The failed coup has put the country on a new course, with profound implications for the Middle East and beyond, writes Justin Huggler
For a few hours on the night of 15 July, it looked as if the fires of civil war had been lit in Turkey. F-16 aircraft bombed the parliament building, helicopter gunships attacked the police headquarters, and soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians on the Bosporus Bridge that links Europe and Asia in Istanbul. Turkey has suffered coups d’état before, but none as bloody.
Since the smoke cleared the following morning and it became apparent that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was still in control, international attention has focused on the crackdown against his opponents and implications for Turkey’s future relations with the West. But all the signs are that the consequences may be much more far-reaching in Asia – both inside Turkey, and for its neighbours to the south and the east.
It is no exaggeration to say that the failed coup attempt in Turkey may prove decisive to the outcome of the Syrian civil war, and to the international fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
But in the wake of the coup attempt Erdogan has been thrust into the embrace of Russia, the Assad regime’s main backer. The fallout has also prompted a thaw in relations with Turkey’s historic regional rival, Iran, and may cause a lasting fracture in its alliance with Saudi Arabia –the two other key players in the Syria conflict.
At home, Turkey is changed utterly. The failed coup may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the secularist society founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The military that prided itself on being secularism’s last bastion has been humiliated, its generals arrested, its soldiers stripped and literally stepped on by Erdogan’s supporters. Religious ‘democracy watch’ rallies are now held regularly across the country, and secularists are said to be nervous of leaving their homes.
‘The streets are now dominated, for the first time in 107 years, by Islamists,’ Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute, has written. ‘That’s a very shocking development. It will be a while before the opposition regroups and shows itself on the street.’ Erdogan has called the attempted coup a ‘gift from God’, and there now seems little to prevent him completing his religio-political transformation of Turkey into an Islamist society.
Much about the coup itself remains opaque – not least who was really behind it. From what has emerged, it appears it was not backed by the entire military, but by a faction within it that included around a fifth of senior generals. The air force and gendarmerie appear to have been particularly heavily involved.
The attempted takeover looks to have been bungled from the start – in part because Turkish intelligence uncovered the plot and, fearing discovery, the coup leaders rushed into acting too early. This meant they launched the putsch at 10pm, when people were still awake, rather than in the middle of the night.
Part of the plan was to assassinate Erdogan, who was on holiday in the resort of Marmaris, but he was tipped off by intelligence and escaped from the hotel just 15 minutes before his would-be killers arrived. The plotters failed to allow for modernity: they took over state-run television, but neglected to stop private channels broadcasting. This allowed Erdogan, on the run from his assassins, to go live on air via a shaky mobile phone video, and call for the people’s support.
At this point, something else crucial happened. The government issued an order to mosques across the country to use minaret loudspeakers to call the people onto the streets to resist the coup. From this point, the defence of democracy became inseparable from religion.
In 1997, Erdogan was jailed by Turkey’s secular authorities for reciting a poem that included the verse: ‘The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.’ Twenty years on, the failed coup allowed him to make the words of the poem into fact, as crowds poured onto the streets at the urging of the muezzins. The plot gave him the opportunity to complete the revolution in Turkish society he had begun.
Some rebel soldiers opened fire on the unarmed protestors, but they were overwhelmed by the masses pouring onto the streets, together with the armed police and loyalist factions of the military. The plotters made one more unexplained error: at the height of the crisis, Erdogan returned to Istanbul by private plane, and a rebel air force jet reportedly had his aircraft in its sights. But it did not open fire.
Some 240 people died that night, the majority of them civilians, and more than 3,000 were injured, which goes some way to explaining the popular anger in Turkey at foreign criticism of Erdogan’s crackdown on those he says were responsible. It was also the first time the Turkish people have successfully defended a democratically-elected government against a full-blooded military coup.
