On the evening of 15 July, 2016, reports of armed clashes in Ankara and Istanbul dominated global news coverage as a group of military officers attempted to seize power from the government headed by President Erdogan. This operation sought to secure sites of information dissemination and restrict movement through the country, but ultimately failed in the face of broader popular and military support for the existing government.
A coup in Turkey would have had significant implications for the current geopolitical order. As a nation on the edge of Europe and ostensibly seeking membership to the European Union, a rebellion in Turkey would have jeopardised an already splintering union, creating even more refugees and economic uncertainty. It would also have undoubtedly vindicated far-right groups such as UKIP in Britain and the National Front in France, both of whom campaign on a platform of Turkish unsuitability for European inclusion, stoking nationalism and leading to greater pressure on states to devolve from the EU.
The coup would also have caused severe headaches for a NATO alliance already under pressure from Russian encroachment in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. The alliance would not necessarily cover the new coup authorities, and the confusion would have provided a prime opportunity for Russia to launch further incursions into Eastern Europe while NATO officials struggled to unravel Turkey’s future.
Fortunately, the attempted coup failed, although the human cost of the night’s events was high. More than 270 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded during the short-lived campaign, while almost 3,000 soldiers were taken prisoner in the immediate aftermath. Two months later, however, the political costs for the government and country have been arguably even higher.
Primarily, the political consequences of the coup have been dire for the Turkish public. An unprecedented crackdown by the ruling AKP party has detained thousands of soldiers and removed tens of thousands of teachers, judges, clerics, police and local officials from their posts. This has been undertaken as part of the government’s purge of clandestine cemaat supporters in positions of authority. Cemaat is a sect of Islam currently led by exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, for which the Turkish government has blamed the instigation and direction of the coup attempt.
While it is only proportional and understandable to seek out remnants of rebel groups, there are severe concerns that the wide-ranging powers adopted by Erdogan’s security forces have given rise to a witch-hunt for dissidents with little regard for evidence, rule of law, or basic human rights. Erdogan has decreed a three-month state of emergency, ordered the muzzling of more than 100 media outlets and arrested over 50 journalists, often simply for highlighting his repression of other media sources.
This heavy-handed approach is likely to cause Erdogan problems with loyalty and obedience in the long-term. Though the majority of Turkish citizens support the government’s analysis of the threat posed by the Gulenist movement and its subsequent activity to expunge their supporters from positions of power, there are considerable fears that continued crackdown will exacerbate the original drivers of the coup attempt, embolden the Kurdish separatist cause, facilitate recruitment by extremists, and dampen Turkey’s standing in international circles.
Indeed, there are signs that the Turkish government has lost a significant amount of credibility in the international sphere as a result of its response to the coup attempt. Today, tensions with the US are strained over Turkish demands for the extradition of Gulen, while international watchdogs have repeatedly signified alarm at the erosion of human rights and freedom of expression in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown. A significant following in Turkey adhere to the suspicion that the United States had some involvement with the orchestraters of the coup attempt, while a distasteful episode surrounding the right to freedom of speech in Europe has soured relations between Erdogan’s supporters and several Western democracies.
Additionally, the coup has engendered a great amount of distrust in Turkey and amongst the Turkish diaspora for the seeming arrogance of European and American leaders in denouncing the government’s response. While all political leaders condemned the attempted coup in the strongest terms, the reticence of America to cooperate in the Gulen investigation and the international clamour for Turkey to scale back its repressive post-coup internal purge have drawn ire from the Turkish government. Turkey argues that its response is proportional and points to France’s current state-of-emergency as precedent. However, there have been recent popular demonstrations in European capitals both for and against the Turkish crackdown, demonstrating the strength of feeling across Europe and complicating the bilateral relationship between the EU and Turkey. This is problematic for the former given the need to engage Turkey on critical issues such as resolving the refugee crisis and combatting extremists on Europe’s borders.
Instead, Turkey has sought to regain the initiative in its foreign affairs and recoup some of the goodwill it has lost from its international partners by pivoting to Russia and entering into the Syrian conflict with full military action. In early August, Erdogan flew to meet Putin in St Petersburg, patching up relations following a dispute over a downed jet last year. Shortly after this rapprochement, Turkey rolled its tanks across the border into Syria, in support of various opposition groups.
This is significant for a number of reasons; not least that Turkey’s membership of NATO ostensibly aligns the country’s strategic priorities alongside those of the United States (and against those of Russia). At the moment, Turkey would appear to be strongly positioning itself towards the Russian pole of this dichotomous international spectrum.
Turkish military engagement in Syria also has repercussions for the survival of the Assad government and the operational effectiveness of the Kurdish peshmergas. The country’s increased military involvement coincided with a statement from Prime Minister Yildrim that Assad may have a part to play in the interim leadership of the country, representing a slight climb down from previous insistence that his government must be deposed. This is undoubtedly a geopolitical affectation, minded to keep the Russians friendly towards Turkey, and could bolster Assad’s resolve and capability on the battlefield. Indeed, the period since the Turkish inclusion has witnessed several advances by Syrian forces.
Turkish involvement in Syria could also be primarily geared towards limiting the territorial and political achievements of the Kurdish armed factions. Many observers have noted that the Kurdish enclaves in Syria and Iraq are particularly well-preserved against the anarchy of the civil war, leading to multiple claims for the Kurdish peoples to be granted further autonomy in the event of a peace settlement. Turkey would not consider this an acceptable option, as it would be wary of disrupting its own territorial integrity and inspiring other separatist causes to use violence in pursuing their objectives. Nevertheless, Turkish forces and Kurdish forces sharing a battlefield may allow for expressions of conflict away from the Turkish homeland, leading to less civilian-directed terrorism and state-mandated repression by security forces, making Turkish society more peaceful.
In the short term, Turkey looks set to achieve its core priorities of stabilising and securing the Erdogan government against internal dissent, distracting Kurdish and IS fighters from attacking the Turkish civil population, and projecting its influence in the Syrian civil war. However, several of the methods employed to pursue these objectives appear to have long term negative repercussions. These include the use of heavy-handed repression, damaging civil liberties and stoking resentment against the state, and the diplomatic pivot to Russia, which may jeopardise Turkey’s role in NATO and relations with Western democracies. In short, the fallout from the Turkish coup is not nearly over yet.
Sam Eastoe is a Middle East Research Fellow at the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs.