- The failed military coup launched on 15 July and subsequent purge of the state security apparatus and civil service underscores the persistent divisions within the Turkish state, particularly in relation to opposition from within the military to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian and Islamist-leaning government.
- The ongoing purge of dissent within the security forces will reduce the risk of a second coup in the immediate future, but also undermines the capacity of the military to respond to Turkey’s significant domestic security challenges.
- Erdogan will likely use the momentum of the crackdown to support his efforts to increase the presidency’s executive powers, but in doing so risks provoking a wider public backlash, leading to incidents of civil unrest in the months ahead.
Short-term security implications
The short-lived coup attempt in Turkey was launched by a section of the armed forces on July 15, calling itself the Peace at Home Council. During the ensuing hours, 145 civilians and 63 security personnel were killed, along with 24 personnel allegedly involved in the coup. Media outlets were shut down, bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul were sealed, and shots were fired at the presidential and parliament buildings. Reports have said that aircraft controlled by the plotters locked onto Erdogan’s presidential aircraft, though do not appear to have fired. The turning point in the coup attempt came when the plotters’ attacked parliament and Erdogan landed safely in Istanbul, galvanising opposition politicians and a number of senior military officials to speak out in greater number against the action and prompting thousands of civilians to take to the streets to confront the plotters. Within hours, government-aligned security forces had succeeded in subduing the coup.
Despite fears of a possible second coup attempt, the prospect of this remains low in the near-term, given the initial coup’s failure to secure wider backing among the military or public and the rapidly expanding crackdown against the military since. Only sporadic and low-level clashes have taken place since 16 July – such as those reported at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport and the 3rd Main Air Base in Konya on 17 July, when suspected coup supporters resisted apprehension by the police – and there have been no subsequent indications of renewed clashes. Commercial air travel gradually returned to normal on 18-19 July after the US lifted a flight ban imposed in the aftermath of the coup, though the head of Istanbul’s Security General Directorate has warned that security forces will shoot down any unidentified aircraft without warning. These initiatives have been further bolstered by a three-month state of emergency declared on 21 July.
Erdogan’s call for supporters to take to the streets during the days following the coup will also reduce the prospect of further violence, with the mass public intervention on the evening of 15-16 July credited with helping end the coup. The mobilisation of pro-Erdogan supporters will nonetheless increase the risk of protests in the coming weeks. There have been reports of mob violence associated with pro-government rallies, including attacks against the Alevi and Christian communities in Malataya and Trabzon.
There is much uncertainty over who was behind the coup, though its participants were predominantly drawn from the ranks of the air force and the gendarmerie. Erdogan has insinuated the involvement of the Hizmet movement led by exiled cleric and former ally Fethullah Gulen who currently lives in the US. Regardless of whether or not Gulenists played the leading role in the coup, its scale suggests much broader participation than just the cleric’s followers, indicating deep dissatisfaction within the military with government policies. Among the most controversial factors include the authoritarian and Islamist slant of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is widely seen as undermining the historically secular nature of the Turkish government. Meanwhile, there is significant discontent over Erdogan’s approach to the Syrian civil war, and the conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), particularly in the wake of several major terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Ankara in the past 18 months.
The government’s current purge has the potential to significantly reduce the capacity of the armed forces at a crucial time for Turkish domestic security. In the days since the plot collapsed, 50,000 police, army officers, judicial officials and civil servants have been detained or suspended. The detention of more than 100 generals, along with more than 6,000 soldiers, suspected of involvement in the coup will have a detrimental effect on the capabilities and morale of the army. Among those detained is Adem Huduti, commander of the 2nd Army responsible for protecting the borders with Iraq and Syria and leading the conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast. In addition, the divisions exposed between various factions of the security forces – with the coup largely led by the air force and gendarmerie, and the police and other military branches largely staying loyal to the president – pose major concerns over their ability to work together in countering the numerous security threats faced by Turkey. Coming just weeks after the 29 June bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, the purge stands to undermine the state’s resilience to such attacks, potentially increasing the terrorism risk around critical infrastructure and sensitive buildings in major cities.
Longer term political implications
Erdogan is likely to use the crackdown to build momentum behind his efforts to strengthen his position, possibly rejuvenating efforts to increase the executive powers of the presidency through proposed constitutional reform. The three-month state of emergency declared on 21 July allows the president and cabinet to bypass parliament when drafting new laws, providing Erdogan with the legislative authority overcome any parliamentary challenge to his efforts to increase his executive powers. Political opponents of the AKP have already warned that the current purge will also be used as a justification to curtail their activities and to push the constitutional reform through parliament. Rival parties opposed to the constitutional change, notably the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) will be particularly vulnerable to the crackdown. Before the introduction of the state of emergency, the HDP had been the greatest obstacle to constitutional change since its surprise success in parliamentary elections last year and even before the coup attempt the government had lifted their parliamentary immunity and accused them of links to Kurdish rebels. Such efforts will continue under the current state of crisis, increasing the likelihood of constitutional reform before the end of this year.
The shift towards a presidential system and the continuing crackdown on dissent risks provoking further civil unrest in the year ahead. In the past three years there have been multiple incidents of protests against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style, the most significant being the weeks of anti-government rioting in mid-2013, which began in opposition to the development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Although Erdogan is hoping the attempted coup will build public support behind his campaign there are still doubts over support for the changes, with an IPSOS poll in May suggesting just 36 percent of the population back constitutional reform. The continuing opposition to the reform agenda and the purge will increase the risk of civil unrest in major cities in the months ahead, particularly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which have been the centre of previous demonstrations. Such protests, however, are likely to be easily contained and short-lived, considering the government’s increasing control over the security forces and willingness to deploy them against dissenters.