Relations have soured over the US’s refusal to extradite the man Erdogan claims was behind the coup: Fethullah Gülen, an elderly Muslim cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Gülen, who denies the accusation, is the leader of a religious movement that runs schools, charities and businesses in 100 countries. He and Erdogan were once allies in the bid to make Turkey an Islamist country, but they split in 2013; the aftermath of the coup has become the final act in their rivalry. Supporters of Gülen were embedded at every level of Turkish society, and the purge of alleged Gülenists has so far seen more than 40,000 people detained, including 134 generals and admirals, and nearly 50,000 stripped of their passports. Universities and schools have been closed, as have newspapers. Tens of thousands of civil servants have been dismissed.
It is hard to determine the truth of the claims that Gülen planned the coup. Many of the officers involved have confessed to being Gülenists; Gen Hulusi Akar, the loyalist chief of staff, has claimed he was offered a chance to speak to Gülen by phone while being held by rebel officers during the coup.
James Clapper, the US national intelligence director, told the Washington Post the claims did not pass the ‘smell test of credibility’. One Turkish newspaper has claimed the US was itself behind the coup and the plan to assassinate Erdogan.
With Turkey’s relations with the West strained, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has stepped into the breach. In a pointed message to Turkey’s NATO allies, Erdogan was received in Moscow as a valued ally in his first trip abroad since the coup. There have been reports it was Russia and Iran who tipped off Turkish intelligence about the coup plot – Russia after its listening stations in Syria intercepted Turkish military communications. Whatever the truth of that, Russia and Iran were both quick to condemn the coup and side with Erdogan, while the US and its European allies appeared to hedge their bets, waiting to see who came out on top.
Erdogan had already begun the process of rapprochement with Russia. Less than three weeks before the coup, he apologised for Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet fighter last year in a personal letter to Putin. He had also begun to reach out to Iran. While the motives behind the coup remain far from clear, the timing is intriguing. Most striking of all, just two days before the coup Erdogan’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, suggested Turkey could even make peace with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Only Iran has so far suggested a link to the coup, and that was in a claim it was orchestrated by Western intelligence agencies.
Although Erdogan had already opened the channels of communication, it is clear the events of 15 July have pushed Turkey more firmly into Russia’s embrace. This realignment could change everything in Syria and the wider Middle East. The Syrian civil war has been the stage for a struggle for control of the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia. It has also been a proxy war between the leading Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, and the Shia, Iran.
Against this backdrop, Turkey chose to play the same role Pakistan did in Afghanistan before 2001. Seeking strategic depth in a region it regards as its hinterland, it has acted as a conduit to channel fighters and weapons to rebel groups, just as Pakistan once did to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And not only to the ‘legitimate’ rebels Erdogan publicly backs. He also forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia to provide support to the jihadists, and it is an open secret that Turkey, and in particular the border town of Gaziantep, is the preferred route for volunteers travelling to join ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Turkish border guards long turned a blind eye, and the bodies of ISIS fighters recovered from the battlefield in Syria routinely have Turkish stamps in their passports. The jihadists use Western Union offices in Turkey to receive cash, and Turkish mobile phones to call home.
Just as Pakistan did, Turkey has suffered ‘blowback’ from its support for the jihadists. In the aftermath of the coup, it has largely been forgotten that just two weeks before, ISIS carried out an attack at Istanbul airport that left 45 people dead and more than 230 injured.
And Turkey’s strategic ambitions have suffered since Russia’s entry into the conflict. Advances by Kurdish rebel groups in the north have left them in control of a large area – and there is nothing that more unsettles Turkey, with its large and restive Kurdish minority, than the threat of a Kurdish enclave on its southern border.
All the signs are that Erdogan has been looking to extricate himself from the mess of his Syrian policy, and his new friends in Russia and Iran may provide the opportunity. His Saudi allies of convenience were muted in their condemnation of the coup. A Turkish realignment could rob the Saudis of a conduit to Syria, and decisively alter the balance of the conflict, in favour of the Assad regime.
Erdogan was long Assad’s most implacable critic, insisting that he had to go. Now, though, looking to consolidate his own position at home, and with the commanders of most of the Turkish’s military’s combat units on the Syrian border reportedly in prison, he may decide he can live with Assad after all.
Justin Huggler was Istanbul correspondent of The Independent from 1998 to 2000, and reported on the Gezi Park protests in 2013. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, The Burden of the Desert, set in occupied Baghdad, was published by Short Books in 2014