Turkey’s armed forces are known for their efficiency. However, officers bungled the “coup” so badly that many question whether it was staged. Critics describe the events of July 15, 2016 as a “self-coup” organized by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to justify consolidating his grip on power. According to former US Secretary of State John Kerry, “It does not seem to have been a very brilliantly planned or executed event.”
We have learned from experience the best practices to conduct a coup:
- Kill or capture the head of government
- Seize control of the media
- Rally public support
- Present someone from among the ranks of coup plotters to reassure the public
Renegade Turkish troops did not follow the script on July 15. When putschists arrived at Erdogan’s hotel in Marmaris, he was gone. They missed his check-out time. Erdogan’s presidential plane was allowed to take off from the Dalaman airport. F-16s failed to shoot it down. CNN Turk and TRT, two of the least watched news channels, were taken off the air. However, other channels were allowed to broadcast. Social media – Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – continued to operate. The military did not present someone as the face of the rebellion to assure the public that order was maintained. And while pro-Erdogan imams used muezzins to rally popular support, the putschists instructed people to stay indoors.
Erdogan claimed that the Turkish Grand National Assembly was bombed by war planes. However, crater analysis showed that explosions came from within parliament. Upon returning to Istanbul on July 16 at 3 a.m., Erdogan stood atop a bus in Istanbul surrounded by adoring supporters who were waving Turkish flags and chanting his name. It was a made-for-television moment. “The attempted coup is a gift from heaven,” he proclaimed.
Within hours, law enforcement started arresting political opponents. Erdogan declared an open-ended state of emergency, allowing rule by decree. More than 40,000 people were detained or arrested in the immediate aftermath of the so-called coup. More than 100,000 members of the military, police and judiciary were dismissed.
The education sector, a bastion of Kemalist secularism, was targeted. More than 1,500 university deans were forced to resign and about 21,000 teachers were suspended or fired.
Erdogan also targeted the judiciary, dismissing 2,754 judges, including members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, and charging a member of the constitutional court with collusion. Detainees were denied legal counsel for up to 90 days.
Pro-Kurdish HDP parliamentarians and Kurdish community leaders were held under bogus terrorism charges. At least 30 governors were fired. Article 301 of the Criminal Code, which makes “denigrating Turkishness” a felony, was used to silence dissent.
Erdogan turned Turkey into a gulag domestically and a pariah internationally. The World Justice Index ranked Turkey 99th out of 113 countries behind Iran and Myanmar.
He also took steps to dramatically redefine Turkey’s international relations, distancing Turkey from the United States. He accused the US of plotting the coup and helping to carry it out. Erdogan singled out General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command for “siding with coup plotters.” His incendiary remarks fueled anti-Americanism, risking the safety of US citizens in Turkey.
Erdogan raged against the US for prosecuting state-owned Halkbank, which was charged with violating US sanctions on Iran. According to Erdogan, “those who could not succeed in the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, are now making a different attempt against our country.”
After the “coup,” Erdogan intensified an expansionist foreign policy, sending troops to Syria, Iraq and Libya. He repeatedly questioned the Lausanne Treaty for its demarcation of Turkey’s borders. Mock dogfights with Greek air force planes and maritime confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean have become routine.
Did Erdogan stage the “coup” to advance political goals? It’s hard to envision a hoax of such magnitude, especially when the incident resulted in 300 deaths and more than 2,000 injured. More likely, the coup was uncovered; Erdogan let it proceed so it seemed credible, then shut it down.
Erdogan proclaimed that defeating the coup was a victory for democracy. It proved, however, to be a pretext for consolidating dictatorship and purging reformers in civil society.
In 2018, Erdogan called snap presidential and parliamentary elections, leading to constitutional reform that institutionalized sweeping executive powers. Under Erdogan’s dictatorship, Turkey is inexorably declining. Its democracy is in shambles; the economy has cratered. Turkey has become an outlier in Europe and a pariah state in NATO.
A military coup or outside interference cannot bring reform. To rein in or remove Erdogan, the international community should support Turks who aspire to a peaceful political transition.
David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert on US-Turkey relations during the Clinton and Obama administrations. He is author of several books about Turkey, including “An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.”