The Turkish coup attempt may have collapsed almost before it started, but its blunders hide dangerous contests for control of the state.
It is no surprise that many have regarded the failed Turkish coup d’état as a false flag event—one masterminded by the government itself. After all, in its failure it does appear to have vastly strengthened the hand of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This accusation has even come from the main culprit that the Turkish government is blaming: exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Coups have been the modus operandi of the Turkish state throughout its modern history. Yet what makes this one particularly curious is that it comes at a time when the public perception of military takeovers has become so negative that it was assumed no serious power player would entertain such a course of action. Indeed, coups in Turkey have often erred on the side of caution.
The coup of 1971 was a so-called “coup by memorandum,” in which the military issued a statement that led to the fall of the government. In 1997, Turkey even had what has been termed a “postmodern coup,” in that only the suggestion of the military’s wishes led Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to stand down.
This latest attempt on July 15 was either strangely old-fashioned or, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, yet another Turkish first: a false coup.
Beware the paranoia
Turkish politics is famously opaque, with talk of a “deep state” never far from the surface. Aside from the question of whether Erdogan controls that deep state—should it exist—or is in confrontation with it, there are reasons to assume this was not a coup of his own making. Most obviously, even for a gambling man, this was one hell of a gamble.
To unleash units of your own army, resulting in bombing raids and the deaths of 265 people would be cynicism on a massive and, as Erdogan says himself, treasonous scale. As the Turkish president spoke over FaceTime via an iPhone broadcast on TV, he appeared more vulnerable than theater would have allowed.
All coups are unpredictable events, even as they occur. To have hoped to stage-manage such acts would be dangerously foolish. All sides in Turkey know that coups here often lead to death sentences. Erdogan could have reasonably feared the worst should it have been successful.
The people’s president
The second key feature that does not ring true is Erdogan’s own current position. His electoral gamble of 2015 was a triumph that has put him in a stronger position than ever. He can rightly claim the backing of the majority of Turks. To stage a coup would be the act of a desperate man, and Erdogan is not in a desperate position.
His position may not be desperate, but it is not entirely comfortable. The resignation of his prime minister and long-time party ally, Ahmet Davutoglu, in May was a blow. In foreign policy, President Erdogan has been forced to wind himself back from confrontations with Russia and Israel. There are many in Turkey who despise him, but there are also many in his own party who are troubled by his dominance. These are unstable times for Turkish society.
This leads to the question at the heart of the failed coup once more: Just who was desperate enough to attempt such an ill-judged act?
On the face of it, the coup attempt had all the hallmarks of a classic Kemalist military takeover. The army has always been a bastion of secularism and Kemalist nationalist ideology. The statement read out on national TV claimed that the current government had undermined the secular nature of the Turkish state, a common Kemalist attack. Furthermore, the junta assuming control was named the “Peace at Home Council”—a reference to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous phrase, “Peace At Home, Peace in the World.”
A Headless Serpent?
These facts would suggest a Kemalist element within the military, though it seems clear that it did not have backing from within the Republican People’s Party (CHP) leadership—the party of Ataturk’s legacy. It also appears not to have had the backing of key high-ranking figures in the military. This weakness proved fatal. The question is: Were promises made and broken?
One theory doing the rounds is that Kemalist elements in the military coaxed Gulenists—those loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been in a fierce battle with Erdogan’s forces for the last few years—into staging a coup they thought would have broad support. The line of this theory runs that, by doing so, Kemalists would see the removal of their Gulenist rivals in the inevitable purge.
The problem with this theory is that Erdogan currently poses a much greater threat to the Kemalist nature of the Turkish state than does Gulen’s Hizmet Movement.
This brings us back to that reclusive exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan’s spat with him is clearly personal. The witch-hunt for his supporters in all areas of public life has been gathering pace. Could this have been a last desperate attempt to halt Erdogan?
Despite all the posturing from the main players and all the conspiracy theories, the facts of the coup point more to chaotic bravado than strategic thinking. This coup attempt was conducted without the firm backing of vital military top brass. It failed to make the capture of Erdogan a fundamental priority. But perhaps most importantly, it took no measure of the clear public mood in Turkey against the use of coups to further political aims.
It appears to have been a mid-level plot by elements within either the Gulenist or secular Kemalist political streams. As such, Fethullah Gulen and the CHP leadership can claim confidently not to have been involved.
But the question remains that for things to have reached the point they did, it is highly likely that the people at the top may have known—discreetly—what was coming. They may have thought it was ill judged, but they may also have thought to wait and see. After all, one never knows exactly how things will play out.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.