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Turkey: Background to a Failed Coup

A personal view of the recent attempted coup in Turkey based on talking to people there.

Writing three weeks after the attempted coup d’etat on 15 July 2016 in Turkey, my initial reaction was one of complete rejection of its validity – it had to be a ‘false-flag’ because, based on early reports, the Turkish armed forces are quite simply not that inept!

As the days passed reports and information emerged that explained why the coup had failed so quickly and dramatically. It was clear that many in the higher echelons of the armed services and MIT (state intelligence service) were not aware of the plotting and would not have supported the plotters if they had been.

Young conscripts when faced with orders to shoot on crowds of civilians protesting against the coup refused, laid down their weapons and surrendered to the people or police. The mistreatment and even murder of these conscripts by the crowds and the failure of the police to prevent it were in many ways astonishing.

A sergeant shot himself dead rather than obey an illegal order to fire on a crowd.

A junior officer, when he realised what was happening, shot dead a brigadier who was a senior commander on the ground for the coup plotters.

Thousands of people answered the call from the president via social media and the mosques’ loudspeakers to fill the streets and stop the coup. Tanks were stopped by people laying down in front of them or by having socks stuffed in the exhaust pipes. Even so, hundreds were gunned down or died in the bombing by helicopter gunships and F16 fighter aircraft.

Perhaps the single most telling reason for the failure of the coup is to be found in the actions of the Russians. Relations between Turkey and Russia nose-dived after Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian plane over Syria (eventually even NATO agreed that the Russian aircraft had not crossed into Turkish airspace). Erdoğan’s bombast and refusal to apologise led to crippling sanctions that have deeply damaged the Turkish economy. Such was the damage that eventually Erdoğan swallowed his pride, admitted responsibility, apologised and agreed to pay the Russian government and families of the dead crew compensation.

Russia’s advanced electronic warfare and surveillance post at the Hmeimim Air Base in NW Syria intercepted communications between helicopters that indicated that a coup was about to be launched against the government of Turkey. That information was channelled to President Putin via the FSB (formerly KGB) who authorised that it be passed to MIT (Turkish Intelligence Service). Russia’s action has been ignored by Western media but has been openly acknowledged by the Turkish government. The head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, a staunch Erdoğan loyalist, immediately met with the chiefs of the armed services and an order grounding all aircraft and forbidding any movement of troops or armour followed.

The coup plotters, realising that they were exposed and would face a long jail sentence whether they surrendered or not, decided to bring their plans forward by six hours and execute the coup. Russia’s timely warning enabled those opposed to any coup time to prepare. The president was evacuated from his holiday hotel and rushed to an aircraft just forty minutes before renegade troops backed by helicopters attacked the hotel. His plane was escorted by two fighter aircraft from Dalaman in the South West to Istanbul on the advice of the General Staff as Ankara was too dangerous. En route two putschist F16s locked their weapon  systems on to Erdoğan’s plane but for whatever reason failed to fire.

Who was behind the coup?

I doubt that there is a single Turk who does not believe that the US was behind the coup attempt. Why? They will tell you . . .

•           History! It is hard to find a coup anywhere in the world that the US was not behind. All previous coup d’etats in Turkey were backed by the US.

•           Silence from the US as they awaited the outcome of the coup. Russia and Iran, for example, condemned it immediately.

•           The refusal of the US to extradite Fethullah Gülen from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania to face charges of conspiracy and sedition. Gülen is seen as a tool of the CIA, his application to reside in the US was backed by three senior CIA officials.

Many Turks believe that either the US government, or the CIA acting as a rogue element, whilst happy to keep the AKP government in place wants rid of Erdoğan whom they see as erratic and unreliable.

Fethullah Gülen is central to much of what has happened in Turkey since the AK Party came to power. The Gülen Movement is known as Hizmet which means Service and it can be divided into two distinct parts.

