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A Wild Weekend For Turkey

July 20, 2016

Turkish Leoaprd 2 MBT 01 2016

You’re probably aware the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was almost overthrown last Friday night. Here’s a rundown of everything that happened since that breathless evening. Consider it an attempt to provide a concise account of the crisis for posterity’s sake.

The July 15 coup, lasting several hours, involved thousands of military personnel locking down Istanbul and Ankara. Its earliest public manifestation emerged in Istanbul where tanks and infantry roadblocked the First Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges while shipping was suspended in the fabled strait.

The coup was announced on television at 11:10 PM by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, which he described as a “rebellion” by a cabal within the armed forces. Six hours later, on Saturday morning, Yildirim confirmed the government remained in control and the uprising had failed.

During the coup, however, pitched battles erupted in Ankara where the national parliament and the headquarters of the domestic intelligence agency suffered damage from shelling. In the wee hours of Saturday morning a Turkish F-16 shot down an S-70 helicopter and a barracks for special forces also came under attack. Further violence occurred near the international airport of Istanbul as AKP supporters heeded Erdogan’s call via FaceTime to rally in the streets.

Failing to secure the offices of major news channels, the coup plotters did release a statement online announcing they were in power. Before daybreak on Saturday Erdogan was returning to Istanbul from the resort town of Marmaris along the Aegean where soldiers transported by helicopter attacked the hotel he stayed in.

Turkish journalists working for Reuters discovered just how close Erdogan came to being killed then. After he was warned of the coup by a loyal general, Erdogan managed to escape and fly off in a Gulfstream jet under escort by two F-16’s. According to Reuters the flight was intercepted and harassed by two other Turkish Air Force F-16’s who locked onto the President’s aircraft.

The coup appears to have lost momentum on the cusp of the weekend owing to poor coordination. Qatar’s Al Jazeera managed to leak how WhatsApp was the communication channel of choice for the coup plotters relaying their plans. This was for nought since police in Istanbul subdued various army checkpoints and a group of soldiers stationed at the Bosphorus bridge abandoned their Leopard 2 tanks and weapons before surrendering to a civilian mob.

At around 6AM on Saturday morning, July 16, Erdogan had returned to Atatürk airport and spoke to his gathered supporters, blaming political rival Fethullah Gulen for the coup. Gulen, who is living in the US as an exile, denied having a role in the putsch. Erdogan and Gulen, who leads the so-called Gülen movement that seeks to pivot Turkish society away from secularism, are bitter enemies after a political scandal in 2013.

Meanwhile, just as Erdogan was denouncing Gulen a Turkish T-60 Blackhawk landed in a Greek airbase and its eight passengers requested asylum. These men were believed to be the remnants of the coup faction.

As of this writing the coup left nearly 300 were killed and at least 1,500 injured. There were military casualties as well, with 104 soldiers dead–some of them lynched–and 2,500 arrested while 2,000 members of the judiciary were dismissed by Sunday, July 17. With an unrestricted crackdown underway the number of detentions have soared to several thousands, including 103 “admirals and generals.” Even the civil service wasn’t spared as a reported 9,000 government employees  and police were dismissed come Monday, July 18, with further retaliation visited on media outlets and the state-run education system.

A coup isn’t a black swan for modern Turkey, where successful military takeovers occurred in 1960, 1972, 1980, and 1997. Military government and its excesses aren’t exceptional for the Turkish republic founded by Kemal Pasha in 1923 after the brutal War of Independence. The country that emerged then was a rump state assembled from the leftover pieces of the bygone Ottoman Empire.

Social media is now abuzz with equal measures of outrage, anxiety, and perplexing assumptions.

An emerging consensus among Turkish citizens is the coup was a staged event allowing Erdogan to rule as quasi-dictator for the time being. Some Turks are now fearful he will crack down on his enemies further and alter the constitution to grant his office more executive powers, including the reinstatement of the death penalty.

Writing for Al-Monitor, Cengiz Candar contemplates the veracity of this meme and is somewhat convinced President Erdogan himself isn’t above pulling off such a ridiculous stunt. With Washington, DC’s blessing, of course.

Contrasting this is an analysis compiled by Suraj Sharma at Middle East Eye. Turkish sources he consulted in the media and the armed forces concur with Erdogan’s claims that Gulen and his zealots orchestrated the coup as a last ditch power grab. There is substance to this line of reasoning as well. On Sunday a local newspaper published an expose’ on the coup plotters and identified them as high-ranking officers who were afraid of being arrested for their ties with the Gulen movement.

The anti-Gulen slant is the official response to the coup and was repeated during a mass funeral on Sunday, July 17, where the President vowed to avenge those killed during the brief fighting. The implications of the coup are worrying now that Erdogan remains in power. Turkey is a divided nation riven by fear, passion, and anger. Since mid-2015 the police and armed forces have become mired fighting a Kurdish revolt in the east while attacks by ISIS cells have killed hundreds over the past three years. The situation with the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish military’s deployments in Syria and Iraq are dire symptoms of an over-zealous foreign policy.

Members of the EU parliament, on the other hand, have made public their belief that Erdogan is better off in power even when their tone has since become more cautious. Not only is Turkey a staging ground for migrants heading for Europe, but its democratic values are lauded even when President Erdogan has targeted journalists, politicians, and citizens who express views opposed to his regime.

The extent of the damage to the Turkish state remains unclear. As a regional power and a NATO ally Turkey maintains the largest armed forces in Eastern Europe and the second largest army in the Middle East after Iran. Its neighborhood is a tough periphery where the tumult of Asia threatens the European mainland.

Simply put, Turkey is surrounded and almost engulfed by conflict. Just across the Black Sea is the overwhelming presence of Russia, whose military annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine two years ago. Moscow’s presence is felt on the Turkish border with Armenia where a Russian motorized brigade is stationed. Turkey is a player in the confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh where its longstanding support for Azerbaijan is hardly a secret.

To the East and South are the rebellious Kurds and the ongoing Syrian civil war. The latter is a conflict perpetrated and abetted by Erdogan’s administration with the unrestricted flow of weapons and so-called volunteers transiting to Syria through the Turkish border. In the Mediterranean Turkey maintains a belligerent stance toward historic rival Greece and the small island of Cyprus. Given its maritime sector’s advanced state Turkey is in the middle of reviving its naval might. Its regional clout and sheer hard power is the substance behind claims of Erdogan and the AKP being “neo-Ottomans.”

With a semblance of normal nowhere in sight Turkey’s near-term survival is at risk. The hysteria triggered by this aborted coup hints at either a surge of aggressive nationalism or a genuine Turkish civil war’s prelude. But countries must wrestle with their contradictions if they deserve to exist. No matter how painful, modern states have to evolve or perish.