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Turkey Notebook

The failed coup has given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the perfect excuse to remove all traces of Gulenist influence.

In 2011, Bilgin Balanli, a decorated four-star general in the Turkish Air Force, was expected to become Turkey’s chief of the general staff. Instead, he was arrested, together with hundreds of other generals, admirals, and high-ranking officers. His supposed crime? Plotting to overthrow the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Soon, the number of arrested officers from Turkey’s Armed Forces reached 700.

Three years later, in 2014, Balanli was released, together with hundreds of other officers. No credible evidence was ever presented that they were involved in any “plot.” In April of this year, Turkey’s highest court of appeal found that the entire indictment against the officers was based on fabricated claims and that there was no “plot” against the government.

Whether or not the plot was real, the result was that the cream of the Turkish Armed Forces, NATO’s second-largest, was purged and many high-ranking officers replaced by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a hugely influential cleric now living in self-exile in the United States.

After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan tolerated, if not supported Gulen and his secretive movement, largely because he saw the strictly secular armed forces and judiciary, which would regularly clean up their ranks of what they saw as Islamists and ethnic separatists, as a threat. Indeed, the army was uncomfortable with Erdogan’s government and in 2008 the Constitutional Court mulled banning the AKP’s leading figures from politics.

A few years into Erdogan’s rule, it became difficult to get an important government position or get a good business deal against the blessing of the “community” -- a reference to supporters of Gulen, who established themselves in the military, the security services, the judiciary, the education system, and the media. This was a new and unspoken dichotomy: a traditionally secular army and court system that was infiltrated by the Gulenists. There were also many Gulenists within Erdogan’s government.

It was under these conditions that in 2011, Gulenist prosecutors and judges orchestrated an attack against senior members of the army and judiciary, claiming they were planning a “coup” against Erdogan’s government. In reality, this was just an attempt to destroy Turkey’s traditional secular and pro-Western structures.

Standing trial after his arrest in 2011, General Balanli said in court that “the goal of this dirty plot [the accusations that he was taking part in a coup] was to behead the eagle,” a reference to the Turkish Armed Forces. Last week, almost a month after the July 15 coup attempt, Balanli spoke out again in an interview with the daily Hurriyet: “With the coup attempt, the eagle has now lost its wings and tail. To achieve its pre-2011 strength, [the armed forces] need at least eight to 10 years.”

If losing some 700 officers, including generals and admirals, in 2011 was the “beheading” of the Turkish Armed Forces, the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath has inflicted an even deeper wound on an institution whose primary goal was to safeguard the “secular and democratic republic” of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Five years ago, when the Gulenist movement first moved against the armed forces, Erdogan and his government sat back and watched. They were afraid of the military and feared the secularists had plans to remove them from power. Thus, they were happy to let the Gulenists do their dirty work. When asked about the crackdown, Erdogan and his ministers would just say that justice in Turkey was “impartial” and nobody should intervene in the proceedings.

But by 2013, those same Gulenist prosecutors and judges were campaigning against Erdogan, his family members, and close aides. They allegedly publicized audio recordings of Erdogan and his children, implicating them in corruption and misappropriation, although none of the allegations was substantiated in court.

This time, Erdogan hit back.

Shortly afterwards, he began to purge government agencies, the police, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, and educational institutions of Gulenists. If it is true that the coup plotters were Gulen supporters acting on the cleric’s orders, then it is plausible that they decided to attack because they feared being eliminated by Erdogan and his AKP.

The failed coup has given Erdogan the perfect excuse to do just that -- remove all traces of Gulenist influence. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Alan has said that some 76,000 government employees have been suspended following the failed coup attempt. They have all been accused of having connections to the Gulen movement.

“Some 3,083 of the arrested were police officers, 7,248 were soldiers, 2,288 were judges and prosecutors, 199 were local officials, and 4,161 were civilians,” the minister added. This includes around 150 generals and admirals and half of the country’s fighter pilots.

The long-term consequences for Turkey’s military could be huge. Becoming a general or an admiral can take around 20 years; fighter pilots must commit to eight to 10 years of active duty. Add to that the new changes the Erdogan government has made regarding the decentralization of the Turkish Armed Forces. Using the extraordinary power of the president during the state of emergency, all commanders of the land, air, and naval forces will report directly to their respective ministers in the civil government and no longer to the chief of the general staff, as was previously the case. The chief of the general staff will now directly report to Erdogan himself.

