Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

After Failed Coup, Turkey’s Military Emerges Stronger

Erdogan military parade Ankara turkey
President Recep Erdogan attends the military parade celebrating the 94th anniversary of the Victory Day in the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, 30 August 2016. Photo imago stock&people


On 15 July, a mutinous group of military officers attempted to seize control in Turkey and overthrow its democratically elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The coup failed. Its aftershock, however, continues to reverberate around the country.

Turks are no strangers to military intervention in politics. Since the country transitioned to multi-party democracy in 1950, the military has directly interrupted the democratic process four times (1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997), with as many failed attempts.

‘The role of the military in Turkey is rooted in Turkish society, history and culture,’ writes Gareth Jenkins in his 2001 book, Context and Circumstance: The Turkish Military and Politics. ‘The military has always lain at the heart of how Turks define themselves; and most still regard the institution of the military as the embodiment of the highest virtues of the nation.’

Following its defeat in the First World War, most of the Ottoman Empire’s territories were occupied by British, French, Italian and Greek forces. A group of nationalist officers started an insurrection against the invading armies and, after three years of bloody fighting, successfully liberated Anatolia.

The war of liberation became the Turkish Republic’s foundational myth, its heroes – like Kemal Ataturk and his second-in-command Ismet Inonu – the republic’s founding fathers and the army its eternal guardian. In this capacity, the military was given the mandate to intervene in politics. Article 34 of the Army Internal Service Law, which was in force from 1935 to 2013, stated that ‘the duty of the armed forces is to protect and defend the Turkish homeland and the Turkish Republic’.

An unintended consequence of this history, however, is that Turks know only too well what a coup looks like and they quickly realized that the most recent one did not look quite right. It was poorly planned and hastily executed. ‘A strangely 20th-century affair,’ wrote Reuters, ‘defeated by 21st-century technology and people power.’

Gülen: Erdoğan’s Judas?

Ankara blames the failed coup on Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, and his Islamist movement, Hizmet, which is believed to have millions of followers worldwide and billions of dollars in assets.

In a country that has long prided itself on the might of its military, it might seem puzzling that some obscure cleric managed to subvert the army to the point of attempting a military coup.

To his detractors, however, it is no secret that Gülen’s winning strategy has been to reach power by educating, installing and recruiting followers throughout Turkey’s institutions.
In 1986, veteran Turkish journalist Ruşen Çakir published the first exposé on how the Gülen movement used its charter schools to insert disciples into and organize within the military.

Three large-scale investigations were conducted in 1991, 1994 and 1999 into the movement’s activities in the military and the police. The 1999 investigation also led to a legal case, but a day before his indictment on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, Gülen fled to the United States, where he has remained since.

In public, Gülen cast himself as a victim of the regime’s militant secularism. Thanks to his vast network of schools, he won both popular and political support, particularly from the religious right.

In the early years of Erdoğan’s political career, this relationship was upgraded from tacit support to a solid alliance, albeit an alliance of convenience. At home, Gülen helped dismantle the old secularist order. Abroad, thanks to the generous amount of goodwill garnered by his seemingly liberal and secular approach to Islam and his network of schools, Gülen’s imprimatur made possible Erdoğan’s elevation from an Islamist mayor to a so-called ‘conservative democratic’ prime minister.

In a post-coup press briefing, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek candidly confessed to this relationship. “Yes, it is true that during our time they had a free hand. We accept that,” he said. “Why? Because we didn’t have experience of running this country in the past. We did not have many people working in the Turkish bureaucracy.”

Mutual Enemies

In the Islamist government’s effort to rein in the secular military, its alliance with the Gülenists proved very useful. The high-profile Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, in which top military officers and secular powerbrokers were tried on charges of plotting to overthrow the country’s elected government, thousands of secular officers and generals were purged from the army. Such a sweeping campaign against the secular establishment could not have succeeded without pro-Gülen police, judges, prosecutors and media, including Turkey’s best-selling newspaper Zaman, and one of its most popular television channels, STV.

Even at their height, the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials were widely viewed by legal and forensic experts as tainted by dubious evidence, and were seen as an act of revenge carried out by Turkey’s Islamists, including the prime minister, against their former oppressors in the military.

Those who pointed this out, however, paid dearly for their candour. Writer and journalist Nedim Şener, the recipient of the 2010 PEN Freedom of Expression Award, was arrested in 2011 after publishing a book exposing the Gülen movement’s role in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. Another journalist, Ahmet Şik, was arrested for an unpublished manuscript, titled Imam’s Army, detailing Gülenist presence in the police.

Erstwhile Allies

In 2014, for reasons unknown to the general public, the two allies fell out. A slew of leaked tapes, presumably recorded by pro-Gülen police, resulted in a sweeping corruption investigation, led by pro-Gülen judges, against Erdoğan’s inner circle, including his son Bilal.