The part that is seen and openly supported by millions around the world promotes tolerance, openness, moderate Islam, acceptance of differences, education, etc., transparency in all things. It operates thousands of schools and colleges in many countries. It raises billions of dollars annually from its business operations, donations, gifts, legacies and tithing – it is immensely wealthy.

The part that you do not see functions in a very different way and has very different objectives. Turkey has been the target of Gülen for many years. In a leaked video of one of his sermons, which is still available on YouTube, he can be seen and heard saying the following: ‘You must move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centres. You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the constitutional institutions in Turkey’.

As the Gülenists patiently infiltrated all the components of the Turkish state from the army to the judiciary to the police to the education system to the general bureaucracy they were able to facilitate the rise of their own into the highest posts. After the video came to light many accused Gülen of infiltrating the state with an illegal organisation. Soon after Gülen fled to the US Hanefi Avcı , who was a police commissioner at the time, stated: ‘People spoke about the presence of Gülen’s followers inside the police force, but there was no apparent criminal activity. Only after 2006 did certain police officers start to show deeper allegiances to the movement than to the state’.

When the AK Party came to power in the 2002 general election it allied itself with Gülen and together they set about drawing down the power and influence of the secular military. The sensational Ergenekon (Deep State) and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) investigations purported to expose what the military were up to. There followed a series of show trials of the officer corps on trumped-up charges. Many spent up to three years or more in prison without trial. As the secular Kemalist officers were weeded out the Gülenists filled their boots. The military was devastated and deeply wounded. Throughout other elements of the state the same process was going on.

As the AK Party government established its writ throughout much of the country the ambitions of then Prime Minister Erdoğan began to dominate. He no longer desired the ‘guidance’ of Gülen and the two fell out very publicly.

When Gülenists inside the system, almost certainly acting on Gülen’s instruction, leaked evidence of massive corruption within the government and Erdoğan’s family the rift became total and a war of attrition began. The generals and senior officers of the armed forces were pardoned and released with an apology from Erdoğan and an explanation that it was the corrupt elements of Hizmet that had infiltrated the judiciary that were to blame for the huge miscarriage of justice. Many were reinstated because Erdoğan now needed different ‘friends’ within the system.

Purges of the Gülenists have been ongoing for some time and no doubt many of them saw the coup as a last-ditch chance to retain influence. Many outside of the Hizmet organisation believe that had the coup succeeded Gülen would have returned to Turkey rather like Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979.

Hizmet Structure

The structure of that element of the Hizmet organisation that functioned secretly within the state apparatus is interesting. Most organisations are hierarchical – they are ‘up-down’. The secret, deep-state Hizmet structure is best described as horizontal. A member of Hizmet will know only one other person. This person is his abi or older brother and his instructions are to be followed through without question. Secrecy is paramount to protect the organisation and the people within it. So, within the military for example, one can find the interesting example of a senior non-commissioned officer issuing instructions to a general and those instructions being carried out to the letter. This level of secrecy contributed to some of the disarray during the coup attempt. If there is no ‘abi’ to pass on changes of plan then chaos can reign. Add to that the ineptitude of the putschist use of the Whatsapp social media application and you have a recipe for failure. That said, the coup attempt came within a forty minute ace of succeeding. Without the Russians passing on the information they had intercepted Erdoğan would likely have been killed or captured.

State of Emergency

Following the failed coup great swathes of the armed services and the bureaucracy are being purged. All government employees have had their passports cancelled and are forbidden to leave the country. Within the judiciary anyone who voted against Erdoğan’s ‘reforms’ of that element of state structure has been automatically fingered as a Gülenist and suspended until investigated and proven innocent. All private universities, colleges and schools have been closed or taken under state supervision whilst their affiliations are examined. Any member of the bureaucracy whose bank records show they have made donations or gifts to the Hizmet or its various subsidiary organisations has been suspended pending investigation. Many of those who have made donations will have been fulfilling their obligations as Muslims unaware of the links to Hizmet and will be innocent of any ‘disloyalty’. They could also very well be AK Party supporters.

