By LEE SMITH
July 16, 2016
Turkish soldiers involved in a coup attempt raise their hands in surrender Saturday on the bridge that crosses Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait. Turkey's government reestablished control Saturday and declared the coup a failure. More than 250 were killed and more than 1,400 wounded in the fighting.
The coup against the Turkish government has reportedly been put down. It's almost a day after a faction of the Turkish military attempted to topple the government by closing bridges, sending tanks out in to the street, firing missiles at protestors from helicopters, and arresting a number of officials, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The coup plotters attacked a police station, killing at least 17 police officers. The U.S. press is reporting at least 161 deaths, but the final casualty count is likely to be higher. It's not clear yet if the death toll includes those killed in the parliament building in Ankara, which the coup plotters bombed.
Some of the officers behind the coup, a handful of generals and dozens of colonels and junior officers, have already been arrested, and conscripts who may not have had any idea of where their orders came from are in custody, too. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls the coup treason, and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) was supported by the other main political groupings—the largest opposition party, the CHP, the far-right MHP, and the Kurdish HDP—which all denounced the coup attempt.
There have been four successful coups (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) in the history of the modern Turkish republic, engineered by the army in order to preserve the secular democracy established by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The plotters put out the same message this time around, but the many protesters Erdogan called to the streets with a video message on an iPhone showed that the public believed this coup was an affront to Turkish democracy. It was not an effort on behalf of the entire military, but, as Erdogan, the Turkish intelligence agency, and the justice ministry have contended, it was rather the handiwork of one faction in the army manipulated by a political grouping opposed to Erdogan—the followers of Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen is a Turkish national who moved to Pennsylvania in 1999, ostensibly for medical reasons, but, as this U.S. cable released in the Wikileaks cache explains, he also "faced charges in Turkey of plotting to overthrow the state."
Gulen is a wealthy businessman whose money comes mostly from charter schools he's founded around the world, including the United States. He's a self-styled moderate Islamist of the Sufi variety who preaches tolerance and acceptance of all faiths. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gulen spoke out against the Turkish flotilla dispatched to break the naval blockade of Gaza, which culminated in a confrontation that left nine Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American dead, and others injured, along with seven Israeli sailors wounded, some seriously. Gulen's critical posture burnished his moderate credentials. And yet as Claire Berlinski reported, some of Gulen's one-time media outlets, like Zaman, have regularly indulged in characteristically Middle East conspiracy theories, including those of the anti-Semitic variety.
At one time, Gulen was close to Erdogan, as the AKP relied on Gulen's wide support and organization throughout Turkey to help win elections. Further, these two Islamist currents collaborated on the Ergenekon trials, which were supposedly meant to root out Turkey's "deep state" and bring to light the misdeeds of the military and its allies in the media and elsewhere, and the conspiracies they plotted. Many Turkish liberals and secularists supported the trials at first since they believed, not incorrectly, that large parts of the government and military junta had a dark past and their crimes needed to be made public before democracy could really take hold.
In reality, Ergenekon was mostly a collection of far-fetched fairy tales with forged evidence the Erdogan government used to discredit and arrest opponents and potential rivals, clearing the way for their own cadres to take power. Many of the charges were clearly nonsensical but because the Gulenists at the time controlled both the police and the judiciary, dozens of the accused, including well-known journalists and high-ranking military officers, were sentenced.
Gulen and Erdogan broke several years ago, partly because the latter sought to initiate a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), negotiations the Gulen movement strongly opposed. After their falling out, the Gulenists sought to topple Erdogan, as AKP figures, including Erdogan's son, were put under electronic surveillance by the Gulen-dominated police and brought up on corruption charges. Erdogan responded in kind, purging the judiciary and police of Gulenists. Thus the police, now largely free of Gulenist influence, opposed the coup and fought the conspirators in the streets.
Erdogan also went after Gulen's communications and media assets. In March, the government tookpossession of Gulen's flagship press outfit Zaman. There can be no excuse for arresting journalists and shutting down media outlets, as Erdogan has done—Turkey is the fifth worst jailer of journalists globally—but it's perhaps more accurate to think of the Gulen-owned press as an intelligence-gathering organization. Yes, this media didn't deserve to be shut down, but the Gulenists had played the same ugly game to their own advantage when they used Zaman to launch attacks on many of the journalists prosecuted in the Eregenekon trials.
The conflict in Turkish political circles during the Erdogan years has never really been about the direction of the country's democratic culture. Rather, it's a very nasty Middle Eastern showdown over power politics. There are no good guys here, no one who was ever going to ride to the rescue of Turkish democracy. The opposition parties are filled with haters of every variety—anti-American leftists, right-wing bigots, and everywhere are anti-Semites. In this case, one gross figure, Fethullah Gulen, challenged another vain martinet, his former ally Erdogan, and the former lost. It was unlikely that a preacher based in the middle of America ever had much of a chance against a first-rate political talent who kept winning elections on the ground in Turkey, and so Gulen was routed. Indeed, even his assets in the military were due to be ousted within the next couple weeks. The army was planning to host a summit, convened in part to get rid of the cadre of Gulenists who'd gotten senior positions after the Ergenekon trials cashiered the top level of military officers. And this is why many believe that the Gulenists are behind Friday's aborted coup.
