If nothing else, one might have expected the Turkish military to understand how to stage a military coup, but Friday’s botched exercise failed on pretty much every count. It was brutal without being – for the sad truth is that gratuitously applied violence tends to bring results – brutal enough. It failed to neutralise President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the start and to control his access to communications. It offered no plausible cause or narrative.
Given this haphazardness, no wonder some are talking of “false flag” operations, of a staged piece of political theatre. There seems no evidence of that, but nonetheless it is undeniable that while many are losers – not least both Nato and the European Union –Erdogan himself is the one, incontrovertible winner.
The formal and informal role of the Turkish military has been unique. It has been a ruthless, exploitative and often deeply sinister state-within-a-state, involved not only in successive coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, but also activities from drug trafficking to influence trading.
At the same time, though, it has been the guardian and guarantor of Kemal Ataturk’s original vision of a secular Turkish state, and also a check on the powers of the civilian state, itself prone to corruption and arbitrariness.
As Erdogan – in power as prime minister and then president since 2003 – has sought to build an authoritarian, populist and increasingly Islamic state around himself, rolling back much of the very real progress made in the 1990s, he has found himself at odds with the military.
In 2010, for example, hundreds of officers were arrested, and later convicted of plotting a coup in the so-called ‘Sledgehammer’ case, which many outsiders saw as closer to a show trial than a genuine expression of the rule of law, especially as much of the evidence was later proven to be fake.
Then in 2014 he amended Article 35 of the Armed Forces Regulation, redefining the duty “to protect and preserve the Turkish Republic,” which had been used in the past to justify political intervention, to one of defending the country against specifically external and military threats.
Power and purge
Nonetheless, that was not enough to defang the military. Following the failure of the coup, Erdogan said “this event is God's gift to us. We can cleanse the army.” True to his word, already almost 3,000 have already been arrested, including at least five generals. They include Akın Öztürk of the air force and Sadik Koroglu, head of the paramilitary Gendarmerie’s Command School.
Chief of the General Staff General Hulusi Akar was apparently not one of the plotters but was rather detained by them, and he has been reinstated. However General Umit Dundar, the loyalist commander of the First Army who was appointed interim replacement during his absence, is clearly a man to watch.
In 2011, the entire Turkish high command, including Chief of the General Staff General Isik Kosaner, resigned in protest at the detention of army officers over the supposed coup plot. However, Erdogan and then president Abdullah Gül were constrained in whom they could appoint, as most of the credible candidates shared the army’s common mistrust of their political masters. Since then, Erdogan has been able to promote clients and loyalists from more junior positions such that he is now in a stronger position to fill the top ranks with them.
So far so unexceptional: of course Erdogan wants loyal commanders, and those involved or suspected of involvement in an armed seizure of power deserve their day in court. However, speaking of courts, already more than 2,700 judges have been suspended and 10 members of the Council of State, the country's top administrative court arrested, with little real evidence that they had any role in the coup.
We can thus expect to see the coup being used as an excuse to purge the military and the judiciary – the two last obstacles to Erdogan’s own creeping political coup –and both packed with loyalists and redefined in their roles. Following this, the expectation is that he will ram through constitutional changes he proposed at the end of last year, creating a powerful executive presidency for himself.
Here is the tragedy of the coup: it pitted an anti-democratic bid to seize power against a ruler eager to use democracy to create an authoritarian regime. Turks have every reason to be jubilant about the success of people power and the apparent end of the military’s capacity to overrule the ballot box.
But for a European Union trying to enlist Ankara as a bulwark against migration, and a Nato reliant on it for its activities in Syria, there was no good outcome. “Erdoganist Turkey” will become an increasing headache for both.
Mark Galeotti is an incoming senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.