Erdogan and Gulen, once friends now foes / Unknown

30/07/2016 - 11:56 0
AKP, Army, and the Gulen Movement: Anatomy of the Failed Coup Attempt in Turkey

On 15 July 2016, Turkey witnessed an unexpected coup attempt, which seemed to have been coordinated by more than one clique within the country’s own army. It has been said that the coup was organised by several senior military officers, including generals, admirals and lieutenant colonels, alongside support from many lowly enlisted officers. What is surprising about the coup is that it was believed that the AKP had successfully eliminated its most severe opponent officers within the army and alternatively were in cooperation with the main body of the army. Such cooperation was seen not only between the AKP and the army (or at least the main command echelon) but also those that held strict secular and Kemalist political ideals such as the Dogu Perincek group-also known as Ergenekon group. However, the coup has confirmed these perceived alliances were not what they seemed to be. Because, despite the command echelon of the army and Ergenekon group's support to the government and challenge to the coup, a significant body of the military were involved in this failed coup. This also revealed that there is a severe split within the army.

Nonetheless, that is not the only reason for considering this coup as unusual. Another reason why the coup was unexpected was because the majority of people assumed that the Turkish military would have taken away significant lessons from the past military coups, which strongly damaged the army’s reputation. This factor alongside the fact that Turkey has become a significant member of NATO only further distanced the idea of a possible military coup today. In addition to this, Turkey’s on-going battle with the PKK, as well as the Syrian and Iraqi wars and the re-design of the Middle East through proxy wars, are also certain factors which led many to believe that no one would dare, or even take the risk of carrying out a military coup. As a result of all these conditions, it was logical to assume that a coup in Turkey was an unlikely event. Therefore, the Junta's attempt shocked many, both at home and internationally. 

However more than the attempted coup, the methods used by the Junta were what shocked so many. Such methods and tactics included the bombing of the Turkish assembly and Special Operations Command in Ankara, opening fire on civilians, kidnapping and arresting the chief of general staff Hulusi Akar as well as chief of air staff and naval forces, and the bombing of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hotel in Marmaris. Such ruthless methods were unusual in comparison to the previous military coup d’états that were not carried out in the same manner. These points naturally lead to further questions on Junta’s motives. This failed coup as well as later developments, will be discussed further to distinguish it from the previous coups.

The Causes of Failure

First of all, the country is relieved that such a Junta’s coup attempt failed. In the case of their success, the coup would further slide Turkey into chaos. Considering both groups’ harsh stance against the Kurds and their power fetishism, many of whom were arrested as Junta members (as noted before were in high positions in the Kurdish region and involved in human rights violations), it is not hard to guess that they would not bring democracy to the country. Beyond this, overthrowing a government through violent means will never be a real or liberal- democracy. Instead it would be a militarist democracy.

A few hours after the coup, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a TV channel via FaceTime and called on people to resist the attempt. Erdogan highlighted that this attempt was not taking place in the chain of the command, so the main body of the army was behind the government and opposed the coup. Erdogan’s call was followed by appeals from other ministers for people to take to the streets to prevent the coup. Opposition leaders and some army commanders also joined TV channels and declared their support to the government, and opposed the coup. This strongly encouraged people to believe that not all the army was behind the coup and the government was resisting it, which soon mobilized thousands and gathered them in the city centres, particularly Ankara and Istanbul. Considering the many previous military coup d'états or attempts, it is a fact that all of them caused long-standing trauma, tragedy, including collective arrests, torture, human rights violation, and authoritarianism. It is not so hard for ordinary people to guess that this attempted coup would have only further worsened the situation in Turkey. However, a large number of people took to the streets in demonstration against the coup, which contributed to the reasons as to why the Junta failed.

On the other hand, further questions arise such as; how did the Junta, which organised the coup so well, not anticipate such a reaction from the public, or if they were expecting it why did they not take any measures to combat their influence? The Junta probably expected to receive some support from those people who disliked the AKP, by taking to the streets to celebrate the coup. However, they overestimated the amount of support they had amongst the public and this did not happen. On the contrary, the AKP supporters took to the streets and in turn this physically blocked/prevented the Junta's ability to move forward.

Herein, what needs to be highlighted is that most of the soldiers that attempted the coup just performed the orders given to them by their commandants (senior military officers).  Most of these ordinary soldiers either had been told that they would make a military manoeuvre on the streets or that there is an insurrection that had to be suppressed by the military. Most of these ordinary soldiers did not know they were part of a coup. It was only when the masses took to the streets, did soldiers realise that they had become part of a coup without their will and that they were lied to. Realising this most of the soldiers left their arms. Therefore, the people's challenge to the coup and taking of the streets, first physically, second psychologically, sharply reduced the coup’s success.  Nonetheless, that is not the only reason behind the failure of the coup.

