The Implications of the Coup in Turkey

The recent coup attempt highlights the secular-religious divide in Turkey.

By George Friedman


Mid-afternoon on Friday in the U.S. (late evening in Turkey), we started to receive reports that tanks were deploying in Istanbul and two bridges over the Bosporus had been closed by Turkish army troops. A bit later, we got reports that armor had been deployed in Ankara and that there was fighting going on between Turkish army special forces and national police around the parliament. Turkish F-16s were seen in large numbers in the skies. A military coup was underway.

Military coups were fairly common in the world 30 or 40 years ago. Turkey last had a coup in 1980. Having a full-dress coup, with tanks in the streets and government buildings under attack, seemed archaic. Yet here it was. For us, it was a complete surprise. True, the army was Turkey’s institutional guarantee of secularism. Kemal Atatürk’s post-World War I revolution was dedicated to secularism, to the point that head scarves on Muslim women were banned for decades. When the Justice and Development Party, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, won the 2003 election and pledged to speak for devout Muslims’ interests, a clash with the army was inevitable. Erdoğan managed this challenge with surprising skill and even ease. He first blocked and then broke the army’s power. In spite of grumblings, and some arrests over coups that never quite happened, Erdoğan made the military subordinate to his wishes.

Yet here were tanks in the street. Somehow, certainly out of our sight – and out of the sight of people who now say they always knew it was coming – a coup had been organized. Organizing a coup is not easy. It has to be carefully planned many weeks before. Many thousands of troops, as well as tanks, helicopters and all the rest, must suddenly and decisively appear in the streets and take over. And all of this planning has to take place in complete secrecy, because without the element of surprise there is no coup.

This began our first conversation: How did the military organize a coup without a word of it leaking? Turkey’s security and intelligence services are professional and capable, and watching the military is one of their major jobs. A coup requires endless meetings and preparation. In this day of intrusive surveillance, how did the military keep its intentions under wraps?

The only explanation we could find is that the intelligence organizations must have been in on it. If so, then the game was over for Erdoğan. A source we had in the military, someone fairly senior, said he had no idea the coup was happening. He did know that Erdoğan was at a hotel in Marmaris, on the Mediterranean. The coup was planned while Erdoğan was away from Ankara and it would be easy to isolate and arrest him. Perfect planning, without a leak.

A few hours after the coup began, troops loyal to the coup makers entered some television studios and newspaper offices and had broadcasters announce that a coup had taken place and that the traditional secular principles of Kemal Atatürk had been restored. Since we had been told by our sources that the coup was being run by very senior officers (though not the chief of staff), it appeared to us that it had succeeded. Erdoğan was being held in a resort town, apparently unable to return to Istanbul or Ankara, as airports were held by the military. The communication centers had been secured. There were even troops in Taksim Square, the major gathering place in Istanbul, which meant the city was saturated. The coup looked as if it was nearing its end.

Then suddenly everything changed. Erdoğan started making statements via FaceTime on Turkish TV channel NTV. Well, instead of Erdoğan’s being arrested, as we’d been led to believe, maybe it was just that troops were outside his hotel, and he was still free enough to do this. Sloppy work on the part of the coup. Then Erdoğan got on a plane and flew in to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, which had reportedly been secured by the military conducting the coup. Again, sloppy work. It was clear that Erdoğan was free, because he was making threats. Then we got reports of Turkish troops surrendering to policeman in Taksim Square, and the bridges that had been closed were abandoned by troops and reopened. Erdoğan ordered loyal F-16s to shoot down helicopters attacking the parliament building in Ankara.

The situation morphed from business as usual to a successful coup to a failed coup in a matter of hours. And we still had no explanation as to why the people staging the coup hadn’t been detected by the intelligence services.

It is time for “tin foil.” We could speculate that Erdoğan wanted the coup. He knew he could defeat it, and the attempt now gives him the justification to utterly purge the army. Perhaps he went to Marmaris for his own security. Then, as I write this, there are reports from the Greek military that a Turkish frigate was seized by Turkish troops opposed to Erdoğan, that the Turkish navy’s commanding officer was being held hostage, and that Erdoğan had sent a text urging all Turks into the streets. The coup is either over, or it’s not. The coup planners either evaded detection, or they were allowed to walk into Erdoğan’s trap. All that will become clearer in the next few hours.

But there are deeper meanings and geopolitical implications of the coup attempt. We know that there are deep tensions between Turkey’s secular population, centered in Istanbul and long grounded and comfortable in Atatürk’s philosophy, and Erdoğan’s more religious supporters in Anatolia and elsewhere. (Anatolia is the rather vast, less densely populated, region east of the Bosporus and is generally more conservative but also includes a large Kurdish region and a few other minority ethnic groups.)

These religious minorities of Anatolia had been marginalized since World War I. Erdoğan came to power intending to build a new Turkey. He understood that the Islamic world had changed, that Islam was rising, and that Turkey could not simply remain a secular power. He understood that domestically and in terms of foreign policy. There have been persistent reports that Turkey is at least allowing the Islamic State to use the Turkish financial system, sell its oil in Turkey and move its people through Turkey. Erdoğan has been, until recently, reluctant to attack them. He shifted his strategy in recent months, resulting in IS attacks on Turkey, apparently in retaliation.

Erdoğan is caught between two forces. One is a jihadist faction, which it seems he has tried to manage, to deflect it from hitting Turkey. This effort has put him at odds with the United States and Russia simultaneously. He has also been under pressure from a domestic secular faction appalled by his strategy. Recently the strategy shifted. He reopened relations with Israel and apologized to Russia. He got rid of what many saw as a pro-Islamist prime minister. He appeared to be trying to rebalance his policy. The people who staged the coup likely saw these moves as weakness and sensed an opening.

Turkey has become the critical country in its region. It is the key to any suppression of IS in Syria and even in Iraq. It is the pivot point of Europe’s migrant policy. It is challenging Russia in the Black Sea. The United States needs Turkey, as it has since World War II; and Russia can’t afford a confrontation with it. Neither country likes Erdoğan, but it is not clear that either country has options. Interestingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were having marathon meetings on Syria as the coup was taking place.

The room for conspiracy theories is endless now, because there actually were conspiracies – and likely conspiracies within conspiracies. So let’s end with the obvious. Turkey affects the Middle East, Europe and Russia. It is also a significant force in shaping jihadist behavior. Erdoğan’s behavior has been increasingly erratic, as if trying to regain his balance. The coup meant that some within the military thought he was vulnerable. His supporters are now trying to re-establish control.

The coup appears over, but the repercussions of follow-on actions are not. Erdoğan will unleash as much political intimidation as he can and conduct purges to frighten the military. However, reigns of terror don’t work well if they frighten men with guns and make them feel they have nothing to lose by fighting back. There is no evidence that major military formations came to Erdoğan’s aid. The military seems divided among those who staged the coup, those who were neutral and the national police who backed Erdoğan. Though Erdoğan is a master of appearing stronger than he is, he looked weak calling for people to come into the streets to demonstrate their support. But he can’t afford to look weak, so he has to make a decisive countermove. If he can.

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