Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced a short time ago that an element within the Turkish military has made a coup attempt against the country’s civilian government. This is all happening fast and information is only dribbling out, so I’ll keep updating this space as I learn more. Reports have mentioned military aircraft buzzing Ankara and that two bridges connecting the European and Asian parts of Istanbul were shut down. There’s no indication how much of the Turkish military is supporting this coup and how much, if any, is actively resisting it. Social media sites have reportedly been blocked within the country. Yıldırım has blamed the coup on the Gülenist movement, Ankara’s favorite bogeyman, and insists that only a small cadre within the military is behind it and that it will soon be defeated. Nobody outside whatever is left of the Turkish government seems to agree with that last sentiment, and for a supposed Gülenist coup the statements being issued by the coup plotters (see below) sound pretty much like the statements issued by each of Turkey’s military coup leaders going back to the 1960s.
The Turkish military, or, again, some element within it, has just had a statement broadcast over Turkish TV saying that the country is now under martial law and being ruled by a “peace council” formed by the military. Nobody seems to know where President Tayyip Erdoğan is, but his office claims that he is safe. I’m just hearing a report on MSNBC saying that Erdoğan was flying into Istanbul when he was denied landing rights, and he’s now seeking asylum in Germany. There are also reports that he landed in Tehran on his way to Qatar. He’s reportedly urging his supporters (via FaceTime, of all things) in Turkey to “take to the streets” to oppose the coup.
Much more below, updated as I hear/read it.
The statement by the military says that it has “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged.” Turkish history is peppered with military coups (it this one succeeds it will be the fifth or sixth one since the founding of the Republic), which usually happen when the military decides that the civilian government has moved too far from Atatürk’s vision of a secular democratic order. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has Islamist roots, and of course Erdoğan’s governing style has grown increasingly authoritarian over the past few years, so this doesn’t come completely out of the blue. But the fact that Erdoğan had been in power now for 13+ years, long enough even to start reshaping Turkey’s officer corps to his liking, suggested that maybe the days of military coups were done. Turkey’s membership in NATO and its potential membership in EU have always been affected/imperiled by this history of coups, and there’s been a feeling that the military had finally gotten out of politics because of that.
What happens now is anybody’s guess. For all of Erdoğan’s excesses and the justifiable criticism he’s earned in his mishandling of the Syria crisis, his politically-motivated decision to restart war with the Kurds, his efforts to increase the powers of his office to enshrine himself constitutionally as a sort of elected dictator, his oppression of the basic rights of his citizens, his failure to prevent a series of ISIS attacks all over the country, etc., he’s still the elected leader of Turkey, and by all accounts (by which I mean election results) he’s still quite popular. If that’s still the case, then this coup is not going to sit well with most of the Turkish population. On the other hand, if Erdoğan is in Germany, it’s going to be difficult for him to lead any kind of resistance. Meanwhile, NATO and the US are going to have to condemn this on principle, but who knows how strenuously they’ll condemn it. Erdoğan hasn’t exactly been winning many friends internationally, his recent outreach to Israel and Russia notwithstanding. It may depend on whether things in Turkey now turn violent and, if they do, how violent it gets. If there’s a lot of violence then it will be hard for NATO and the US to just acquiesce, but if there’s little or no violence then you may see some halfhearted objections followed by a general acceptance of a fait accompli.
UPDATE: The further this coup progresses the less likely it appears that it will succeed but the more likely it appears that it will produce a substantial body count. People do seem to be taking to the streets to protest the coup, and they’re being fired upon by the soldiers participating in the coup. That means a couple of things: the coup plotters really don’t seem to have planned this very thoroughly, and by firing on civilians they’re guaranteeing that every major actor inside and outside Turkey is going to have to condemn what they’re doing. After some very neutral talk about “stability,” Washington is now insisting that it supports Turkey’s “democratically-elected government,” which means Erdoğan (and also likely means that the Obama administration believes the coup will fail). All of Turkey’s opposition political parties have rejected the coup. The commander of Turkey’s First Army, the unit believed to be behind the coup, is saying that only a cohort within the First Army is behind the coup and that the rest of the military rejects it. Reportedly 17 police officers, opposing the coup, have been killed by soldiers in a helicopter attack in Ankara. Now there are reports that Turkish F-16s are in the air firing upon the helicopters being used by the coup plotters.