Obvious failures such as the lack of control of the mainstream media and no arrests of politicians can also be seen to be contributing factors to the failure of the coup, which was coincidentally, the initial steps taken in previous coups. In previous coups, putschists initially arrested politicians and cut off their connection with both the media and also the masses. This in a way was an attempt to prevent the masses from organising and taking part in a counter-reaction against the coup. However, on the 15th of July, putschists just neutralised the state TV TRT for few hours while all other mainstream media continued their live broadcasts. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, many government ministers and opposition leaders, and most importantly the first army chief who stated quite firmly that this was not a military coup that took place in the chain of command were broadcast live. Therefore when Erdogan called the public to demonstrate on the streets, it became almost certain that the Junta would fail.

In comparison to the previous coups, this coup attempt was an outlier to the rest; therefore it has raised many questions. It has become apparent on social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook that some people believe that this coup was a conspiracy to eliminate all Gulen-affiliated officers from the army, or that the Junta had to start the coup earlier than scheduled since the government was aware of such an attempt - which was highlighted by the prime minister Binali Yildirim.

In conjunction to these factors, disorganisation to some extent was also a key element that hindered any possible success. Due to the AKP’s potential counter attack and time to prepare, it seemed that putschists had to start the coup despite insufficient preparations. Furthermore, there are claims that some of the officers preparing for the coup at the beginning switched sides as soon as the coup began. This is also regarded as a causal factor behind the Junta’s defeat.

The Putschists (Junta)

It has become apparent that the government has shifted the blame onto the Gulen movement while the military, deliberately or at least is in no rush, to place all responsibility on the same movement. Furthermore, a considerable number of citizens also feel that officers affiliated with the Gulen movement coordinated this coup. Such beliefs are justified when considering the severe struggle between the Gulen Movement and AKP, hence to some extent; it seems rational to hold the Gulen movement to account. However, holding the Gulen movement solely accountable and as the mastermind behind the coup, therefore ignoring other cliques is rather dangerous and is an overly simplistic explanation for such a complex and violent coup. Such a simplified overall approach that does not go into details, can lead to shrouding the competition between different groups, corruption within the army and also hide the local and regional political motivation behind the coup.

So, considering the daring attempt, the degree of violence, and most importantly the coup’s failure to take precautions against the government’s tough and extreme reactions, which included the declaring of state of emergency for three months, the arrest and/or dismissal of thousands of senior officers within the army, police force, judiciary and other state institutions, it seems that the coup attempt was not an overnight sensation. It is probable that the government realised that there were several cliques behind the coup and another attempt could be made, so began a comprehensive purge. Therefore, condemning only the Gulen movement will prevent us from seeing the bigger picture behind the failed coup attempt. Nevertheless, that does not mean we should trivialise or simplify the Gulen movement’s contribution to the coup. The following paragraphs will touch on the many reasons why the Gulen movement may have potentially been involved in the coup.

From Alliance to the Coup: The Gulen Movement

The military has always been a central power in determining Turkey’s politics both domestically and in foreign policy since the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The Army has always been at the forefront of politics, as evidenced by the number of coups since its formation, to name a few; The Coup d’état on 27 May 1960, 12 March 1971, 12 September 1980, and the post-modern military intervention of 27 April 2007. It is also notable to remember the two failed military coup attempts by Colonel Talat Aydemir on 22 February 1962, and 20 May 1963, which consequently resulted in his execution on 27 June 1964.

It was firstly and mostly during the AKP-Gulen Movement’s alliance that the military’s influence on politics was restricted to some extent. Such a relationship allowed the AKP and Gulen movement to weaken or at least in some aspects limit the military’s potential involvement in politics. The Gulen movement’s power was significant within the police force and judiciary, which led the AKP to arrest hundreds of military officers in high positions including former Chief of General Staff Army Ilker Basbug on 26 January 2012, on the charge of trying to overthrow the AKP government.

Amid the grave violations during the investigation and judicial process, the AKP, and its main ally the Gulen movement launched the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) and Ergenekon cases and severely punished many of these military officers, including generals, colonels, and admirals. This significantly damaged the military's reputation and weakened its overall power, or at least restricted the military’s ability to carry out a potential coup d'état against the government, though not entirely.

However, the alliance between the AKP and Gulen Movement started disintegrating as the two former allies began to compete for power. Their relationship struck a turning point particularly when the Gulen-affiliated police force attempted to arrest the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) Hakan Fidan on 2 February 2012.

