Turkey: From failed military coup to authoritarian purge

A significant section of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) government on the night of July 15-16. Over 265 people died in fighting. It was a serious putsch attempt, which came very close to success, but was thwarted. Erdogan responded with an unprecedented purge and declared a state of emergency, which allows the president and cabinet to bypass parliament when drafting new laws, and to restrict or suspend rights and freedoms.

The view that the coup was staged was prevalent in its early aftermath as the seemingly amateurish plans of the putschists fell apart, and pictures of hapless soldiers being pushed back by civilians circulated on social media. Proponents of the view that the coup was staged by Erdogan cited his ludicrous comment that “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army”.
The gravity of the situation is hardly in dispute now. A lesson learned, however, is the necessity of a sober analysis of the cracks within Turkey’s ruling elite. Seeing Erdogan as an omnipotent dictator, one who can even fake a coup against himself, is a manifestation of a widespread misconception among leftists in Turkey and abroad. It shows a failure to see the conflicts and contractions that Erdogan strives to manage in order to stay in power. Erdogan’s dictatorship will continue to rest on unstable tectonic plates, despite his current consolidation of power by means of a purge of tens of thousands of soldiers and public service workers.

Who is behind the coup?

Erdogan quickly blamed Fethullah Gulen, his former ally and the self-exiled preacher who leads an Islamic movement from his residence in Philadelphia. Gulen immediately and vehemently denied the charges. There are good reasons not to believe either one of those wicked charlatans.
The strongholds of the Gulenists within the police, judiciary and media had been destroyed in a series of purges, beginning in 2013. Also, rumours of plans to purge the Gulenists in the military were widespread. Gulenists had the motive, and Gulenist officers were likely involved in the coup. But were the Gulenists capable of this large-scale operation?
Almost one third of the generals who headed combat units were allegedly involved in the coup. The coup junta had operations not only in major cities, but also in smaller cities. It included top-level generals from all army, navy, and air forces, plus commanders of the police. Although Gulenists prefer to organize and operate behind-the-scenes, hence their real power is hard to pin point, the scope of the uprising extends well beyond the reach of Gulenists by any calculation. Rather, it is very likely that the coup included a much wider array of forces within the army.
We don’t have all the facts—and don’t imagine that we will get them any time soon. Erdogan has control over the judiciary, as well as the media, which could reveal the truth about the coup. Those who claim that Gulenists were very powerful in the army, however, cannot explain why Gulenists had not attempted a coup earlier, perhaps while they were still strong within the police. Similarly, if Gulenists were that strong in the army, one wonders, why didn’t Erdogan act to dismiss them or reduce their power? The coup attempt was a manifestation of a temporary coalition of a wider array of forces within the army. Leading the putsch, as Sungur Savran, a Turkish socialist writes, was “an alliance of the pro-U.S. seculars and the adepts of a religious fraternity under the protection of the US”. Anti-Erdogan and pro-NATO secularist military officers, to the surprise of many analysts, continued to be strong within the TSK, although they were not in leadership positions, unlike when the TSK was used by NATO as a vehicle against the Soviet Union and later against fundamentalist Islam.
All in all, one thing is clear: Erdogan is not as strong as many assume.

What was Washington’s role in this?

Tensions between Turkey and the US escalated following the attempted coup. Erdogan demands the extradition of Gulen, whom he calls a terrorist. The Labour minister directly blamed the United States. Many Turks, according to the New York Times, believe that “The U.S. was Behind Failed Coup.”
Turkey is a key US ally, possessing the second-largest army in NATO. Washington pays close attention to Turkish domestic politics. Most of the putschists were NATO soldiers. They had close relations with the US and sought its support. This is confirmed by Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, which leads the ISIS fight, when he said “We’ve certainly had relationships with a lot of Turkish leaders, and military leaders in particular… Some of them are in jail now.”
Now reports show that those who held Turkey’s top general hostage called Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and sought US support. Incirlik, the southern Turkey base of US forces, was employed in the operation. It refuelled F-16s that went into action in support of the attempted coup. Its base commander and several military personnel, working alongside US soldiers, were quickly arrested for their alleged involvement.
Gulen and his supporters had been supported by the US because they are bearers of moderate Islam. Gulenists are also allies of Israel and its Zionist politics. But so is Erdogan, though with a difference: he’s an adamant supporter of a strategy that is losing its relevance. Erdogan claims the leadership of all Sunnis in the Middle East. He supported the Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi in Egypt. He armed Sunni militias against Asad in Syria. He favoured El Nusra and ISIS in their operations against Kurdish inhabitants. For this reason, he didn’t refrain from souring relations with Russia and Israel. But his dreams were not realized. His Syrian offensive failed. The US now allies with the Kurds in fighting ISIS. To reclaim his position, he made a U-turn from his confrontational foreign policy and restored its bilateral ties with Israel and Russia. Evidently, he follows a strategic line that is subservient to US foreign policy. But with so many conflicts and regime changes in the region, more twists and turns in US-Turkey relations in the coming months should not be surprising.
Although we cannot be certain of the level of US assistance to the coup, looking at the initially neutral remarks of American top officials, and based on our knowledge of US imperialism’s modus operandi, we conclude that the US would have supported the coup if it had been successful.

What is to be done?

A key task facing the workers’ movement in Turkey and internationally is to disseminate the truth about Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and civil liberties. It’s time to organize mass actions to demand the following:
  •  End the state of emergency!
  •  Free the political prisoners who had nothing to do with the attempted coup.
  •  Restore and uphold freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. Hands off the unions and the Left. Defend the independence of labour organizations.
  •  Form a workers’ united front against US imperialism and its allies. Organize mass actions against domestic repression and foreign intervention.
  •  Turkey Out of NATO now! Close all US military bases, including Incirlik military base.
  •  End the siege of Kurdish areas. Halt the repression against the Kurds. Free the Kurdish political prisoners. Self-determination for the Kurdish people, now!
  •  Build a revolutionary workers’ party, independent of all fractions of bourgeoisie, and fight for a Workers’ Government