Analysis

Deep Rifts in Turkey Military Brass Boil Over Into Coup Attempt

Erdogan's clampdown hasn't deterred revolutionary elements in the military from attempting to bring down the regime. The Turkish public's response will determine if Turkey will descend into violent chaos.

A man covered with blood points at the Bosphorus bridge as Turkish military clashes with people at the entrance to the bridge in Istanbul on July 16, 2016.
Bulent Kilic, AFP

How did the various Turkish intelligence services not learn of the plans to orchestrate a coup? Even if Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was right in saying that only a portion of the military rebelled against the government, even if we learn that indeed as he said the coup is headed by those who support exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish army has proven that it has the ability to prepare for, plan and execute an uprising, using air and ground forces, under complete secrecy.

The details are still unfolding. According to reports coming out from Turkey, a curfew has been imposed throughout the country, martial law has been announced, the two major bridges connecting the two sides of the Bosporus are closed, according to some reports Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar has been taken hostage, several television stations have been taken by the military and tanks and helicopters have opened fire on the streets of Ankara.

It isn't clear if the military has indeed taken over, whether the curfew was imposed by the conspirators or by units loyal to the government, who is running the coup and how the conspirators are planning to move forward. Reports on social media tell of many citizens taking to the streets. There were no immediate reports of looting and a group calling itself the "Council of Peace" – apparently speaking in the name of those responsible for the coup – says it will keep the peace and that the coup was intended to "restore democracy."

It seems that the major reform that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enacted in the military in 2010, and the purges that took place in the wake of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer affairs, in which hundreds of officers, journalists and intellectuals were charged with planning a coup, haven't deterred segments in the military from attempting to bring down the regime. Erdogan may be paranoid, but it turns out, as the saying goes, that even paranoid people have enemies.

The Turkish military is considered loyal to Erdogan, but within its leadership disagreement rages with regard to two of the president's policies on central issues - the war on Turkish Kurds and the policy vis-à-vis Syria. A portion of military leaders believe that reconciliation with the Kurds should be pursued and that a military solution is impossible, while others believe that the Kurds should be treated with a heavier hand and that the violent conflict with them should be continued. With regard to Syria, segments of the military – especially military intelligence – assisted ISIS for a time while other officers believed that helping ISIS and Erdogan's hawkish policy towards Syrian President Bashar Assad led to the Syrian conflict to seep into Turkey and resulted in major terrorist attacks that killed over 250 Turkish citizens this year alone.

It is easy for Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim to blame the supporters of exiled Turkish cleric Gülen for the coup, but if they remain in power they will have to address the disagreement within the military and listen to the military's demands if they are to maintain control over it in the future.

Presumably, those responsible for the coup believe that a majority of Turks support them, despite the fact that in the latest election that took place in November, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party won over 40 percent of the vote. This belief is important as Turkey's "tradition of coups" doesn't leave the military in control for very long. In the coups that took place in 1960, 1971 and 1980 (a fourth coup took place in 1997 but no military forces were involved) the military transferred power to a civilian government and held an election shortly after the coup. If the military really does take control of the country, the response of the public in the immediate future will indicate whether the military can remain in power without its rule deteriorating into street fighting, similar to that which took place in Egypt after Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took power.

Since there is currently no information on the military's intentions, and it is unclear if a complete coup had taken place, it could be assumed that if Erdogan remains in power he will try to take advantage of the dramatic events to call for another election. If this does happen, the president could possibly win the majority in parliament he needs to bring about a constitutional reform that would grant him additional powers, especially over the military.