• 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 “false-coup,” 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
    secure location.

    TRT, Turkey’s
    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’s democracy.

    Imams echoed Erdogan’s appeal. The chant “Allahu akbar” –
    God is great – 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’s 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’s
    plans to leave the hotel? Failing to find him was a major gaff that undermined
    the coup from the outset.

    Why wasn’t Erdogan apprehended on his way to the airport
    before his presidential plane took off? The coup plotters possessed F-16
    fighter jets. Why didn’t they intercept or shoot down Erdogan’s 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’s national
    security establishment, Fidan is closest to Erdogan and best positioned to
    protect the president. Erdogan once called him his “sır küpü,” which
    means ‘jar of secrets’.

    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’t. It is ironic that
    Erdogan addressed the nation using FaceTime, a form of social media he vowed to

    While imams called Erdogan’s 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, “It does not
    appear to be a very brilliantly planned or executed event.” 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’s

    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: “This 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.” In a rush to judgement, he vowed to purge all state institutions of
    “the virus” spread by supporters of Fethullah Gülen.

    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’s security establishment.

    Events in Egypt further exacerbated Erdogan’s concerns.
    Erdogan identified closely with Egypt’s 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’s removal.

    Erdogan was pro-active to prevent a similar fate. Erdogan’s purge
    is called a “civilian coup” or a “controlled coup,” 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 “adalet” -- justice and the rule of law. They
    want answers.

    When Erdogan eventually
    leaves power, Turks and the world will learn what really happened. The truth
    will come out.


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