As one informed observer in Istanbul told me today, the coup was effectively a suicide mission. Gulen was on the verge of losing everything he had on the ground—police, judiciary, media, and now military—so why not make a run at Erdogan? Coups had worked before in Turkey, so maybe this would win popular support. But it didn't, certainly not from the AKP, not even from the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whom Erdogan rudely dismissed in May. All the opposition parties came out against it, as did most of the military, parts of which fought the coup soldiers in the streets. And then Erdogan filled the streets with his own men, who braved gunfire to defend their man.
If some analysts believe that the protesters took to the streets to defend democracy, let there be no mistake, as many mistook Egypt's two coups, the first against Hosni Mubarak and the second against the country's first genuinely elected president Mohammed Morsi. Americans may imagine that street protests represent the enchanted will of a giddily frustrated population, but almost everywhere else in the world, street demonstrations are not an index of democracy, but rather a pointed reminder of its deficit. The citizens of a democracy manifest their political will through the ballot and other forms of political organization, not by braving bullets or employing violence.
As we've seen even here in America, of late street action necessarily damages the political process. Friday's attempted coup cannot help but make Erdogan more paranoid and further encourage his authoritarian tendencies. All friends of democracy, all who care for the future of Turkey, agree that it would be preferable to see this key NATO member move toward a more transparent, more perfect democracy. However, the reality at present is that Turkey's political system is a damaged—or, to be more genteel, "fledgling"—democracy that pits competing cults against each other.
This has been the case ever since the republic was founded. Ataturk was an authoritarian whose capacity for violence far exceeded that of Erdogan but is nonetheless worshiped not just by Kemalists but also by Western policymakers and analysts for a compulsory secularism, which in fact claimed many victims. On this perverse view, Americans should sleep sounder because, for instance, Turkish secularists favor banning the headscarf, whereas American-born teenagers of Yemeni descent in Brooklyn wear the hijab freely and without any threat to our republic.
At present, it is the cult of Erdogan that wins elections and has done so for 14 years. That so many American foreign policy pundits seemed over the last 24 hours to have believed that a military coup toppling the elected leader of a NATO member would enhance Turkish democracy is a reflection not only of their general misunderstanding of Turkish politics but also speaks to the dire state of American strategic thinking.
The latter can be attributed partly to the Obama "revolution" in U.S. foreign policy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the subsequent realignment with Iran required that traditional allies, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, would get downgraded. In particular regard to Turkey, Obama revised the decades-long relationship with a NATO member in order to align with the PKK—a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization at war with Turkey for more than 30 years—and its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, because he believes that this Stalinist, albeit secular, Kurdish cult can help defeat the Islamic State.
Obama says he believes that destroying ISIS is a vital American interest, except he doesn't act as though it's a vital interest, or else the president would enlist the help of Arab tribes by pushing back against the Iranian axis that is oppressing Sunni Arabs across the region. But Obama won't do that. Instead the administration works with Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that torture Sunnis. And Obama is not going to check those militias, because that would anger the Iranians, who might be forced to walk away from the Iran Deal, which is the administration's foreign policy legacy.
Perhaps that's why it took the White House more than three hours to say that it stood with the Turkish government and against the coup. No matter who came out on top, the administration would still need to use Incirlik airbase for airstrikes in its phony war against ISIS. After all, what if there were a terror attack against America in Obama's last months inspired by ISIS? As French president Francois Hollande has found, the only immediately available political response to terror at home is dropping more tonnage on Syria and Iraq. To side too early with either Erdogan or the coup might've prejudiced the eventual victor's disposition and eliminated the White House's go-to option in the event of a domestic catastrophe.
So Obama played it cool, but there's still a very big problem. Or let's put it like this: Let's say Erdogan and the AKP are making it up on the fly, as some regional conspiracy theorists seem to believe, and that Ankara is just hanging the coup on Gulen because it's a matter of convenience. Why not stick it to the preacher in the Poconos? Because that means that Erdogan has put the United States and Turkey on a collision course. Maybe Erdogan is so arrogant he intended to forge a rupture with the leader of the free world. But given his problems in the region—a war at home with the PKK, a war in Syria that has flooded Turkey with nearly three million refugees, trouble with Iran and Russia, and barely renewed relations with Israel—it seems unlikely he sought to further isolate Turkey by setting it against NATO's prime force.
If Gulen really is responsible, then the United States is hosting the man who engineered the coup against the government of Turkey and shed blood in the streets of Turkish cities.