Tensions between the AKP and Gulenists further escalated after the latter launched a corruption investigation against the AKP (17-25 December 2013), which resulted in the resignation of four cabinet ministers. In retaliation, the AKP carried out a cleansing operation against Gulen followers within government institutions, particularly from the police force and judiciary.

In addition to this the AKP constitutionally declared the Gulen movement as a terrorist organisation under the name of FETO/PDY or “parallel state.” Things got even worse between the two when the AKP, in response to the Gulen’s soft power propaganda, especially in Europe and in the US, extended its operation against the movement by arresting many of its followers and by appointing trustees to confiscate the group’s leading institutions: the Gulen movement’s Fatih University, media organisations such as Zaman and Bugun Newspapers and Samanyolu TV channel. The Gulen movement also lost considerable authority in the judiciary, police force, education, and bureaucracy. This significantly limited the Gulen movement’s activities as well as power in Turkey.

Despite all the cleansing from state institutions, the AKP did not touch any Gulen-affiliated officers in the army. On-going military operations in the Kurdish region against the PKK, the Syrian and Iraqi crisis, the competition within the army itself and most importantly the lack of sufficient intelligence are probably certain factors that delayed the AKP’s potential operations against Gulen supporters in the military. Among these, the conflict with the PKK was probably the most significant motive that delayed the AKP’s response against the Gulenists in the army. As the names of those arrested for being putschists shows, almost all of them were heading the fight against the PKK. One example among many is the detention of the 2nd Army Division Commander General Adem Huduti, who ran the military operations in Cizre and Sur/Diyarbakir. Such military operations resulted in the destruction of both places and the death of hundreds of civilians. Furthermore, the conflict with the Gulen Movement, the resistance at the Gezi protests in 2013, the turmoil created by the Iraq and Syrian wars and Kurdish territorial gains in Syria (Rojava), pushed the AKP to cooperate with sections of the Army and their soft power in bureaucracy or politics, such as Dogu Perincek group. As a result the AKP released almost all of the military officers arrested during the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) and Ergenekon cases, and collaborated with the military against the Gulenists.

In response the Gulen movement further accelerated its attacks, particularly negative political propaganda against the AKP. This significantly damaged the AKP’s reputation both domestically in Turkey and also to some extent internationally. However, it was the existence of Gulen-affiliated officers within the army and the rising discontent among secular officers against the AKP’s policies, which intensified the AKP’s concerns and fears. Therefore, despite the elimination of Gulenists from almost all government institutions, their existence in the military (even though there were not many of them) was still seen as a threat by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Based on past experiences, Erdogan continued to demonise the Gulen movement and during public speeches mentioned potential action against the movement within the army. Based on this, many claim that Erdogan, by appointing Hulusi Akar as the General Chief of Staff, would have dismissed Gulenists at the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) in August 2016. This they say pushed the Gulenists and allied cliques within the army to launch a coup before the government purge at the YAŞ. Aware of this the Gulen-affiliated military officers in the army wanted to make their “Golden Shot” by launching the coup.

Despite all the allegations, Fethullah Gulen refuses to take blame and responsibility for the coup and instead claims that Recep Tayyip Erdogan may himself be behind the coup as a way of establishing a presidential system and to further consolidate his power.

Are the Gulen-Affiliated Military Officers Capable of Launching Such a Coup?

Considering the size of the coup, it is safe to say that there was more than one group or clique behind the attempted coup. It is also safe to say that, considering the Gulen movement’s pragmatic stance, political aims, struggle with the AKP and extensive national and international networks, that they were involved in the coup. The Gulen movement has been infiltrating the military since the 1980s and this process was further expedited with the disposal of many senior military officers during the AKP-Gulen alliance years and the launch of the Ergenekon, Balyoz and other cases. After the arrest and imprisonment of many secularist officers through these cases in 2009-2011, many of the Gulen-affiliated military officers were promoted and appointed to higher positions. So it was the AKP that opened almost all the doors to the Gulen movement within the army. To some extent, the group is more organised within the military at mid-level posts, which demonstrates a degree of strength.

However at this point what seems most likely is that those who are ideologically against the AKP and the officers that would not have been promoted in the coming YAŞ meeting cooperated with the Gulen movement and attempted the coup. This is because a large number of army members, including Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, and the 1st Army Commander Umit Dundar challenged the coup, which only leaves the above groups as potential putschists.  Since both the Gulenists and those against the AKP would not have had the numbers, power and network to organise such a violent coup by themselves it is safe to assume that the coup attempt was carried out by a coalition. A coalition that knew it would be their last chance against the AKP government before dismissal and arrest at the August YAŞ meeting.

