Turkey’s military coup plotters failed to take even the most basic steps to achieve success. As a result, look for Turkish President Erdogan to strengthen his grip on power.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the funeral of Mustafa Cambaz, Erol and Abdullah Olcak, killed while protesting the coup against Turkey's government on July 16. Photo: AP

It is now clear that the military coup in Turkey ended in a triumph for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The attempt to take over the government was crushed, its instigators disgraced and arrested, and order restored.

However, even as the Turkish people filled the streets celebrating the “victory of democracy,” the price of this triumph was surprisingly high. More than 200 people were killed in clashes and deep divisions were revealed within the nation’s military. It now remains to be seen what actions the Turkish leadership will take following the failed coup attempt.

A decade of discontent

When Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, they did not hide their desire to increase the influence of religion in the country. And, according to one of the articles adopted by the military junta in the 1982 Turkish Constitution, the army was obliged to take power into its own hands only if it suspected the government of deviating from the secular order.

However, at the initial stage of his career, Erdogan enlisted the support of Washington and then strengthened his power through successful economic and political reforms. In 2007, the Erdogan government began to take political action against the Ergenekon – a secret organization that was preparing a military coup in Turkey. Conflicting evidence presented against the suspects did not stop prosecutors from sending several hundred people to prison.

As a result, the country began preparations for a referendum on amending the constitution. In 2010, the army lost its right to intervene in the political life of the country.

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During all these years, military coup plans were maturing. However, the government always remained stronger then the army. This was primarily thanks to the steep rise in living standards and the broad support of the population. The Erdogan regime enjoyed a level of support that no previous government had since the days of the legendary Kemal Ataturk (a military officer, reformer and the first Turkish President).

Therefore, the army was reluctant when it came to staging a coup. They did not move forward with plans in 2009, when much of the politically active Kemalists (the ideology of Turkish nationalism advocated by Ataturk) and retired military officers were put in prison, after the controversial referendum of 2010, or even after the disputed elections in 2015.

Even Ankara’s risky policy of supporting Islamist revolutions in the Middle East, numerous bloody terrorist attacks, and a quarrel with one of the nation’s main economic partners – Russia, did not made them take up arms and take responsibility for what was happening in the country.

The coup took place only now, at a time when relations between Ankara and Washington are at their lowest point since 1974 and the prospects for EU integration are zero, when relations with Russia have just started on a path of improvement, and there was the prospect of reconciliation with Damascus. It is believed in Turkey that some forces tried to prevent this suddenly opened prospect for Ankara to establish itself as an independent player on the world stage, to swing away from its traditional Western allies, and turn to the East and North.

Why the coup failed

It is already clear that the coup originated with senior military authorities from two services – the Air Force and the military police. It is well known that the Turkish Air Force has officers that are the closest to the U.S., which provides them all their machinery and equipment, and where most of the top brass were trained. However, it would be wrong to attribute to Washington the primary role in the preparation of this coup, as simply too many silly mistakes were committed in the first stage of its implementation.

The first mistake was made at the very beginning. A coup can achieve success only if the key figures of the executive authorities are immediately neutralized. The military was able to seize bridges, most TV stations, government buildings and the airport; however, they failed to capture either Erdogan or the newly appointed Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. It would have been an easy thing to find the whereabouts of these leading figures or send some officers, loyal to the coup, to pay them a visit.

The second mistake was the underestimation of the level of development of modern media tools. The military managed to seize the building of the central Turkish TRT television station. However, many other channels were untouched.

The point here is that, even if the coup plotters seized public television stations, there remained many more sources available, such as free Internet-based video services (e.g. Skype or FaceTime) that could successfully broadcast the President’s address to the people, asking them to take to the streets.

The third mistake was the underestimation of the level of support of the population for the current government and political elites, as well as the level of media infrastructure ownership by Erdogan’s supporters.

