On July 15, 2016, a group of Turkish military officers, and soldiers under their command, staged a coup to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and take over the country. Their principal focus was on Ankara and Istanbul; taking control of Istanbul’s bridges, airports, the Turkish parliament, and some police stations. The coup was either ill-planned, badly executed or it was a much broad-based plan and, probably, some groups deserted the early putschists, leaving their actions incomplete and ineffective.
According to government reports, 5 soldiers, 62 police officers and 173 civilians were killed and more than 1,500 people were wounded in this botched coup d’état. Amnesty International reported that at least 208 people died and more than 1,400 were injured on the night of the putsch itself. Of those killed, 24 people were termed ‘coup- plotters’ by the authorities and some were lynched as they tried to surrender in the morning of July 16. Erdoğan government put the whole blame of the coup on its ‘default scapegoat’, Fethullah Gülen, a retired preacher who has been living in his Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania since 1999. Some government ministers have even claimed that the US itself supported the plot to topple Erdoğan through the Gülen Movement.
The coup was aborted within twenty-four hours. But, soon after that the Erdoğan regime set out on a spree of actions that have raised serious concerns, with mass purges being the most controversial of steps. Mass purges began with judges and the firing of 2,745 prosecutors. The latest statistics compiled from different media reports suggest that 3,465 judges and prosecutors, 2,346 academics and 159 high-ranking generals have been dismissed; 180 media outlets, 1,254 non-profit organizations, 2,099 schools and dormitories, 15 universities, 1,254 associations and foundations along with 35 hospitals have been shut down; 120 journalists and 5,266 military officers have been arrested. In total, 104,914 persons from different walks of life have been axed. These post-coup actions of Turkish government amount to awarding collective punishment without due process merely on the basis of guilt by association. In the words of David Phillips of Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, after failed coup attempt, President Erdoğan’s “inner Stalin” was unleashed “turning Turkey into a giant gulag.”
The sympathizers of Hizmet (an Islamic transnational religious and social movement led by Fethullah Gülen) have been the focus of post-coup purges though these, by no means, are limited only to them. Kemalists, Alevis, Liberals, Kurds and other groups, who are not Erdoğan-loyalists, have also been targeted.
The official story of the failed coup attempt tells that a group of Gülen-sympathizer military officers learned that they would be eliminated in the upcoming meeting of the High Council of the Military; hence, they staged a coup to save themselves and to gain control of the government. Only three hours after signs of the coup attempt started to emerge, President Erdoğan made a FaceTime call to CNN-Türk and declared that the attempt was the work of a fringe within the military that mainly comprised the Gülen-sympathizers.
The facts and critical analysis of the aftermath present a different perspective though. Fethullah Gülen condemned the coup attempt while it was still in progress. In the early hours of the putsch, the Alliance for Shared Values, an organization that publishes messages by Gülen, condemned the attempt. This was followed by a personal condemnatory statement by Gülen, and leading Gülen-inspired organizations also reprobated the coup. Gülen’s condemnation was picked up by the world press. In various op-eds and press conferences, Gülen reiterated his stance for democracy and against military interventions. In an opinion piece published in New York Times, he said, “My philosophy — inclusive and pluralist Islam, dedicated to service to human beings from every faith — is antithetical to armed rebellion.” In another op-ed published in French daily Le Monde, he called for an international investigation into the failed putsch in Turkey and pledged to abide by its findings.
Some Gülen-sympathizers might have been involved in the attempt, though they were not, in any sense, the driving force, Gülen’s response was that he not only condemned the coup in strongest terms but also said, “If somebody who appears to be a Hizmet-sympathizer has been involved in an attempted coup, he betrays my ideals.”
The most pertinent question that arises here is: what could be the reasons behind Erdoğan’s singling out of Gülen? Answers are many. First of all, by focusing on one group for vilification, Erdoğan government has been able to keep other groups in self-protection mode, hence silent. There also are reasons behind Erdoğan’s obsession with Gülen; for instance, his failure to turn him into a pro-Erdoğan mouthpiece and his conviction that 2013 public corruption probe was the work of his [Gülen’s] sympathizers. A historic control-related reason is also behind this relationship of hatred.
Historically, in Muslim-majority regions, political rulers have always sought, and often demanded, the support of influential religious figures. It is especially so because there is a lack of separation of religion and politics in such states. At the bottom of Erdoğan’s wrath at Gülen lies the same issue of control. President Erdoğan’s voter base largely consists of religiously-observant Turks. He uses the religious identity often to polarize the society and solidify his voter base. What makes Gülen particularly disturbing is the fact that he is an inconvenient mirror to the Turkish president. Although Erdoğan can dismiss many of his critics easily; he can dismiss Kemalists by claiming that they have a problem with religion per se, he can claim that the Alevis have a grudge against Sunnis and the liberals are western puppets, but Gülen is an observant Muslim and he has not always been publicly critical of Erdoğan. He began to criticize him only after public corruption became widespread and Erdoğan’s authoritarian actions completely eroded previous democratic reforms. In particular, Gülen refused to publicly support Erdoğan’s drive for executive presidency out of concern for the lack of checks and balances. Given the fact that Gülen has no ideological problem with Islam and that he has not always been a critic of Erdoğan, it is not easy to denounce him.
