Strategic Insight: Turkey

by Clive Newell

Turkey - After The Coup Attempt

The coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July was defeated by a mixture of the coup organisers’ incompetence and popular resistance. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived in office, is now in a position to increase his own considerable power still further and pursue his programme for Islamising the country. The damaged Turkish economy faces another downturn in revenue and the risk of a further downgrade in credit ratings. The government is making major efforts to reassure nervous investors about future stability.

What Happened

On the night of 15 July tanks moved to block the bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Troops detained senior military figures, occupied the headquarters of the state broadcaster, TRT, and attacked parliament and the prime minister’s office in Ankara. Military helicopters shot at the hotel where President Erdogan had been staying in the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris. The president had already given an interview via Facetime to CNN’s Turkish channel, CNN Turk, to rally his supporters, and then, on the advice of his loyalist military chief of staff, had flown to Istanbul, shadowed by F16 fighter jets under the control of the coup plotters, although they did not open fire.

All political parties condemned the coup and, encouraged by the president, his supporters began protesting in streets and squares throughout the country. The US and several European countries expressed support for the “rule of law”, and, in the early hours of Saturday morning, the soldiers on the bridges began surrendering.

By midday on Saturday the government had begun announcing arrests of military officers, judges and civilians alleged to be involved. The number detained has now risen to over 7,000, including the commanders of 18 out of 48 army brigades, and the senior general commanding the border area with Syria.

Why It Happened

The action by a small group inside the military took almost everyone by surprise. Although Turkey has a history of military coups going back to 1960, the armed forces had been systematically weakened by Erdogan through administrative changes, and by arrests and imprisonment of senior officers on charges of plotting against the government. More recently he had begun to restore good relations with the admirals and generals and to give them more of a role in the administration.

What seems to have happened is that on the eve of the army’s twice-yearly meeting of its supreme council, a group of officers with connections to the religious leader Fethullah Gulen learned that they were about to be dismissed or arrested. Gulen was once a confidant and ally of Erdogan’s; he promotes a liberal, modernist school of Islam through a network of schools and other institutions. He is now a bitter rival of the president, living in self-imposed exile in the US, and the government has been purging Gulenists from the administration and blaming them for anti-government plots and even terrorist attacks.

The officers hoped the liberal elite living and working in Istanbul and Ankara – who resent the president’s turn away from Turkey’s modern secularist tradition, his promotion of Islam, and the clampdown on the free press and growing authoritarianism – would join them. In the event they either rallied to the calls for the preservation of democracy, choosing civilian authoritarian rule over a military junta, or stayed at home, keeping their heads down. 

What Happens Next

President Erdogan has already begun a purge of the military and the judiciary, using a list of thousands which the EU commissioner dealing with Turkey, Johannes Hahn, says seems to have been prepared before the coup attempt. Any weakening of the armed forces leadership will be a concern for NATO – the Turkish military is the second largest force in the alliance, and in a key geographical position being a neighbour of both Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan’s prestige and popular support have increased following the defeat of the coup attempt, and he will probably argue that the situation justifies a renewed attempt to change the constitution to bring in an executive rather than ceremonial presidency – bringing him much greater power. His previous attempt to do this did not get the necessary parliamentary backing, but MPs may now feel under much greater pressure to vote with him. His previous warnings of plots against the state have been vindicated, and he will be unreceptive to international calls for restraint in dealing with his opponents. The government has already mooted the reintroduction of the death penalty.

At the same time, the defeat of what has been the bastion of Turkey’s secular values – the military – may allow Erdogan to speed up his programme of increasing the role of Islam in public life. This may include, for example, increasing alcohol restrictions, bringing religious instruction into education, enforcing Islamic banking practices, and even turning the iconic Hagia Sofia museum in Istanbul back into a mosque. This will polarise society further.

Fethullah Gulen’s presence in the US is a source of friction with Washington, with Turkey demanding his extradition. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said this can only happen if evidence against him is produced to initiate a formal extradition process. Given Turkey’s recently improved ties to Russia, this case may signal a distancing from America. A big concern for Washington will be any constraints on its use of Incirlik airbase – a key element in its ability to carry out airstrikes on ISIS in Syria.

Economic Consequences

Turkey already has one of the highest current account deficits in the G20 – 4.5% of GDP. The value of the Lira fell more than 5% immediately after the coup attempt, but has since recovered some ground. Shares have also suffered, falling nearly 8% in trading in Istanbul on 18 July.

Tourism was already down 35% in May compared to the same time last year because of fears of terrorist attacks, and the events of 15 July – which included the bombing of a seaside resort and widely televised chaotic scenes at Istanbul’s main airport – are likely to reduce visitor numbers further.

Investor confidence has been badly damaged by the signs that the era of polarisation and political instability in Turkey is far from over, and Erdogan’s stated goal of tripling the size of the economy from US$720 billion to US$2 trillion by 2023 looks even less achievable than before. The World Bank was already predicting a slowdown in growth from 4.5% last year to 3.5% this year; now even that forecast may be optimistic.

Turkey still has enormous potential in many sectors including natural resources and manufacturing, but increased concerns about its future stability, at a time when it is already facing a rising tempo of attacks by ISIS and the PKK Kurdish rebel movement, now make it a much more uncertain environment for investors.


Clive Newell
Clive draws on his extensive overseas experience in leading many of G3's assignments in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa

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