Turmoil in Turkey

After a night of intense fighting between forces loyal to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and military forces attempting to stage a coup d’état, Erdogan has proclaimed victory over the separatist forces. When the dust finally settled in the Turkish capital of Ankara, at least 265 people were reported dead and another 1,440 injured during the coup, including 161 civilians and police officers. Following the unsuccessful coup, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced it as a “black stain” on Turkish history and also announced a mass purge of alleged plotters and accomplices from the country’s military, political, and judicial systems. So far, over 2,800 soldiers and high-ranking military officials have been arrested and some 2,750 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed from their position.

The coup began around 10:00 pm local time when a faction within the Turkish military calling themselves the “Peace at Home Council” closed down the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges which connect the European and Asian sides of Turkey.

Turkish military blocking access to the Bosphorus bridge. (REUTERS/Stringer )
Turkish military blocking access to the Bosphorus bridge. (Reuters)

This was followed by reports of low-flying military jets and helicopters over both Ankara and Istanbul an hour later, stirring rumors that a military coup was underway on Turkish social media. At this point, Erdogan acknowledged the attempted coup, but urged for calmness and civility, also warning that the perpetrators of this coup will be severely punished. The plotters released a statement shortly after, claiming that the motive behind this coup was to maintain “constitutional democratic human rights” and that Turkey’s foreign military relations will be kept under their rule. They subsequently took over the military headquarters in Ankara, taking hostages including chief of military staff Hulusi Akar. Sources outside of the state confirm reports of throttling of social media sites including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, slowing access to these sites but not outright blocking it; Erdogan has previously ordered internet blockages inside of Turkey.

Shortly before midnight local time, separatist forces took control of the Turkish Radio and Television station in Ankara, forcing a broadcaster to read a prepared statement claiming that the military  had “completely taken over the administration” with the purpose of “reinstat[ing] constitutional order, human rights and freedoms.” They also added that the country is currently governed by a “peace council” and that the country is under martial law.

A half hour later, Erdogan took to the air and addressed the citizens of Turkey via FaceTime from an undisclosed location, reaffirming them that he is still in power and requested that they take to the streets in a show of solidarity.

Source: Vice News
Source: Vice News

Military helicopters openned fire in Ankara and there are several loud explosions heard throughout the city. Tanks were also seen rolling through the streets of Ankara near the parliament building.

Prime Minister Yildirim sent out a statement accusing gangs of being behind the “illegal” coup attempt and condemns it as a terrorist act. Commander of Turkish special forces echoes these sentiments and pins the blame on a treasonous group of soldiers. Turkish jets loyal to Erdogan shot down a military helicopter used by pro-coup forces in Ankara. Reports of dozens of police officers dead Ankara special forces HQ emerge.

A series of explosions rocked the parliament building in Ankara, forcing legislators to seek refuge. F-16 jets dropped bombs near the Presidential Palace, killing five people. Erdogan landed in Istanbul to a crowd of fervent supporters, reassuring them that no military coup is stronger than the collective will of the people.

A group of thirty or so soldiers supporting the coup surrendered themselves to police forces in Istanbul’s Taksim Square after a tense standoff between the two groups. At around five in the morning, pro-government forces retook the military headquarters in Ankara, but there remained small scattered pockets of rebel soldiers still fighting. Hulusi Akar was rescued from his captors and Turkish soldiers who had occupied the Bosphorus bridge surrendered to the state police. Reports of widespread abuse of surrendering soldiers by pro-Erdogan forces began to emerge. Turkey’s EU minister Omer Celik releases a statement claiming that the coup was “90 percent under control”.

As the coup attempt began to die down, Erdogan addressed his embattled nation from Istanbul and called the coup “a blessing from Allah, because it will allow us to purge the military” of traitors. Order was more or less completely restored by morning with Erdogan’s government having successfully squashed the rebellion.

Erdogan placed the blame for the coup on 75-year-old Turkish cleric and bitter rival Fethullh Gülen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, and called for the United States to either arrest him or deport him back to Turkey so he can face charges. Secretary of State John Kerry replied to Erdogan’s request by saying that there is a legal process which needs to take place and that Erdogan must provide evidence of Gülen’s wrongdoing before they hand him over. In a rare interview with a small group of journalist at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, the reclusive Gülen rejected Erdogan’s accusations and condemned the military coup saying that “Now that Turkey is on the path to democracy, it cannot turn back”.

But who exactly is Fethullh Gülen? Gülen is a writer, former imam, and Turkish political figure. He is also the founder of the Hizmet movement, which has been described as “a moderate, pro-Western brand of Sunni Islam that appeals to many well-educated and professional Turks” by the New York Times. The Hizmet movement has been attributed with addressing many of Turkey’s social issues through its funding of various nongovernmental organizations, including hundreds of co-ed schools, tutoring centers, hospitals, and relief agencies. Hizmet-affiliate groups actually own the largest charter school network in the United States.

