Who was Behind the Coup?
When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the Turkish people via FaceTime on the night of July 15, he pointed the finger of blame for the coup attempt squarely at Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the military.
The Gulen movement, organized around the leadership of the Pennsylvania-based cleric, has been known to be a social movement with a secretive and complicated history. Gulenists describe themselves as Hizmet (Service) because of their emphasis on “creating necessary infrastructure (the movement is famous for its extensive transnational network of schools) to reform society.” For years, the movement has touted itself as a civil society organization that aims to “promote education, tolerance, and peace.” Yet, especially in Turkey, people who follow the movement closely have tried to draw attention to its extensive organization inside the state bureaucracy. According to many in Turkey, the Gulenist aim is not solely confined to transforming society; they also pursue a strategy of capturing key positions inside the state bureaucracy to expand their sphere of influence and power. The few people who have studied the Gulen movement point out its strict hierarchy, operative secrecy, and requirement for obedience.
The Gulenists have been accused of large-scale conspiracies and plots before. Both the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials, in which hundreds of civilians and military personnel were arrested on charges of planning to topple the government, have since been viewed as attempts at dismantling the power of the old guard secularists within the military and as being orchestrated by the Gulenists. At that time, Gulenists were allies of Erdogan and the A.K.P.
For years, Erdogan and his supporters have claimed that the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prosecutions were legitimate prosecutions of the remnants of the deep state, a shadowy network of military officers and their civilian allies. This network has been painted as the clandestine defender of the Turkish establishment and the secular and nationalist ideology established by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But evidence now suggests that the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases were fraudulent, built on fabricated evidence to suppress Erdogan’s political opponents. President Erdogan quickly changed his tune when the same prosecutors who targeted the military with fake evidence decided to go after him.
Tensions in the political marriage between Gulenists and the A.K.P. exploded in December of 2013, as Gulen-linked officials raided the homes of dozens of individuals, initiating a ground-shaking corruption scandal that involved Erdogan himself. Erdogan claimed the corruption investigation was a coup attempt and consequently dismissed thousands in the police and judiciary. Shortly after the Gulenist-initiated corruption investigation, Erdogan admitted that the trials against many of the Kemalists in the military were fabrications. Those accused have been acquitted or have had the verdicts against them reversed.
Given their conflicted history, it was a natural reflex for Erdogan to blame the “parallel state,” a term that refers to Gulenists, for Turkey’s most recent coup attempt. But how much are the Gulenists really involved? And who gave the orders to initiate the coup attempt?
As of July 23, more than 10,000 members of the military have been detained in relation to the most recent attempted coup. At least 83 of the highest-ranking officers arrested are brigadier generals or rear admirals, about half of whom were promoted to their rank in 2013 or later. This seems to suggest that, in addition to removing Kemalist and secularist officers from the Turkish Armed Forces (T.S.K.), the Gulenists sought to promote their own to higher-ranking positions by use of the Ergenekon purge. Reportedly, more qualified officers were sidelined for promotion because of investigations against them. Approximately half of the officers in the Naval Forces Command, 24 of the 58, have been implicated in the July 15 coup. Many of these officers were promoted because their competition was shelved in the investigations.
Some of those detained for their roles in the coup are confessing Gulen’s role, providing the names of commanders involved in orchestrating the coup attempt. Photos of abused army officials and reports by human rights groups that some detainees have been subjected to torture and rape raise suspicion about the accuracy of the testimonies. Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar has stated that one of the coup plotters, Brigadier General Hakan Evrim, offered to put him in touch with Fethullah Gulen while he was being held captive. Other evidence pointing toward the Gulenists is mounting. For instance, a captured coup plotter, who had been inside of a tank wearing camouflage, turned out not to be a soldier at all, rather a former police officer who had been fired for having Gulenist ties. Some of the arrested army officials, including the chief military aide to the military’s chief of staff, admitted allegiance to the Gulenist movement in their testimonies.
The coup plotters certainly did not intend to portray themselves as Gulenists. In the first statement made to the public, they referred to themselves as the Peace at Home Council, a clear reference to the republic’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. The council’s listed grievances were far from Gulenist as well, stating that Erdogan had damaged the “secular and democratic state of law.” It is likely that the architects of a Gulen-inspired or ordered coup had calculated that they would receive support from secular and Kemalist members of the military, as well as the public.
