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Choreographed Putsch: Turkey at a Crossroads

By Makhan Saikia

06 August 2016

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s concerted bid to do away with his opponents in the garb of purging putschists will do more harm to the till-now most liberal Muslim country. As the futile efforts will confine Erdogan’s energy to saving his throne, Russia, Iran and Syrian President Assad will be prime beneficiaries of the imminent internal turmoil in Turkey

The July 15 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t only failed miserably, but it seems to have given the embattled President a chance to get rid of hurdles to his ambition to prolong his stay in power. Seen in this perspective, the Turkish strongman grabbed the opportunity to deliver a fiery speech just hours after returning to Istanbul to reclaim his power. It was historically significant, many Turkey observers say, as it egged on his supporters to throw their weight behind him. Erdogan declared, “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” This very speech rightly reflects his desire to “mercilessly” purge the putschists mainly emerging from the country’s most trusted pillar of administration i.e. the army.

He has shown his intention to cleanse the army in the name of God. With this kind of politico-religious pronouncements, he has cleverly sided with the conservatives of the country so that it becomes easier for him to remain in power, albeit with the backing of the Islamists. The reverberations coming from the post-putsch political scenario were very much in line with an attempt by Erdogan to forge stronger ties with hardliners. Gone are days of the divine rights of rulers, but Erdogan shows incessant desire to prolong his stay in power by justifying the elimination of the coup makers. However, it is unfortunate that the ruler of the most modern Muslim-majority country is seeking to strengthen his hold on power in the name of Islam as if he has received a command from Allah to do away with the rebel soldiers.

Arguably, his sadistic effort to mix the strength of both the Islamists and the nationalists is more surprising while countering the rebels. This will not only confuse the Turkish people but also the neighbours who are closely watching the unfolding of the coup drama in the country. The more and more he whips up his bitter sweet alliance with the Islamists and the nationalists, he would surely contribute to the fault lines already prevalent in the country on ethnic and sectarian lines. In order to keep the Islamists in good humour, Erdogan is even willing to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 as a part of reforms needed for beginning the process to gain the European Union (EU) membership. His uncompromising approach to handle his opponents will have profound negative implications on Turkey’s domestic politics, national security and foreign policy in the coming days. His endorsement of the death penalty might signal Turkey’s already non-existent EU accession prospects and a more troubled relationship with the European nations.

Also his pounding on the rebels has already generated enough concern in all the developed countries, particularly in the US and in the EU. Before the coup, he was a trusted partner of the US and NATO to handle the recalcitrant members of the US-led anti-ISIS forces in Syria. Simultaneously, he is also protesting against the US cooperation with the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish fighters targeting the ISIS in northern Syria. But in the post-coup scenario, Erdogan will have more compulsions and he could probably become more disagreeable to the US mission in Syria.

Erdogan’s disagreeability might extend to Turkey’s deal with the EU to prevent the Syrian war refugees across the Aegean Sea and Greece into the heartland of Europe. His cooperation looks increasingly unsustainable and he will draw more flak from the members of the EU. A pugnacious Erdogan may rightly utilise the forthcoming EU refusal to abolish visas for Turkish citizens to the Schengen zone by the October end to demand more concessions from Europe. This may be more damaging for Turkey. His rapprochement with Israel and Russia may indicate that he will prefer muscular diplomacy to diplomatic niceties even at the cost of the interests of his nation.

The level of dialogue and momentous political solidarity displayed by almost all political parties on the event of the putsch must be appreciated by the global community. This rightly brings home the fact that no one in Turkey, say the majority of the people, ever would support a coup. Even the free media, which Erdogan despises the most, too straightway denounced the plotters. This unique opportunity should have been seized by Erdogan in a country which is currently riven by growing terrorist violence and huge political rift created and widened by his autocratic mode of running the Government for years. But Erdogan has squandered this golden opportunity for strengthening a much needed political unity to fight two big terror elements for them — Kurdish PKK and the more menacing ISIS.

The most disheartening and damaging impact of the coup would be borne by the armed forces of the nation. Though a section of the armed forces were involved in the putsch, hollering the forces in public will obviously do an incalculable loss to the morale of the army as an institution. Regaining army’s trust may turn out to be an extremely difficult task. The NATO partners of Turkey fear that the persecution of senior military officials has the potential to lessen the capacity to prevent the threat posed by the ISIS and other terrorist organisations both within and outside Turkey. Further, the humiliation meted out to the army may cost Erdogan heavily as its role in guarding the most porous border with Syria and Iraq may not be downplayed by any sensible Turkish citizens.

So far the Turkish authorities have incarcerated almost about one-third of Turkey’s senior military officials apart from thousands of police and intelligence personnel. It is realised that this is regarded as a major loss of expertise and institutional memory at a time when Turkey demands a heightened security against ISIS across the country. Erdogan has, in fact, never trusted the military and he viewed it as a challenge to his insatiable ambitions. Whether Erdogan needs the military or not, the very foundation of Turkey is intrinsically linked to the survival of a secular and professional military.

Erdogan’s hidden agenda to perpetuate the “elected Sultanate” has come to light this time in a more vigorous way. But his ambition to legitimise the de facto executive presidency was quite often highlighted in his public speeches. In one such speech made in August 2015, he had said, “There is a President with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one. The President should conduct his duties for the nation directly but within his authority. Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the Constitution.” Unfortunately, his AKP party did not have the numbers for the constitutional amendment to fulfil Erdogan's wishes. As per the current constitutional system, the AKP needs at least 330 seats for bringing into an executive presidency, but Erdogan has only 317 members. Further the three Opposition parties — the main Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party, and the pro-Kurdish HDP — are in no way going to support the AKP for such a crucial amendment of the country’s Constitution.

Finally the moot point is: who benefits in the post-coup atmosphere in Turkey? Obviously, Erdogan first, but not in the long run. This crackdown on both real and imagined enemies and opponents has brought such a situation that Turkey will be convulsed and self-absorbed by massive internal political machinations in the foreseeable future. This will force Erdogan to concentrate more on home affairs to save his throne than to deploying resources to overthrow the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, Russia, Iran and particularly Assad will be prime beneficiaries of the Turkish putsch. And the Sunni rebels are the biggest losers; those who are fighting a dying battle to end the Assad rule in Syria. Equally the Syrian Kurds will find it little easier to expand their quasi-autonomous region along the Turkey-Syria border to commensurate with Erdogan’s receding influence in the civil war in Syria.

Though he has put the entire blame on his former ally-turned-bitter-enemy Fethullah Gullen —  who is currently based in the US — of plotting against him, he has taken this opportunity to purge his enemies is well-known. Thus the Turkish Government has sent the US a request for the extradition of Gullen, who runs an organisation called Hizmet. It is unlikely that the US will accept his extradition. The attempted coup collapsed before it even started. It can safely be said that there was not much support generated from the military and it was an amateurish effort.

Turkey is at a crossroads. It is time now for a change and revert to the liberal and secular Turkey minus Erdogan. With him, the country may struggle to breathe freedom and surely liberals will have a long road to preach progress and prosperity. The people of Turkey have very little choice: either they continue with the present dark days of the smoldering civil war and the threat to terrorism or else replace insanity with wisdom at the earliest. But, both cannot run on equal footing under the hawkish Erdogan.

Makhan Saikia is Senior Editor, The Pioneer