Late Friday night, a faction within the Turkish military launched a violent and ultimately ill-fated coup attempt which will make democracy in Turkey ever more elusive.
The plotters struck Ankara and Istanbul, seizing the country’s main airport, principal TV stations and the bridges over the Bosporus. For a moment the country appeared poised on the brink of civil war. Soldiers attacked the hotel where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been staying, took the head of the army hostage, and struck at the headquarters of the country’s pro-Erdogan security service.
Yet the coup leaders, all apparently mid-level officers, received little active support within the military, and quickly came face to face with determined opposition from citizens who took to the streets to resist them. Erdogan addressed the country, first over Facetime and text message, then from a hastily erected television studio set, calling for support and promising that the plotters would be punished. Some soldiers accepted defeat and allowed themselves to be disarmed by police and protestors; others opened fire into the crowds. According to news reports, at least 100 of the 265 dead were coup plotters; others included civilians and police officers. In the coup’s final, desperate hours, a military helicopter opened fire on the country’s parliament building, and fighter jets, refueling in the air, circled low over cities that were again firmly under civilian control.
The coup’s leaders are discovering why, when you come at the king, you’d best not miss. Now, having failed to root out disloyal military officers in previous sweeps, Erdogan is casting a much wider net, and at least 2,800 members of the military have been arrested. (It appears the coup’s leaders may have acted so rashly because many already faced imminent arrest or dismissal.) A crowd attending Erdogan’s first speech chanted demands for the plotters to be executed, leading Erdogan to respond that in a democratic country, the demands of the people must be considered.
Erdogan’s party won Turkey’s most recent election in November with 49 percent of the vote, a sizable percentage in a four-party race. Half of the country remains bitterly opposed to him, largely because of his Islamist political leanings, divisive rhetoric and increasingly authoritarian behavior. Yet all three of the country’s opposition parties were unequivocal in condemning the coup attempt, and did so even before it appeared destined to fail.
It’s not clear whether that opposition will spare the parties from Erdogan’s response. Before the fighting was even over, the government dismissed almost 3,000 judges, an outcome Erdogan had already sought through more cumbersome, legalistic means. For Erdogan and his followers, the fear of a coup — four of which Turkey has experienced in the past half century, the most recent against another Islamist government – already served to motivate and justify crackdowns on political opponents. Increasingly, journalists, academics and ordinary citizens who were too critical of their president on Twitter have been fired or arrested. Now, following an actual coup, this repression is likely to intensify, leaving the country even more bitterly divided.
For Washington, meanwhile, the political difficulties are just beginning. President Obama spoke out against the coup as it was happening, but at least one Turkish government official has already gone on TV publicly claiming America orchestrated it. Specifically, the Turkish government insists that the coup was organized by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric currently living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania. Ankara has implied that refusing to extradite Gulen would prove U.S. complicity in the coup, and could endanger U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, an airfield on the Syrian border crucial to the fight against ISIS. If Turkey produces clear evidence that Gulen’s followers were involved in the coup, but no evidence to implicate Gulen himself, the stage will be set for an epic confrontation between Erdogan’s anger and the strict requirements of the U.S. legal system for proof before extradition.
Moreover, for years Washington has been asking Turkey to play a greater role confronting ISIS, both on and within its borders. Following a string of ISIS attacks, most recently against Istanbul’s airport, Turkey was becoming a more cooperative partner. But no matter how eager Ankara is to take on ISIS, massive purges in the military and across the government will make it much harder to effectively counter ISIS’s efforts to entrench itself within Turkey. Absent a reliable partner, Washington will find it increasingly tempting to cooperate with Kurdish fighters in Syria and perhaps even Russia in waging war against ISIS.
Friday’s coup attempt will leave Erdogan stronger, but Turkish democracy and U.S.-Turkish relations will take a long time to recover.