Dramatic events shook Turkey yesterday as armed troops moved onto the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They closed down the main airports and bridges while military jets were roaring very low above the cities. A coup was in the works.
Soldiers also took over the buildings of the Turkish state broadcaster TRT and shut down broadcasting, when it came back, on soldiers were prompting the presenter to read a statement saying:
“The Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that was damaged.
“All international agreements are still valid. We hope that all of our good relationships with all countries will continue.”
It was the eighth coup attempt, and had it been successful it would have been the fifth actual coup in Turkey since 1960. However, events took a turn when the Turkish prime minister appeared free to give a statement to the international media. He said:
“This is an attack against Turkish democracy. A group within the armed forces has made an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government outside the chain of command.
“The statement made on behalf of the Armed Forces wasn’t authorised by the military command. We urge the world to stand in solidarity with the Turkish people.”
A little while later President Erdoğan appeared on CNN Turk via a video call, calling for people to come out and occupy squares and airports and fight the coup.
The response was very swift. Thousands of AKP supporters streamed onto the streets facing the soldiers, climbing on to their tanks and some even taking over the tanks and driving away with them. Many were injured during skirmishes, but the movement seemed to overwhelm the coup.
At the same time all major political parties came out against the coup. The leader of the CHP, the main opposition party, called for support for the president and for his supporters to come out onto the streets. Many of them, although they are all vehemently against the AKP, did so to protest against the coup. In spite of deep hatred towards Erdoğan, many people have not forgotten the bloody military dictatorship of the 80’s. The few thousand soldiers were quickly swamped by thousands of protesters.
Within a few hours the coup started to disintegrate. Everywhere the soldiers started retreating in the face of aggressive protests, and messages from top officials in the military came in supporting the president. President Erdoğan landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and immediately made a quick statement declaring the "uprising" defeated. He then went on to announce the purging of the armed forces and the "cleaning up of the whole country".
The fighting continued throughout the night with pockets of isolated soldiers fighting in the major cities, leading to several hundred dead and more than a thousand injured. Nevertheless the coup as a whole was defeated quickly and Erdoğan re-consolidated his powers.
“A sloppy coup”
The coup seemed to be over. In its wake, however, there remain many questions to be answered. The Turkish army is no stranger to coups. Nevertheless, this particular one was carried out with almost childishly bad planning and preparedness. After moving out onto the streets and declaring that they were taking power, the people behind the coup did not do anything to actually take power and consolidate it. Perhaps they were waiting for other sections of the army to come out in support of the coup, but they did not do much to relay this message - at least publicly.
In fact, no one knew who they were or what exactly they wanted, apart from their very vague statement, they did not try to mobilise anyone on the streets and they did not arrest anyone. In fact, Erdoğan and the cabinet along with all AKP cadres, police chiefs and other regime supporters remained free and their offices more or less untouched. One AKP official said his office was raided and he was “asked” to surrender. Clearly he didn’t surrender and clearly no other measures were taken against him.
The only exception was the chief of staff, General Hulusi Akar, who was reported to have been held hostage, only to be "freed" this morning. Furthermore, the media had full access to everything and was able to broadcast live throughout the events. Erdoğan and other AKP leaders appeared on live television to broadcast messages calling for mass mobilisations of their supporters.
Daoud Khairallah, a Washington based professor talking to RT news, recounted these basic mistakes and described the coup as “a very sloppy” one. An RT journalist asked the question, "Isn't it strange that Erdoğan has not been arrested? Isn't that what you do in a coup?" How could the jets and other aircraft be allowed to take over Istanbul airspace with no resistance to begin with?
Gregory Copley, a Turkey analyst said, "The coup planning for this event was very secretive, very sophisticated. It would have to circumvent a lot of intense monitoring by internal agents of the MIT - Turkish intelligence and others - who, really their main job was to prevent a coup. And yet it occurred."
As we can see however, the coup plot was not very sophisticated. This also makes the claims that the Gülen movement was behind it unlikely. Therefore it is in fact highly unlikely that the MIT (Turkish Intelligence), who has a heavy presence in the armed forces, for the exact reason of fighting off coup attempts, did not know about this plot. But why then would they allow it to proceed and cause the loss of lives of hundreds of people?
One comment from Turkey, shared widely on Twitter, was very perceptive:
"Most probably a real coup attempt, which was vaguely known beforehand, and was allowed to proceed, because they knew it to be disorganised and weak. This means it will be followed by a real coup by Erdoğan himself, and the last remnants of democracy will be lost. So worse becomes the worst. The Kurdish movement and all of us in the opposition will be targeted in the coming days. A civilian brown-shirt movement is already in the making, and this will rule the streets once the so-called coup is defeated in a couple of days"
Erdoğan and the Army
It is widely known that the Turkish military, coming from a distinctly secular tradition and being close to the traditional Turkish bourgeoisie - i.e. Not Erdoğan's Anatolian based capitalist allies - has always been uneasy with Erdoğan. Since the AKP took power, several coup plots have been uncovered and one coup attempt in 2007 was defeated.
Erdoğan has tried to purge the army many times. Hundreds of people have been arrested in the past, but the core of the army was always very sceptical of Erdoğan. They are not fond of his Islamism, but also oppose his reckless domestic and foreign policy. In Syria they have been the main obstacle for Erdoğan to begin a full scale invasion of parts of the country.
Already in April there were several reports, some of them coming from AKP officials, about a possible coup from within the Air Force with ties to the Gülenist movement - a neo-Islamist movement which was allied to Erdoğan in the first period of his rule. In March the Daily Sabah, the main mouthpiece of the AKP, published an article, "Operations Targeting Turkey and Erdoğan". The article states that 50 percent of F-16 pilots in the Air Force are pro-Gülenist and that that all these would be purged from the armed forces in 2016. Similar statements were made several times in the past six months.
