July 19, 2016 | Foreign Policy

Notes on a Failed Coup

For your consideration, several observations regarding Turkey’s failed coup:

By any measure, the incompetence of the coup plotters was simply flabbergasting. They failed to heed virtually all the basic rules of successful coups. How could arresting the head of state and head of government not have been at the top of their list of things to do? Ditto for shutting down and controlling the major means of communication? Instead President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim were left free to broadcast calls for mass resistance that tens of thousands of their followers heeded. Absolutely stunning stupidity that almost defies belief — especially for a military that’s supposed to know a thing or two about making coups. Little wonder that conspiracy theories claiming that Erdogan staged it all to justify a massive crackdown on his opponents have gained traction in Turkey.

Erdogan will exploit the crisis to crush all opposition to his rule. Cui Bono? You don’t have to believe in conspiracy theories to see how the failed coup will now be used as an excuse to advance Erdogan’s dictatorial ambitions. For much of the last decade, he’s been embarked on an accelerating campaign to attack his domestic opponents and eviscerate the institutions of Turkish democracy and civil society. He’s systematically abused the powers of the state in an effort to eliminate all possible sources of challenge. The tragicomic nature of Friday night’s botched coup might indeed be evidence of just how successful he’s been when it comes to the Turkish military. Already, some 6,000 suspected conspirators have been reportedly rounded up, including almost 3,000 members of the judiciary, whose links to the coup are far from evident at first blush. It’s hard not to believe that Erdogan has been keeping a very long list of enemies — both real and imagined — in his desk drawer, to be dealt with in precisely a moment of crisis like this. An extended witch hunt has probably just begun.

There is a real danger that the failed coup could turn into a crisis between Turkey and the United States. At the top of Erdogan’s list of enemies is Fethullah Gulen, an aging cleric who sought asylum in the United States 17 years ago and lives in seclusion in rural Pennsylvania. Only recently, Gulen’s followers in Turkey were loyal co-conspirators in Erdogan’s efforts to bring the Turkish military to heel with a series of show trials that were based in no small part on manufactured evidence. Hundreds of officers and their alleged civilian allies in the so-called “deep state” — including businessmen, journalists, and academics — were hounded, imprisoned, and persecuted. With that job done, however, it wasn’t long before Erdogan, exhibiting the hyper-paranoia of any good mafia boss, set his sights on the destruction of the Gulenists as well. In the coup’s aftermath, Erdogan lost no time blaming Gulen and demanding that the United States extradite him to be tried for treason. In a thinly veiled threat, Yildirim suggested that any country that stands with Gulen now is no friend of Turkey and, indeed, will be considered at war with it. Turkey’s minister of labor went a step further by alleging that the United States was behind the coup because it harbored Gulen. While pledging to review any compelling evidence against Gulen that Turkey presented, Secretary of State John Kerry rightly warned that such outlandish allegations were “utterly false” and harmful to U.S.-Turkish relations.

The question is not whether America’s war against the Islamic State will be hurt, but how badly. Turkey has for two years been an incredibly ambivalent wartime partner. Until very recently, Erdogan turned a blind eye to the flood of foreign jihadists that flowed through Turkey to do battle against the Syrian regime, swelling the ranks (and treasury) of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Despite having the second-largest army in NATO and sharing a direct border with Syria, Turkey’s military has been largely a non-factor in the war. It certainly hasn’t pulled its weight. Things can only get worse in the wake of the coup and the shit storm that is about to rain down on the Turkish military. The purges will be severe and the impact on the institution’s already low morale and declining capabilities could be devastating. Forget about the possibility of being able to conduct meaningful offensive operations against the Islamic State. A more relevant question is how much more vulnerable Turkey’s forthcoming internal convulsions will make it to the intensifying terrorist campaign that the Islamic State and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) have been waging for the past year.

A separate issue concerns U.S. access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, a crucial staging ground for America’s air war against the Islamic State. In the absence of any sustained Turkish military operations, the use of Incirlik by U.S. fighter jets has far and away been Turkey’s most useful contribution to the war effort — though it bears reminding that Erdogan delayed for a year before granting his approval. After the foiled coup, Turkey very briefly shut down operations at Incirlik, cut off electricity to the base, and arrested its commander for allegedly being one of the plotters. While U.S. air operations subsequently re-commenced, there is a serious concern that Erdogan will decide to use America’s access as leverage in his effort to coerce Gulen’s extradition. Being evicted from Incirlik, it goes without saying, would be a major blow to the U.S. campaign in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps even worse, it would trigger a historic crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations and send destabilizing reverberations across an already deeply troubled region.

John Hannah is a Senior Counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.