In this startling essay on the attempted coup in Turkey, FPRI senior fellow and prize-wining Princeton historian Michael Reynolds shakes up the way we think about Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Fethullah Gülen, and the United States. He tells a tale of intra-Islamist intrigue in which a Turkish imam based in the Poconos allied himself with Erdoğan as part of a decades-long effort to capture the Turkish state from within. After having first neutralized their common opponents in the secular establishment through sham trials, the imam took on Erdoğan in a struggle that perhaps reached its denouement in the attempted coup of 15 July.
With the rule of law in shambles and social trust in tatters, Turkish democracy and stability are in grave condition. By obliging Gülen and permitting him to reside in America, not only did Washington fail to promote democracy, Reynolds concludes, it may have actually helped to subvert and weaken—however inadvertently—the most important democracy in the Middle East.
On July 15, 2016, elements of the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to overthrow the elected government of Turkey and to capture or kill its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Calling themselves the “Council for Peace at Home” (Yurtta Sulh Konseyi), the mutineers moved into action just after 10:00 pm. They deployed tanks and infantry on key bridges in Istanbul; seized the state television channel TRT; took the chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Hulusi Akar, hostage in Ankara; dispatched a unit to hunt down Turkey’s president in the resort town of Marmaris; and employed fighter jets and attack helicopters to strike government targets, including the Turkish Parliament, the Special Operations Command, the General Security Directorate, and the headquarters of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, among others.
The rebels failed, however, to paralyze the government or Turkish society, and opposition swiftly emerged. Just a little over an hour after the operation began, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım appeared on television to inform the Turkish public that some sort of illegal intervention was underway and would be resisted. General Akar’s steadfast refusal to go along with the mutiny blocked the rebels from securing the passive support of the armed forces, and some loyal units in the armed forces and the police resisted outright. At roughly half past midnight, a visibly shaken but coherent President Erdoğan spoke through a smart phone on live television as he flew to Istanbul and called on the Turkish people to pour into the streets in protest against the putsch. The state Directorate of Religion played a notable role in this effort to rally support for the government by instructing Turkey’s 110,000 imams to use their minarets to broadcast a rarely used prayer to galvanize resistance to the putsch. Indeed, the notion of defending Islam motivated many, probably most, of those in the streets although it should be noted that opposition to the coup attempt spanned virtually the entirety of Turkey’s otherwise fractious political spectrum.
Loyal units ultimately suppressed the coup attempt, but not before much blood had been shed. Fighting lasted over the course of several hours and resulted in the deaths of 272 people, including 171 civilians, 63 police officers, 4 soldiers, and 34 rebels. Government authorities arrested or detained 17,184 military personnel, 6,066 police officers, 4,757 prosecutors, and 782 civilians. That this failed putsch amounted to a critical episode in Turkish history goes without saying. At the same time, by reflexively framing the mutiny within the Turkish Republic’s long history of military interventions—the country witnessed four successful military interventions between 1960 and 1997—analysts in the United States and elsewhere have greatly underestimated its significance for Turkey, its neighbors, and the U.S. The defeat of the putsch gives cause for only modest relief. Contrary to what many early accounts in the West intimated, the plotters mobilized over ten thousand armed men and demonstrated a chilling willingness to kill for their cause by opening fire on crowds, executing resisters, and mounting air strikes with jet fighters and attack helicopters on multiple targets. They were nothing like the feeble-hearted Communists who mounted a putsch against Gorbachev twenty-five years ago. Nor, however, was the Turkish population willing this time to sit passively. Tens of thousands took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. They were predominantly men, and, as noted above, they more often than not steeled themselves with a vision of religious struggle. Thus, had the mutineers succeeded in capturing or killing Erdoğan, winning over the Turkish military, and toppling the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP), the result would not have followed in the pattern of earlier coups in Turkey where a quick consolidation of military rule inaugurates a brief period of military governance followed by a voluntary transition back to democratic civilian governance. Instead, a successful putsch would almost certainly have triggered a civil war, and one that would have likely acquired a religious dimension. Turkey is already embroiled in a chronic and increasingly bitter struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK) and another escalating fight against the Islamic State. Civil war would have converted Turkey from a buffer against refugee flows—Turkey is host to nearly 3 million refugees from Syria alone—to an exporter of refugees, which would have dire consequences for the political stability of a Europe already grappling with a dissolving European Union and surging populism.