Turkey’s Military Disconnect

In an April 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Jordanian King Abdullah II told the world how he really felt about Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister of Turkey. According to Abdullah, “Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride … ‘Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.’” Indeed, to many it has seemed that Erdogan is steadily and inevitably consolidating power, turning a secular democracy into a theocratic autocracy with himself at its center.

Recent events have cast that assumption into doubt. On July 16, with Erdogan away at a coastal resort, tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul and gunfire echoed in government buildings in Ankara. A military statement claimed that Turkey’s armed forces had taken control “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms, to ensure that the rule of law once again reigns in the country.” After the attempted coup was crushed within a day, Erdogan and other officials accused Fethullah Gulen, an imam living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, of being the mastermind behind the rebellion. While it is unclear to what extent supporters of the so-called Gulenist Movement were involved, the uprising is likely to have major repercussions for Turkish domestic and foreign policy, as well as the country’s relationship with the United States. As a result, understanding what motivated part of the military to rise against its elected government could provide insight into what Turkey’s future policies might look like.

Central to the growing political discord in Turkey has been Erdogan’s consolidation of power within his own administration and in the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. When he first took office in 2003, Erdogan was hailed as a reformer, and in the early years of his administration he loosened government control of the economy, provided rights to the country’s Kurdish minority, and pushed for Turkish membership in the European Union. However, in recent years, many have been alarmed at the government’s increasingly autocratic tendencies. In both 2012 and 2013, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country. In 2013, Erdogan denounced social media as “the worst menace to society,” and in 2014, a court order blocked Twitter across the nation.

Erdogan’s persuance of a renewed war on the banned PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, is viewed by many as a ploy to diminish the influence of Turkey’s Kurdish voting bloc and strengthen voters’ faith in the AKP’s brand of nationalism. The conflict between the government and the PKK has displaced over 350,000 people at a time when the country is already struggling with an influx of refugees. Erdogan’s crusade to rewrite the Turkish constitution so that Turkey becomes a presidential system is widely perceived as an attempt to place more power in the country’s executive branch. At the same time, he has attacked his parliamentary opposition, supporting a successful bill to remove parliament members’ impunity from prosecution.

The military has not been safe from Erdogan’s expansion of power either. He has consistently used tactics to reduce the political influence of Turkey’s armed forces. In 2010, the government jailed hundreds of military officials, accusing them of plotting a coup. That same year, Turkey began trying military officials in civilian courts rather than military ones. By 2013, roughly 20 percent of Turkish generals were in jail. The country’s National Security Council, traditionally a body through which military officials exerted considerable influence on policy, has been sidelined.

The coups’ ringleaders may also have resented the government’s foreign policy. Erdogan is known as a hardliner on the Syrian Civil War, long demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and recently considering a ground invasion of the country. Important global powers have been alienated as well; in November, Turkey shot down a Russian jet it claimed had violated its airspace, resulting in tensions between the two countries that are only now beginning to thaw. Top Turkish military leaders reportedly disagree with the Erdogan government’s hawkish policies and instead favor closer collaboration with Syria and Russia. Recently, Turkey has also sparred with the United States regarding American military assistance to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria, a rebel group opposed to Assad and the so-called Islamic State; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has characterized American work with the YPG as “two-faced.” It is possible, then, that with Erdogan increasingly asserting Turkish might abroad and estranging allies like the United States, the rebellion’s leaders were motivated in part by a desire to put the country’s foreign and military policies back on track.

As for why the officers who spearheaded the coup attempt chose last Friday as the time to strike, they may have seen an opportunity in negative public opinion about Erdogan. In 2015, 51 percent of Turks disapproved of the president, while just 39 percent approved. At the same time, 52 percent approved of the military and only 37 percent disapproved, making it the only national institution of government viewed favorably. Since then, Turkey’s economic troubles have grown. This year, the country’s economy is predicted to grow just 3.5 percent, an unhealthy amount for an emerging economy. Meanwhile, food prices are steadily rising, making the cost of living higher for the average Turk. Based on these developments and Erdogan’s poor polling numbers, the coup’s plotters may have believed that the president was losing legitimacy as a leader who would grow and strengthen Turkey.

How Erdogan responds to the coup attempt will determine whether another occurs. For now, the military is signaling solidarity with the civilian government. However, Erdogan risks alienating the armed forces if he overreaches: the president recently announced the detention of thousands of soldiers suspected to be involved in the coup. If Erdogan is too harsh or broad in his crackdown on the military, he could see a backlash from the armed forces. Likewise, if his policies continue to diverge from those supported by the military, dissent may spread within the country’s defense forces. Prominent officials in Erdogan’s government are accusing the United States of involvement in the attempt, and France is questioning Turkey’s ability to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State. It appears, then, that the coup will only further strain Turkey’s relations abroad and thus continue to aggravate the country’s military. If Erdogan doesn’t tread lightly, a second uprising may prove more successful than the first.

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