From the start, it was obvious that this wasn’t like the coups of the past. For one thing, coups are supposed to begin on Saturday, in the dead of night, and there are good, pragmatic reasons for this, as Friday’s coup plotters learned in their failure. Why did they try to stage it so early, with the nation still awake? This is only one of many questions to which we may not know the answer for a very long time, if ever.
Most importantly, unlike past coups, this attempt was extremely bloody and pointlessly violent. It was also poorly planned. Why did the putschists imagine that bombing the parliament in Ankara and blocking bridges in Istanbul would overthrow Erdoğan—particularly given that he was in neither city, but in Marmaris? Why did the plotters demonstrate such abnormal cruelty and disrespect to their commanding officers? According to a statement from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the putschists tried to force Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar to read their manifesto out loud. Akar, “with rage, certainty, and statements of insults,” refused, even when they put a gun to his head and strangled him with a belt. He was taken to Akıncılar Air Base in Ankara and kept without food and water. This is not how you expect the military to treat its own.
Only an appeal to insanity can explain their decision to open fire on civilians and bomb the Parliament. Their messages on WhatsApp reveal a cruel, but utterly pointless, determination to commit mass murder: “They stopped me, I opened fire. There are wounded. No compromise, no hesitation,” wrote a major. “We shot four people who resisted in Çengelköy. No problem,” wrote another.
Why now? The leading theory in Turkey is this: For the past few weeks, there have been rumors to the effect that a large group of ranked officers in the Turkish Armed Forces would be forced to retire by summer’s end. Many high-ranking military officers believed to have links to Fethullah Gülen were expected to be laid off in the coming Supreme Military Council meeting. When these officers learned they were to be purged, they rushed to carry out a coup they had already been planning. But word of their plot escaped, forcing them to act before they were ready. This, it is said, explains the coup’s seeming lack of organization and its inefficiency.
Is there any evidence to substantiate this notion? Reports in the Turkish media tell us the troops coordinated by using the WhatsApp mobile messaging service, but don’t tell us anything about their motivation.
Another widely circulated rumor holds that Erdoğan was warned of the junta and its plans, but assessed the plotters as insufficient in numbers to pose a real threat and allowed the attempt to proceed—this to instrumentalize the horror of it for his own benefit and to arrogate all remaining power to himself.
Many in Turkey believe this, but it seems implausible. The idea only makes sense in retrospect, now that we know Erdoğan succeeded in foiling the coup and mastering the situation. It came too close to succeeding for anyone to have seen this as a foregone conclusion. The AKP was very nearly decapitated; Erdoğan escaped assassination by minutes. Not even a man of Erdoğan’s limitless self-regard could have felt secure in his ability to control the chaos once it was unleashed.
The biggest unanswered question is who, exactly, the putschists were. The Turkish military has gone with the government’s narrative. Yesterday, it declared that the coup-plotters were Gülenists. The AKP’s machine is working overtime to implicate the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist ideologue who has taken up residence in Pennsylvania, where he heads America’s largest network of charter schools.
It is beyond reasonable doubt that Gülen has a presence in the Turkish military and that he has, over the years, tried to infiltrate it with his loyalists. Almost every top commander and general since Evren has spoken out against Gülen and warned of Gülenist infiltration, even if they did not identify him by name, referring instead to cemaatler and irtica—reactionaries The military has always been obsessively careful about its recruits’ loyalty, in part for fear of them. But this does not necessarily mean they succeeded in keeping them out. This morning, General Hulusi Akar’s aide, Infantry Lt. Col. Levent Türkkan, confessed his allegiance to Gülen. His testimony reinforced longstanding rumors that Gülenists are sufficiently well-represented in the military to furnish their protégés with the answers to the military academy’s examination questions. “Yes, I am a member of the parallel establishment,” he said. “I am from the Fethullah Gülen community…. After I was brought to the aide-de-camp position at the General Staff, I started to execute the orders given on behalf of the community.”
