During the early hours of the 16th July, 2016, an attempted military coup took place in Turkey. The coup attempt, which eventually failed, began with the Turkish army taking over the building of state broadcaster TRT as well as several other important government buildings in the Turkish capital city of Ankara. The army also concurrently seized control of bridges in Istanbul. With state media temporarily in the hands of the army, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to mobile online media to call on his supporters and the police to resist the coup. Erdogan’s supporters and the police quickly responded, mobilising against the coup. By mid-morning, the coup attempted had been effectively stopped, with hundreds of deaths and nearly 2000 people being injured in the process.
In the aftermath of the coup, President Erdogan has quickly arrested thousands of soldiers, generals, judges and government workers involved with the coup. Thousands more in government positions have lost their jobs for their involvement. There has also been speculation that Erdogan has been considering re-introducing the death penalty for those found to have been involved in the coup attempt. The speed in which the arrests and sackings have taken place have led some pundits and commentators to suggest that the coup was orchestrated or at least encouraged by Erdogan as a means of further consolidating power.
There is some merit to this view. Ever since Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) took office in 2002, Turkey has drifted from being a relatively secular democracy to an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist state. In the last few years in particular, free speech and expression has been increasingly restricted in Turkish society, with social media access being intermittently cut off and media outlets such as The Daily Sabah being taken over by the government. The increasing slide towards Islamist authoritarianism and against secularism bears more than a passing resemblance to Iran in 1979. In that situation, Iran went through an Islamic revolution which removed a secular monarchist leadership. Though Erdogan has not removed a sitting government, by purging the secular military, one of Turkey’s few remaining independent institutions, he may take Turkey towards an entirely authoritarian, Islamist nation.
Unlike most other nations, the Turkish army is a separate entity from the government. This is an arrangement that has been in place for nearly a century, since the end of World War One. The founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, set up the army as a means of safeguarding Turkey’s secular society as envisioned by Ataturk and was kept separate as a means of keeping the government of the day in check. Before the last attempted coup on the 16th July, Turkey had survived five previous coup attempts. As was the case in the latest attempt, the coups arose as a response to Turkey drifting from a secular state as Ataturk had envisioned into a more fundamentalist Islamic state, the type of which Erdogan has presided over during his reign as President.
The failed coup and its aftermath has widespread ramifications. Firstly, Turkey’s position as a NATO member is put into serious doubt. US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned as such, stating that Turkey needed to stay committed to ‘democratic principles’ in the wake of the attempted coup. Any future bid for Turkey to join the European Union is also far less likely in the wake of the attempted coup. The crackdown on the army, particularly its more secular elements also raises questions about Turkey’s reliability as a partner in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, argues that the coup raises questions about Turkey’s viability as an effective partner in the fight against ISIS. The current political instability in Turkey and the uncertainty about its security situation also complicates NATO efforts against ISIS. The use of key military bases is a primary concern. Bases such as Incirlik, which are close to the Syrian border are key to current efforts against ISIS. Another key split between Turkey and especially the United States is the Kurdish question. The Kurds and their fighting force, the Peshmerga, despite lacking equipment or the structure of a formal state, have been arguably the most important ground-based fighting force against ISIS. Despite this, Turkey views Kurdish groups such as the Peshmerga and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) as both being terrorist organisations, in contrast to the United States, who see only the PKK as a terrorist organisation and the Peshmerga as a key ally. The latest coup attempt, Erdogan’s reaction and further slide into authoritarianism look set to only exacerbate these concerns, to the detriment of regional stability and security.