Issue 2017 / Special 2017
Was Turkey's Coup For Real?
Prof. David L. Phillips
Much speculation exists about the coup in Turkey on July 15,
2016. Some even call it a ‚Äúfalse-coup,‚ÄĚ which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
organized in order to justify a crackdown against oppositionists. There are
many other instances when a military tried to remove the civilian head of
government. Case studies suggest a pattern, which can be used to evaluate the
events in Turkey one year ago.
When conducting a coup, the first action involves capturing
or killing the head of government, in this instance Erdogan.
In parallel to killing or capturing the head of government,
loyal military and security units must be immobilized to prevent them from
obstructing the coup.
Public information is critical. The putschists typically
seize control of media so they can manage the flow of information to the
public. Traditional media outlets involve radio and television, both public and
private. New media include social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
A head of the putsch presents himself so the public can
attach a face to the events and find reassurance. If the public protests the
coup, mutinous soldiers use all necessary measures to preserve order.
The following occurred in Turkey.
Erdogan was vacationing in Marmaris on July 15. When
mutinous soldiers arrived at his hotel to arrest him, Erdogan had checked out
and was on his way to Dalaman airport.
The first inkling of the coup occurred in the early evening
when mechanized units used tanks to block the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih
Sultan Mehmet Bridge, crossing from the Asian side to the European side of
Istanbul. Land forces on the bridge were joined by the gendarmerie.
Prominent members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were
arrested. Chairman of the General Staff General Hulusi Akar, and Deputy Chief
of Staff Yasar Guler were imprisoned at the Akincilar air base on the outskirts
of Ankara. Commander of the Land Forces General Salih Zeki Colak, Gendarmerie
Commander Galip Mendi, Commander of the Air Force General Abidin Unal, and
Commander of the Turkish Naval Forces Bulent Bostanoglu were also taken into
custody. Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Agency, was rushed to a
public television, was taken off the air. Soldiers also seized control of CNN Turk, interrupting a live broadcast.
No private television channels were affected.
Erdogan disappeared during the coup. In the early hours of
the morning, he surfaced to address the nation using FaceTime. He called on followers
to take to the streets in defense of Turkey‚Äôs democracy.
Imams echoed Erdogan‚Äôs appeal. The chant ‚ÄúAllahu akbar‚ÄĚ ‚Äď
God is great ‚Äď reverberated from the muezzins of mosques. Many thousands of
supporters went to Ataturk Airport and Taksim Square in Istanbul. They also gathered
outside the presidential palace in Ankara.
F-16s controlled by the putschists allegedly bombed the army
headquarters and the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA).
Though Turkey‚Äôs military has a reputation for efficiency,
its actions were poorly considered and badly executed. The coup fell far short
of best practices for military takeovers.
How could mutinous soldiers have been unaware of Erdogan‚Äôs
plans to leave the hotel? Failing to find him was a major gaff that undermined
the coup from the outset.
Why wasn‚Äôt Erdogan apprehended on his way to the airport
before his presidential plane took off? The coup plotters possessed F-16
fighter jets. Why didn‚Äôt they intercept or shoot down Erdogan‚Äôs plane?
Members of the Turkish General Staff representing major
branches of the Turkish armed forces were detained. Was their arrest part of
the coup design or was it intended to prevent them from joining the ranks of
Hakan Fidan, was not apprehended. Of all the members of Turkey‚Äôs national
security establishment, Fidan is closest to Erdogan and best positioned to
protect the president. Erdogan once called him his ‚ÄúsńĪr k√ľp√ľ,‚ÄĚ which means ‚Äėjar of secrets‚Äô.
The putschists never presented themselves to the public, explaining
events and offering reassurance.
Why did the coup plotters fail to take over major private
networks that most Turks actually watch? Both TRT and CNN Turk have
relatively small viewing audiences.
And why did the coup plotters allow social media to
function? They could have jammed coverage, but didn‚Äôt. It is ironic that
Erdogan addressed the nation using FaceTime, a form of social media he vowed to
While imams called Erdogan‚Äôs supporters to the streets, the
putschists issued instructions for people to stay indoors. Allowing Erdogan
supporters free reign allowed a groundswell of popular support for the
Damage to the TGNA was minimal. Crater analysis suggested
that explosives inside the building were used, rather than high impact
ordinance of fighter jets.
According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, ‚ÄúIt does not
appear to be a very brilliantly planned or executed event.‚ÄĚ Kerry has a knack
for understatement. It was a botched coup that showed all the hallmarks of
Would Erdogan be so reckless to stage an event that endangered
Turkish citizens, killing 265 people? Another theory exists about Erdogan‚Äôs
Rather than organize the coup, Erdogan was either tipped off
by members of the putsch or by the intelligence agency of a foreign government.
Instead of preventing the coup, Erdogan allowed events to progress just far
enough so claims of a coup were credible but not so far as to present any real
In his first public remarks during the early morning of July
16, Erdogan issued a chilling threat: ‚ÄúThis latest action is an act of treason.
This attempt, this move, is a great gift from God for us. Why? Because the move
will allow us to clean up the armed forces, which needs to be completely
cleaned.‚ÄĚ In a rush to judgement, he vowed to purge all state institutions of
‚Äúthe virus‚ÄĚ spread by supporters of Fethullah G√ľlen.
The Turkish government had already prepared lists of
oppositionists. The authorities moved immediately to arrest them. To date,
about 50,000 security officers and civil servants have been arrested and
another 150,000 dismissed from their jobs. Approximately 150 journalists are in
jail. Members of parliament, judges, and educators have also been dismissed or
arrested. Instead of reconciliation, Erdogan arrested another 7,000 people on
the one-year anniversary. Erdogan vows to approve a bill reinstating the death
penalty if parliament proposed it.
Some say Erdogan is paranoid. But even paranoid people have
Erdogan was profoundly aware of potential challenges from the
TSK. Turkey has a history of military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
Erdogan was directly affected by the coup of 1997, which outlawed the Refah
Party to which he belonged.
To pre-empt challenges, Erdogan pushed through
constitutional reforms affecting the Kemalist judiciary. Pro-government
prosecutors conjured fantastical plots, Ergenekon and Operation Sledgehammer, which
were used to crack-down on retired and current military officers. Arrests sent
shock waves through Turkey‚Äôs security establishment.
Events in Egypt further exacerbated Erdogan‚Äôs concerns.
Erdogan identified closely with Egypt‚Äôs President Mohamed Morsi as a kindred
spirit and fraternal political ally. Morsi was a leader of the Muslim
Brotherhood and a known Islamist. When Morsi was overthrown by General Abdel
Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, Erdogan feared something similar. He accused the West
of masterminding Morsi‚Äôs removal.
Erdogan was pro-active to prevent a similar fate. Erdogan‚Äôs purge
is called a ‚Äúcivilian coup‚ÄĚ or a ‚Äúcontrolled coup,‚ÄĚ because it pervasively
eliminated opposition and generated widespread fear in society and professional
ranks. An open-ended state of emergency has been used by Erdogan to eliminate
the rule of law and systematize repression.
Secrets are hard to keep. Repression is difficult to
maintain. Close to two million people rallied in the Maltepe district of
Istanbul on July 8. They demand ‚Äúadalet‚ÄĚ -- justice and the rule of law. They
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When Erdogan eventually
leaves power, Turks and the world will learn what really happened. The truth
will come out.