The coup itself, which seemed poorly planned during the chaotic aftermath, was pushed forward in time by a few hours at the very least. One idea that has been circulated is that the entire coup operation was moved to July 15 after Gulenist officers began to hear rumors that they would be purged during a Supreme Military Council meeting scheduled for August 1. Reportedly, the National Intelligence Organization (M.I.T.) received information about the coup earlier in the day on the 15th. After becoming aware that they had lost the element of surprise, the plotters launched their operation around six hours earlier than planned.
After the failure of the coup attempt became certain, Fethullah quickly denounced the coup and blamed Erdogan for staging it. However, Erdogan and the Turkish government appear determined to blame Fethullah. Erdogan has asked the United States to extradite Fethullah, who has been living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania since 1999. The United States, on the other hand, has been asking for hard evidence linking Fethullah himself to the failed coup before extraditing the cleric.
When the coup attempt first started to unfold on the night of July 15, different theories about its plotters had circulated, but there is an overall consensus that Gulenists formed the backbone of the coup attempt. However, many argue that the coup plotters were a larger coalition that involved some Kemalist officers and other anti-Erdogan officers. In an interview on CNN Türk after the failed coup, Gen. Ilker Basbug, former Chief of the General Staff of Turkey, said that, besides the Gulenists, there could have been others who were not happy with Erdogan’s rule involved in the coup attempt. Gulenists have had an established presence in the military, but the majority of them have been commissioned since the A.K.P. came to power in 2002 and thus are concentrated in the lower ranks. The sheer number of generals and admirals who were involved in the coup attempt, as well as some of the Kemalist officers’ confessions that they played an active role, supports the claim that this was not a purely Gulenist affair.
The Timeline of Events: What Happened that Day
The coup had been planned for 0400 on Saturday, July 16 but was pushed forward after the M.I.T. received information about the plans at 1600 on July 15. The M.I.T. met with officials at the chief of general staff headquarters, and they moved to bar military units from leaving the base and closed off Turkish air space starting at 1800.
At 2100, pro-coup soldiers approached Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar at the General Staff headquarters. They took Akar hostage and brought him to Akıncılar air base a few hours later. At Akıncılar, plotters attempted to convince Akar to sign off on a pre-prepared statement.
The order for the coup was given around 2130, and it began approximately five-and-a-half hours ahead of schedule. At around 2200, Turkish media began reporting that soldiers had blocked off the two bridges that span the Bosphorus in Istanbul and military jets were flying low over Ankara.
Once the two bridges that span the Bosphorus were seized, events began to unfold rapidly. At around 2200, a helicopter began firing at people outside the General Staff headquarters, and shooting was heard inside the building.
At 2305, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addressed the nation, informing the Turkish people that there was an attempted coup underway. He called it an “illegal act” committed by some groups in the army acting out of the chain of command and stated that it will not be allowed at any cost.
As pro-coup aircraft flew low across the sky, bombing a police special operations center in the Gölbaşı district of southern Ankara and attacking the M.I.T. headquarters, Erdogan departed Marmaris for Istanbul a few minutes after midnight. Erdogan had originally wanted to fly to Ankara, but was persuaded by the First Army Commander Ümit Dündar to fly to Istanbul, where Ümit had pledged to protect Erdogan. At around the same time, pro-coup forces entered the TRT broadcasting center and forced the news anchor to read their declaration.
Roughly 15 minutes later, a few minutes before 0030, Erdogan reached out to a reporter at CNN Türk via FaceTime, who then broadcasted his live call to the world. Erdogan announced that the "military coup will be thwarted," and called on “people to gather in squares [and] airports.” After his call, upon the instruction of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, mosque minarets aired prayers to call people to the streets. At around the same time, special forces raided the hotel in Marmaris in which Erdogan had been a few minutes prior.
At 1257, the Türksat facility, Turkey’s communications satellite operator, in Ankara was bombed. The plotters aimed to cut off broadcasts to the entire nation, but the bombing was unsuccessful.
Pro-coup aircraft continued to attack strategic and significant locations in Ankara, and at roughly 0139, the Parliamentary General Assembly opened an emergency session, with some members of A.K.P., C.H.P. and M.H.P. present. After 0200, resistance to the coup began gaining momentum, as a pro-government F16 shot down a pro-coup helicopter and reports of pro-coup soldiers being detained by police and protestors began coming in.
