by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 45, No. 6, Shawwal, 1437)
Last month’s failed coup attempt in Turkey has exposed the alternate State that exists in the shadows. It has shown how deeply unsavory characters have penetrated the various institutions of state.
As coups go, the July 15 attempt by a faction of the Turkish military to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a pretty botched-up affair. The coup-makers followed the steps that are normally associated with successful coups: takeover of the state television to announce that the military has taken control of government; blocking traffic on two bridges linking the western and eastern parts of Istanbul, and for good measure, bombing the parliament building, not once but nine times! This may have been a fatal mistake for it alienated even those lawmakers that were opposed to Erdogan. Istanbul airport was surrounded by tanks and all flights in and out of the country suspended.
There were several problems with this latest coup attempt in Turkey. The army chief, General Hulusi Akar was not part of the plot; he was taken hostage as were a number of other senior generals at the Military Headquarters in Ankara. President Erdogan was on holiday in Marmaris and, therefore, out of reach of the coup plotters although it perhaps reflected either lack of proper planning or overconfidence that the coup would succeed even as he was left alone.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and a number of ministers were holding a late-night cabinet meeting in Ankara when the coup was launched but they were not arrested. Reports from Ankara say they were prepared to die. The most serious mistake may perhaps have been that the coup plotters did not take into account the private television channels that the government was able to use to call on the people to come out into the streets to resist the coup. The Imams in thousands of masjids across Turkey also urged the faithful to flood the streets in opposition to the coup. Further, Erdogan immediately went on Facebook using the hotel internet service calling on the people to come out into the streets. He vowed to appear in a public square shortly.
Once the government knew that not all the generals were involved in the coup plot, they immediately began to mobilize resistance. Police in Istanbul acted with alacrity in fighting off soldiers. A number of police officers were killed at the Istanbul Police headquarters. Within hours, in a bold move that was not without risk to his life, Erdogan flew into Istanbul airport to appear amid a throng of supporters. The coup’s fate was sealed. Soldiers assigned to coup duty started to surrender in public. It was a spectacle to watch policemen arresting soldiers, some stripped to their underwear.
Reports have emerged that the coup plotters were already under investigation. Fearing arrest, they thought they should strike first to preempt any such move. They harboured the illusions that once they announced the coup, other sections of the armed forces would join them as part of institutional solidarity. To be sure, there was and is discontent in the country over Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian streak as well as several failed policies not the least of which is his tearing up of the peace agreement with the Kurds as well as his meddling in Syria that has gotten nowhere, not to mention thousands of deaths in the war-torn country. There has been blowback from the Syrian fiasco with terrorists striking in Turkey as well, the latest of which was the June 29 attack on Istanbul airport that resulted in nearly 60 deaths. It was another blow to Turkey’s already faltering tourist industry. All these, however, were not sufficient to force the people to abandon the government they had elected. Besides, people have bitter memories of previous coups; they are simply not prepared to go through such nightmares again.
There have been large-scale arrests throughout the country totalling more than 9,000, according to the Interior Ministry. These include military personnel as well as judges, police officers, university professors, and state governors. At least 85 generals and admirals are among those arrested. Two names in particular have come to the fore: former air force chief General Akin Ozturk who allegedly was the ringleader, and General Adem Huduti, commander of Turkey’s 2nd Army. Ozturk had served as military attaché in Tel Aviv from 1998–2000. He retired last year but retained his seat on the Turkish Military Council. This has led to speculation that the Zionist regime was also involved in the plot. The former general, however, has denied involvement saying he was not even aware of the coup plot much less being its leader, according to two private broadcasters Haberturk and NTV, quoting what they said was the former general’s testimony to the prosecutors. “I am not the person who planned or led the coup. Who planned it and directed it, I do not know,” state-run news agency Anadolu quoted Ozturk as saying.
Soon after the coup fizzled out even though it left 300 dead including 145 civilians, Erdogan said it was part of the plot by a “parallel system,” hinting at Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmat movement. Prime Minister Yildirim was more direct; he named Gulen who is based in Pennsylvania since 1999. The Education Ministry has withdrawn the licenses of 21,000 teachers linked with the Gulenist movement that runs at least 1,000 schools across Turkey. The Gulenist movement is virtually a state within a state; its members are embedded in the armed forces, the police, the judiciary as well as universities.
