After Turkey announced a state of emergency in the wake of the attempted coup in mid-July, it remains to be seen which foreign policy course Ankara will take.
Turkish people protest during a demonstration against the Turkey coup attempt in support of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Cologne, Germany, July 31, 2016. Photo: AP
In mid-July there was a failed coup attempt in Turkey that resulted in the death of hundreds of people. And now that violence and attempt at regime change has resulted in a state of emergency being imposed in Turkey.
According to the confession of imprisoned officers who participated in the upheaval, the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the well-known Turkish Islamic cleric who has been living in the United States since 1999, were at the core of the coup attempt. That’s not a major surprise, since the movement surrounding Gulen is officially considered a terrorist organization in Turkey.
If that had been the extent of the crackdown in Turkey, it might not have acquired an international dimension. However, comments by top U.S. military officials suggest that Pentagon allies have been jailed as a result of the coup attempt. Given the U.S. military involvement in the region, including the use of an airbase in Turkey, that’s actually an important development.
However, before jumping to any conclusions about what will happen next, there are three myths about Turkey that should be debunked. Doing so will help to grasp the full meaning of the coup attempt and its implications.
Myth #1: Turkey’s military is homogeneous
The Turkish military is believed to be a homogenous institution that has traditionally been commanded by officers who are strictly bound to Kemalism, the founding ideology of modern Turkey. Actually this ideology has not always searched for solutions to the security of the country under the Western alliance [it is named for Kemal Atatürk, a military officer, reformer and the first Turkish President from 1923 until his death in 1938 – Editor’s note].
Kemalism, which puts national independence over any other political consideration, and which is misleadingly reduced only to secularism, had started to decline after World War Two. By the time Turkey entered NATO in 1952, the movement was all but ‘de facto’ dead. Since then, the Turkish military has split into different factions and witnessed internal power struggles between those factions.
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The result has been numerous coup attempts, sometimes successful, sometimes not, since 1960. Kemalists have been one of the biggest factions, but unlike the popular belief, have not played the pivotal role. Rather, secular pro-NATO generals have always been the most influential group and regularly intervened into politics. After the 1980 military coup, religious and pro-Western supporters of Gulen have also started to be organized within the Army as a separate group, and that has made the Turkish military even more heterogeneous.
Myth #2: The era of coup d’etat in Turkey is over
Until recently, there was a political narrative in the international press that under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, Turkish democracy has reached a high level of maturity and the military has become subordinate to civil politicians.
In fact, when the AKP came into power in late 2002, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had allied with secular liberals and a rival Islamic movement led by Gulen. The Erdogan-Gulen alliance delivered a hard blow to the establishment, which was especially evident after the 2007 parliamentary elections, which ended with the victory of Erdogan’s AKP that retained its majority.
During the following years the military was demoralized, courts were increasingly politicized and Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power. However, although the military seemingly retreated from its leading role, amidst increasing domestic and international security threats – including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Kurdish separatism and the Syrian war – it has regained its once strong status in recent years [The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), deemed to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the U.S., has been seeking greater autonomy from Ankara for about 30-40 years – Editor’s note].
Myth #3: Secular Westernizers vs. religious Easterners
The conventional wisdom is that the current struggle is between secular Westernizers and religious Easterners. However, the situation is more nuanced, taking into account the role of Turkey’s military.
The military does not entirely consist of secular officers. It also brings together their religious counterparts. In fact, Turkey’s army is one of the last strongholds of the religious and pro-Western Gulenists. This faction empowered themselves especially after the fabricated and spurious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases, which caused hundreds of Kemalist officers to be expelled from the Army and the Navy.
Kemalists, who are mainly EU and NATO skeptics, were overwhelmingly replaced by pro-Western Gulenists in high rankings. Not surprisingly they have mostly supported Erdogan against the latest Gulenist coup attempt.
As a result, the coup attempt failed mainly because it was not supported by the backbone of the Turkish military. The result was a big defeat for the supporters of Gulen. After the unsuccessful coup in mid-July, most of the Gulenist officers were removed from their military positions and replaced by nationalist and Kemalist ones under a ruling by the Supreme Military Council on July 28.
Implications for Turkey’s foreign and domestic agendas
A process of further overhaul is going on in the Turkish army. This will have strong repercussions on both Turkish domestic and foreign policy, taking into account the military’s important role in Turkish decision-making. A new political agenda is expected to take shape in the country. The government is now trying to reorganize the Military by restructuring it under Ministry of Defense. However, change in the domestic political arena had actually started before the coup attempt, back in late May.
The once influential pro-Western Ahmet Davutoglu, who found himself in conflict with Erdogan, was replaced by Binali Yıldırım as prime minister. Under the new prime minister, the Gulen movement will be severely crushed under the state of emergency announced after the failed coup. Yet, on the other hand, the government will seek out a new social consensus and Erdogan might be more tolerant when listening to the demands of the main opposition parties.
In its foreign relations, Ankara will likely follow a more balanced path. Regarding the Middle East, a policy of adventurous, aggressive and unsuccessful neo-Ottomanism is likely to be replaced by a foreign policy that respects the territorial integrity of Turkey’s neighbors.
Amidst the deterioration of its relations with the European Union, Ankara will reinvigorate its involvement in Eurasian affairs. Moreover, Turkey is expected to turn to China and Russia in an attempt to establish closer economic relations with the former and political relations with the latter.
Also read: "The foreign policy dimensions of Turkey's coup"
Most probably, Ankara will try to find common ground with Moscow on the Syrian crisis together. However, it remains to be seen if they succeed, depending on their policy choices. The key question is if Moscow will stop its support of the Syrian Kurds in return for Ankara giving up its attempts to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This alliance has potential to undermine Western plans to complete the so-called “Kurdish corridor” in Syria under the project of the Greater Middle East. A “Kurdish corridor,” which would have open access to the Mediterranean sea, is a must for keeping the Kurdish state(s) alive and transmitting the region’s energy sources to international markets while bypassing Turkey.
A Turkish-Russian rapprochement could also be expected in the Black Sea region. Interestingly, the improvement in Moscow-Ankara relations takes place amidst the setbacks in their relations with Europe. This might be true in the field of energy, since there could be a new opportunity for Russia and Turkey to complete the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project under new conditions. If the Nord Stream 2 project, the proposed gas pipeline that will run through Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany to connect Russia and the EU, fails, likelihood of the Turkish Stream will increase.
The last but not the least, it is important to keep in mind that Turkey is facing big political changes and therefore the power struggle in Turkey is far from over. Turkish politics is very dynamic and unpredictable: Given the unique character of Turkish politics, there could be new coup attempts. It is also not ruled out that Turkey could make another foreign policy U-turn. Moreover, it is possible that Turkey might even exit from NATO.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that after the coup attempt in mid-July, Turkey will face a huge stability problem in a very fragile region. Ankara sooner or later will follow a more independent foreign policy from the West, especially given the terrorist threats from ISIS and the PKK that could be used by third parties in order to further destabilize Turkey.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.