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Thoughts on the Coup Attempt in Turkey

All that we know about the Turkish coup and why Turkey will now pivot towards Russia.

This article originally appeared at Russia Observer and has been published with the permission of the author.

There is still a lot that is murky about it, the most murky being US involvement and foreknowledge, but I believe some conclusions can be drawn.

(1) There was a real, home-grown coup being plotted against Erdoğan. It probably combined Gülenist and Kemalist elements. While these two seem unlikely allies, coup alliances – especially ones planning to assassinate the leader – are animated more by what they are against than by what they are for. The plotters often cannot think past The Deed: Brutus and Cassius expected that with Caesar gone, the “republic” would re-appear; the killers of Sadat imagined that with “Pharaoh” gone, all would be well. But all they got was another Caesar and another “Pharaoh”. Thus a temporary coming together of Gülenists and Kemalists to overthrow the “Sultan” is not impossible.

(2) This coup had been in preparation for some time and Turkish security got wind of it (“received information” is the phrase being used) in time to warn Erdoğan to get out just ahead of the assassins. The story that Russian intelligence had picked up the clues and forewarned him is very believable. Russian signals intelligence has always been very good and Moscow would have been monitoring communications in Turkey because of the fighter plane shoot-down. It is very plausible – especially if, as Ankara now says, the shoot-down was orchestrated by the plotters – that Russian intelligence would have come across the plot. If so, it would immediately be wondered – and I’m sure is being wondered in what we should probably get used to calling the Sublime Porte again – whether US intelligence had also got wind of it but didn’t warn Erdoğan.

(3) Despite earlier speculation, this coup was much more serious and came much closer to success than was thought at the time. If Erdoğan had been killed and if the people had not come out in the streets, we’d today be looking at something completely different. (It is time to abandon the speculation that Erdoğan orchestrated it himself.)

(4) Washington and the coup. I said that this question was murky and I expect that it will remain so. And the principal reason for this is simply “which Washington”? The CIA? Some faction inside the CIA? The neocon cabal that infests the State Department? The humanitarian bombers who populate Obama’s retinue? Some faction in the US military? Somebody in the US staff at the İncirlik airbase? The US Ambassador? Would these/some/other American officials have given active encouragement to the coup plotters or a (deniable) misstatement that was taken as encouragement? Did US intelligence get wind of it and not pass the message on? Did they pass it up to the political level and it didn’t pass it on? I strongly suspect that neither President Obama nor US Secretary of State Kerry could answer the question either: nobody seems to be in charge in today’s USA. So, the extent of US involvement at some level or other to some degree of activity or encouragement will probably not be know for decades. But see below.

(5) Whatever the reality may be, Erdoğan and his people are blaming Washington. There have been enough direct and indirect statements to make that plain. The demand – and demand it is – to hand over Gülen is being presented as a test. I expect Washington to “fail” the test if for no other reason than the fact that decision-making is too fractured. Evidence of US involvement will be looked for and will be found or invented. Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units just strengthens Ankara’s hostility.

(6) Erdoğan has used the coup as an opportunity to accelerate and widen the purge that he was already doing. Enough of the actual plotters and potential sympathisers have been neutralised that he is coup-proof for the foreseeable future. He is fully in charge and has demonstrated his substantial street power, Added to which he can now blame any past foolish decisions (like the Russian fighter plane shoot-down) on the plotters. So, he is free to re-tell the past, he has proved his power and he may now do what he wants.

(7) Atatürk made a kind of compact with the population: adopt European behaviours and, eventually, Europe will accept you as “European”. For years I have wondered what would happen when Ankara finally understood that that was never going to happen. We will now find out. Kemalist Turkey is gone. My guess is that what will replace it will be something that could be called “neo-Ottomanism” – authoritarian but with a degree of popular support, predominantly Islamic but with a degree of tolerance, looking much more to the south and east. But the future structure will take time to evolve and, at the end of the day, it might cover a smaller territory and it may get rather violent.

(8) The Turkish Armed Forces have been severely weakened and, with the emphasis on domestic security now predominant, to say nothing of extensive purges of the high command, the time of military adventures in Syria is over. The war against the Kurds will also likely have to wind down.