Following the tapes, Erdoğan turned against the Gülenists, whom he accused of aspiring to build a state within the state. The centrepiece of this project, he argued, was the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. One of Erdoğan’s top advisers, Yalçin Akdoğan, decried it as a “plot against their own country’s national army”. In a matter of months, the convictions were reversed and the case collapsed.

The damage, however, had been done. According to Air Force Prosecutor-General Zeki Üçok, a former Ergenekon defendant who led the military investigation into the Gülen movement, at least half of the 45,000 cadets recruited in the last decade were tied to the Gülen movement. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, argues Üçok, were crucial to opening up the higher echelons of military leadership to these Gülenists.

Indeed, many of the leaders in the debacle had risen through the ranks thanks to them. Sixty three of the 123 generals arrested for involvement in the failed coup were promoted in the last three years, thanks to the vacancies opened by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. These included 20 of the 40 generals promoted in 2014 and 22 of the 41 generals promoted in 2015. Of the 47 colonels promoted to the general staff in the last two years, 30 – a whopping 64% – were arrested for involvement in the coup.

Despite their power and influence, however, the putschists failed to persuade a majority of the armed forces to join them. Instead, the military splintered, with many high-ranking commanders fiercely resisting the coup.

One of them, Major-General Ibrahim Aydin, Ankara’s former gendarmerie commander, told Time’s Jared Malsin the breath-taking story of the assault that recaptured the putschists’ helicopter base in the capital. His account also reveals that the military’s reaction was organic, improvised and reflexive. “As a soldier, you can’t always take your orders from your commander. Sometimes the situation commands you to act in certain ways, and you have to take initiative,” he said. “This kind of madness was an embarrassment, an insult to both our army and to ourselves.”

Pivot to Nationalism

After the coup, many Turkey experts worried that the Turkish military was going to be weakened by the event. Erdoğan, an Islamist who spent decades battling the secular military’s chokehold on politics, seized the opportunity to rein in the military, and the post-coup purges were interpreted as evidence of this.

There were also fears that a weaker military would be unable to fight the Gülenists, the PKK (Kurdish separatists) and the radical jihadist ISIS simultaneously.
Analysts also speculated that the failed coup could force Ankara to change its stance on Syria, where it has been a strong supporter of opposition groups.

Neither proved true. In Erdoğan’s massive pro-democracy rally on 7 August, attended by more than three million people, the military’s top general, Hulusi Akar, was given a hero’s welcome. In dress uniform, Akar greeted the crowds with a military salute and delivered a speech, interrupted by applause and slogans like ‘Turkey is proud of you’ and ‘Long live our army’. In the same rally, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Yildirim effusively praised the loyal soldiers’ efforts.

Less than a month later, Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria, where Turkish-backed rebels reclaimed the ISIS-held city of Jarablus, stopped the PKK-affiliated Syria Democratic Forces’ from forming a contiguous Kurdish enclave along the Turkish border, and continue to push southward toward al-Bab, the last major city still under ISIS control in the Aleppo province. How is it, then, that Turkey’s military has seemingly emerged stronger when it was expected to weaken? The answer lies in the changing of the guard in Ankara and Erdoğan’s post-coup pivot to Turkish nationalism.

Erdoğan’s AKP party was a coalition of liberals, Islamists and nationalists. In the early years, with Turkey’s European agenda still relevant, the liberals were its dominant faction. As Turkey’s European project faltered and its activism in the Middle East picked up pace, Islamists gained power at their expense. Now, with a religious group – the Gülen movement – which used to be a close ally of Erdoğan’s and had influence over the party’s Islamists, standing accused of attempting to oust it from power, the nationalists are taking their place. Following the coup, for example, 19 defendants of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials were promoted to the rank of general, taking critical posts in personnel, intelligence, and field and fleet commands.

“The only people Erdoğan could trust are people who have been publicly victimized, vilified by Gülen, and who haven’t been in these circles for the last decade,” said Selim Sazak, a Turkish politics expert with the New York-based Century Foundation. “These are mostly nationalists, many of whom were involved in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials.”

He continued: “The nationalists chided AKP for being too soft on the Kurdish problem, too hard on the secular military and too cosy with Islamist groups like the Gülenists, which they considered a threat to national security. Now, they are in perfect harmony. Peace talks with Kurds collapsed. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer rulings were overturned. Gülen is Turkey’s public enemy number 1.”

Sazak expects the rise of nationalism to continue, leading to a military that is more powerful in politics, not less. “Pivoting to nationalism is a logical option for President Erdoğan,” he said. “With a religious figure – Gülen – as Turkey’s terrorist-in-chief, Islamism is going to be a hard sell. By appealing to nationalism, however, Erdoğan can both rally the people against the common enemy, be it ISIS, PKK or Gülen, and recast himself as a sort of pater patriae.”