Five years ago, on the night of July 15-16, 2016, a group of military conspirators tried to unseat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. The residence of the president was attacked, military vehicles took to the streets in large cities, and the insurrectionists’ aircraft carried out strikes on the parliament building. Army and police units loyal to Erdogan, with the participation of common citizens who also took to the streets, managed to stop those staging a coup. During the confrontation with those trying to accomplish an insurrection, 251 people were killed.
The Turkish authorities accused the Muslim religious leader Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States, of being the one to set up the 2016 events. What has come to light – as a result of the trials that have lasted over the past five years against the active members of the insurrection that were arrested – is that five months before the attempted military coup (March 19, 2016), Fethullah Gülen spoke to those participating in the plan to seize power, indicating that he was speaking on behalf of the “sponsors”. Following Gülen’s instructions, the so-called “imams” – FETÖ supporters Adil Oksyuz, Kemal Batmaz, Nurettin Oruch, Khakan Chichek, and Harun Binish, began making regular trips to the United States. They were the ones who were subsequently hands-on in direction the actions taken by the insurrectionists at the Akinci Air Base near Ankara, which the conspirators captured on July 15, 2016, together with the F-16 fighter-bombers on it, while taking hostage the Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar.
The planes that bombed the Turkish parliament took off from the NATO Incirlik military base in Turkey, where the US military was located at the time. Officers of the Turkish Air Force, the branch of the armed forces considered to be the most integrated into NATO’s organizational structure, took an active part in the coup attempt. Among those accused of organizing the coup, the Turkish authorities immediately named the former commander of the Turkish Air Force, General Akin Ozturk, and the head of Incirlik, General Bekir Ercan Van. After that failed, a number of officers accused of conspiracy asked for political asylum in the United States, Germany, and Greece.
Therefore, it is not surprising that after the failed coup attempt, reports appeared in pro-government media outlets in Turkey about the involvement of the United States in the coup, and the specific names of some Americans were even named. For example, the Yeni Safak newspaper named John F. Campbell, the US Army General who was the Commander of United States Forces—Afghanistan, as the one who coordinated the coup. According to another publication loyal to Erdogan, Akşam, the participants in the coup coordinated their actions with the CIA: allegedly in the Central Intelligence Agency Graham Fuller, an American writer and analyst close to Fethullah Gülen who used to be a CIA resident in Kabul, and was then the deputy director of the National Intelligence Council, was responsible for the coup.
The unsuccessful coup attempt was followed by massive purges in the army and government apparatus, with tens of thousands of people arrested. As part of the investigation, more than 20,000 people were dismissed from the ranks of the armed forces, and about 60,000 supporters and members of Fethullah Gülen’s FETÖ terrorist sect were identified throughout the country working in various departments.
Five years later, it can be confidently stated that the main political result of the failed attempt to overthrow Erdogan was that the position held by the Turkish president in 2016 was reinforced, despite the West’s desire to do the opposite. While remaining in the country and actively participating in the suppression of the coup, he received wide public support, and called on people to put up resistance. The Turkish president later used this support when he organized a referendum, and one which significantly strengthened his position: On April 16, 2017, at a plebiscite on the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, 51% of the country’s residents who came to polling stations voted to expand the powers held by the president.
The strengthening of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal power was also facilitated by the extraordinary measures that he introduced, similar to those actions taken by other Middle Eastern leaders (and Egypt in particular), which allow the authorities to do anything at all, including reinforcing their authoritarian power. As a result, Erdogan managed to concentrate a great deal of power in his hands, and eliminate his main ideological opponents that belonged to the movement of Fethullah Gülen, which was completely shattered inside the country.
The failed military coup in 2016, the subsequent arrests, and the purges across the ranks of Turkish military personnel significantly undermined the position held by the Turkish army in the country, which traditionally considered itself the guardian of the traditions of the secular state and the nationalist ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as well as the force responsible for maintaining order in country. Still, these harsh actions taken by Erdogan against the army generals, above all else, were not accidental, since over the past half century it was the army top brass that has executed three military coups – in 1960, 1971 and 1980 – and the so-called “postmodern coup” in 1997 when, under pressure from the Security Council, the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign. In 2010, Erdogan’s government held a referendum that amended the Turkish Constitution, removing the provisions used by the army to intervene in the country’s political life.
At the same time, the suppression of – and the consequences following – the coup had a very negative impact on the Turkish Armed Forces, and caused significant harm to the combat capability possessed by the Turkish army, which lost more than half of its experienced generals. And this, in particular, is confirmed by the results of Operation Euphrates Shield, which was one that Turkey conducted in northern Syria and showed the Turkish army is not sufficiently prepared to carry out large-scale ground operations.
Against the backdrop of the suspicions Ergodan harbors towards the top brass in the Turkish Army that arose due to the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish leader was clearly convinced that the national intelligence services seemed to be on his side. However, it should not be forgotten that most of the officers from those intelligence services have are in close contact with the Americans, who were clearly involved in implementing the 2016 coup. Therefore, a possible attempt by the West to carry out a new coup in Turkey in the near future cannot be ruled out – however, not via the US-controlled forces in the Turkish Army, but through Turkish intelligence services.
In terms of foreign policy, the main strategic result was that Ankara adapted to changes in the international environment, and is pursuing its own independent course. Turkey, which was in the process of self-determination in the new world order that was established in the aftermath of the Cold War, was forced to adapt to the new situation. However, certain circles influenced by Western ideology and the United States showed strong resistance to the process of transformation, and overcoming those only became possible after the events of July 15, 2016.
Against the background of deteriorating relations with the United States – and its involvement in the events that occurred in 2016 – as well as intensified conflict with the EU and the EU’s overt reluctance to integrate Turkey, another one of the most important results of the failed coup attempt in 2016 was the decline of Ankara’s relations with the West. More and more Turkish intellectuals, and people who shape political discourse, are in favor of a more independent Turkish policy, including withdrawing from NATO. These sentiments began to grow stronger owing to the refusal on the part of Washington to extradite Gülen, and because of the constant accusations of authoritarianism leveled at Erdogan by both EU countries and the United States. Consequently, the United States and its Western allies have largely lost the ability to organize coups, covert operations, and intelligence gathering operations in Turkey. And Turkey itself began to confidently move more towards a Eurasian foreign policy, aimed at ensuring its independence from Western powers and its ability to cooperate with Russia.
Unlike Western powers, Moscow did not accuse Ankara of launching reprisals while eliminating the consequences of the military insurrection, and Russia became the first country that President Erdogan visited after suppressing the coup. Erdogan’s view that it was thanks to Russia that he escaped arrest, and even being physically killed, during the events that took place on the night of July 15-16, 2016 has objectively gained support in Turkey. As far as Moscow itself goes, despite all the peculiar features inherent in Erdogan’s personality as a partner, no matter what he is a more favorable figure at Turkey’s helm for Russia than the junta of generals with close ties to the Pentagon.
Bolstering cooperation with Russia on energy industry and regional issues, and its economic cooperation with China, has given Turkey more confidence, and allowed it to take a more independent stance vis-à-vis the United States and Europe.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.