.
Still, even now, we are not quite sure of the location of certain military assets. For instance, there are still a few aircraft missing. Even though Erdogan made a triumphant return to Istanbul, he still has to be sure of the security situation before he returns to Ankara to address the people and the parliament.
Whittington: We are currently seeing a significant purge take place where thousands of military personnel, judges and even deans have been removed from office. What are your thoughts on this post-coup purge that Erdogan has instituted?
Walker: The thing that is hard for Americans and Westerners to understand is the Turkish mentality. It’s not just uniquely Turkish—it also encompasses the Mediterranean. Turks are both hot and cold; they are either your best friend or your worst enemy. They are not Anglo-Saxon with a somewhat cold hard realist perspective devoid of emotion.
I think there is necessarily going to be an overreaction and caution on Ankara’s part. The government is going to be sure to rid Turkish institutions of anyone that can be connected to the perpetrators of the coup and sympathetic. This includes members of the Gulen movement—a group with significant influence in the Ministry of Education. However, there is a distinction: There are those that are being arrested who are mostly military officers directly involved, and those associated with the Gulen movement that are basically being fired or pushed out of their civil servant positions.
Let’s wait to see how this plays out. The signs right now are troubling in terms of there being an overreaction. But, again, that’s because it’s hard to understand how traumatic this event has been to the Turkish nation.
Whittington: Do you see any truth to Fethullah Gulen himself being involved?
Walker: It’s hard not to weigh in here and say “you’re either too far on one side or the other.” I think the challenge is this has been a really ugly battle for the last three years between Gulen and Erdogan. At this point, the United States has asked for evidence and I think the Turkish government is probably working behind the scenes to provide evidence. It seems clear to me that there were people within the Gulen movement that were behind this coup, or at least sympathetic. The question is: Did [Fethullah] Gulen make a phone call to spur the coup itself? I think that is something we are never going to find out unless we have a smoking gun. Even if there is a smoking gun, everyone is going to say the evidence is fabricated. At this point in time, the polarization in Turkey is so extreme that the Turkish people are going to believe whichever side they want to listen to.
The Turkish military has a rightful place within Turkey. If the leaders in Turkey are serious about continuing the Turkish military institution, they have to work together.
From an international perspective, political leaders are in a situation where they are thinking we are going to have to go with the legitimately elected government in Turkey right now, and we are going to have to just make sure there is rule of law and due process. Right now, I think that is what everyone needs to be focusing on because the world is seeing images of soldiers and military officers being lined up naked and humiliated (something that is very unusual in Turkey, given that the military has historically been the most popular institution). When you see Gulen in the United States making statements and speaking publicly, that’s a very different world from what you are seeing in Turkey right now.
If, ultimately, Gulen is sent back to Turkey and has to face a trial there, it’s going to be difficult to see how this plays out in a way that’s not impartial. If you are a loyalist you are going to see him as evil, and if you are a supporter you are going to see him as unfairly implicated. Thus, it is really hard for outsiders to get involved with this. We are still waiting for the facts to come out.
Whittington: How do you see this impacting US-Turkey relations in the future? On a broader scale, does this shake NATO?
Walker: This is what I am most concerned about. This is an internal Turkish fight, but the fact that the United States already had to defend itself is an issue. For instance, Secretary John Kerry had to make a statement to counter the American involvement narrative, one he seemed pretty irritated to make. You also have officials on the Turkish side accusing the United States of complicity. In fact, most Turks believe America is involved because Gulen lives in the United States and he is a green card holder. There were also many people in the American media saying things that do not represent American interests. I think this is going to be a very difficult sour spot for the United States. There will be turbulence in the US-Turkey relationship until the question of what to do about Gulen, specifically, is answered.
This is all going to affect NATO as well. We just had a NATO Summit, and I think all the good work that was done there is going to have to take a step back because Turkey is going to be internally focused. The glue of the US-Turkey relationship has always been the strategic relationship and, over time, that military-to-military cooperation has eroded. And now you have a military in Turkey that has a black eye and is seen with complete suspicion by the Turkish government. Anybody that is a friend of the Turkish military is going to be immediately suspect to many Turks right now. The United States is going to have to continue defending itself against being involved, even though to an American audience that seems ridiculous. Yet every Turk believes the United States had something to do with the coup.
Whittington: Will this have negative consequences on international efforts to resolve the situation across the border in Syria?
Walker: Absolutely, we already have a couple of failed states in the region. The fact that Turkey could have gone down that same path if the coup had been successful is very troubling. It shows you how quickly things can change in this part of the world. The bottom line is you can’t solve Syria without Turkey. If Turkey is going to be internally focused for a while, then that means it is going to be more difficult to figure out a solution in Syria.
It also increases the likelihood that a country like Russia will have a larger role in the region, which I think from a US point of view is not particularly helpful. Erdogan is already repairing relations with Russia and using the coup as an excuse saying, “The people that shot down the Russian plane might have been the same people who led this coup. The perpetrators were trying to drag Turkey into something.” Therefore, I think this is going to have a direct impact on the Syria situation.
Whittington: What are the short- and long-term challenges for Turkish civil-military relations?
Walker: I think in the short term, one of the biggest challenges is that the civil-military relationship in some ways was reinforced. Civilian control was able to reinforce its power over the military. We already knew that the military was basically not what it used to be. Look back to when the Turkish military chiefs of staff resigned in the 2011 and the e-memorandum that wasn’t meant to be during the Abdullah Gul presidency discussion. This reinforces the fact that the military no longer has power. However, one of the challenges is if political leadership goes too far in its punishments. If they purge the military too far and eliminate all the top general staff that maybe had nothing to do with this, then the operational capacity of the Turkish military will be significantly eroded. This is notable because the Turkish military is the second largest in NATO and important to the sovereignty and security of a country dealing with terrorists from ISIS [Islamic State] and the PKK.
I’m worried the military might swing too far [in] the other direction. The Turkish military has a rightful place within Turkey. If the leaders in Turkey are serious about continuing the Turkish military institution, they have to work together.
In the short term, making sure there is no overcorrection is key. Erdogan’s government should look at what happened over the weekend as not something to fear, but to celebrate since the Turkish people came out onto the streets to face the tanks and soldiers. And, remarkably, those soldiers didn’t fire on them. The only soldiers that fired on the parliament and elsewhere were the coup plotters in helicopters and F-16s. They were not the conscripts who were told to deal with the terrorists and do these things. We are now hearing that some of the pilots that were going after Erdogan were told that he was a terrorist target and they didn’t even know that they were going after their own president. That just shows you how fractured the military is today. That should be a sign that Turkey needs to be rebuilding itself.
In the long term, the only way to do that is through cooperation. Therefore, it has to be done through the NATO framework. That’s why I am worried if Turkey focuses exclusively on its domestic well-being and isolation, that’s not good for anybody. It’s bad for Turkey, it’s bad for the United States and it’s bad for the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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