Also considering Gulen’s reluctance in using violent methods in the past, it can be assumed that another group took on the duty of inflicting violence, while the Gulenists were more likely to be responsible for the organisation and planning of later phases.

Post-Coup Period

AKP: More Doubts, Less Hopes for Democracy

The prevention of the Junta's coup attempt is certainly a noteworthy development and a step in the right direction for democracy since people chose to side with the government. However, there are concerns as to whether the country will now take the necessary steps to keep on the path of democracy. Since 2010, the AKP’s practice has given less hope to many people in believing that the party will increase the country’s democratic values. This belief was further confirmed following the party’s response to the 1 June 2015 elections, which resulted in the AKP’s defeat (lack of majority), and turned the country towards chaos and bloodshed. Pragmatically, the AKP seized the opportunity to come to power by instigating chaos in the run-up to the 1 November snap-election. Since then the AKP has consistently ignored many democratic values. Although the same party asked the public to demonstrate in the streets during the attempted coup, this is not a sufficient indicator to believe that democracy has triumphed in Turkey.

The fact that some of the party’s supporters’ engaged in violent attacks against innocent soldiers, many of whom who had just performed the orders given to them as part of the chain of command; including lynching, insulting, and beheading, as well as chanting religious slogans on the streets, and calling for sharia, has further increased doubts amongst the many in believing that the AKP will turn the stance against the coup into a democratic process.

Doubts have also been strengthened by the AKP’s intensification of security measures at the expense of ignoring democratic values, such as the declaration of the state of emergency. This will further intensify the party’s power in Turkey and also its power and influence overseas, especially in the West. However, it will not be a sufficient condition in convincing the majority of the West to believe that the AKP takes democracy as its substance value. In order for the AKP to rectify its reputation it needs to do more on the ground, for example, it could start by releasing imprisoned journalists and politicians, end the war in the Kurdish region and all human rights violations and restart the resolution process of the Kurdish question.

Gulen Movement: Marginalisation, Isolation, and Partition within the Below

The Gulen movement has existed for almost four decades, with a strong involvement in politics and a lack of transparency it has begun to lose its fight against the AKP, more specifically Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An affliction of the ‘Hubris Syndrome’ (Arrogance of Power), the group, or at least some cliques within the group, has now almost destroyed what they had constructed through forty years. Today all of the Gulen’s ‘castles’ are occupied. What is more, the group is now being held responsible for launching a bloody coup, and to add to that, one that failed.  As a result of this, the movement is in no position to run any public activities in Turkey, since the AKP’s attempt to demonise them is working quite successfully. Naturally such a decline in support will heavily hinder the group's ability to recruit new members.

As for the upper strata within the group, they will most probably further radicalise and clamp together in an attempt to consolidate power, since they have all been severely weakened by this defeat. This can appear in different forms of coup against the government. The group's middle strata may also stay in interlock for a long time. However, the same may not be said for those that are new in the group or those that had pragmatic affiliations with the group; it is possible that they may break away from supporting the movement. A cleavage in that sense may develop in this line. It is not viable to say that this will lead to a split within the group, but it will further lead to isolation and marginalisation of some within the group. This, on the other hand, will further radicalise some followers. 

Therefore, despite all these nightmares, the Fethullah Gulen movement will continue to re-take power and return to its golden days [2002-2010]. The group’s support from the West and intellectual capacity can achieve this, but it will take quite some time.  On the other hand, even if the group cannot nullify all the convictions against them regarding its involvement in the coup, it is not so difficult to predict that dark days are ahead for the group in the West as well.

The Turkish Army: It is Time to Return to Their Barracks or Silivri Prison

The Turkish military as briefly noted above has always found itself as the leading power in the protection of the Turkish Republica’s values. Based on this, the military has regarded an involvement in politics as a natural right. Despite this though there has always been a split within the Turkish military to some extent. However, such a difference has never turned into an armed conflict until now. The failed Junta attempt in that sense is an indicator of the various cliques that are present in the army that are willing to cause conflict – this will impact the military in a series of ways. Alongside the physical effect, the army will be split into two divisions; those who are sensitive to secularism and support the coup and others who prefer to be in cooperation with the government. The 15 July coup attempt clearly indicated how the lines between these two groups had sharpened and will further be sharpened. This, on the other hand, leads to thinking that there is always a potential within some groups in the army for attempting coups.

In this sense, the existence of such severe secular groups within the military, and considering the extreme measures currently taken by the government, creates the potential dynamics for new coup attempts to take place.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of