Winners and losers in Turkey’s coup bid

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 16, 2016 7:17 AM (UTC+8)
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The bloody coup attempt in Turkey by a section of the military has failed and the night of the long knives is about to begin. The geopolitics of the coup makes it inevitable that reverberations will be felt far and wide beyond Turkey.

urkish President Erdogan is seen amid his supporters at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) is seen with his supporters at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

The narrative that this has been an eruption of disgruntled generals and colonels who rebelled against an authoritarian leader is far too simplistic. The target was undoubtedly Erdogan, but the agenda is more complicated than that.

The dramatic events are bound to impact Turkey’s regional and international role in all its dimensions.

One thing can be said with absolute certainty at the outset: this was not a coup attempt by the ‘Kemalists’ who sought to make a desperate move to roll back the tide of political Islam and remove President Recep Erdogan from power. The two main opposition leaders of the principal Kemalist party and the nationalist party respectively have voiced strong solidarity with the democratic forces.

That, in turn, means that the immensely popular Turkish leader at the moment enjoys the sympathy from a wider spectrum of Turkish opinion than the 51% mandate, which the ruling Justice & Development Party secured in the 2014 parliamentary poll.

The overwhelming majority of Turkish people do not want their country to relive its past history with the Pashas systematically subverting the supremacy of elected civilian leaderships.

Erdogan surely senses that he is on the right side of history and he can be expected to take advantage of it in the coming hours, days and weeks. This is one thing.

However, the most ominous thing is that the government has pointed the finger at the followers of the US-based Turkish Islamist leader Fetullah Gulen for staging the abortive coup. (Gulen, unsurprisingly, has rejected the allegation.)

Turkish Navy Mediterranean Region Commander Admiral Nejat Atilla Demirhan was detained
Turkish Navy Mediterranean Region Commander Admiral Nejat Atilla Demirhan (C) was detained in Mersin

The state-run Anadolu news agency has pointedly named one Colonel Muharrem Kose who was dishonourably discharged from the Turkish military in March 2016 for his alleged links with Gulen, as the leader of the coup attempt.

The Justice Minister also said on the state television that Gulen’s supporters have staged the abortive coup.

It is 100% certain that the government will launch a massive purge against the followers of Gulen in the various agencies of the government and the armed forces and the judiciary.

Erdogan has been seeking the extradition of Gulen from the United States and this will now become a pressing demand, which Washington will have to contend with. And herein hangs a tale.

The point is, there has always been this suspicion in the Turkish mind that Gulen worked for the US intelligence.

A memoir by the former Turkish intelligence chief Osman Nuri Gundes (who served under Erdogan), published in 2011,  actually alleged that Gulen’s world-wide Islamic movement based in Pennsylvania provided cover for the Central Intelligence Agency, especially in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Interestingly, Russia subsequently banned Gulen’s ‘Hizmet’ schools’. So did Uzbekistan.

Although Gulen fled Turkey in 1998 for the US, he obtained a residence permit only in 2008 and Turks have insistently claimed that his application for ‘green card’ was recommended by two top CIA officials. (It must be noted Gulen never once traveled outside the US in the past 18 years since he landed on American soil, although his network has worldwide operations.)

To be sure, against the backdrop of the abortive coup, Gulen’s role will cast a shadow on the Turkey-US relations, which have already suffered setbacks on various counts in the most recent years during Erdogan’s rule.

The big question is how far the coup attempt would have been motivated by Erodgan’s foreign policies. That there could be such a dimension cannot be easily overlooked.

Gulen has voiced strong disapproval of many controversial aspects of Erdogan’s regional policies such as the decline in Turkey’s relations with Israel and his handling of the Kurdish problem or the Turkish intervention in Syria.

Curiously, the coup attempt coincides with the nascent trends of a shift in the Turkish foreign policies – in particular, in the direction of a rapprochement with Russia and a possible rollback of Ankara’s interventionist policies in Syria.

The coup, had it succeeded, would have scuttled a possible meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming weeks that holds the potential to be a defining moment in the Syrian conflict.

Moscow factors in that the normalization with Turkey could have positive fall-outs on the situation in Syria. Ankara has also hinted at a readiness to re-establish ties with Syria. (Significantly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif has used exceptionally strong language to condemn the coup attempt in Turkey – even before it was decisively crushed.)

All things taken into consideration, therefore, Turkey’s possible change of course is being anticipated in Moscow and Tehran as a geopolitical event of momentous consequence to the realignment in Middle East politics and the overall balance of forces.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a major NATO power, is a regional partner that the West also cannot do without for pursuing an effective Middle East strategy. Of course, Erdogan has not been an easy partner to deal with – and on his part, he also remains suspicious of the western intentions.

Conceivably, the newfound proximity between Turkey and Russia will necessitate a reset of the entire calculus of Western strategies as well. In fact, a reset becomes necessary as regards a host of issues – ranging from the regime change agenda in Syria and the fight against terrorism to the competing agendas of gas pipelines to feed the European market.

The bottom line is that if it is proved – rather, once it is proved beyond doubt – that ‘Gulenists’ have staged the abortive coup attempt, Erdogan may only see a hidden hand of western intelligence to send him packing from Turkish politics.

Clearly, Erdogan’s invocation of ‘people’s power’ to roll back the coup attempt has caught most US analysts by surprise. Howsoever unpalatable it might seem, the region and the ‘international community’ – especially the European Union and the US – will now have no option but to learn to live with an Erdogan who is in full cry.

Erdogan’s propensity to plough independent foreign policies will only get more pronounced after this searing experience where he has barely escaped by the skin of his teeth.

In particular, these events would constitute a major setback to the US’s agenda to establish a permanent NATO presence in the Black Sea to contain Russia.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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