The military’s poorly planned and executed attempt to take down the Turkish president may put an end to its status as the only institution that could check Erdogan’s power.

People chant slogans during a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim square, July 16, 2016. Photo: AP

One major unresolved question surrounding the failed coup that took place in Turkey on the night of July 15 is why the Turkish military chose to take such an action, and, following from that, why did they decide to act now. The decision to go ahead with the coup attempt, despite clear lack of preparation and coordination, will undoubtedly leave the military in a weaker position than before as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses the events as a reason to further consolidate power.  

Certainly the Turkish army has every reason to be unhappy with the current policies of the government, both at home and abroad. Military representatives have not hidden their disapproval of Ankara’s policies vis-à-vis the Kurds. The army has long insisted that military operations will not bring any tangible results unless political authorities are ready to take steps towards finding a solution with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist movement that is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the EU and Turkey.

The government’s policies towards the Kurds have also complicated Turkey’s relationship with the U.S., much to the irritation of the military brass. Ankara so far has been unable to persuade Washington to give up its support of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish political group that allegedly has close ties to the PKK. The disagreement over the PYD has made it harder for the U.S. and Turkey to agree on an approach to the Syrian conflict.

The military also is unhappy with the government’s policies towards Syria; the Turkish army generally opposes any official support provided by the authorities to the Islamist factions within the Syrian opposition.

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The role of Gulen

Military officials have also been put off by the ongoing purges of the ranks directed against supporters of the influential religious preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is now living in exile in the United States. In the early 2000s, Gulen’s supporters were actively trying to infiltrate the military, with the assistance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP was interested in spreading its influence within the army, increasing the number of soldiers who adhered to its religious worldview in an attempt to counter-balance the military’s traditionally strongly secular position, but the rising tensions between Erdogan and Gulen effectively ended the alliance. The Gulenists allegedly organized a corruption scandal against Erdogan supporters in late 2013, which Erdogan followed with mass arrests of Gulenists.

According to the Turkish media, it was this ongoing conflict between Gulen and Erdogan that precipitated the failed coup. On July 15, the government reportedly was planning to carry out a large-scale campaign of arrests directed against the Gulenists within the security apparatus and judicial bodies. The failed coup attempt therefore could be considered a preventative measure by Gulen’s supporters.

Did the authorities know? 

The way the coup was carried out reveals that its perpetrators didn’t have a particularly well-organized plan. The Turkish military has carried out a number of previous coups — in 1960, 1971 and 1980 — and in each of those cases, the organizers focused on shutting down communication facilities and removing leading political figures. More importantly, the officers behind the previous coups enjoyed support both among the top brass of the Turkish army and within Turkish society. This was not the case on July 15. The perpetrators did not shut down the internet; they did not capture or kill any political figures or officers; and they failed miserably at winning public support.

The rapid pace of events, lack of any real plan and a number of inconsistencies led to rumors and conspiracy theories related to the masterminds of the failed coup. Some skeptics even went so far as to say that the authorities had to have known about the plans.

Turkey’s security and national intelligence operations have been on high alert for at least the past two years due to an increased number of terrorist attacks and the flow of fighters through the country into Syria. It seems impossible to believe that Turkish intelligence could have failed to spot strange behavior within the military. Moreover, the military has been under increased scrutiny since the early 2000s due to the ongoing trials and investigations related to the Ergenekon case, in which nearly 300 people have been accused of backing a secret secularist movement to overthrow the government. Finally, as noted above, the conflict between Erdogan and Gulen has already resulted in the arrests of a number of Gulenists within the military establishment.

What comes next?

Whether or not the coup failed because the authorities knew in advance, it is clear that the attempt will only make life worse for the military. The failed coup will certainly be used as a pretext to unleash further purges within the ranks of the Turkish army, and Erdogan will be able to tighten his control over the military, which up to now was the only real independent force capable of restraining Erdogan’s growing ambitions.

Erdogan made his next steps clear in his address in the midst of the failed coup, in which he declared the attempt “a gift from God to further cleanse the army.” But such actions may have far-ranging and dangerous consequences for Turkey. Suppression of the army as a political player may mean that in the long run, Erdogan will be unrestricted in his ambitions, both in building an authoritarian regime in Turkey and in carrying out a reckless foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. A weakened military could also lead to more security failures within Turkey’s borders.

Also read: "Who is behind the failed coup attempt in Turkey?"

Erdogan will capitalize on the social mandate given to him by large-scale protests of ordinary people against the military’s actions to secure his grip on all the political institutions of the Turkish state. Unsurprisingly, several hours after the coup was suppressed, official media reported the decision to arrest more than 2,000 judges affiliated with Gulen.

Finally, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party will use the failed coup as a propaganda tool within the ongoing political debates on the new constitution. Erdogan will try to present the coup attempt as a further argument for political centralization and introduction of a system in which even more power is concentrated in the office of the president.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.