Turkey, Its Military and Their Long History of Coups

Has the military meddled in politics before? Why would the military intervene in government? Why is the Turkish military important? What do Turks think about their military?

Christopher Torchia
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A tank moves into position as Turkish people attempt to stop them, in Ankara, Turkey, early Saturday, July 16, 2016.
A tank moves into position as Turkish people attempt to stop them, in Ankara, Turkey, early Saturday, July 16, 2016.Credit: AP
Christopher Torchia

AP - Turkish military jets have flown over Turkey's capital, Ankara, and deadly fighting has been reported in what appears to be an attempted military coup. A military statement says the military has seized control of the country because of rising autocratic rule and increased terrorism, though Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said "a minority" within the military has attempted a coup and he has urged citizens to take to the streets to support the government.

Has the military meddled in politics before?

Yes. The military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, a pious Muslim mentor of Erdogan who was disliked by Turkey's secular establishment, out of power in 1997. In 2007, the military threatened to intervene in a presidential election and warned the government to curb Islamic influences, but the action backfired and Abdullah Gul, the candidate favored by a government with Islamic leanings, took office. The apparent coup attempt that is currently unfolding is surprising to many observers because Erdogan's government had taken steps, including dismissals and prosecutions of high-ranking active and former officers for alleged coup plots, to bring the military to heel.

Despite past tensions, Erdogan's government appeared to be working effectively with the military in recent years, coordinating on national security issues and also confronting a perceived anti-government faction said to have infiltrated the police and other institutions.

Why would the military intervene in government?

The Turkish military has traditionally seen itself as the guardian of Turkey's old secular establishment, a legacy of national founder and former army officer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as well as an enforcer of order in times of civil unrest and weak civilian leadership. While it was forced to lower its political profile in the past decade under Erdogan's government, the country has increasingly been buffeted by an upswing in the conflict with Kurdish separatist rebels, bombings by suspected Islamic extremists — including an attack on Istanbul's main airport last month that killed dozens — and concern over the war in neighboring Syria that has pushed huge numbers of refugees across the border into Turkey. Erdogan has also been a polarizing leader with a combative streak, even though he commands deep support among a pious Muslim class that once felt marginalized under past military-influenced governments.

Why is the Turkish military important?

The military of NATO member Turkey is a key partner in U.S.-led efforts to defeat the Islamic State group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq, and has allowed American jets to use its Incirlik air base to fly missions against the extremists. Erdogan recently sought to repair strained ties with Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian jet that had been flying a mission against rebels in Syria, killing a pilot.

Turkey's location in the turbulent Mideast region, straddling the Asian and European continents, has made it a critical player in international conflicts in the past. In 2003, Turkey barred U.S. forces from opening a northern front in the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in a stunning rebuff to Washington that raised questions about whether the politically powerful Turkish military had undercut a civilian-led initiative to help the Americans.

What do Turks think about their military?

Turks have a conflicted relationship with their military, an institution that is cloaked in the lore of sacrifice but also tarnished as a past symbol of repression. Military coup leaders in the past drew on the support of Turks who saw them as saviors from chaos and corruption, but they were often ruthless. In a 1960 military takeover in Turkey, the prime minister and key ministers were executed. In a 1980 coup, there were numerous cases of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing. At the same time, the military enjoys respect and vast economic resources, and is a rite of passage for almost all men, who serve as conscripts. Soldiers who die in fighting with Kurdish rebels are hailed as martyrs.

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