“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will, every man can follow his own conscience provided it does not interfere with sane reasons or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow men”.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Founder and First President of the Turkish Republic
Alphen, Netherlands. 18 July. Two coups took place in Turkey this past weekend. The first coup was an exercise in military incompetence. The second coup is still underway and as coups go it is being exercised both brilliantly and ruthlessly. As a friend of Turkey both coups sadden me, not only because 265 people were killed and over 1400 wounded, but Turkey this weekend could well have ceased to be a strong Western state, and instead become a weak Middle Eastern potentate. With the arrest of over 6000 people, some 3000 of them members of the judiciary, this weekend could also mark the final, irrevocable eclipse of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s visionary 1923 constitution and his dream of a secular Turkish state which he crafted from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and which sought to uphold the rights of all Turkish citizens.
A few years back I stood on the towering spot where Ataturk had commanded his troops during his brilliant defence of Gallipoli just over a century ago. His eyes were cast to the West even as he defended his country against the forces of France and the British Empire. Strategically, Turkey is just as important now as it was back then. Indeed, Turkey is the pivotal power, sitting at the strategic crux of east and west, north and south.
For many years I have cut President Erdogan political slack. Turkey is not a Western European state and governing Turkey has never been easy, and in any case the rest of Europe has been utterly duplicitous in its dealings with Ankara. For years the EU has pretended to promise eventual Turkey membership, and Turkey has pretended to believe the EU. Now, incompetent elements of the Turkish armed forces have helped President Erdogan step over the threshold between democracy and autocracy upon which he has been standing.
The irony is that President Erdogan can also legitimately wrap himself in Ataturk’s flag in the wake of the coup and claim he is protecting the very Kemalist constitution he could well now destroy. as Turkey shifts from parliamentary democracy to presidential fiat. A kind of ‘sovereign democracy’ beloved of the likes of Russia’s President Putin.
So, how could this happen? The failed military coup followed the same pattern as the ‘interventions’ by the Army in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997, all of which were designed to restore Ataturk’s order. It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that that elements within the officer corps were goaded into this coup. For months now Army officers have been complaining that President Erdogan was weakening the Army, purging secular officers, and side-lining the Army from its self-appointed role as ‘guardians’ of Ataturk’s republic. Suspiciously President Erdogan issued several warnings that some form of coup was imminent.
What are the implications for Turkey? Contemporary Turkey is split roughly three ways between a European-leaning, more liberal west, a conservative heartland from which President Erdogan draws much of his support, and the Kurds in the south and east of the country. The speed with which President Erdogan has moved to round up opponents has the feel of a pre-planned operation. In the short-term there is no doubt Erdogan’s power will be further enhanced. However, as it becomes clear that the Turkish Republic is slipping into a kind of democratic dictatorship wrapped in a pale green cloaks of Islamism then the acute divisions within the country will likely become more evident. At the very least tensions between President Erdogan’s APK government and the Kurdish PKK will increase.
The implications for the West are equally profound. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO. It is an army that has been weakened, and will be further weakened, as President Erdogan purges any elements in the officer corps he suspects of complicity in this plot. Worse, a powerful cornerstone of European security has been weakened and will continue to be weak for some time to come. This raises a host of questions about the viability of the West’s anti-ISIS and anti-Assad strategies. Operations against ISIS have already been disrupted with the temporary closure of the vital Incirlik air base this weekend. There are also now real questions as to the willingness of Turkey to assist in managing the migrant flows from the Levant to Europe. Certainly, much will now depend on the tone and tenor of criticism from a Europe, not a few leaders of which probably hoped the coup might succeed, if it had led to a more amenable Turkish leader with which to deal.
Therefore, Turkey’s two coup weekend has winners and losers. The winners are President Putin’s Russia and ISIS as both benefit from a divided Turkey no longer anchored as firmly in the West as it was even last week. The loser is the West, as it could well be that Turkey ceased to be a member this past weekend. At the very least there will need to be a lot of patient and clever diplomacy to keep Turkey looking westwards.
However, the biggest loser will be democracy and the Turkish people. Indeed, Turkey’s Great Man must be spinning in his magnificent marble tomb in Ankara this morning. As President Ataturk once said, “Victory is for those who can say “victory is mine!” Success is for those who can begin saying “I will succeed” and say “I have succeeded” in the end”.