The failed coup in Turkey is an extremely important phenomenon in modern Middle Eastern history and its aftermath will be felt both regionally and globally. While the world looks at Erdogan and the counter-coup movement (which have intensified after Wikileaks has publish its documents), the impact on modern Middle Eastern conflicts is not yet a focal point. This report is an attempt to understand how the domestic politics of Turkey will impact the development of its foreign policy and what it would mean for the Syrian conflict and the efforts towards countering the Islamic State (IS).
Before we analyse such impacts it is important to understand what the Junta actually wanted from staging a coup. We must therefore study each possibility; If the Gülen movement was indeed behind the coup – which Gülen himself denies – there are few conceivable reasons. First off, it is clear that there is a serious clash between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen (once a close ally to Erdoğan), and this in fact is not the first coup as such. There was another attempt by the Gülen movement in 2014. This event was not backed by the military, but it was a minicoup in design. The Gülen movement tried to control key institutions in the country (as the AK party claimed), including judiciary, police and airports. There were talks of another regional country behind stirring that trouble. It also strangely coincided with the Gezi park movement. The government claimed that some of the leading protestors were receiving money from another regional country. Possibility of US involvement was cited as well. In the end, the mini-coup failed and Erdoğan made a historic statement, stating foreign embassies would be closed if they intervened further. Apart from a personality clash between Erdoğan and Gülen, it seems there is a systemic difference between both Islamist factions. To put it in the context of this week’s coup, it is clear that the plotters wanted to remove Erdoğan and the AK party – but it does not stop there. They wanted to replace them with a Gülenist design and approach. Since little is known about Fethullah Gülen and his plans for Turkey – if Gülen was indeed behind it – it is mostly to do with clashes of personality, and a power grab (where Fethullah Gülen’s followers believe that he, or his installed government, is a better choice to lead the country). Another possible reason of the coup could be a severe crack–down .The Gülenist movement is deeply entrenched in Turkish society. The government has been trying to crush its network; closing newspapers, putting journalists, judiciary and police office behind bars, and so forth for the last few years. In a recent attempt (before the coup) the government ‘took its gloves off’, and started arresting civil society leaders and academics by labelling them terrorists. The Gülen movement that has been present in the country and its key institutions had to respond. So ‘vengeance’ is another factor to be considered. The plotter (if indeed from the Gülen movement) may have felt that the situation was no longer acceptable and a full-fledged coup was the only answer.
Other reasons for staging a coup include support to the plotter by regional or international players. Turkey is a key country in the global fight against IS and can also be considered as an obstacle in many current global issues; for example, the Syrian crisis, the refugee crisis (at the heart of Europe), and above all the fight against the IS. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict Turkey has had three simple foreign policies (which last to this day in principal):
- Protect Turkish borders and sovereignty
- Control the internal security situation so it does not threaten Turkey
- Remove Assad from power and have a favourable regime in place in Syria
From a modern nationalists and sovereigntist’s perspective, this all seems perfectly reasonable and legitimate – but since the beginning of the Arab revolution and the Syrian conflict it has not sat well with many regional and international players.
In the early years, Turkey was first accused of not doing enough against IS by the US and some western allies. For Turkey it did not make any sense to do anything. As long as IS did not directly threaten Turkey, it did not make sense to have another enemy (in excess of Assad, and considering Turkey was at odds with UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others, over Egypt). The US did not agree with this inaction, even though it had no sustainable policy on solving Syrian crisis itself.
