In the late hours of July 15, 2016, various elements of the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to stage a coup d’état, primarily centered in Istanbul and the capital Ankara. Calling themselves the Turkish Peace Council, the coup’s perpetrators aimed to wrest control of the country from the ruling government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party. By midday of July 16, however, the coup had failed, with both Ankara and Istanbul firmly under government control. As swiftly as the attempted revolt came, Erdoğan seems to be moving to punish those responsible and has so far had nearly 9,000 individuals from the military and judiciary arrested. The president has demanded the United States extradite the accused mastermind of the coup, exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen—who resides in Pennsylvania—and has expressed interest in reinstating the death penalty for the coup’s top orchestrators. With the support of both domestic and international sentiment, Erdoğan appears poised to not only maintain his control of Turkish affairs but significantly tighten his grip on it. This is bad news for Turkey, made worse by the possibility that the revolt may have been plotted by Erdoğan himself—from the beginning, it appears as though the coup may have never been intended to succeed.
Turkey’s history has been punctuated by multiple successful coups. On May 27, 1960, a successful coup was staged by factions of the Turkish military; in quick succession, the president, prime minister, and other high-ranking administrative officials were placed under arrest, and military control was rapidly installed. Again, on September 12, 1980, the Turkish Armed Forces staged another successful coup. After stoking the flames of armed conflict between right-wing and left-wing factions within the country, the military quickly and forcibly took control, executing around 50 individuals and imprisoning thousands. What this history demonstrates is that Turkey’s armed forces know, from experience, how to effectively overthrow a democratically elected government. What’s more, they also know how to do so even with limited support within the military, as demonstrated by the 1960 coup, in which only 38 young officers acted outside the chain of command. Therefore, there is certainly enough reason to question why this attempt failed.
Numerous politicians and military experts have raised questions concerning how the recent coup was carried out. For some, such as Turkey Pulse columnist Cengiz Çandar, who has lived through multiple military uprisings in Turkey, the attempt seemed “unprofessionally executed and, really, simply bizarre.” Oddly, during the coup there seemed to be no attempt to capture President Erdoğan, though common sense and history strongly recommend prioritizing the arrest of leading members of the government. There was no military movement in Marmaris, where Erdoğan was known to have been vacationing. Erdoğan managed to travel by car to a nearby airport, take an hour-long flight to Istanbul, and leave Turkish airspace for a short while without any confrontation. Additionally, not a single government official has been arrested in connection to the coup, while over 3,000 members of the judiciary—from the Constitutional Court to the Court of Appeals—were taken into custody within 24 hours. The precision and haste with which Erdoğan cracked down on “those responsible” is particularly remarkable if assuming that the coup took Erdoğan and his supporters by surprise.
Finally, the strategic maneuvers made by the coup’s perpetrators seem to have lacked much purpose. It is not apparent why the coup orchestrators devoted time and manpower to blocking off a single side of the Bosphorus Bridge, considering that, beyond backing up traffic, the decision did little to advance the coup. Additionally, Turkey’s parliament and national defense buildings were bombed by pro-coup jets and helicopters. Not only is this action unprecedented, even in the most violent of Turkey’s coups; the bombings simply caused damage, and again did nothing to actually help the military take control. The bombings did, however, conveniently coincide with Erdoğan’s request for citizens to march out against the coup’s perpetrators. The plotters also dedicated precious time to taking over Turkey’s least-watched state television station, TRT. This allowed Erdoğan and his political supporters to take to the most popular news stations, unchallenged, and denounce the coup. To be fair, this lack of strategic clarity may have been related to the confusion on the ground: most anti-government soldiers supposedly thought the “coup” was merely a drill.
There is no doubt that the attempted coup in Turkey was a tragedy. Around 300 civilians and military personnel were killed, and 1,500 were wounded. Regardless of Erdoğan’s bad press and questionable policies of late, it is nigh impossible to justify an armed takeover attempt of a democratically elected government. With that said, however, the facts possibly point to sinister intentions of the president himself. When considering the poor execution of the coup attempt, alongside Erdoğan’s lighting-fast and heavy-handed response, it is far from a stretch to wonder about Erdoğan’s own potential involvement.