The situation is still very fluid, and the longer Erdoğan is out of the country the more up for grabs this will become, but right now this looks like a poorly conceived effort by a part of a part of the overall Turkish military. It’s running into a lot of public opposition and a lot of opposition from the rest of the Turkish military. Hopefully this will end one way or another in the next several hours; the worst thing that could happen is an extended civil war breaking out in Turkey.
UPDATE 2: There’s a report now from Reuters that Erdoğan’s plan is landing at Istanbul, presumably at Atatürk Airport. The coup plotters shut that airport down earlier, but an astonishing outpouring of citizens has advanced on it and apparently taken it over. Needless to say, Erdoğan wouldn’t be returning to Turkey if he weren’t supremely confident that this attempted coup, or whatever you want to call it, is on the verge of collapse. There are a number of videos surfacing of Turkish police arresting people in military uniform, a sign that things are really falling apart for the coup plotters.
I’m going to plagiarize from myself on Twitter and say that my only conclusion right now is that Turkey, and the Turkish people, are screwed no matter how this turns out. By far the worst-case scenario is that the coup hangs on but Erdoğan does too, and we’re looking at a civil war. If the coup somehow still manages to succeed, then Turkey will be under a military government that clearly has next to no legitimacy with the Turkish public, at a time when Turkey needs to manage its relations with Russia and the EU, its response to the war in Syria, its Kurdish problem, its ISIS problem, its refugee problem, its economic problems, and on and on and on.
The best-case, and likeliest, scenario is that Erdoğan returns to power stronger than ever, with more popular support and sympathy than he’s ever had, with a free hand to utterly crush any remaining opponents he has, both of the illegitimate (these coup plotters, for example) and legitimate (political opposition, independent media, etc.) varieties. If you thought Erdoğan was a budding authoritarian before, it’s quite possible that you ain’t seen nothing yet. This could give him the last chunk of support he needs to push through the constitutional changes that will transform Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a Russia-like illiberal faux-democracy with a nearly all-powerful executive (Erdoğan, of course) in charge.
Maybe that’s the best case. Ask me tomorrow and I might say the military government thing would still be better. Both options are varying degrees of terrible.
This looks like its breaking so well for Erdoğan that, if I were a tinfoil hat kind of guy, I might be asking some questions about whether this coup was engineered, or guided, or allowed to unfold in precisely this way by the Turkish government. I mean, who attempts a coup without being sure that, you know, somebody will be behind them? These jokers didn’t have the support of the rest of the army, any of the civilian political opposition, nor, apparently, any substantial portion of the Turkish public (they’ve clearly got next to no support in either Istanbul or Ankara, and those big cities are the places where Erdoğan’s support is probably the weakest, outside of Turkish Kurdistan and maybe the area along the Syrian border). And now, of course, Erdoğan has smoked out a bunch of apparent traitors in his midst. Not a bad day for him, all things considered.
That’s what I might say, if I were conspiratorially-minded. But I’m not that kind of guy.
Seriously, I’m not. The possibility Erdoğan manipulated this is very, very small.
UPDATE 3: Sorry, I took a little break that became a long break. While I was gone, Erdoğan made his triumphant return, landing in Istanbul and giving a speech to his supporters gathered at the airport to greet him. He blamed Gülenists within the military for the attempted coup, and while that may be true Erdoğan also blames Gülenists when they run out of toilet paper in the Presidential Palace, so take it with a grain of salt. What you should probably not take with a grain of salt is Erdoğan’s promise to “cleanse” the military of “traitorous elements,” which is definitely not the kind of language that presages some bloody purge of the state or anything like that. 120 people have reportedly been arrested already, and undoubtedly more arrests are coming.
This whole affair really seems like it’s wrapping up; the question is how hard the remaining coup elements are prepared to fight (which may be pretty hard, considering they’re likely dead once they’re captured), and how long it will take to sweep the last of them up, dead or alive. That’s not to say the door has entirely been closed on the coup, however. Erdoğan says, though I haven’t seen it confirmed anywhere, that the hotel he was staying at in the Turkish resort town of Marmaris when the coup began (he was apparently on vacation) was bombed shortly after he left, so his death was/is clearly on the coup plotters’ agenda. And while nothing the plotters have done in this coup has impressed anybody with their tactical abilities, all it takes is for one thing, one moment, to go unexpectedly right, or wrong, for a situation like this to completely change.
OK, I’m going to close this out for the night barring some new development like Tayyip Erdoğan turns out to really be Gollum, or the meteor finally hits, or whatever. Thanks for reading!