Post-Coup Purge Adds to Turkey's Instability

By Gönül Tol | Director for Turkish Studies - The Middle East Institute | Jul 21, 2016
Post-Coup Purge Adds to Turkey's Instability

Turkey is a country of ironies. A president who has called Twitter “the worst menace to society” and frequently expressed his “hatred” of the Internet, used both to prevent the coup against his rule when he called on his followers to take to the streets using Twitter and Facetime. The first TV network he called to reach out to his followers was CNN Turk, a channel he repeatedly accused of “terrorism propaganda” and “supporting coup against his government” and that has been the target of physical attacks by pro-Erdogan supporters. Then we saw the disturbing images of soldiers, who have almost been sanctified by the Turkish people, firing on civilians. Those who were considered ‘guardians of Turkish democracy’ were being stripped, humiliated and beaten up while violent mobs were sanctioned “heroes of democracy” by the president.

Now the country is celebrating the crushing of the military coup while the government is embarked on a civilian coup in an attempt to “protect democracy”; firing tens of thousands of employees from the education and interiors ministries; shutting down media outlets deemed to be close to the Gulenists and critical of the government; requesting the resignation of 1,000 university deans; and suspending or detaining close to 35,000 soldiers, police and judges.

Only a few days after the coup failed, the grim reality has already set in. The fact that the coup has been averted does not mean that democracy will prevail. The government’s efforts to “protect democracy” are laying the foundations for an even more authoritarian Turkey. The president’s decision to “cleanse all state institutions of state enemies” carries the risk of rendering the country even more vulnerable to attacks from its internal and external foes.

The number of people being sacked and arrested has sparked concerns that this is not a purge of plotters, but a purge of opposition supporters. This will increase social tension and polarization, and radicalize those segments of society who have been victimized by the government’s purge. As the pro-Erdogan camp grows stronger and more intent on marginalizing the rest of society, the anti-Erdogan camp will become more vengeful and less trustful of democracy. This does not bode well for a country where democratic culture has already had difficulty taking root.

Erdogan just declared a state of emergency for three months, which will be used by the government to curb basic freedoms, step up the crackdown on media and opposition, and bypass the parliament in major decisions. States of emergencies have had long-term effects on Turkish politics and society. The state of emergency rule imposed in the southeast of the country in 1987 allowed officials to set curfews, issue search and arrest warrants, restrict basic rights and liberties and pass laws that are not easy to change. The emergency rule that was imposed in 1987 could was only gradually lifted in 2002.

The government’s decision to impose emergency law takes the country back to the dark years and practices of past military coups. It does not move Turkish democracy forward as claimed by the government. The unprecedented level of purges in all state institutions raises questions about the future effectiveness of these institutions. In a country which borders Syria, faces multiple terror threats domestically and regionally, and is a key Western ally in the fight against the Islamic State, detaining or suspending 35,000 soldiers, police and judges is too risky of a move to take. Many of those high-ranking military officers who were arrested due to their alleged involvement in the coup attempt are those who were leading operations against the P.K.K. and ISIS, and praised by the government for their successes in confronting these groups.

It might take years to replace the military officers who have been purged in the military and the police force. In an interview with Turkish television, former chief of staff Necdet Ozel said it took 3-5 years to rebuild the military after the Ergenekon cases, which sent hundreds of Turkish Armed Forces members to jail. Replacing thousands of military officers and members of the police poses an even greater challenge.

Another factor that is likely to deal a blow to security operations is the potential slow down in the decision-making process. The coup attempt and the ensuing purge are likely to make members of the military and the police force more cautious and reluctant to take initiative without firm approval from the government. This is likely to make these institutions less effective in responding to imminent threats. The National Intelligence Organization’s (M.I.T.) preoccupation with Gulenists and the coup plotters will divert resources from the fight against the P.K.K. and ISIS. At a time when the country is embroiled in a war against the P.K.K. and ISIS, weakening the security establishment renders the country more vulnerable than ever to attacks from these groups.

Turkey has already been going through tough times in the realm of foreign policy. Tougher days are ahead. Turkey’s democratic failings have already strained ties with the European Union. If Ankara reinstates the death penalty, Turkey-E.U. relations will hit a new low. The tension between Ankara and Washington due to the latter’s cooperation with the P.Y.D. is likely to reach new heights if the United States refuses to bow to Turkey’s demand to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who has been in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Turkey might use the Incirlik air-base as leverage against Washington, but lacking firm proof of Gulen’s involvement in the coup, the United States is unlikely to extradite Gulen. Washington might choose a middle ground by deporting Gulen to a third country, but such a step will not allay the anti-Americanism that has reached new heights in Turkey, especially among A.K.P. supporters, after the coup attempt. The Turkish labor minister even suggested that the United States was behind the coup. The participation of units at the Incirlik airbase in the coup attempt fuels these suspicions.

From the U.S. perspective, the coup plotters’s capture of the Incirlik airbase and disruption of anti-ISIS operations from the base raises questions about the security of U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Incirlik. This might prompt a reevaluation of U.S. operations from Incirlik and the deployment of nuclear weapons there.

The military coup might have been averted and the government might be in control, but a key NATO ally’s security and stability are more threatened than ever with weakened institutions, an enfeebled security apparatus, and a ruler who is ready to do anything to consolidate his power and wipe out his opponents.