(9) I believe that Erdoğan and his people began a sort of cost-benefit analysis recently and, just before the coup, we saw the first moves with his overtures to Israel and Russia. First, the cost side of the ledger. Turkey is never going to be admitted into the EU (not that that is so attractive these days); following Washington’s lead in the Middle East has brought it disaster and defeat; rightly or wrongly, Ankara believes Washington has betrayed it. The Western orientation is mostly on the cost side of the ledger. On the benefit side, Ankara has learned how much Russia’s enmity can cost it (and, if its true that Moscow tipped Erdoğan off to the coup, what Russia’s friendship can give). Then there are the future benefits: tangible in the shape of becoming Russia’s gas spigot to southern Europe and the potentially enormous gains from China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Therefore, a simple cost-benefit calculation shows that a Eurasian turn has many benefits for Turkey while the status quo has about paid out.

(10) A more brutal calculation would have Erdoğan & Co considering the correlation of forces. Who’s winning? Which is the side to bet on? In 2000 the USA was by far the most powerful country on Earth; most powerful in every measurable way. But it’s been at war ever since and it’s losing these wars; it has outsourced the manufacturing power that was the foundation of its power last century; its foreign activities are fumbling and incoherent. As to the other Western standard-bearer, no one could possibly pretend that the future of the EU is bright. The power of the West is fading and what remains is incompetently managed. Since 2000, on the other hand – although the consumer of Western media absurdities would be unaware of it – under very capable management, Russia has grown in wealth and power. The same goes for China – steady economic and military growth combined with intelligent and wise leadership. If you were running Turkey, with which would you throw in your fate? Especially when your Western “allies” have so frequently spurned you? And may just have tried to kill you?

(11) Moscow will accept the turn but will demand behavioural change. No more backdoor support to Daesh through oil smuggling; no more safe havens for Daesh fighters; no more interference in Syria. But it will continue its patient approach and allow a certain amount of dissimulation from Ankara. Moscow will pretend to believe (and maybe it’s true) that the fighter was shot down by coup plotters and other face-saving statements from Ankara as Erdoğan rewrites the past.

(12) Turkey will leave NATO. What is not clear is the timing and the optics. I can easily imagine a gradual pulling back that doesn’t quite ever formally leave. But, if the Eurasian turn is indeed happening, then NATO is gone. It no longer brings Ankara advantages and that goes doubly given the apparent use of İncirlik base as a location of some of the coup plotters. Washington is starting to understand that İncirlik is, in fact, changing from an asset into a liability and it will be interesting to see what it does: certainly it’s time to move the nuclear weapons out. (Vide the New Yorker piece: “How secure are the American hydrogen bombs stored at a Turkish airbase?“.)

(13) Things could get rather violent. It’s too early to tell. Erdoğan’s call to take to the streets to stop the coup was bravely answered and that may be enough. His purge is very extensive and may eliminate the fifth column (as well as many innocents). It all depends on how strong the internal glue of the country is and that we cannot know – the distance between stability and bloody chaos in any society is shorter than most people like to think. And the American regime changers, who have brought so much destruction in such a short time to Turkey’s neighbours, have a new target, albeit with greatly restricted access and levers with which to do it.

(14) (What follows is sheer off-the-wall speculation. The Ottoman Empire was an extremely multi-ethnic and multi-confessional enterprise. Through the millet system, the Sultans allowed and managed these differences. Atatürk tried to create a European-style country inhabited by an ethnicity he invented called “Turks”. Descendants of the people of Göbekli Tepe, the Trojans, Bithynians and Miletians, Caucasians, surviving Greeks and Armenians, Seljuks and Kurds would now all officially be “Turks” just as Bretons, Burgundians and Occitan-speakers were officially “French”. To a considerable degree this fiction succeeded (as it has for that matter in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and so on) but the Kurds never accepted being called “Turks” or “Mountain Turks”. In a neo-Ottoman Turkey, however, they can again become “Kurds” (but never separatists). But, if the Kurds really want independence, this is probably the best chance they have ever had to take it.)

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