The recent coup attempt in Turkey remains shrouded in mystery. The bulk of the information released to the Turkish public stems from the leaked testimonies of officers involved in the coup and government statements, both of which suggest that followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam living in self-exile, planned and executed the coup attempt. The Turkish military has sought to tamp down concerns that the army has fractured, releasing a statement that only 1.5 percent of the army participated in the coup.
This metric belies the seriousness of the attempt, as well as the depth of support it appeared to have within two key components of the Turkish Armed Forces: the Air Force and the Second Army, Turkey’s largest force, which is responsible for the defense of Anatolia. During the coup attempt, 35 planes (including 24 fighter jets) and 37 helicopters, took part in the uprising. The putschists also had considerable support from mid-ranking officers in Turkey’s First Army, which is responsible for the borders with Bulgaria and Greece.
The First Army’s commander, Ümit Dündar, remained loyal to the elected government, while mid-ranking officers in the force did not. This suggests deep fissures in the ideological outlook of the officers under his command. The coup plotters had initial success in convincing elements of the armed forces and the Turkish police to participate, and furthermore, many forces apparently would have acquiesced to putschist leadership had the coup attempt succeeded, WhatsApp messages detailing the Istanbul component of the operation reveal.
The coup plot drew support from various individuals with different political outlooks, belying the narrative that just one faction—the Gülenists—were involved in the coup attempt. To date, little to no information has been released about the core group of coup plotters, which makes it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the ideological affiliation of the putschist leadership—and whether they have links to Gülen or not. The strongest evidence supporting a connection to Gülen comes from the leaked testimony of loyalist officers, including Turkey’s current Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar. These testimonies are marred by allegations of detainee torture and abuse, which Amnesty International has documented and which have seemingly been corroborated in a Facebook post by a Turkish lawyer, who boasted about beating Akın Öztürk, the former Commander of the Turkish Air Force and a reported leader of the plot.
Regardless of Gülen’s culpability, the implications of this accusation are profound and point to deep splits in Turkish institutions. These splits—and the subsequent purges and suspensions of alleged Gülenists—suggest that Turkey will remain unstable in the near future, with a less-effective military and bureaucracy. The split in the military stems from Turkey’s own political and ideological polarization, but also from previous efforts to “coup-proof” the military. The reconstruction of the events of July 15 and open-source information about certain putschists both point to Gülenist involvement in the plot, but also to a long logistical chain within the armed forces, which suggests that there was more than one ideological faction involved in the attempted coup. If accurate, this indicates that the current wave of coup-proofing, while justifiable given the uprising in the armed forces, could lead to continued resentment in the Turkish Armed Forces and institutional weakness more broadly.
Coup-Proofing and the Rise of the Gülenists
There is little doubt in Turkey that Gülenists had a foothold in the Turkish military beginning in the mid-1980s. Up until 2002, the military chose to purge Islamists from its ranks, which theoretically should have helped to minimize the Gülenist presence among its senior staff. This changed in 2002, according to Turkey analyst Gareth Jenkins, who writes that then-Chief of the General Staff Hilmi Özkök eased the Islamist purges. Following Özkök’s retirement, his successor Necdet Özel served as Chief of the General Staff during two Gülenist-led trials, ostensibly to prevent a military coup by Kemalist officers. The AKP loudly supported the trials, both in official statements and through its affiliated media institutions. The Balyoz trial in particular suggested that the First Army was planning a coup, although a plurality of the defendants (154 out of 361) came from the Navy.
There remains some debate in Turkey about whether or not the military actually stopped purging religious officers from its ranks during the AKP’s time in office. Former President and Prime Minister Abdullah Gül, current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and former Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül expressed reservations (şerh) about various Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) promotion decisions—and purges based on Islamism (Irtıca)—between 2003 and 2010. Erdoğan and the others were outvoted. In 2014, however, Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu appears to have stopped the practice, in a sequence of events that challenges the widely believed narrative that the military had previously lost control over the promotion process—and, by extension, casting doubt on some of the claims of Gülenist manipulation.
