Day: August 2, 2016

Stronger Erdogan, weaker Turkey

The July 15 Turkish coup attempt was swiftly quashed. Just as swiftly came President Erdogan’s fulfillment of his promise that those responsible “will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.” Why the coup failed, who was behind it, and what is the future of US-Turkey relations were the main questions explored at the Atlantic Council event last Tuesday “Ten Days after Quelling the Coup: Where is Turkey Headed?” Moderated by Aaron Stein, Senior Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the event featued Elmira Bayrasli, Visiting Fellow at New America, and Steven  Cook, ENI Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Cook offered four reasons for the coup failure. The first and most important was the divided Turkish military. The coup was a factious scheme, not a unified undertaking. Second, the plotters underestimated Erdogan’s hold on power, which he has held since 2003. Third, the Turkish military is not as strong as it seemed. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Fethullah Gulen — whom Erdogan regards as the main culprit of the coup attempt — used to be partners and worked in parallel to weaken and subordinate the military. Lastly, Turkish society appears no longer willing to accept military rule.

Bayrasli clarified that Fethullah Gulen is a US-based cleric who founded the Hizmet movement. Rooted in moderate Islam, Hizmet has attracted millions of followers and has funded hundreds of schools, think tanks, and media outlets around the world. Erdogan accuses Gulen of orchestrating the coup and has urged the US to extradite him. It is possible he was behind the coup, but it is also true that Gulen has become Erdogan’s “default scapegoat.” Until Turkey provides solid evidence, the US cannot extradite Gulen, but the claim of his involvement advances Erdogan’s effort to concentrate power. 

Bayrasli noted that the AKP came to power with technocrats who delivered. Turkey has seen enormous economic growth since Erdogan came to power. But economic prosperity hasn’t been matched with political and social advancement.

Cook and Bayrasli believe that Washington and the EU are positioned as mere spectators, with little leverage over Turkey’s internal affairs. The implicit Turkish threat to send a large number of refugees in the direction of Europe means that the EU will remain mute over Erdogan’s purge. According to Cook, “Turkey has the EU over a barrel.” Turkey’s paramount importance in the fight against ISIS will silence Washington too.

With its military in chaos, with police and the ministry of interior decimated by purges, Turkey may not remain an effective partner in the fight against ISIS, either in controlling its borders with Syria or working with the US at Incirlik. Who is going to substitute thousands of judges and teachers, and tens of thousands of policemen and army personnel? The purges are weakening Turkey and are undermining its capacity for effective governance. Turkey might have the EU over a barrel, but at least Washington should not be a mere spectator. 

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