The coup attempt in Turkey adds only question marks to question marks in a region already short on answers. For the U.S. specifically and the West in general, its failure also foreshadows far more negative than positive future developments.
Turkey is a crossroads geographically, socially and politically. This regularly scheduled host to military coups convulses in its intersection between East and West, Asia and Europe, the Islamic world and Western civilization, authoritarianism and democracy, and between antiquity and modernity. The differences are stark and the proximities are same-space close.
And so it stands that a vital NATO ally with an increasingly authoritarian and thinly veiled Islamist as president, pardoning the pun, is already a recipe for high blood pressure and nervous friendship in a deadly neighborhood.
But before considering what the developments might mean going forward, it is important for casual Western observers to understand the unique nature of Turkish coups and the Turkish military that executes them. When most think of a coup, they naturally envision one would-be dictator — usually a general — using the military to overthrow an existing dictator. Well, in Turkey, the military as a secular institution has long served as a barrier to elected leaders and political movements that would use their democratically elected positions to transform Turkey into some form of non-democratic authoritarian and/or theocratic Islamist state.
Just about every ten years or so since 1960, the military has either staged a coup or issued to its government a “military memorandum” to preserve the Ataturk idea of Islam in the home but democracy in the government. A “military memorandum” was a written way to achieve the same ends without the actual violence, essentially giving the government leaders an ultimatum to resolve issues or step down before the army rolls tanks to see it happen. And after every turn, elections. Not another general’s different dictatorship. And so, through this perhaps romanticized and over-simplified brief explanation, it can be seen that the Turkish military has actually preserved Turkish democracy rather than instituted its own dictatorships. Just about every ten years.
It’s the nature of the crossroads. A somewhat unnatural democracy in a neighborhood and civilization more familiar and often more comfortable with theocracy. A people at once embracing their Islamic heritage while grasping for threads of Europeanism. The tension this builds within a society and its government includes the Turkish coup, as odd as it may sound, as a part of the balance.
The principal difference this time is that, for reasons unclear so far, the military coup was not decisive enough in its scope of participants to be successful. The attempt to put the brakes on President Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and Islamism failed.
There is, however, a contributing factor in this Turkish military coup’s failure that is very clear. Since Erdogan and his Islamist APK Party were swept into power in decisive 2002 elections, he has been on a mission to effectively neuter the Turkish military leadership to insulate himself from ouster by secularist generals, colonels, and admirals. And he has been quite successful in his mission, not harboring warm memories of 1997 when the last Turkish military coup ejected his previous Islamist party’s rule. Top military brass saw it as their duty to end yet another political party’s march toward squeezing the Ataturk principle of secularism from Turkish government.
In turn, Erdogan has made it his duty for the past 14 years to squeeze the Ataturk principle of secularism from the military leadership. Many generals and admirals have chosen early retirement over the specter of being frog-marched to a Turkish prison to await a loaded trial. At one point half of Turkey’s admirals were imprisoned, and fully 15% or more of its army and air force generals as well.
So it should come as no real surprise that any military challenge to Erdogan’s growing Islamist rule faced an uphill slog. Much of the leadership — and its spirit — had been systematically neutralized by an angry Erdogan. NATO’s second largest standing army had already been broken from the inside.
Even so, a thinned out and weakened military leadership seemed to have some initial success. There were early reports that President Erdogan unsuccessfully sought asylum from Germany and perhaps Britain while airborne in his plane during the early stages of the coup attempt. Airports were secured, power distribution controlled, and broadcast media communications and telecommunications shut down. Almost.
It is also very interesting that Facetime with Erdogan, when all is said and done, may well be the singular event that changed Turkish history. Facebook, via its Facetime app in lieu of secured traditional media channels, was the means through which Erdogan reached his followers via cell phones and urged them to take to the streets in a counter-uprising. And they did.
Corporals in Turkish tanks will follow orders and block bridges and storm television broadcast centers. But they are not likely to roll tanks on swarms of civilians and entire neighborhoods marching in the streets. And this is almost certainly when the coup began to break apart. It should be noted that this is also when the world began to hear from Erdogan again, not before.
Step back from the news cycle and observe Erdogan’s gains through the lens of recent history. He and his Islamist APK Party maintain 50% support throughout the nation. He may be seeking to consolidate power and authority, but he won the support of the Turkish public through democratic means. The same Turkish public that took to the streets to disarm the military and stop their tanks. The same military that has been historically the guardian of Turkish democracy, not its assailant or oppressor.
And Erdogan is already striking while the iron’s hot, imploring his hordes who triumphantly took to the street for him to turn in “criminals and terrorists.” He has arrested over 6,000 so far in a purge not only of the military but of judges and prosecutors who are his political rivals. This from a president who had already won Turkey the world championship in imprisoned journalists — beating out Iran, China and Syria. As David Blair suggests in the UK’s Telegraph, if you thought Erdogan was bad before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Within that context and details aside, this all may well be a larger indicator that Turkey is slowly making a choice at the crossroads, no longer content to be astride the intersection of East and West or secular and Islamic.
Remove the names and faces, parties and positions, and look at the trend away from the West and democracy and towards authoritarian power and Islamism. Turkey remains in NATO in large part because of the long-standing relationship between the Turkish military and its U.S. and Western European counterparts, and because the air base at Incirlik remains a vital warfighting resource in a region that requires it. Turkey’s leadership often conducts itself less like an ally and more like a distrustful neighbor at best, and a geopolitical and cultural adversary at worst.
So what will happen? Will an emboldened Erdogan push the envelope and withdraw Turkey from NATO altogether? What will happen with the U.S. air base at Incirlik? Will Erdogan purge the military to the point that it no longer can be seen as the guarantor of Turkey’s democracy? Will he succeed in turning Turkey into an unabashed and openly Islamist state with himself at the helm? Will he have succeeded in neutering the threat from the military only to find himself quickly unpopular among Turkish voters? Will they replace him with someone else to complete the task?
Borrowing from the old Cold War “Blue vs. Red” wargaming exercises, neighborhood events just beyond Turkey’s borders have been trending red for some time. Iraq’s demise, the rise of ISIS and its capture of significant territory, the agreement signaling acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, the American debacles in both Egypt and Libya (et al.), the disengagement from a still-strong Taliban in Afghanistan, the explosion of Syria, the shunning of Israel and the general rise of Russia and China in the power vacuum created by irresponsible American leadership.
We are not winning. We are ceding everywhere and seemingly making gains nowhere. It is hard to name a place where we are in a stronger position militarily and/or diplomatically than we were several years ago. Give it a shot. Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Iran? Egypt? Israel? China? Russia?
Turkey, like everything else in the region, is trending red. That’s what the past several days demonstrate without debate, no matter the sticky details yet to emerge and sexy conspiracy theories already out there. And, considering the firewall that was the Turkish military might now be fully neutralized in the vengeful aftermath, the prospects are grim long term.
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