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Turkey's Failed Coup and Future Challenges

Michael Stephens
Commentary, 16 July 2016
Turkey, International Security Studies, Europe
A dramatic attempt by parts of Turkey’s armed forces to wrest control of the democratically elected government ended in failure after little more than a few hours. But Turkey’s biggest political challenges are only beginning.

In a remarkable night, a faction of Turkey’s military consisting of some 1,500 soldiers forcibly blocked access to bridges and highways in Istanbul, assumed control of state media outlets, and took control of Ataturk International airport in Istanbul, the country’s biggest air hub. In the capital Ankara, members of parliament went into hiding as helicopter gunships strafed the parliament building, and gun battles ensued between Turkish police and rebel soldiers. In a fast-moving night the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on holiday in the resort town of Marmaris, appeared to be stranded for a number of hours before finally being able to land in Istanbul. Although initially smartly and swiftly carried out, the coup plotters had no strategy nor adequate planning to consolidate their hold on Turkey’s two major cities, and in the face of popular mobilisation onto the streets appear to have realised that Turkey’s population at large was not with them.

And so, President Erdogan has survived what looks to be a serious, although ultimately doomed, challenge to his leadership, defiantly promising ‘to clean up’ the military and bring all those implicated to justice. The consequences for those who conspired to bring him down are ominous, and no doubt the guilty parties will paraded for the public in the coming days. It is as yet unclear what specific faction was behind the coup attempt, and indeed what the reasons for launching the coup were. However, it should be noted that the coup leaders announced that their attempt to take control of the Turkish republic by force was in the alleged pursuit of respect for human rights and the installation of a new constitution; there is little in the way of details beyond this. 

No doubt these details will come to light soon enough, but it is also important not to be fully taken in by attempts by the supporters of the president to simply dismiss this coup attempt as the devious plans of Fethullah Gulen – an Islamist cleric based the US – and his so called ‘parallel state’ operating inside of Turkey’s key institutions. It is easy to tar and feather the coup plotters as pawns serving an external hand; this is a classic tactic of obfuscation designed to divert the gaze away from the very real and troublesome challenges which have affected the Turkish republic of late, and the deep political malaise which has gripped the country.

While this does not confer legitimacy on the coup plotters and their actions, it is important to remember that for the past year Turkey has suffered greatly as a result of political instability and internal strife. A year ago a Daesh bomb in the city of Suruc became the trigger for renewed hostilities between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), breaking a fragile ceasefire and reigniting the 32-year conflict; thousands of lives have been lost in the ensuing violence, and large areas of Kurdish majority cities in south-east Turkey are military no-go zones. 

Additionally, the war from Syria has spilled over into Turkey and Daesh sympathisers have been able to establish deep-rooted networks in the country. The results have been catastrophic, with multiple rounds of suicide bombings and attacks paralysing the Turkish economy, the most recent being a co-ordinated attack on Ataturk Airport on 28 June, which resulted in 45 deaths and 250 injuries. The violence and instability have all but destroyed Turkey’s lucrative tourism sector, and caused the value of the Turkish Lira to halve in the last two years.

Meanwhile Mr Erdogan has acted in an increasingly authoritarian manner, presiding over a government which has imposed ever harsher restrictions on freedom of speech, targeting journalists and academics who openly criticise either the president or his policies, especially with regard to the state’s on-going battle against the PKK. The president has shown little regard for the constitution of the republic, acting with de facto executive authority under a system in which the president is afforded no such powers. Additionally, symbols of the secular Turkish Republic appear increasingly under siege, with officials of the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) frequently arguing that Turkey is a Muslim country and not a secular state and that this must be reflected in law. Many Turks who hold fast to the secular underpinnings of their country have been increasingly alarmed by the disregard of the ruling party for the principles that many hold dear.

Therefore, it is important to remember that last night’s events did not occur in a vacuum. The Turkish state is in bad shape and does not look set for happier times, and the failed coup only compounds this.  

Despite these deep concerns, it is also crucial to recall that Erdogan’s AKP won a fair mandate to rule in the 2015 election, winning 317 of 550 seats in the Turkish Parliament, although this is just short of the 330 seat majority that the president requires to be able to legislate on a new constitution. The president and his party have a democratic mandate to be in power, and should the Turkish Republic have returned to the dark days of its past, it would have spelled the death knell for what democratic process still remains in the country.

Looking to the future, it is important that stability returns to Turkey as soon as possible, and that the president shows signs that he can steer to country toward a more peaceful path. Just as Turkey looked to be realigning its regional and security priorities, fixing broken ties with Israel and attempting to rekindle frozen relations with Russia, this coup could not have come at a worse moment; Turkey’s vulnerability has been made all too clear.

Turkey is a vital lynchpin in both European and Middle East security architecture, sharing a heavy burden of coping with millions of refugees from Syria, hosting coalition aircraft targeting Daesh in both Syria and Iraq, as well as being a vital intelligence asset in tracking Daesh activity across the region. The coup attempt does not appear to have derailed any of these activities so far, but it will have alarmed policy-makers in the West that a NATO ally has come perilously close to a major political disaster. The beleaguered republic will need support from Allies and regional partners in the weeks and months ahead. And Mr Erdogan has his work cut out if he is to convince the world that he can once again bring security and prosperity back to his nation.

Picture by: Emrah Gurel / AP/Press Association Images

Author

Michael Stephens
Research Fellow for Middle East Studies

Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies and Head of RUSI Qatar. He joined RUSI’s London office in September... read more

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