Conflict & Justice

The conspiracies and realities of the failed Turkish coup

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A damaged window is pictured at the police headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, July 18, 2016. 

Credit:

Osman Orsal/Reuters

The Turkish people lived a nightmare on July 15 when a faction of the Turkish army attempted a coup d’état. 

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For a lot of Turks, the mystery of who was behind the coup was quickly resolved when the Turkish government immediately blamed US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, although Gulen denied any involvement.

Now, if you ask Turks who was behind the coup, many will tell you it was the US itself.

So, what changed?

Many Turks say their Western allies stayed silent against the coup attempt. But the US and European leaders were in fact very quick to condemn it and voice their support for the democratically elected Turkish government — despite its increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

In the days following the coup, however, it seemed that Turkey needed reminders to adhere to the rule of law when thousands of civilians were purged and detained, as security officials were rounding up and prosecuting alleged coup plotters — people presumed to be supporters of Gulen. Amnesty International reported that the detainees were being tortured and raped, and the US and EU nations responded by cautioning and warning Turkey against abuse and violations of human rights.

Since then, irked Turkish officials have been heavily hinting that the US in particular, and also Europe, plotted to overthrow the Turkish government. Pro-government newspapers in Turkey are publishing headlines to back that rhetoric. There is even a report claiming that the US tried to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the coup.

A lot of questions remain unanswered about how the coup attempt was carried out. These and the Turkish government’s inconsistent narratives about the alleged coup plotters, and their implications that foreign powers were involved, have created a whirlwind of conspiracy theories — even including one that the coup was staged by the government to consolidate support.

“Turkey is a country that is fond of conspiracy theories and also [has a high] anti-western and xenophobic sentiment,” says Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at FDD and a former Turkish parliamentarian. “The [Turkish] government is tapping into these sentiments as a convenient way to explain the coup."

His reasoning?  "Ultimately the coup was a messy event. It brought together a wide and makeshift coalition that involved members of the Gulen community, hard-line secularist nationalist officers, opportunists who were looking for personal gain, as well as officers who were caught up because they couldn’t say no to their superiors or colleagues.”

"Instead of telling this complicated story, the government is simply relying on conspiracy theories. They think it will be easier to communicate to the public and mobilize the masses, and it will also add to President Erdogan's legitimacy," he says.

But who was the mastermind behind it all, the one who gathered everyone around and said, "Let’s go"? Turkish officials still say it is Gulen — but they have yet to come up with evidence.

“There is still a lot of fog after the coup,” says Erdemir. “Whatever sketchy evidence we have so far points to a makeshift alliance, we are certain about that. What we still don’t know yet is who or what brought all these officers together. My suspicion is that it was simply an anti-Erdogan sentiment.”

Turkish journalist Nazli Ilicak (C), also a well-known commentator and former parliamentarian, is escorted by a police officer (R) and her relatives (L and rear) after being detained and brought to a hospital for a medical check in Bodrum, Turkey, July 26

Credit:

Kenan Gurbuz/Reuters

What further complicates the narrative is the fact the Turkish intelligence services, MIT, appeared to have no idea that a coup attempt was on the way, or no idea until just hours before. For Turks who argue that the coup was staged, this is a big detail.

“I am 100 percent sure that this was a real coup attempt,” says Erdemir. “But we also know that some of the government bureaucracies, including the intelligence agency, knew about the coup plans earlier that day. There is still the question [among others] of why did they fail to inform Erdogan and the PM? But the only way to answer them is if Turkey has a rule of law, due process and a culture of accountability. Unfortunately, Turkey lacks all three.”

Even more interesting is that the purge has hardly touched Turkey’s intelligence agency — so far only 100 agents have been purged. That number is miniscule compared to the 50,000 educators and scientists who have also been purged, out of a total of over 90,000 civilians, including scores of soccer coaches and referees.

The Turkish government claims that all of these people are Gulenists and therefore, coup plotters; but the manner in which the government is cracking down on them raises yet more questions about the validity of investigations, due process, forced statements, and the abuse of the detainees.

Are the purged truly coup plotters, or simply anyone perceived to be opposition?

“We know for sure that the purges have extended way beyond the Gulen sympathizers,'' Erdemir says. "There are people who are known as lifelong socialist activists, labor union leaders, human rights defenders and dissident academics who were simply lumped together with the Gulenists and I think Erdogan is not missing the opportunity to crackdown on a wider spectrum of dissidents.”

According to Erdemir, it is unlikely that Turkey will return to normalcy in the near future.

"Erdogan will ride this wave of consolidating his power," he says. "Right now he is really enjoying the fact that he can call all the shots," under the recently declared state of emergency. 

“Knowing Erdogan and what really drives him in politics, I don’t think he will stop anytime soon.”