Fethullah Gülen pictured inside his Pennsylvania home in 2014. (Selahattin Sevi/ Zaman Daily News)
Fethullah Gülen pictured inside his Pennsylvania home in 2014. (Selahattin Sevi/ Zaman Daily News)

Gülen and Erdogan were once close allies in Turkey– in fact, Gülen helped Erdogan consolidate power in the early years of his rule. His Hizmet movement provided Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP- Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) with much-needed legal and judiciary help. Though Gülen fled Turkey to the United States in 1999 due to a clampdown on Islamists, he and Erdogan remained on good terms. The two men worked in tandem through a series of high-profile political trials known as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, which accused common political enemies of plotting against Erdogan’s government and belonging to an alleged secret, secular ultra-nationalist organization in Turkey. Many prominent critics of the Hizmet movement and Turkey’s government were jailed and accused of belonging to this secretive organization during this time, including Ahmet Sık, co-author of a book regarding the Ergenekon investigations and trails, and Nedim Sener, author of a book on the murder of world-renown journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink.

Though both groups share a similar, moderate Islamic ideology, a power struggle emerged between the Hizmet movement and the AKP once their common enemies had been defeated and by 2013, the relationship between Erdogan and Gülen began to sour. Following the 2013 Gezi Park general protests, Gülen released a statement from Pennsylvania criticizing the government’s heavy-handed reaction and refusal to negotiate with the protesters. Erdogan didn’t appreciate the criticism and announced plans to close down Turkey’s “prep schools” which help prepare high school students for university exams– about a quarter of which belong to the Hizmet movement. Pro-Hizmet newspapers ran headlines denouncing the plans as “an educational coup”. Law enforcement and judicial officers who were loyal to Gülen subsequently launched anti-corruption investigations into some of Erdogan’s cabinet ministers and their sons, thus escalating the tension between the two groups that had been brewing in the previous years. The pro-AKP side claimed that these anti-corruption probes were nothing more than a farce for the Hizmet movement to bring down the AKP government through a “legal coup effort” while the pro-Hizmet side accused the government of hiding its extensive corruption and having to resort to conspiracy theories in order to do so.

Tensions between the two groups soon boiled over.  Erdogan and other members of the AKP  initiated a massive shakeup of Turkey’s judicial and police forces, with over 5,000 police officers being designated to positions elsewhere in the Directorate of Security as well as the reassignment of 90 prosecutors at Istanbul Çaglayan Justice Palace. In April of 2014, the AKP-majority Grand National Assembly adopted an amendment to Turkey’s Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Organization, which gave the National Intelligence Agency (MIT- Milli Istihbarat Teskilatı) the ability to access personal data without a court order as well as grant immunity to MIT agents from persecution for any crimes that they might commit during their work. Both of these moves were seen as ways to curtail the power and influence of the Hizmet movement and any other opposition groups for that matter. Ever since then, there has been an atmosphere of hostility towards Hizmet supporters in Turkey.

During his interview with journalists at his home in Pennsylvania, Gülen made the bold claim that “There is a possibility that it could be a staged coup and it could be meant for further accusations [against the Hizmet movement].” Erdogan calling the coup “a blessing from Allah” only further fueled these allegations. This has created speculation by some that the coup was indeed staged by the Erdogan administration as a means of stomping out any political, judicial, or military opposition; how else would his government know the names of thousands of alleged conspirators to arrest throughout all of Turkey’s governmental branches within a few hours of curbing the uprising? The attempted coup allegedly also gives Erdogan the perfect opportunity to paint himself as a warrior for democracy while diverting attention from his history of media censorship and human rights abuses. Some have even gone as far as comparing this failed coup with the 1933 Reichstag fire, where Adolf Hitler capitalized on an alleged coup attempt to consolidate his power.

Erdogan addressing members of his ruling AK Party during a parliamentary meeting in 2014. (Reuters)

Turkey has been a vital strategical ally to the United States since the end of World War II due to its presence as a liaison between Europe and the Middle East. This partnership between our two countries has greatly increased in the past few years due to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union as well as the civil war in Syria. Though this crisis has more or less been resolved– at least, for now– it undoubtedly casts a shadow of a doubt on our countries’ relationship. To paraphrase the president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard N. Haass, the United States is torn between supporting an undemocratic coup or supporting an increasingly undemocratic leader. Whether or not the coup was staged by Erdogan’s government as a means to consolidate power is yet to be determined. But regardless of the cause, the fact that the coup occurred should be a troubling sign to Turkey’s allies. This politicl nd military instability in Turkey could potentially leave it vulnerable to further terrorist attacks from groups such as the Islamic State and could also hamper US and allied military operations against these groups as well as signal further distress for the European Union. Only time will tell what comes out of this situation.


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