Turkey’s Coup: Adam Oppenheimer’s Analysis

Adam Oppenheimer, recent graduate of Horace Mann and a very close friend, is a close follower of the situation in Turkey. For his final paper in a history elective called the History of the Islamic World, Adam wrote about Turkey and the role of the military in preserving democracy. The coup attempt that occurred last week seems to break the trend. His thoughts on the situation follow, in edited form. 

I actually find this coup attempt very unexpected, and have many thoughts on it. Overall, I think it was likely a plot by Gulenists to overthrow the government that was forced to act earlier than planned, which led to strategic deficiencies and its ultimate failure.

Given the actions President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to cleanse the military leadership, I understand why really only lower tier members of the military were involved, but I am still surprised that anybody would be willing to stage a coup (and especially that any would be willing to stage one in such a risky way).

First, when I was writing my paper, I read in multiple scholarly pieces that they considered the younger members of the military to be the least likely to stage a coup, because they hadn’t lived through the historical coups in Turkey. But this seems to contradict that, because those involved in the coup were generally not senior ranking members of the military (although I read that some of the leaders of the coup were higher ranked here: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-plot-insight-idUSKCN0ZX0Q9).

Further in this vein is that in 2007, members of the military tried to contest the candidacy of the president Abdullah Gul, but failed because of Erdogan’s stubborn, unflinching nature, which would make me think that the only experience with coups seen by younger members would strongly discourage them from attempting one (I read the thing about 2007 here: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-primeminister-comment-idUSKCN0ZW092).

One other reason the coup confuses me is how sloppily it was executed. (I actually read here (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-plot-insight-idUSKCN0ZX0Q9) that part of the reason it was executed so poorly was because its planners suspected the government had caught onto their plans so they acted earlier than expected, but the only evidence backing up this claim is assertions by military members who knew about the investigations – there is nothing quoting those actually involved in the coup). Here are the two real problems I saw with the execution of this coup:

First, I read an article (http://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12205352/turkey-coup-failed-why) that explained that in order for a coup to succeed, a crucial aspect is the appearance of strength. To do this, communications systems with the public must be controlled, but the best the rebels did was take over the CNN building and didn’t attempt to control social media or effectively take control of senior politicians. Frthermore, it doesn’t seem like there were many members of the military involved, which would be essential for giving the coup an appearance of strength. This article (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-plot-insight-idUSKCN0ZX0Q9) argues that the rebels may actually have thought that more members of the military would have been disenchanted with Erdogan given the military cleansings he undertook, but underestimated this effect, which seems like it is possibly an explanation as to why the forces involved were so small. Without large force numbers (actual strength) or a way to at least give the appearance of strength, the coup was doomed to fail from the start, and it doesn’t make sense to me how experienced members of the military would actually plan a coup like this.

But second, they chose to stage it while Erdogan was away, when it would seem to make the most sense to capture the leader as a sign of strength, and when they had the opportunity to shoot down his plane, the rebels didn’t take it (from here: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-plot-insight-idUSKCN0ZX0Q9). That article actually explains that rebels tried to capture Erdogan and the new PM Yildririm at one point, but failed, but if they truly had the objective of capturing or killing Erdogan, it doesn’t make sense why they would have left his jet in the air.

The most credible reasoning behind the coup I have heard is that it was planned by Fethullah Gulen, but I don’t even know how valid this is. While Gulen has had a rough relationship with the Erdogan regime, it seems like it would be difficult to plan a coup from across an ocean, and aside from that, it feels like an easy scapegoat for Erdogan to blame him (and he blamed him almost immediately at the outset of the coup, likely without real evidence to back up his claim, but it could have been based on the ongoing investigations into the coup). Another issue is that the military claimed to be acting to preserve democracy (as has been the creed behind every coup attempt in Turkey’s history), but Gulenists would be acting to create a more Islamic state rather than to restore secular democracy.

The other explanation I’ve heard is that Erdogan planned the coup himself to consolidate power, which would explain its sloppiness, but I don’t see how this would really be possible the coordinate. There is no way troops would risk their lives and the lives of civilians to help Erdogan consolidate power, especially give that he is already using the PKK to do that. And there was always the risk that the coup would actually succeed – Erdogan would not want to take a risk like that.

But despite my reservations about the Gulenist argument, no other reasonable explanations for the coup have risen, and as this article (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-plot-insight-idUSKCN0ZX0Q9) points out, there were already investigations into the coup and the military leaders who had ties to Gulen.

So right now, I feel that it is probable that Gulen plotted the coup, and while little evidence exists to back it up, it is possible that it was executed so poorly as a response to the discovery of the government investigation. This still leaves open questions as to how there could have been quite so many logistical problems, because even acting rashly they should have been more prepared, but this very well may have been because the plan was mostly nascent at the time of execution and was barely fleshed out.

One other thing that I have read is that Erdogan may have to cleanse the military, and I am actually shocked at this and feel like it was driven by some sort of naivete about the subject. Maybe I misunderstand what they mean or the actions Erdogan took against the military, but because he already cleansed the military, I really don’t see how it is possible there would be enough military leaders left who could be viewed as opposing Erdogan’s views to “cleanse” the military, and lower-ranked members are too numerous to take actions against.

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