From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain
“A tree won’t fall with a single blow”. Turkish proverb
A failed coup attempt by some members of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in July 2016 made international headlines for few days. The news quickly faded away and firm clamp down and a purge inside Turkey prevented any detailed information about the dramatic changes in Turkish Armed Forces in the last two decades.
Events of July 2016 were the final phase of the demise of the first republic established by the country’s founder Kamal Ataturk and emergence of second republic. Turkish Armed Forces assigned themselves the role of guardian of the republic and were a dominant force for almost a century. TAF directly intervened several times while at other times removed civilian governments by orchestrating events behind the scene if they perceived any deviation from the Kamalist secular vision. Turkish Armed Forces have finally met their tragic end and moved out of the power center.
A complex set of factors and number of players were involved on the chessboard of power and privileges. July 2016 events were the culmination of power struggle of the last two decades. In 1997, TAF forced Welfare Party (Refa) out of power for being too religious and straying too far away from the secular path jealously guarded by TAF. Welfare Party’s successor Justice & Development Party (known by its Turkish initials Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan learned the lesson. Erdogan focused only on management and development and consolidating his electoral base while avoiding direct confrontation with military leadership. He made an alliance with Fethullah Gulen’s movement known by its Turkish name Hizmet (service). Gulen has been working on educational, social service and welfare projects for four decades. His movement is a mix of non-government organization, grass root community organization, Sufi brotherhood, business guild and a secret society. Gulen movement had slowly penetrated state machinery especially police and judiciary. It had also made some inroads in TAF. Erdogan used Gulen sympathizers in police and judiciary to curtail powers of TAF. Erdogan became confident after successive electoral victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011 and a robust economy. He struck at TAF in 2007 with the help of Gulenists in police and judiciary. In June 2007, police recovered twenty-seven hand grenades from the home of a non-commissioned officer. It was alleged that they were to be used for clandestine purposes against the government. This led to expansion of investigations implicating several serving and retired TAF officers. This became known as Ergenekon (Sledgehammer) conspiracy. Media outlets associated with Erdogan and Gulen unleashed a campaign against TAF. In 2010, several officers were arrested and accused of plotting against civilian government.
Over the next few years, TAF faced a relentless onslaught and hundreds of officers resigned, purged and large numbers faced arrest and prosecution. TAF was undergoing its own internal problems about orientation and transformation. Friction between traditionalists and transformers on one end and ‘Atlanticists’ advocating close relations with NATO and USA and ‘Eurasianists’ advocating a shift towards Eurasia and improving relations with Russia and China weakened internal cohesion. This was further aggravated by penetration of TAF by Gulenists and partisans of small far left ultra nationalist Patriotic party.
Mutual mistrust and suspicion between Erdogan and military leadership set the stage for final showdown. A group of officers felt that before the final purge, they had to act. Some of these officers had links with Gulen movement, however it is not clear whether Gulen personally directed the move (Intelligence officials of USA and NATO are not convinced by the information shared by Turkish authorities with these countries). Senior brass was not in the loop and it was a poorly planned exercise. Coup plotters played their final card on the fateful day of July 2016 and lost. Erdogan rushed back to Istanbul, rallied his supporters to confront the soldiers on the streets and used police and private security to turn the tide. Erdogan used this opportunity to embark on a wide scale purge of not only armed forces but also police, judiciary, educational institutions and media outlets. Thousands of officers and non-commissioned officers of army, navy and air force were sacked. In one go, forty percent of general rank officers were sacked shattering the TAF. Air Force also suffered the major blow and half of 600 combat pilots were sacked denuding the air force. The second largest military of NATO is now in a precarious situation. Most neutral observers are of the view that TAF will take about a decade to recover from this blow provided political situation remains stable.
TAF paid for the sins of their fathers. An overreaching and over-lording military met their nemesis and lost. General public in Turkey and international community condemned the coup attempt. Everyone agrees that culprits should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and given exemplary punishment. However, Erdogan used this failed coup attempt to purge state institutions of all who are critical of his governance style including sympathizers of his former ally Gulen and secularists. He is rapidly consolidating and enhancing the powers of the presidency, removing all checks and balances and paving the way for an autocratic set up. This is a recipe for future instability. Now, everyone is laying low until the hurricane of post-coup putsch recedes. A weakened and demoralized TAF in the context of serious challenges on the border with Iraq and Syria, robust Kurdish separatist activity in the region and a significant segment of unhappy Turkish population both in secularist and Gulen camp (not to mention Kurds) means a rough ride in near future. If regional conflict spills over to Turkey or Turkish economic bubble bursts, then a general discontent and political instability can have serious consequences for Turkey.
“He who starts up in anger, sits down with a loss”. Turkish proverb
September 27, 2017
Defence Journal, October 2017