Erdogan announced that the coup plot was an opportunity to cleanse the armed forces and the system of these treasonous elements. He also demanded that the US extradite Gulen to Turkey to face treason charges. The American Secretary of State John Kerry while saying Washington would look into any request from Ankara, demanded proof of Gulen’s involvement and said all evidence would be evaluated by the US to see if it meets America’s requirements. Kerry said he wanted evidence not allegations.
“We fully anticipate that there will be questions raised about Mr. Gulen,” Kerry said on July 16. “And obviously we invited the government of Turkey, as we always do, to present us with any legitimate evidence that withstands scrutiny and the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgments about it appropriately.” Kerry was clearly non-committal. The US would make “appropriate judgments” about evidence presented by a NATO ally. Yildirim warned that any country standing by Gulen will not be a friend of Turkey and will be considered at war with Ankara.
Erdogan was not in a conciliatory mood. He said whenever Washington had demanded that Turkey hand over a terror suspect, Ankara had complied. He expected Washington to do the same, a wish unlikely to be fulfilled. Instead, Kerry said the US was willing to “help with any inquiry” into the coup attempt.
It needs recalling that there was a similar episode in 2001 when the shoe was on the other foot. Following the 9/11 attacks, then President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban government in Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden to the US, accusing him of being the mastermind of the attacks. Quite aside from the fact as to how a man in poor health sitting in some remote cave in Afghanistan could carry out such a feat, the Taliban said they were willing to consider the request if Washington would offer some proof. Bush shot back, “You will get the proof when we arrive in Kabul.” The rest, as they say, is history.
While there may be internal reasons for the coup — and they cannot be dismissed lightly — there are external factors as well. In recent weeks, Erdogan had started to make amends with Russia. He issued a formal apology to Russia for the downing of a Russian plane over Syria last November. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by lifting some sanctions. The two leaders are due to meet later this month. Erdogan and Yildirim also hinted at improvement in relations with Syria. These developments did not sit well with Washington that wants pliant regimes, not those that think or act independently. According to reports from Turkey, the pilot responsible for shooting down the Russian plane has now been arrested. He is also said to belong to the Gulenist cult.
Reaction to the coup attempt in the media as well as from various capitals is also instructive. Even before the coup had been put down, the Islamic Republic of Iran issued a strongly worded statement condemning the attempt and came out strongly in support of Erdogan. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the era of coups was over and that people’s wishes should be respected. Elsewhere in the region only Sudan and Qatar supported Erdogan. The Doha-based al-Jazeera’s coverage was pro-Erdogan and against the coup attempt.
Other networks, whether Western or regional, appeared to be pro-coup. For instance, BBC Arabic, Saudi-owned el-Arabiya TV, Rupert Murdoch- and Walid bin Talal-owned Sky News Arabic, as well as Britain’s ITN diplomatic editor were all running pro-coup stories. They could not contain their glee at what they described as the “end” of Erdogan’s rule whom they denounced as “authoritarian.” Perhaps the military would have been less authoritarian! The US television network, NBC claimed that Erdogan had fled and sought political asylum in Britain. Others cited Germany as his final destination. Clearly, these channels and outlets were running ahead of themselves.
This would not, however, have been possible without the anti-Erdogan line laid down by their regimes. In the initial stages of the coup, there was deathly silence from Washington, London, and Paris. Perhaps a statement from the US Embassy in Ankara provided a hint of official American thinking. In its emergency message to US citizens in Turkey, it called the putsch an “uprising” and urged them to exercise extreme caution. The US also banned all flights to and from Turkey. The common understanding of an “uprising” is that people, not the military, stage it. Yet here was the US embassy turning this word on its head.
In Britain, the Guardian and the Independent, both considered to be left-leaning papers were unabashedly pro-coup. Even Robert Fisk who is widely viewed as being more reasonable and better informed than others openly stated that while the army was unsuccessful this time, it would have better luck next time. He wanted another coup, reflecting his anti-Erdogan position so clearly. For all his faults — and there are many — Erdogan was and is the elected president of Turkey with massive support of the people.
Why would the so-called champions of democracy in the West be such strong advocates of military regimes rather than of leaders elected by the people? It speaks volumes about their true nature.