The situation changed somewhat when IS came directly in confrontation with Turkey, and particularly when the US propped up and began offering support to Kurdish groups, some of which the Turkish state has been in conflict with for years. Turkey became concerned about Kurdish separatists gaining ground on the Syrian border, and the influx of Syrian refugees which started to stretch the country to its limit. So, Turkey proposed several measures, including a no fly zone inside Syria for refugees (but also to check on Kurdish separatist aspirations), none of which were heeded by the US and the West. Turkey also wanted the international community to focus on the source of the problem (the Assad regime in Syria), but the US and the West had become singularly obsessed with countering, degrading and defeating IS (please read our Annual Strategic brief that looks at this issue at depth: http://iisa.org.uk/ibn-khaldun-paper-series/2016/06/annual-strategic-brief-2016-geopolitics-in-the-middle-east/). Turkey, unable to create a safe zone for refugees and unable to control Kurdish separatists, continued supporting Syrian opposition. They were about to turn the table against Assad when Russia intervened and quickly changed the dynamics by focusing squarely on opposition forces supported by Turkey. Since last year Turkey has been in limbo over Syria. Russia has concentrated everything on destroying those things which Turkey has supported and built, yet the opposition remains and is not defeated. The US and its coalition have tried everything possible (within limits) to defeat IS – yet not only does IS still control key territory, it has also been able to attack multiple targets in Western Europe, in the US and inside Turkey and Iraq.
Thus there are plenty of reasons for external support (other than Gülenists) for the coup. Russia had promised a ‘heavy price’ to Turkey when its plane was downed by Turkish forces (for more on this, please look at our situation analysis: http://iisa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Situation-analysis_-downing-of-Russian-plane-final.pdf). Time and again the US has warned of consequences to Turkey, if it does not take a stronger action against IS. For the conspiracy theorists amongst us, the coup comes at a time when Kerry was in Moscow with a new plan to share intelligence and resources on Syria. However, sharing intelligence is not the same as actually creating or assisting with the coup. The most significant thing to consider, it the perception of the coup in Turkey itself. It has only been few days, and Turkish-US relations are seriously jeopardised. It remains to be seen if Turkish-Russian relations will be impacted or not, but Turkish media noted an absence of a condemnation message coming from Kremlin or directly from Putin.
As these perception build up and as the condemnation of a counter-coup grows louder in the west, Turkish-western relations will continue to deteriorate. Turkish foreign policy, which we discussed above, did not align with the US and the West but it did not challenge it either. Despite serious concerns over Kurdish YPG activities, Turkey did not move its land forces to deny Kurds an autonomous zone. Turkey allowed US a facilities at the İncirlik airbase to fly combative operations against IS, despite the direct results inside Turkey (IS bombings in Turkey, the latest being in Istanbul airport). Turkey made a deal with Europe over refugees, even though its suggestions of safe zones were never heeded either.
This ‘coexisting within conflict’, however, is most likely to change. The predominant reason for it would be internal security. As Turkey moves forward with a purge it will quickly realise that internal security is ultimately bound to external security. Another Istanbul-like bombing is highly unfavourable in current circumstances. The purge will not be limited to Gülenists and coup plotters; the Turkish government will seek to consolidate its control over internal security. This will antagonise, as mentioned above, the West, which will strain the already strained relationship even further.
The perception of the Turkish government that the US had something to do with the coup is only strengthened by the fact that the US will not extradite Fethullah Gülen. Critics voices (some of them genuinely concerned) will have the opposite effect. The development of Turkish domestic policy will directly affect foreign policy. Vice versa, the Turkish peripheral situation will directly impact domestic policies. And as mentioned above; Turkey will soon face a dilemma: internal security is directly linked to external security.
It is therefore expected that the Turkish ‘coexisteence within conflict’ stance will change sooner rather than later. This may result in the delivery of more sophisticated weapons to the Syrian opposition (which did not take place due to US objections). It will also mean less diplomatic activity and within Turkey (which was pushed by Russia and the US) in the Syrian conflict. Turkey is very likely to change it ‘no challenge to US’ policy in Syria and towards IS & Kurdish issues.
In essence, the fundamental problem will be another dilemma: the more the US and the West criticises Turkey (with conecerns about the level of purge etc) , the stronger the perception will be that the US and the West are ‘supporting’ plotters. This influences many important developments in an already troubled region (the Syrian conflict, the refugee problem, NATO-Russian rivalry, the campaign against IS, the sectarian conflict, and so forth).
If the coup had succeeded it would have been the single most devastating event in the region – but even now that it has failed, it has the potential to inflict serious damage to the Middle East.