There is no doubt that the Gülenist link to and AKP support for the purge of numerous high-ranking officers in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. There is evidence to suggest that purges of religious officers from the military stopped only in 2010, which coincided with the start of the Ergenekon trial. These trials, in retrospect, may be attributed to the AKP’s inability to “defang the military” through the normal YAŞ process. Through the trials, the AKP was, undoubtedly, using the Gülen movement as a mechanism to “coup-proof” the military. The intention, it seems, was to protect the AKP from Kemalist officers and to subject the military to quasi-civilian control, albeit by surreptitious and illegal methods.
The inevitable outcome of such actions is the weakening of the armed forces and of state institutions more broadly, the social science on coup-proofing suggests. It also appears as if this effort to “coup-proof” the military empowered many of the officers now accused of participating in the recent coup. During the Balyoz trial, at least 46 admirals and generals now accused of involvement were promoted, with 25 of those 46 being promoted two ranks in two years: 2013 and 2014. These high-ranking officers did appear to be fast-tracked to fill positions made vacant during the trial.
The rapid promotion of these officers, along with Özel’s quiescent attitude, did engender anger among the lower ranks, perhaps motivating some to participate in the coup at the urging of recently retired officers like Öztürk—who was also promoted in 2013, but whose background suggests a Kemalist political outlook. The majority of junior officers are also secular nationalists, steeped in the tradition of Kemalist secularism. There are, of course, nuances; certain elements of the officer corps have a political outlook similar to that of the Vatan Party, a right-wing nationalist party that frowns on Turkey’s participation in transatlantic institutions like NATO. Other factions are more outward-looking and view NATO as a security asset, while still retaining a strong sense of Turkish nationalism.
An Air Force Affair?
The events on July 15 are still murky, but based on an open-source reconstruction of the military assets involved, it appears as if factions in the First and Second Armies as well as the Air Force spearheaded the coup. Elements of the Navy and the Coast Guard were also involved.
The air operations during the failed coup had a long logistical tail, belying the characterization of the entire night’s events as small-scale, or perpetrated by an isolated or small group of officers. The putschists relied heavily on F-16 aircraft—armed, I have been told, with GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs—alongside a mixture of attack and transport helicopters from bases near Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. The F-16s were reportedly part of the 141st fighter wing at Akıncı air base. The putschists also reportedly flew a mixture of A400 and C-160 cargo aircraft from Kayseri to bases in Şırnak, Hatay, and Malatya, the last an F-4 fighter base.
The cargo aircraft had two purposes: to transport weapons to support the post-coup stabilization process and to establish an air bridge between Şırnak and Ankara, in order to transport up to 5,000 gendarmerie troops to Ankara to guard key government buildings. The gendarmerie forces, according to Hurriyet’s Murat Yetkin, were not part of the plot, and instead would be ferried to Ankara under forged orders. The governor’s office in Şırnak, however, resisted, reportedly ordering fire trucks to park on the runway to prevent aircraft from taking off.
Yetkin’s report also suggests that the putschists had the backing of some commanders of the 12th Air Transport Wing in Kayseri and, perhaps, senior officers at Air Logistic Command in Etimesgut Air Base, Ankara. The putschists in charge of the transport aircraft were apparently unconcerned by the F-4 fighters based at Malatya, although there too officers reportedly took measures to prevent the planes from taking off after learning of the coup attempt. In the days following the coup, Turkish police arrested an officer with the Turkish Air Force Logistics Command, Emine Gülşen Torunoğlu Aslan, along with hundreds of other Air Force officers. The Turkish Military also discharged 44 Air Force maintenance personnel, seven Air Force base commanders, and 213 pilots (150 of which fly either the F-16 or the F-4).
The putschists also had the support of the Turkish Commander of Incirlik Air Force Base, Bekir Ercan Van. As many as four Turkish KC-135 refueling tankers, each with a crew of three, supported putschist air operations throughout the night. It is unclear how many KC-135s were airborne at any single moment, but their inclusion—again—points to a number Air Force commanders involved in the planning for the coup attempt. The final air component came from Çiğli Air Force base near İzmir, where at least three helicopters flew teams of commandos to Marmaris to try to capture or kill President Erdoğan. The helicopters, according to the most recent reports, took off well after the coup attempt had begun, reinforcing the idea that the base commander was loyal to the plotters.
