Let’s Talk Turkey

Did Recep Tayyip Erdogan just expand his power to the greatest point of any Turk since Ataturk at the expense of one night of sleep? Well one night of sleep for him and hundreds of his countrymen’s lives. 
The first thing that anyone needs to know when evaluating yesterday’s coup attempt in Turkey is that this is not akin to a coup attempt in the United States or even a non-superpower like Spain or Australia. Turkey has a history of coups that goes back to the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic. Turkey has seen coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993 and 1997. This doesn’t even mention the countless coups, uprisings, revolutions, and revolts that took place throughout the Ottoman centuries and even before that to the founding of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks took Constantinople from the Byzantines. This tradition goes even further back than that. There is a reason we use the term Byzantine politics to describe complex and cutthroat political systems. 
Turkey has a long history of coup attempts attempts and even president Erdogan has suffered planned coups before this one. The big questions that have to be asked are 1) why did this coup occur? 2) why did it seemingly fail? 3) what will be the implications going forward? 4) what did the world learn from this?
Let’s start with why this coup occurred in the first place. There are two theories prevailing at the moment for the motives behind this attempt. The first is that this coup is part of a long tradition of Kemalist military take overs. These coups occur fairly regularly when the political state of Turkey begins to favor the executive and legislative branches at the expense of he military, which is seen far more like a fourth branch of the government than a subordinate entity such as here in the U.S. Think of like if the U.S. Joint Chiefs were known individuals with great political power and considerable sway on domestic policy in addition to defense policy. It also tends to happen with the country is trending more Islamist than secular. This follows the historical spirit of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that dates back to Turkey’s founding from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk was a secular nationalist whereas the old Ottoman sultans were the traditional caliphs of Islam and ruled over a cosmopolitan empire that was home to Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Christians, Egyptians, Persians, Kurds, Armenians and many other ancient ethnicities. When politics in Turkey trend Islamist and favor a strong non-military structure the military swoops in and presses the restart button on the country. 
This is probably the most likely scenario. Erdogan has consolidated power and prestige like no Turkish leader since Ataturk and that threatens the military. In addition his AKP party trends Islamist (note that it is not as Islamist as Whabbist factions in Arab regions of he Middle East, think of it like an Islamic version of the evangelical religious right in the United States) and that threatens the secular tradition of the military. Combine these trends with recent wars on Turkey’s border and the airport attack two weeks ago and all of the pieces are in place to indicate the political situation is ripe for a traditional coup. 
There is a second theory though that is a bit more tin foil but interesting nonetheless. Some critics are claiming that this coup was a false flag operation instigated by Erdogan to purge the military of non-loyal forces. Since Erdogan took power in 2003 there have been four planned coup attempts and now an attempt that actually occurred and for a time appeared to have succeeded. This coup appeared to have succeeded but there are some peculiarities. Firstly the military made no attempt to capture Erdogan which would have been the key to securing an immediate bloodless victory. Secondly the fact that Erdogan could appear on national TV after the coup was underway and call on his supporters to take to the streets is odd. The coup occurred while people were still awake as opposed to in the middle of the night as had occurred in the past. If the military secured the airport in Istanbul then why did Erdogan eventually land there so easily? The military definitely did not appear ready to attack the public but you’d think they’d be eager to prevent his landing or at least arrest him at the airport they directly controlled. Lastly there are reports coming out that many lower ranked soldiers saw this as a drill and turned against their leaders when the situation became clear several hours into the coup. I definitely think a false flag coup is more on the conspiracy theory side of things but strongmen like Erdogan operate on different rules than traditional elected officials and 2016 is a weird year already so I’m not putting anything past anyone. 
This brings us to the big second question. Why did this coup apparently fail? Looking past any false flag operations this coup looks to have failed for two main reasons. Firstly the military appears divided. The conspirators initially took the highest ranking military leader in Turkey as a hostage and then apparently executed him. There were conflicting reports about the loyalty of the navy but it looks like the Navy was never on board with the coup. While important it’s key to remember than the navy just might not have been clued in to the army and air forces plans. After all warships cannot march into a Capitol building. That division hamstrung the scope and speed of the coup limiting operations to the heart of Istanbul and Ankara but with seemingly little presence elsewhere. The division might also be an indication of a trend in the military itself away from the Kemalist tradition and this coup might have been a last gasp attempt to recapture old glory by a handful of soldiers. Secondly Erdogan has widespread populist support. Strongmen and dictators don’t take control without backing and Erdogan definitely has widespread appeal. With the moral high ground (even if a coup’s motives are democratic it’s still a very undemocratic move) and using secular threats against Islam as a motivator he was able to rally his supporters to his cause. 
So Erdogan appears to have won, what happens now? In the immediate future I believe this digs Erdogan in even more than he had been. We will probably see a witch hunt and prosecutions in the Turkish military which will help to negate the threat of the military to Erdogan. The AKP party will claim victory for democracy and this will consolidate AKP and Erdogan’s power, albeit at the expense of military power. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a more Islamist Turkey emerge that deemphasizes Kemalism and secularism. Already in the fallout this morning Turkey has removed over 2000 judges including some at the highest courts in the judiciary. It wouldn’t be a shock to see more cleric inspired judges be installed to cement the Islamists grasp on the country. Yesterday Islamists controlled the executive and the legislature while secularists controlled the military and courts. Today the Islamists are consolidating all four.   
The bigger picture is what happens down the road. Yesterday the four biggest military powers in the Middle East were Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran and Turkey. Turkey will definitely continue to be a layer but while the military gets sorted out their reach has declined. This also becomes yet another wildcard in the chaos that is the Middle East. 
The real implication is what message this sends to strongmen and wannabe strongmen around the world. Between the Turkish people standing up tanks and soldiers in the street and examples in the Arab Spring like the Egyptian people supporting the military, military power seems overplayed compared to populist movements. If the military isn’t willing to shoot, and why would they shoot their fellow citizens, then the military isn’t a threat. This is why a place like Syria can devolve into civil war, the Syrian military comes from one sector of the country while the rest of Syria is deeply divided on religious and ethnic lines. Turkey, outside of its Kurdish section, is largely homogenous and no more split than the U.S. between a secular left and a religious right. This coup shows that big events no longer play out over days and weeks but often over hours. Social media and mob mentalities and accelerated everything. At 10 p.m. the conspirators looked to be toasting their success. By 1 a.m. soldiers were being arrested. 
That might be the biggest take away from this. The turn around and speed with which global events occur now is staggering compared to even a few years ago. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991 it happened over several months (or over about three years depending on your perspective). That seemed incredible from a speed perspective at the time but apparently it was an indication of how quickly global events were trending. The repercussions of the coup will play out over the coming weeks and months but the coup itself was a roller coaster that largely lasted a single night.

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