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Four Inconvenient Questions About The Turkish Coup Attempt

A group of imams bow their heads next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip during a funeral service for victims of the thwarted coup in Istanbul.
A group of imams bow their heads next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip during a funeral service for victims of the thwarted coup in Istanbul.

Shortly after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, which has left nearly 300 people dead, some 6,000 suspects were arrested, most of them judges, prosecutors, and army officers. Many of the arrests happened in the first 24 hours -- the rest took place the next day.

No doubt, there will be more to come. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said as much: “From members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to those in the Constitutional Court, people are being dismissed and arrested. Is that enough? No, it is not. This had to happen, but it is not enough.”

While it is inevitable that retribution and punishment will occur, the challenge for Turkey is to make sure it is handled with restraint. And the ongoing reckoning will raise some uncomfortable questions.

1. What Was The Aim Of The Coup?

A military coup usually targets the government, but that doesn’t seem to necessarily be the case in Turkey. When the first shots were fired on July 15, the president was on vacation. None of the key ministers, governors, or police chiefs were arrested. The coup plotters took some of their own army commanders hostage and occupied the headquarters of the chief of command as well as an air base in Ankara. It looked more like a move against the army itself rather than against the government.

2. Why Was The Parliament Bombed?

After Turkey’s parliament was hit by a bomb on July 15, all political parties, including the opposition, were united in defending parliament and democracy. Despite the attacks, deputies returned to the parliament building to demonstrate their support. Many observers immediately asked what was the purpose of bombing parliament, even if they had managed to completely destroy the building.

The damage, however, was minimal -- and the parliament is still functioning The satellite connection of many TV channels, including state TV, was damaged, although a few independent TV channels, notably CNN Turk, remained untouched. (Ironically, the latter became a tribune of protest against the coup attempt.)

The plotters also sent young conscripts to occupy some government agencies and a few media headquarters. But those soldiers were ineffective, didn’t seem to be aware of their mission, and quickly surrendered. Some were brutally killed by angry mobs.

3. How Do You Find 6,000 Suspects In Two Days?

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag has said that “6,000 suspects were arrested” and that the arrests would continue. But how is it technically and humanly possible that Turkish authorities would be able to collect legitimate evidence on 6,000 citizens in such a short time? In absence of concrete evidence, it is possible that government authorities were working from watch lists of individuals considered a threat, which were drawn up from before the coup. A large proportion of the arrests -- around 2,500 people -- worked in the justice system. If the coup was just a “small group” within the army, as Erdogan has stated, why were so many judges and prosecutors involved?

4. Where Is The Evidence Of Fethullah Gulen’s Role?

The authorities were quick to lay the blame for the coup at the door of U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen. Gulen has denied being involved and Ankara has not yet offered any clear evidence about the cleric’s role. Erdogan has called for U.S. officials to extradite Gulen, who has lived in the United States since 1999. (U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the Obama administration would consider an extradition request for Gulen but would only comply if Washington was shown proof of the cleric's guilt.)

Whether or not any evidence transpires, the coup has provided a good opportunity to crack down on Gulen’s movement, which is designated a terrorist organization in Turkey. Many officials and media outlets have amplified the claims’s about Gulen’s involvement, creating a climate where few will dare to question the accusations.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.