Although tens of thousands have been detained or suspended there is a steady flow of those who have been investigated and released or reinstated.

The Future – is Erdoğan Weaker or Stronger?

There are no crystal balls and Turkey is a very complicated and fractured society at present. What has united people across the board is their opposition to the coup attempt. Erdoğan was as bombastic and belligerent as ever immediately after the event. His position has mellowed considerably since he no doubt realises that he is hated by half the country’s population, all of his so-called NATO allies and most of the populations of the neighbouring states. He has withdrawn all of the thousands of libel actions against those who have ‘insulted the president’ (with the exception of the largely Kurdish HD Party – a tactical failure that he may live to regret). He has started a process of rapprochement with two of the main opposition parties but again his obsessive hatred of all things Kurdish has clouded his judgement and he has excluded the HDP. He has stepped back from reintroduction of the death penalty. He has drawn back from his plans for forcing through constitutional change and an executive presidency. He is heading to Russia for private talks with Putin. There are now friendly overtures towards Iran. The prime minister has said that Turkey wants to mend fences and normalise relations with Assad and Syria – Erdoğan has not contradicted this. If, or more likely when, this happens it will nail the lid on the coffin of the US’ project to Balkanise the Middle East and secure Kuwaiti gas pipelines to Europe which would have undermined Russia. As a result of his recent toning down I think that Erdoğan believes he is in a weaker position, at least in the short term.

Within a fairly short time frame it is possible that Turkey might leave NATO and, together with Iran, accept a Russian invitation to join the Eurasia Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The officer corps that is rising within the armed forces after the abortive coup is most definitely not Atlanticist like the Gülenist-CIA faction. They believe that Turkey’s future lies not in the EU-NATO-Western alliance but eastwards within Eurasia. This is a vision of the future that I believe Erdoğan shares.

Turkey has applied for Gülen’s extradition (again) and has presented the evidence that they have accumulated. If the US fails to comply then it will confirm the Turkish government’s view that the US/CIA/Gülen was indeed behind the coup. If they do extradite him then it will show that his ‘sell by date’ has passed and the NATO Gladio Operation in Turkey is at an end.

In closing it has to be said that Turks of every political persuasion seem optimistic about the future. ‘Things will be much better in Turkey now’ is a constant refrain. There are some who believe that Erdoğan will face charges in court for his corrupt and illegal practices within three years. Turks are amazingly optimistic people! That this coup attempt and Erdoğan’s counter-coup would lead to such an optimistic outcome was hard to understand. There is a feeling that ‘democracy’ and the people have triumphed. People believe that Erdoğan realises that he was saved not by those who support him but by those who support democracy. He was saved because of the people who laid down in front of tanks or paid with their lives for resisting on the streets as bullets flew. He was saved because an army sergeant killed himself before he would fire on his countrymen and women. He was saved by the young who used Facebook and Facetime to inform their fellow citizens of the coup threat (perhaps now he will reconsider his opposition to – and constant attacks on – social media). He was saved by the Chief of the General Staff who was kidnapped by his Gülenist ADC and, when invited to speak with his ‘older brother’ Fethullah Gülen, flatly refused. Above all, he was saved by Russia and President Putin who saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West, and in doing so relieve some of the unrelenting pressure by NATO at Russia’s borders.

For the majority of the population life remains ‘normal’, on the surface nothing much has changed. Behind the scenes much is changing and as the country moves forward more will follow. In the West the media has distorted, exaggerated and lied about what has happened and is happening. Erdoğan is authoritarian and autocratic and his political involvement is contrary to the existing constitution, according to which power should really lie with the prime minister and cabinet. That said he is not a dictator and he is the first directly elected president of Turkey. If, as seems likely, his erstwhile friends and allies in the various western alliances are indeed found to have been involved or even neutral to the events leading up to his attempted overthrow then the break up and realignment that will surely follow will be monumental and game-changing. US Secretary of State Kerry is due in Turkey shortly, his welcome is likely to be very cool!

(Name supplied but withheld)