Shortly before 0300, the parliament building was bombed twice within a few minutes, and the MPs were forced to take cover in the building’s bomb shelter. At 0320 Erdogan successfully landed in Istanbul and addressed the Turkish people again, blaming the Gulenists and saying, “They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”
At 0323, soldiers entered the daily Hürriyet building and stopped CNN Türk broadcasts, hours after Erdogan had used the station to call Turks to the streets.
At 0442, helicopters fired at the hotel in Marmaris where Erdogan had been staying. Pro-coup soldiers then assaulted the hotel, and clashes ensued. A few minutes after 0500, police arrested the soldiers who had interfered in CNN Türk’s broadcasts, and reports of other pro-coup soldiers being arrested began to increase. At 0640, the soldiers occupying the Bosphorus bridge surrendered.
At 0832, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s highest ranking general, was rescued from soldiers attempting to carry out the coup.
It became clear that the coup had lost its momentum and failed, and resistance continued to be mopped up around the country. At 1257, Yildirim declared that the insurrection had been suppressed, and by 1700, an anti-coup declaration, signed by all four parties, was read in parliament.
Throughout the night, civilians and police had been shot at and bombed by pro-coup forces. The Whatsapp messages of putschists, which were widely circulated in the aftermath of the coup attempt, reveal that they gave orders to open fire on civilians. Also, clashes between pro-coup soldiers and pro-government police and military members occurred throughout Ankara and Istanbul. When the sun rose, at least 179 civilians, 62 police officers, 5 soldiers and 24 pro-coup soldiers had been killed. 
How Did the Government Respond?
In the aftermath of the coup attempt, the government began purging those who were suspected of involvement in the coup or of affiliation with the Gulen movement. More than 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants, and teachers have been suspended, detained, or placed under investigation so far. According to numbers provided by the state-run
Anatolian Agency, 45,954 of suspended civil servants are from the Ministry of Education, the stronghold of the Gulen movement. Turkey’s top judicial board suspended 2,745 judges and prosecutors, including 541 from administrative courts and 2,204 from judicial courts. 
As of July 28, 18,044 people have been detained in the wake of the failed coup. More than 9,500 army officials, civil servants, and judges have been arrested, including 143 generals and admirals, 3,168 military officers, 736 military students, 1,181 sergeants, 737 prosecutors, 1,348 judges, 918 police officers, and 825 civil servants. According to the latest statement from the Minister of Interior, as of August 3, the total number of arrests had increased to 13,419. The number of generals arrested, including Former Air Force Commander and member of Supreme Military Council Gen. Akin Öztürk, Second Army Commander Gen. Adem Huduti, and Commander of the 3rd Army Lt. Gen. Erdal Öztürk, is roughly 40 percent of the Turkish army’s generals and admirals.
On July 21, the parliament voted in favor of declaring a state of emergency for three months. Yildirim underlined that “it is not a state of emergency declared against the people but the state itself” in order to “clean terrorist gangs clustered inside the state over the years (…).” The first state of emergency decree extended detention periods to 30 days and ordered closure of several institutions alleged to have connections with the Gulen movement, including 934 schools and 15 universities. The government also banned all academics from leaving the country for academic purposes and cancelled more than 70,000 passports. With a second decree, which was published on July 27, three news agencies, 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 daily newspapers, 15 magazines, and 29 publishing houses were ordered to shut down. Also, prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for 89 journalists, media workers, and executives. Forty-seven of these journalists worked for the daily Zaman newspaper, which was taken over by the trustees in March 2016 due to its affiliation with Gulenists.
One of the primary issues on the table is the restructuring of the army. The government and Erdogan look determined to increase civilian oversight of the army. The second decree, published on June 27, brought the Gendarmerie and the Coast Guard under the full control of the interior ministry. The decree, published before the key Supreme Military Council meeting on July 28, also ordered the discharge of a total of 1,684 soldiers, including 149 generals and admirals. This was the first time that a civilian government ordered such a large number of discharges without consulting the council. The council, which gathered for the first time in the prime minister’s office instead of the headquarters of General Staff, however, did not make any changes to the top echelons of the Turkish army. General Hulusi Akar remained in his position as the Chief of General Staff. General Ümit Dündar, who had an important role in the suppression of the coup attempt, became the General Staff Deputy Chief.
With a new decree published on July 31, the government discharged another 1,389 military personnel. The same decree also ordered the closure of military high schools and replacement of all existing military academies by a National Defense University that will operate under the Ministry of Defense. Also, the civilian-military balance in the Supreme Military Council has been shifted with the dismissal of a number of military officials from the council and their replacement with deputy prime ministers and foreign, justice, and interior ministers. Lastly, the Land Forces, Naval Forces and Air Force commands were brought under the control of the Ministry of Defense. The president also mentioned his desire to bring the intelligence service and the General Staff, which currently report to the prime minister’s office, under the control of the presidency.