In the past weeks there have been further reports that the government would go ahead with a purge of the armed forces. This could have been the trigger for the coup which was clearly led by medium and lower ranking officers, although they might have had the sympathy of some higher up.
Like the terrorist attacks of the past year, we will probably never get the full picture of what occurred yesterday, but it is highly unlikely that the coup could have proceeded without the Turkish intelligence looking the other way. This is a method often used by the regime. For instance, in the terrorist attacks in Ankara and Suruc last year, Turkish intelligence allowed hundreds of people to be slaughtered in order to prop up Erdoğan’s support, which he had lost in the June parliamentary elections. By allowing a certain degree of chaos, Erdoğan can whip up hysteria and mobilise his supporters and to rally the nation behind him to strike blows against his opposition.
In the past few weeks Erdoğan completely changed course on a series of issues - in particular in foreign policy. Seeing the rising threat from ISIS and his proxies being extremely weak in the face of Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces, he has called for a normalisation of Turkish ties with the Assad regime - which he had vehemently opposed until recently. He has also sent several letters to Russian president Putin, apologising for the death of the Russian pilot whose plane the Turkish Air Force shot down in Syria last October. Incidentally he blamed the event on the Gülenists in the Air Force. A Kremlin spokesperson said: “The head of the Turkish state expressed his deep sympathy and condolences to the relatives of the deceased Russian pilot and said ‘sorry’.” This is worlds away from Erdoğan's arrogant and thuggish stance of only a few months ago.
In what appears as another major retreat, Erdoğan also allowed the Kurdish SDF forces in Northern Syria to cross the Euphrates river and close the ISIS/Turkey corridor between Jarablus and Azaz. This was something that Erdoğan himself had defined as a "red line" for Turkey - signalling that he would rather invade Syria than allow this to happen. No doubt, this would have been met with much anger within the army tops, whose only point of conjuncture with the AKP has been the fight against all forms of Kurdish independence in Turkey and beyond.
He has also signalled a normalisation of ties with Israel, which together with the above steps amount to a complete collapse and defeat of all of Erdoğan's foreign policy of the past six years. This is a major crisis for the regime. Furthermore, the Istanbul Airport bombing a few weeks ago and the rise of ISIS related terror have increased opposition to Erdoğan, both amongst the population as well as the big - traditional - capitalists who want stability to run their businesses. They see Erdoğan as responsible for the terror by having ignored and even assisted ISIS and other Islamist groups to settle in Turkey in order to seek control of Syria.
There can be no doubt that these events had shaken Erdoğan's support at home and emboldened his opponents. In a highly polarised social and political situation, with half of the country radically against Erdoğan, such a defeat could have tipped the balance and brought about revolutionary turmoil which he was not sure to survive. Even if he did, it would be a major obstacle to his dream of achieving an executive presidency with all power concentrated in his hands.
Now to the real coup
However, by tacitly allowing the coup to go ahead and then crush it, Erdoğan retained the initiative - a key factor in war and politics. This is preferable to facing a powerful revolutionary movement. Furthermore, this allows Erdoğan to further consolidate his power within the army, which has been exposed by the crisis. Whether he will succeed or merely provoke more resistance is not yet clear. But it is similar to previous measures taken against the police, the Gendarmes and the intelligence agencies in the past. These have been purged and then flooded with thousands of AKP loyalists, turning them from Kemalist and Gülenist strongholds into tools of Erdoğan. In cracking down on a weak faction within the army, he will mobilise his forces and strike out against the institution as a whole.
The whole affair is typical of Erdoğan’s methods. In the early phases of his rule he used the peace negotiations with the PKK to cover his left wing and strike blows against the Kemalists and the army in particular. After the 2013 Gezi Park mass movement, however, once the Kurdish based HDP began to reflect the rising class struggle, he made a deal with the army to fight against the Kurds. Hundreds of coup plotters from previous army purges were freed and their trials dismissed. Back then Erdoğan needed the support of the army against the Kurdish and leftist movement which was blocking his ambitions of winning the presidency. Now, however, with the latest defeats of his foreign policy, Erdogan sees the army top brass as obstacles in his path towards a presidency with full executive powers which will reduce the strength of parliament. He probably also sees them as potential focal points for a growing opposition movement.
He anticipated a new wave of rising opposition by allowing the spread of chaos only to present himself as the saviour of the nation and the guarantor of stability. Whipping up a mood of hysteria he will now attempt to use his mob of enraged petit-bourgeois and lumpen elements to strike blows against the army and most importantly to concentrate more powers in his own hands.
Faced with the deep crisis of Turkish capitalism and rising opposition, he lurches violently one way and then the other in order to overcome the crises and retain power. Had their been an all-Turkish working class movement with a clear revolutionary programme, it could have used these crises to expose the regime and become a real contender for power. In its absence, Erdoğan has room for manoeuvre. But by attempting to save his own position he is constantly destabilising the country and preparing for even bigger explosions in the future.
For the working masses this will be a setback. In his statement this morning Erdoğan not only said he would purge the army but also "clean up" the whole country. This undoubtedly will mean a further stepping up of witch-hunts against any opposition, in particular leftist and trade union activists.
Erdoğan will be temporarily strengthened, but the social, economic, political and diplomatic crises are bound to erupt again sooner or later. His main problem is that of Turkish capitalism which is incapable of taking society forward. The military top brass cannot solve this crisis. They are themselves part of Kemalist wing of the ruling class, a welthier albeit politically weaker. The only way out is to build an independent working class political movement to challenge the system itself, to offer the powerful Turkish working class an alternative from having to choose sides in reactionary struggles between different wings of the ruling class about who should rule and exploit them.