To some observers, this could help democratize society. There are concerns, however, that these new lines of authority will mean an end to the Turkish Armed Forces’s meritocracy, especially when those lines lead directly to the president, his prime minister, and a few loyal ministers.

How To Win Turks' Hearts

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the G20 summit in Antalya in November 2015.

Prominent Turkish satirist and comedian Gulse Birsel was just in Europe -- this time for five days. She writes how "bored" she was, and how she couldn't wait to return to her beloved Istanbul.

"Enough Parisian croissants and European monotony, we are addicted to adrenaline," she writes in the daily Hurriyet. "How can Europe make us feel happy? Within seconds following an argument, she says of Turks, "we hug and kiss each other, cry out of happiness.

"Then we start discussing politics, and fight and insult each other again."

She's right. Forget about Turkey's EU-accession talks, which are on hold anyway. Forget about Turkey's membership in NATO, boasting the second-largest army in the alliance. Things in Turkey are not so cut and dry as to take cooperation as a sign of future unity.

As satirist Birsel describes Turkey, from the top down many of its people can be seen as emotional, unpredictable, and not so reasonable and calculated, at least not in the Western sense (and much like Italians or Greeks might have been perceived 50 years ago). This characterization seems to fit whether you are talking about the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is well-known, respected (in Turkey), and feared (abroad) for being "autocratic," or the lowly grocer around the corner.

Let's not look away and pretend we were not aware of this. The average Turk is now suspicious of the West, especially of the United States. Many think Washington was behind the terrible, bloody coup attempt in July. Don't ask why. They feel they have tons of proof that U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen is the mastermind of the coup. And the United States' purported reluctance to immediately hand him over to Ankara as requested, and following of protocol that passes the case to American courts -- which could take years -- means the Turks are angry at their Western and NATO friends.

Many Turks are concerned about the territorial integrity of their country because they see it as being threatened by Kurdish insurgency both within Turkey and across the border -- in Iraq, but especially in Syria. And they are angry because they think the United States and Europe are not doing anything to counter it. On the contrary, they believe, the United States is even helping the Kurdish "terrorists" in northern Syria. Turks generally have no objections to the Kurds fighting in northern Syria as long as they stick to defeating Islamic State (IS) extremists. But many believe this is not the case, that the Kurds are fighting to expand their territory, and that Kurdish involvement is bad for Turkey because the Kurds fighting in Syria are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- which is banned in Turkey and which many Western states consider to be a terrorist organization.

On August 7, hundreds of thousands of people attended a huge Democracy And Martyrs rally in Istanbul to promote unity among political parties and to honor those killed during the failed coup attempt.

It was not only Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that mobilized people to attend the rally. A majority of the other political parties, NGOs, and nonpoliticians showed up to show their opposition to the coup and their support for parliamentary democracy -- even those critical to Edogan.

Again, let's not look away, assuming that Erdogan is just appealing to the masses in an attempt to strengthen his power base. Yes, he is. But this time around it is clear that the masses are with him -- he is not alone, or backed only by supporters within his own party, but by many Turks from across the political spectrum.

Ask around 50 people in Turkey, as I did in the last week, and this reality becomes obvious. And it is not only the average person -- this is what I am seeing in the Turkish media, and in the words of political and public personalities.

To win the hearts of an old friend -- in this case, Turkey -- one would have to address their needs. For Turks this means extraditing Gulen from Pennsylvania to Turkey to stand trial as the mastermind of a coup that brought Turkey to the edge of complete collapse, and actively helping Turkey reduce the danger posed by Kurdish insurgency, especially in northern Syria, which is seen as an existential threat.

I know this is easier said than done, and involves a litany of legal issues over Gulen's extradition, strategic issues with Syria, IS, etc., etc. But let's not forget Turkish satirist Birsel's brilliant description of how her countrymen fight and/or agree with foes and friends.

I am afraid the West's adrenaline-addicted friends in Turkey will not wait too long for their demands to be met.

In the aftermath of the huge show of power and support exhibited in Istanbul on August 7, Erdogan is set to leave for St. Petersburg, where he will meet a friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Turkish president will likely be doing some comparison shopping as he seeks foreign backing. And Putin can be expected to be more open to agreement with Erdogan -- with fewer caveats -- at the moment than the West.

But the Russian president won't have much to offer his newly regained Turkish friend in terms of immediate help, either.

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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.