In all likelihood there was Gülenist involvement in the coup plot. But we don’t know whether they were its only authors. The putschists’ manifesto appealed to classically Kemalist tropes and dramaturgy. They called themselves “Yurtta Sulh Komitesi,” or the “Peace at Home Committee,” in an appeal to Atatürk’s famous slogan, “Peace at home. Peace in the world.” Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate Kemalist involvement; it may have been a dog whistle calculated to lure Kemalists into the streets in support of the coup.
It’s safe to say that whoever the plotters were, they were driven by a poisonous admixture of ideological indoctrination and thirst for revenge. But does it make sense to imagine that longtime enemies such as the cemaatcis and the old-guard Kemalists would cooperate and maintain tight organizational secrecy in such a plot? If so, it tells us something we didn’t know before: These groups hate Erdoğan even more than they hate each other.
Whoever they were and whatever their motivation, they were deeply out of touch. Clearly they believed they would be welcomed as liberators, that the many social groups suppressed or persecuted under the AKP—secular Turks, Kurds, perhaps Alevis—would turn out in force in the streets to welcome them. They were so wrong about this that the result was something that looked more like a suicide attack than a coup d’état.
The coup-plotters were not as competent as they believed themselves to be. They failed to seize Erdoğan, although they came very near to killing him. They failed to take over the media. They failed to anticipate the popular support for Erdoğan and the mobilization of crowds against them. Indeed, no one in Turkey visibly supported the coup—not a single major social group or political party. The country viewed the plotters with horror. The plotters’ miscalculation cost many innocent lives.
The groups upon whose support they must have been counting—staunchly secular and middle-class Turks, people who have suffered under Erdoğan’s heavy-handed rule—in fact stood against them and strongly condemned the coup attempt. So did opposition politicians, academics, and even journalists who have long been silenced and persecuted by Erdoğan.
The AKP’s supporters, of course, took to the streets to defend their leader. But his opponents’ stance against military rule was purely one of principle. It was an admirable display. That said, one might think from the way this has been reported that the Turkish people thwarted the coup. This is not quite so: It was crushed by military officers and other state personnel. Most of the people who took to the streets, and who have been described by the media as “the Turkish people,” were in fact AKP partisans. Other Turks who were against the coup stayed home, uneasy at the prospect of associating themselves with the mob and its sentiments.
Particularly worthy of honorable mention was the struggle of Doğan Media’s CNNTURK, whose studios were temporarily taken over by the putschists and targeted because their journalists were effectively covering the coup. They stayed on air as long as they could, providing useful information even as the events were unfolding. Erdoğan made his first contact with the people via CNNTURK, telling them to take to streets. This was a critical moment for the defeat of the coup. Erdoğan not long ago accused this media group of collaborating with Gülen. Doğan Media has long and relentlessly been attacked by pro-government media and by Erdoğan as coup-plotters, targeted with shady tax probes. Its resistance is a tribute to its commitment to the principle that power should only change hands through elections. There is certainly no love lost otherwise between Doğan and Erdoğan.
While the jets and helicopters were raining fire on Parliament, crowds, and police headquarters, some Turks—and some observers abroad—claimed the entire thing had been staged by Erdoğan as a gambit to introduce a presidential system and rewrite the country’s constitution. This theory is nuts, but Turkish conspiracy-mindedness is understandable under the circumstances. Not long ago, Erdoğan stoutly defended the so-called Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which many members of the military, journalists, and other civil society figures were accused of coup-plotting. Erdoğan spent many happy years with his then-allies in the Gülen movement hunting Kemalists and other political opponents, using these non-existent, or at least unproven, coup plots as a pretext to lock them up, often uncharged, and often for years.
And for years, pro-Erdoğan pundits and other useful idiots spent hours on television expatiating on coup plots for which there was no evidence, or only manifestly falsified evidence. For years, they bullied and treated as lunatics those who warned of a Gülenist takeover. It is only natural that these people are now reluctant to believe that, this time, the coup was real. Their skepticism is a symptom of Turkey’s unhealthy political polarization, to be sure, but they were not born paranoid; Erdoğan made them that way. Secular, urban people see themselves as squeezed between two Islamist camps they despise equally. As they watch the political war between the two camps turn into a literal one, they feel even more besieged. It’s the reality of Turkish conspiracies that explains the tendency toward conspiratorial thinking among Turks. (It is unclear what Western pundits’ excuse is.)