It is absolutely the right of the Turkish government to investigate the accused officers and identify those who wilfully participated in the coup attempt. However, many observers note that the official story of the coup offered by Turkish government appears too simplistic to believe as it creates more questions than answers. The questions and contradictions can be grouped into the following five themes:
Inconsistent and self-contradictory claims
President Erdoğan gave conflicting accounts of when and how he learned about the coup attempt. He initially told Reuters that he learned about the attempt from his brother-in-law around 4:30 p.m., and that he called but could not reach either MIT chief or military chief by phone. He later changed his timing to 8:00 p.m. in an interview to CNN and then to 9:30 p.m. in another interview to ATV. During the press conference at the Istanbul Airport around 4:30 am, however, he said, “There has been a movement within the Armed Forces starting this afternoon.”
Lack of communication with and security measures for heads of government
Pro-Erdoğan media and the Military Chief of Staff’s July 19 statement were in unison to claim that the National Intelligence Organization, MIT, received an insider warning about the possible coup in the afternoon of July 15, and that the Chief of Staff was informed around 4:00 p.m. However, besides sending a general memorandum to halt flights of military aircraft and the movement of heavy armoured vehicles, no other precautions were taken to thwart any such attempt. Turkish military chief even did not ready his regular troops or special operations teams to counter coup supporters. The security around the office of the chief of staff was also not increased which allowed the putschists to take him hostage by 11:30 p.m. — only seven hours after being informed about the attempt. Neither the chief of MIT nor of the military informed President Erdoğan or Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Erdoğan further claimed that he called but could not reach the intelligence chief until 10 p.m. So, it seems hard to believe that despite being alerted on the coup attempt and despite informing the military’s chief around 4:00 p.m., the intelligence chief never called the President nor did he try to secure him against a possible hostage-taking situation.
Negation of the government’s story through testimonies
The former Commander of the Turkish Air Force Akin Öztürk, who was initially charged with having links with Hizmet and being the mastermind of the coup, spurned those allegations. Later, he was declared a hero for trying to stop the coup. General Hakan Unver, who is blamed of offering to put military chief on the phone with Gülen, too denied any such accusations.
Erdoğan’s circles accused that the air force was the leading participant. A number of commanders of the air force bases were arrested after the coup. These commanders had hundreds of fighter jets under their command but none of them flew to intercept or harm the aircraft carrying Erdoğan. Greek Air Force refuted Erdoğan’s claims that pro-coup F-16s harassed his aircraft and others loyal to him protected it.
After the attempt was foiled, a number of side stories were added to produce what a recent New York Times piece called “A Founding Myth of an Islamist Turkey” with Erdoğan as the saviour hero.
Government actions contradict the story
The commander of the 2nd army, Gen. Adem Huduti, who was arrested after the coup, claimed that he fought against Gülen-sympathizers in the past. He was in the limelight for leading the military’s campaign against the PKK in southeast Turkey that resulted in civilian casualties. Several of the commanders arrested after the coup, or killed during it, including Gen. Huduti, were known to resist Erdoğan’s ambition to stage a land-based military operation into Syria. According to pro-AKP sources, an air force officer identified with initials H.A. informed the national intelligence about the coup in the early afternoon. Instead of being declared a hero and given a national medal of honour, he was dismissed from the military because his name allegedly appeared on the list of the coup-plotters. Was he dismissed because of alleged links to Hizmet movement? In that case, doesn’t Hizmet movement deserve to be credited just as it was vilified? In the immediate aftermath of the attempt, before any investigation, thousands of military personnel, tens of thousands of non-military personnel, including 2700 judges and prosecutors, were ready to be dismissed and/or charged. All independent experts agreed that these lists could not have been prepared based on participation in the coup; rather they were prepared beforehand and were going to be used at the first opportunity.
Actions of military units don’t make sense
The execution of the coup attempt was remarkably incompetent in ways to exacerbate public reaction. Actions such as blocking one direction of traffic on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge during rush hour, bombing the parliament building or deliberate targeting of civilians were unprecedented in previous coup attempts. Military units stormed the hotel where Erdoğan was vacationing five hours after tanks first appeared on the Bridge. In previous coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, political leaders were secured first and TV and Radio stations next. Political leaders were humiliated and the coups were staged while most people were asleep. Previous coup-makers took care to avoid civilian casualties. During the July 15 attempt, neither Erdoğan nor PM Yildirim were secured, pro-Erdoğan TV/Radios were left alone, and the coup started during rush hour when most people were awake. Taking publicly visible actions before securing political leaders — as was the case in all previous coups — makes no sense.
Just as it was wrong for Erdoğan to blame Gülen for masterminding the coup without evidence, it is equally wrong to accuse Erdoğan for the same reason. However, there is a more plausible alternate story hinted at by veteran Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar that deserves to be validated through an investigation.
Writing for Al Monitor, Çandar recalled telling New York Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise two weeks before July 15 of a “Faustian bargain President Erdoğan made with the military, which … opened the way for a coup or a coup attempt to take place in Turkey within the upcoming two years”. Çandar observes that despite the fact that thousands of officers were arrested immediately after the coup, including a large number of generals who commanded the combat units of a Nato army, “it is quite bizarre that no security bureaucracy from the military intelligence to the National Intelligence Organization, the General Directorate of Security and Special Forces Command had a clue that a coup was being hatched at such a magnitude.” The swift action of the government in rounding up thousands of military officers led Çandar to conclude that “Erdoğan and the government were prepared for a coup attempt and had ample intelligence as to who in the state system would be associated with it.”