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After Erdogan’s appeal to the people with a call to “protect democracy,” many mosques in Turkey turned into 24/7 public media centers. As it is well known, their minarets are all equipped with powerful speakers, through which the adhan (obligatory call to prayer in Islam) is broadcast.

However, during this coup attempt, pious muezzin began to broadcast through these speakers appeals to the people, asking them to gather in the public squares. In addition, residents of Turkey reported receiving calls for taking up civil disobedience measures, which came to them via SMS, Viber, WhatsApp and Telegram – thus clearly showing the superior ability of the civil administration and party structures in controlling mobile communications.

Erdogan received support not only from the members of the government – Yildirim and others, but also from out of power politicians, such as the former prime minister and ideologue of neo-Ottomanism Ahmed Davutoglu. The elites were quite cohesive, unlike the military.

The fourth and fatal mistake of the coup was the lack of coordination of actions with other armed services. From the outset, it was clear that no one from the senior leadership of the army (defense minister, chief of staff) bothered to appear on television. The coup announcement was issued only by a faceless “army,” which claimed to be protecting the legacy of Ataturk.

Divisions within the Turkish elite

The majority of the generals did not support the coup and remained loyal to the authorities. Yet, enough military personnel took place that violence was inevitable. Consequently, real aerial combat took place in the skies over Ankara, while on the ground clashes erupted between the military and the police, who remained loyal to the current government.

All these factors suggest that the instigator of the coup was not the army as a whole (like in 1971, 1980 and 1997), but rather a small group of officers, who, apparently, counted on receiving unanimous support for their actions – support which failed to materialize.

Another thing was the difficulty in hiding the preparations for such a large-scale action. This means that those who knew about the plans remained silent – waiting to see what would happen, or on the contrary, made preparations for an active response. As usual, Erdogan is blaming the coup attempt on the “parallel state” – the Khizmat movement, headed by a resident of the United States, the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Previously, these two groups were allies and fought together against the dominance of the army in politics. It is believed that Gulen supporters were the main initiators of the Ergenekon trials, during which hundreds of retired officers, secular journalists and academics were sent to prison. Afterwards the two groups parted ways, and Erdogan has done everything to force the supporters of Khizmat out of the political elite.

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Now there are attempts to blame the coup plotters for a number of other recent problems. Already an announcement was made that the order for shooting down the Russian aircraft in November 2015 came from supporters of this coup attempt, seeking to embroil Turkey and Russia. Erdogan stated that the moratorium on the death penalty may be lifted in the country for the organizers of this bloody insurgency, and Washington was asked to extradite Gulen to Turkey.

Of course, it is clear that Erdogan will use this event to deal with the largest possible number of his political opponents. Mainly, this will involve the cleaning up of the army, the police and the Ministry of Justice, where all will be suspected of supporting the coup and working on a “parallel state” (as the government press calls the supporters of Gulen).

The well-known Turkish insider Fuat Avni, who very rarely makes mistake in his forecasts, described the situation as a theatrical event, the chief director of which lives in the presidential palace. One can hardly entirely agree with this hypothesis – the zigzags made by the presidential plane when approaching Istanbul Airport seemed too apprehensive to have been entirely staged.

However, it should be recognized that in the fight against the coup plotters, Erdogan became a real national hero, and defended the choice of the people from would be usurpers. While the chances of victory in the forthcoming referendum on changing the constitution and the political system in Turkey – from a parliamentary to a presidential one – were slim before, now after the failed coup, the majority will vote for anything, “just to avoid a civil war.”

If this goes through, then Erdogan could become the absolute ruler of Turkey during the next decade. Stability will return to Turkey very soon. In fact, within a couple of days, Russian tourists could start arriving in Turkey on charter flights, and nothing will remind them of what has just happened there.

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However, Turkey will never be the same. Erdogan has never been raised to such political heights, was never able to concentrate so much power in his own hands. Sometimes such things lead to unpleasant consequences for the country and for its people, as well as for its neighbors.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.