Turkish Coup

Image courtesy New Indian Express

Turkish Coup Fails; Thousands Arrested

| published July 16, 2016 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

Gunfire erupted in Istanbul and Ankara on Friday and Saturday, accompanied by helicopter and jet flyovers and tanks on the ground, as an apparent coup attempt failed in the country, prompting concerns about the political stability of a key NATO ally and spurring fears by U.S. and other countries over the security of a county sitting on the gateway between the Middle East and Europe.

The coup, led by a faction of Turkey’s top military officials, had already been declared a success by midday Friday, despite claims by some Turkish leaders that no such transition of power had taken place. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, Jeeps, and military SUV’s blocked roads and bridges, sealed off government buildings, and seized control of some television and radio stations, while reports of gunfire between local police and army troops began to circulate in the media. Jets flew over downtown Ankara and Istanbul, and helicopters were deployed at low altitude over government buildings. Some planes fired upon key buildings, strafing Parliament and the headquarters of Turkish security and intelligence services.

But by early Saturday, the military coup appeared to have been collapsing after brutal fighting between police, government security forces, and varying elements of the military. President Tayyip Erdogan—who was vacationing on the Mediterranean—had called upon civilians to take to the streets in all Turkish cities and towns in a mass demonstration of resistance. Despite hundreds of tanks and thousands of troops, people began to crowd the streets, prompting some reports of confrontations between citizens and military forces.

Unconfirmed reports of hundreds of deaths were circulating early Saturday as police clashed with elements of the army and as civilians fought with troops. The coup attempt marks the first time in more than 30 years that the Turkish military has defied civilian control over the government. The Associated Press and Reuters each count roughly 170 deaths and up to 1000 injuries within the 36 hours since the takeover attempt began.

The coup, which was being monitored closely by leaders in the U.S. and the European Union, appeared to have been in response to the increasingly non-secular leadership of Erdogan, and what has been a tumultuous period of instability in a country rocked by acts of terrorism by the Islamic State, which claims as its homeland large areas of northern Syria and Iraq, just across the border from Turkey.

As the coup began to collapse, Erdogan enacted a purge of some top military officials, claiming that the army was attempting to smash democracy and quash religious movements. In the waning hours of the coup, some of the rebel troops eventually laid down their weapons and abandoned their tanks and Jeeps. Others simply returned to their posts at military installations around the capital.

Communiques from the government in the hours after the coup’s collapse say that at least 161 are dead—many of them civilians, along with at least 20 police officers—and that more than 2,870 have been arrested or detained. Erdogan promised a major “clean-up” of the ranks of the military, and promised to reform the way senior officers are trained and selected.

The coup attempt was a complex, potentially sticky situation for the U.S. and NATO. Erdogan, who was popularly elected in 2003, is a strong advocate of NATO and a supporter of inclusion in the EU, but he also has close ties philosophically with a more pro-Islamist viewpoint within his country—a fact problematic for the largely secular military, which claims as one of its missions the long-term survival of a secular, multi-cultural nation.

Turkey has been plagued by deep instability for two years or more as ISIS elements launch increasingly violent terror attacks—six just this year—on civilian targets. Late in June, terrorists launched a horrific attack on the airport in Istanbul, an attack which killed scores of people and left hundreds injured. Attacks have also been launched by militant pro-Kurdish forces, elements of which are demanding independence from Turkey.

The coup attempt also comes only one day after a terrorist killed more than 85 people in Nice, France on the night of Bastille Day. Though that attacker had no known direct links to the Islamic State or other terrorist organizations—and though ISIS has thus far not taken responsibility—the Nice attacker is believed to have acted based on a radicalized interpretation of Islam.

Among the military officials rounded up and arrested in Turkey: the top commander of the 2nd Army Group—a large and well-trained unit charged with homeland defense and the security of Turkish borders with war-torn Syria and Iraq. At least a dozen generals were arrested, along with scores of colonels and majors. So many arrests had taken place by early Saturday that a soccer stadium was quickly converted into a temporary detention center where as many as a thousand soldiers and officers are being held.

Erdogan also ordered the arrests of scores of judges and magistrates for their alleged participation in the coup, or for their behind-the-scenes support of groups which have, in the past, endorsed rebellion. A U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, known for his vocal opposition to Erdogan, released a statement suggesting that the coup may have been carefully scripted and staged to give Erdogan the opportunity to seize more power and enact purges of his political enemies.

French President Francois Hollande told reporters that he fears a period of crackdowns and repression, including more arrests and more control over state media, to become the norm in Turkey in the wide wake of the coup’s aftermath.

The coup attempt—whether staged for the benefit or Erdogan or a genuine attempt to impose a military solution to the problem of terrorism—will nevertheless radically alter the template in the Middle East, and may upend the U.S. attempts to maintain a carefully crafted but delicate coalition of nations now battling ISIS.

Turkey is a key member of the coalition combating the Islamic State. It borders both Syria and Iraq, as well as Armenia and Georgia—both former Russian Republics. Western Turkey shares a border with Greece, where tens of thousands of refugees have attempted to make their way into Europe to seek refuge from war-torn areas of Syria and Iraq.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Terror Attack in Nice Kills 84, Wounds Hundreds; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 15, 2016.

Dozens Arrested After Airport Attacks in Turkey; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 1, 2016.