COMMENT: The real Turkish coup starts as Erdogan launches mass purge of opponents

COMMENT: The real Turkish coup starts as Erdogan launches mass purge of opponents
The military coup in Turkey has failed, clearing the way for Erdogan's political coup. / Photo: CC
By Ben Aris in Berlin July 18, 2016

The world was shocked by the attempted coup d’etat in Turkey on Friday which quickly failed, but the real coup started on Monday, July 18, with a purge on a Stalinesque scale of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opponents in the army, police force, judiciary and academia.

The coup attempt – the fourth in Turkey’s modern history – must have come as a shock to Erdogan, who was holidaying at the time, but its quick collapse has presented him with a golden opportunity to seize complete control of the country and install himself as an “executive president” by sweeping away the last checks and balances on his personal power. “Bungled coup could have been scripted for Erdogan,” bne IntelliNews columnist Suna Erdem opined the day the coup collapsed.

Within 24 hours of the bungled military attempt to take control of the country, the Turkish government has detained more than 6,000 people, including soldiers, military officers, generals, judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan has moved quickly to cleanse the country of all his public critics as well as tightening his grip on the main levers of power. The scale of the purge and the sheer numbers of people from so many professions that have been rounded up in such a short amount of time strongly suggests these lists already existed, EU commissioner dealing with Turkey's membership bid, Johannes Hahn, said on July 18.

"It looks at least as if something has been prepared. The lists are available, which indicates it was prepared and to be used at a certain stage," Hahn said. "I'm very concerned. It is exactly what we feared."

The core number of military plotters was relatively small and it is reported that many of the soldiers on the street at the weekend were conscripts that didn't know they were part of a coup attempt.

But by July 18 a reported 2,839 soldiers and officers had been arrested, according to reports, or some 20% of all army commanders from across the country. Many military units stationed across the country are now headless, very few of which were complicit in the coup.


Officers from units across the entire country have been arrested in Erdogan's purge of the armed forces

Erdogan blamed his personal bogeyman Gulen for “infecting” the entire military structures and has used this as an excuse to remove officers who clearly had nothing to do with the coup. He said a "terror group" led by Gulen had "ruined" the armed forces, that its members were being arrested in all military ranks and that the purge of this "virus" would continue.

Gulen denied any connection with the coup in a rare interview on June 17 and accused Erdogan of state managing the entire thing for political purposes.

Soldiers directly involved in the coup have been ill-treated. Pictures on social media showed detained soldiers stripped to the waist, some wearing only their underpants, handcuffed and lying packed together on the floor of a sports hall where they were being held in Ankara. Other videos showed at least one solider that had been beheaded by an angry mob on one of the two bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Among the soldiers arrested was General Bekir Ercan Van, commander of the Incirlik air base from which US aircraft launch air strikes on Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, according to reports. Erdogan's chief military assistant was also detained, the broadcaster CNN Turk said.

The judiciary was also purged despite the fact that almost none of the judges affected were in any connected with the coup attempt. A total of 2,745 judges and prosecutors were arrested over the weekend, reports Reuters, citing local TV station NTV.

The "Putinisation" of Turkey continues as Erdogan’s putsch has unsettled European leaders, who openly fear that Turkey is taking a big step away from the democratic ideals they promote. 

"If thousands of judges and public prosecutors who obviously had nothing to do with the coup are getting removed, then this is an attack on the democratic state under the rule of law," said Thomas Oppermann, the leader of Germany's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in parliament, which shares power with the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany. "Erdogan is abusing the failed coup as an excuse to clean the Turkish state apparatus of opponents of the AKP.”

And on Monday morning the purge spread to academia where the Higher Education Board

At the start of this year 1,128 academics from 89 universities earned themselves Erdogan’s opprobrium by signing an open “academics for peace” letter protesting against the bombing of civilian areas in the predominately Kurdish population in the southeast of the country.

Muted reaction

After the purge is finished – and at the time of writing it seems Erdogan was a lot more efficient at rounding up his opponents than the plotters were – the obvious next step is to ram through a new constitution, possibility via a referendum which would bypass the need for a constitutional majority vote in parliament that Erdogan has not been able to secure until now. 


“In the past, the Erdogan administration was more liberal. But under recent conditions a strong, autocratic, but not dictatorial stance, is required to maintain stability,” Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur, a senior member of the Justice and Development Party (AK) in Istanbul, told bne’s Carmen Valache at the weekend, adding that one could not fight terrorism and be liberal-minded at the same time. “This is not a time of law and order,” but for a “strong hand.”

The international reaction to the aftermath of the coup has been very muted as other governments scramble to catch up with the fast moving events.

Turkey has demanded the extradition of Erdogan’s nemesis Gulen from his safe haven in Philadelphia, but the US government was slow to act. US Secretary of State John Kerry has reiterated that the US will only extradite Gulen when it receives proper evidence.

Likewise the German government has made only bland statements.  German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier tweeted: “The coup attempt was a wake-up call for #Turkey’s democracy. Important that legal processes respect principles of #ruleOfLaw.”

But little or no action is likely. While Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism accelerates, it remains the bulwark for the West in the Middle East and home to most of Nato’s forces and materiel in the region. Western military operations against Syria become logistically difficult without Turkish bases.

Meanwhile Europe is still relying on Turkey to damn the flood of Western-bound refugees from Syria. With EU membership now firmly off the table following the events of the last year, the West needs Erdogan more than he needs them, leaving him free to act at home with impunity.