On July 25, Erdogan met with the leaders of Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.), Nationalist Movement Party (M.H.P.), and A.K.P. in the Presidential Palace to discuss the measures taken against the coup attempt. This was the first time that opposition leaders, after previously refusing to do so, visited the palace. For now, it looks like the three political parties are united in a common stance against the coup. However, Erdogan’s invitation excluded the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (H.D.P.), which represents five million voters in the parliament and had joined other opposition parties in denouncing the coup attempt. In the evening after the meeting, Yildirim declared that three parties decided to make minor changes in the constitution and that there would be collaboration between political parties to write a new one. On July 29, the government made a decision to send a committee consisting of A.K.P., C.H.P., and M.H.P. members to the United States in order to meet with the American government and think tanks about the extradition of Fethullah Gulen.
While the failure of the coup attempt on July 15 saved the democratically elected government of Turkey, this does not mean that democracy is the winner. On the night of July 15, Erdogan described the coup attempt as a “gift from God.” It has given Erdogan and the A.K.P. government an invaluable chance to strike a major blow against the Gulenists and to further centralize power in the hands of Erdogan.
The extent of the purge conducted by the government raises questions about the implications of this “cleansing.” In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people were either taken into custody or lost their jobs due to their suspected affiliation with the Gulen movement. Yet, due to the opaque organizational structure of the movement, it is not easy to determine who is a Gulenist. The government has declared war against all who have been closely, or remotely, related to the movement. But the purges have also targeted non-Gulenists who have been critical of the government. 
The opposition is concerned that the purge and the state of emergency decrees might turn into a witch-hunt targeting all dissident voices. The government claimed that the decrees would merely be used to root out illegal organizations inside the state bureaucracy. However, instances like the detention of human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz (Cengiz was later released and banned from traveling) and the detention warrant issued for journalists prove that the opposition’s concerns are not unwarranted. The closure of newspapers, radio, and television stations is a signal of more pressure on civil society. Also, images of abused military officials and the Amnesty International report on the torture of detainees create legitimate concerns about respect for the rule of law during detention and interrogations. A state of emergency has been declared for three months, but its extension might lead to severe human rights violations and increased suppression of the opposition.
The vast number of suspensions, detentions, and arrests have also robbed many institutions of key personnel. Particularly concerning are the purges in the key security institutions. Thousands of army officials, including more than 40 percent of generals, have been arrested, and the police and intelligence service are focused on the fight against Gulenists. These purges are likely to create a security vacuum at a time when Turkey is facing several national security challenges domestically and regionally. They will hurt the operational capability of these institutions to fight effectively against the P.K.K. and the Islamic State.
The government’s efforts to restructure the military are likely to leave the military weak, divided, and politicized. The measures the government is taking are likely to break the military chain of command and create divided loyalties and competition within both the military and the security establishment.
In the following months, there will be several appointments to fill emptied positions in the state bureaucracy and the security apparatus. For years, the opposition tried to draw the government’s attention to the Gulenists’ strategy of appointing other Gulenists to key positions by violating the principle of merit. Now, the government has the opportunity to reintroduce merit as the main principle of appointment. If the government chooses not to use merit, but rather loyalty, as the main determinant of appointments, it will only lead to more ineffective institutions and add to the feeling of marginalization that is already present among certain segments of the society.
A positive outcome of the July 15 coup attempt was the unified stance from the people, and all political parties, against it. Given Turkey’s recent history of four military coups, the unified objection against the military intervention, which cost more than 200 lives, is significant. Erdogan’s decision to reach out to opposition parties was also a positive development for a country that has been extremely polarized in recent years. But the president’s refusal to include the pro-Kurdish H.D.P., which has also voiced its strong stance against the coup in the national unity effort, raises questions about his agenda in dealing with the Kurdish issue, one of the main fault lines of Turkey’s democracy. A coalition of parties that intends to write a new constitution on the basis of equal citizenship should cannot exclude the H.D.P.