A Cellular Structure and Encrypted Communications
The putschist leader was based at Akıncı Air Force Base, presumably using WhatsApp to direct forces under his command. To date, there is still confusion about who the leader was, with some reports naming Muharrem Köse, a recently retired military officer. The sequence of events in Istanbul is clearer, owing to the leak of a WhatsApp conversation documenting the night’s events. The leader of the Istanbul faction appears to have been Major Mehmet Murat Çelebioğlu, a graduate of West Point and the Kuleli Military High School in Istanbul. In his first message at 9:25 p.m., he informed participating officers that he “would be making public pronouncements” and that he would pass “[important updates] to Ankara.” Throughout the night, the men in the WhatsApp group continued to ask for the contact information of participating putschists.
This has been widely interpreted as a sign that the plotters were disorganized. However, there is an alternative explanation: that the planning for the coup was compartmentalized, with only the top leadership having access to the entire plan. Thus, as the plot began to unfold, the leaders added names to a growing list of officers taking part in the coup attempt. In the leaked conservation, the Istanbul- and Sakarya-based putschists don’t reveal who it is they are answering to in Ankara, perhaps suggesting a high level of operational security on the part of the putschists.
In subsequent reporting, Hurriyet’s Sedat Ergin writes that at least one Admiral, Ömer Faruk Harmancık, the Chief of Staff of the Northern Sea Area Command in Istanbul, was arrested at Akıncı Air Base. Former Commander Öztürk was also arrested at the base, placing two representatives from two different branches of the military at the putschist base of operations on July 15. Meanwhile elements of the First Army and the Commander of the Second Army participated in other parts of the country—as evidenced by the activity at the Şırnak Air Bridge and the subsequent arrest of Adem Huduti, the Second Army’s former commanding officer.
The failed coup attempt involved officers from numerous different commands and, it appears, every branch of the military. The Turkish government has announced a plan to restructure the Armed Forces, placing the Chief of the General Staff underneath the civilian Minister of Defense. The gendarmerie, which largely appears to have remained loyal throughout, has been under the control of the Ministry of the Interior since 2015. The Air Force, in the coming years, may face a shortage of pilots—an issue that the force was already facing, due to many pilots opting to retire early in favor of more lucrative positions in the civil aviation sector.
The military also discharged 149 admirals and generals following the coup, amounting to 42 percent of Turkey’s highest-ranking offices. YAŞ has since promoted 99 to fill the vacant positions, which leaves the Turkish military with 308 generals and admirals—fifty less than before the failed coup. It is unclear how or when Turkey will fill the vacant positions.
The number of the officers discharged and of the assets involved in the coup underscore the seriousness of the events of July 15. The Turkish military as an institution has been in a state of upheaval since the Balyoz and Ergenekon trials, a situation that the failed coup has exacerbated and ensured will continue. The Turkish military will take years to recover from the actions of cadres of its most senior officers. The civilian government, in turn, may be tempted again to “coup-proof” the institution, perhaps leading to another cycle of officer discontent. This could bring about conditions similar to those that may have precipitated the failed coup attempt. The military as an institution in Turkish politics may never recover.
This is not to suggest that the military has a role in governing, but rather that its favorability ratings could suffer, eroding general confidence in an institution dependent on conscripts. The military’s declining popularity could also traumatize elements of the officer corps, who view their role as the “protectors of Turkish society,” an ethos that differs from the traditional Western concepts of a civilian-led and professional armed force. Moreover, once this groundswell of support for the AKP begins to subside, the party could face increased scrutiny from the Turkish public about its previous support for Balyoz and Ergekenon—the two trials that are tightly linked to the failed coup attempt on July 15.
If one zooms out, the failed coup and all of the machinations that led up it reveal profound ideological splits in Turkish bureaucratic institutions, including every branch of the military. This suggests that the Turkish bureaucracy is deeply factionalized along various ideological lines and that both the unelected military leadership and the elected civilians have used the fissures to try and advance their own ideological outlook. The end result of the coup is the severe weakening of the Turkish state, regardless of who was calling the shots on the night of July 15, and continued instability in Turkey in the near future.