President Erdoğan immediately asked the United States to extradite Gülen. Then began the purge. As many as 9,000 have so far been detained and 60,000 dismissed from their jobs. Many have been casually accused of being the top plotters. Serious news channels and publications have been more careful, but pro-government news organs have shown little regard for the principle of presumption of innocence. From the beginning of the coup attempt, the former commander of the Turkish Air Force, Akın Öztürk, was portrayed in the media as the leader. Yet in his testimony to the prosecutor, the general denied that he was in any way involved: He claimed the Chief of the General Staff, the head of the intelligence service, and many others as witnesses of his innocence. His testimony is internally consistent, at least. The former Chief of Staff, Necdet Özel, said, “Akın Öztürk did not raise any suspicions. If he had such an intention [the coup], why did he not do it when he was the Commander of the Air Force?”
Protesters have taken to the streets in response to the government’s call for a “democracy watch.” Clearly, no one in Turkey wanted the military involved. But it’s far from clear that these protesters are showcasing their limitless enthusiasm for democracy, as opposed to their limitless eagerness to protect their idol. Most are peaceful, but there have also been mobs who lynched “pro-coup soldiers”—clueless boys, guilty only of credulously obeying their superiors, who told them their barracks were under attack or that it was a training exercise. Some were even shot by their commanding officers for refusing to open fire on civilians. Yesterday, at least, the Prime Minister made a fine speech: “Please do not confuse these brutes [putschists] with our armed forces…our citizens must avoid any behavior that could damage the dignity of our soldiers, our army.”
Is Erdoğan a Hero?
No. Hell, no. He is, in fact, responsible for the infiltration of the police, military, judiciary and other state institutions by Gülenists. No doubt his base’s loyalty to him has increased tremendously. He may also gain some additional support. But he’s done nothing to earn this reputation for heroism.
Who then are the story’s villains, victims, and heroes? The villains: Those who opened fire on civilians and bombed the parliament, the mobs who killed twenty-year-old soldiers. Those who would use this grotesque event for political gain.
The victims are the innocents, who will be burned along with the guilty.
The heroes are those who forestalled the plot to abolish democracy and the rule of law, sending the clear message that Turks do not want a dictatorship—military or civilian.
But it is not over. Two horrible truths have been revealed. First, it is now beyond doubt that the military has long possessed a faction that is both homicidal and suicidal, men in uniforms with access to heavy arms and a willingness to turn them on their fellow citizens. They have posed a grave threat to an unwitting Turkish public, and it is not clear that the threat has been nullified. It is moreover obvious now that the AKP has a street force, with a demonstrated willingness to kill, and both the ability and the willingness to commandeer the mosques to serve its own partisan purposes: Throughout the night, the mosques summoned people to the streets with the sound of the Sela—not the ezan. And while the coup plot was interrupted, the purge in action could be every bit as horrible as the purge had the plot succeeded. It is certain to ensnare the innocent.
How will this affect Turks’ view of the military? Until now, the military has been widely loved, held sacred, and regarded as a source of stability. A SONAR poll last April showed that the Turkish Armed Forces were the most trusted institution in the country (84.2 percent) and the government the least trusted (49.5 percent). Turks send their sons to military service with celebrations. Now that the rebels with uniforms have rained fire on them from above with F-16s and helicopters, and run them over with tanks, will their view change? It’s an unprecedented trauma, and it will surely have wide ramifications. The military’s identity is not easy to disambiguate from the nation’s. With real and growing threats to the nation in the form of the PKK and ISIS, Turks need their armed forces more than ever. Even the AKP, long at odds with the military, seems to have understood the people’s view of the Armed Forces and its significance. Two days ago, Prime Minister Yıldırım said, “I am saying this once again: This incident cannot be attributed to our military and our military’s chain of command. This is the work of a group within the military. Because our military is called the Prophet’s hearth. Our military, on the one hand, is dealing with these [putschists], on the other hand it is struggling in the Southeast. We should never ever not allow any incident that could diminish their morale.”
It’s easy to say, but hard to enforce. Trust in the military has been shattered, and will not easily be repaired.