International Implications of the Failed Coup in Turkey
The coup attempt is likely to further complicate Turkey’s relations with the United States, which are already strained due to U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish P.Y.D. in Syria. Since the failed coup, A.K.P. officials have blamed the United States for “supporting the coup attempt.” The fact that Fethullah Gulen lives in Pennsylvania and the involvement of units operating out of Incirlik airbase, which is used by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, in the coup attempt also feeds the perception that the United States was behind the failed coup. On July 25, the Turkish pro-government newspaper, Yeni Şafak, accused retired U.S. General John Campbell of being the “man behind the failed coup.” On July 29, in response to U.S. General Joseph Votel’s concerns that the purging of the Turkish upper ranks could harm U.S.-Turkish military relations, Erdogan himself stated that Votel was “taking the side of coup plotters.”
Fethullah remaining in the United States is a recipe for a thorough breakdown in relations. It is unclear whether Ankara can produce the hard evidence required by the United States to process the extradition. Once the U.S. Departments of State and Justice determine that evidence of the offense is prosecutable in the United States, the claim proceeds to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. If the court turns down the extradition request, Fethullah would be set free and allowed to remain in the United States. If the judge approves it, Fethullah's attorney could attempt to block his immediate deportation by appealing the decision in the U.S. federal court system. The extradition would ultimately be decided by the secretary of state. This process could take months, if not years, which will strain already tense relations between Washington and Ankara.
Turkey-E.U. relations will suffer further setbacks as well. As soon as Erdogan landed in Istanbul after the coup was averted on July 16, there were calls for the country to reinstate the death penalty. The statements drew strong criticism from E.U. countries, warning Ankara that such a move would disqualify Turkey from E.U. membership.
E.U. countries have also been very critical of the human rights violations following the failed coup and the purges that are targeting the wider opposition. The European Union has previously looked the other way during Erdogan’s crackdown on legitimate opposition, journalists, and the Kurds as a result of Turkey’s status as the gatekeeper of refugee routes into Europe. However, the E.U. might be unwilling to accept further authoritarian measures from Erdogan.
Ankara’s frustration with both the E.U.’s critical stance over its post-coup purges and America’s foot-dragging over the extradition of Fethullah have led to calls in government circles for Turkey to seek a strategic partnership with Russia to replace the country’s ties with the United States, the European Union, and NATO. Erdogan is certain to use Russia to pressure the United States to extradite Fethullah and to show the West that Turkey has other options. The current political climate between Ankara and Moscow is conducive to deepening ties. Turkish-Russian relations made a significant step toward reaching their pre-November 2015 level just over a month ago, after Erdogan apologized for the downing of a Russian jet that killed one of the pilots and a Russian marine involved in the pilot’s subsequent rescue attempt. In a sign of growing rapprochement, Russia became the first country to condemn the coup attempt, and Erdogan travelled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin face-to-face on August 9. The Turkish government’s claim that the pilot who downed the Russian jet was a Gulenist is likely to aid the rapprochement.
From Russia’s perspective, closer ties might present Moscow a golden opportunity to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies. But differing stances, especially on Syria, pose a challenge for deepening ties. Russia still blames Turkey for turning a blind eye to ISIS activities within its territory, and Ankara is frustrated that Moscow is working closely with the P.Y.D.
Before the coup attempt, Turkey had signaled that it could recalibrate its Syria policy. In return for Russia’s commitment to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, Turkey might soften its approach to President Bashar al-Assad’s role in a transition. The Turkish government already seemed to test the waters to gauge the reaction to rapprochement with the Assad regime. On July 13, Yildirim stated, “In order for counterterrorism efforts to succeed, there has to be stability in Syria and Iraq. We normalized our relations with Israel and Russia. I’m sure we will go back to normal relations with Syria as well.” And on August 11, the Turkish ambassador to Russia was quoted as saying, "We want the existing political leadership of the country to take part in the negotiation process.” But, it is uncertain how willing Russia will be to stop working with the Syrian Kurds—whom Moscow considers a tool not just against Turkey, but also the United States.
Considering that Turkey will be preoccupied with domestic challenges and rebuilding its military for some time, it might play a less proactive role in Syria, making the development of a Russia-Turkey alliance easier. The temptation for Turkey to head down a path of cozier relations with Iran and Russia will only increase as U.S.-Turkish relations suffer, in turn compounding the problem. Putin will seek to exploit any weakness in Turkey’s relations with NATO, the United States, and the European Union by drawing Erdogan closer to Russia and Iran. While this will not represent a groundbreaking long-term foreign policy shift, it could have real consequences for the future of the Syrian conflict and U.S.-Turkish cooperation.
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