Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He was the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (2015–2017) and served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (1998–2000). Diwan spoke to Barkey in the second week of July, to correspond to the first anniversary of the failed coup in Turkey in 2016.
Michael Young: On July 15 it will have been a year since the failed coup in Turkey. Was there ever a chance that the coup would succeed?
Henri Barkey: The coup was doomed to fail from the beginning. To say it was amateurish would be insulting to all amateurs. To begin with, there were too few soldiers out on the streets and many seemed not to know why they were there and what they were supposed to be doing. The targets chosen were odd—one side of a bridge that spans the Bosporus, a state-run TV station with a small audience—and there did not seem to be any coordination between units. 249 people died that night, some were shot on the Bosporus bridge under very opaque conditions as protestors approached the soldiers. Most bizarre was the hour selected. Most coups take place in the early hours when traffic is light and a when it is relatively easy to capture the leaders of the state. Instead, in a bustling city such as Istanbul, 10:00 pm is nothing short of rush hour, especially on a Friday.
If the coup was not well planned, what then explains its origins? The truth is we do not really know what happened that night. There is only one version of events and that is the government’s which has elected to use the event and the resistance by groups of citizens to weave its own “heroic” narrative. The events of that night have been used to purge society from all opponents, but more importantly as a means of eliciting support for government policies. The government has insisted that the coup was mounted by the Gülenist movement and its sympathizers within the armed forces. The movement is led by a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a cleric by the name of Fethullah Gülen, who now lives in Pennsylvania and decided to move away from Turkey well before the rise of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The government alleges that the Gülen movement infiltrated the military by planting young recruits as cadets in military academies. Considering that you need an eight-year education before you can get commissioned as a second lieutenant and that most accused officers are high ranking ones, this is one remarkable long-term plan. The top echelons of the military have always been vigilant about doing not just background checks but also continuous monitoring of its cadres. Assuming there were some sympathizers of Gülen within the armed forces, the sheer size of the post-coup dismissals make absolutely no sense.
To start off, some 149 generals and admirals were kicked out and many were arrested; this number represents 46 percent of all the top staff hierarchy. Most of these, paradoxically, were seen as being friends of the West. In fact, many were on duty abroad at NATO installations when the coup occurred and were recalled home immediately. Many were then arrested upon arriving in Turkey and few have yet seen a judge or been formally indicted. It is not just generals and admirals but also staff colonels and majors who were purged. Staff officers (kurmay in Turkish) represent the backbone of the military. They are the ones who run the institution for the most part and then are promoted to the rank of general or admiral. If so many officers were part of the conspiracy, why then were so few soldiers on the streets and why was it so poorly planned and executed?
MY: So you see the government’s version as implausible?
HB: What makes the government’s version of events implausible is the sheer size of the detentions and dismissals covering other institutions, both public and private. In addition to the more than 150 journalists and 4,000 university members, 150,000 people have been dismissed from the public payroll and more than 50,000 jailed. This included schoolteachers and judges in remote areas of the country, as well as ordinary citizens. Numerous businesses have also been confiscated.
The charges often border on the ridiculous. For instance, the brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, academics and journalists of great renown, are accused, among other things, of sending “subliminal messages” of encouragement on television on the day before the coup. They have been in jail for almost a year. In most instances, the blanket accusation of membership in an armed terrorist organization, the way the Gülen organization is described, is sufficient to keep someone in jail indefinitely. Kadri Gürsel, a Cumhuriyet columnist who for years had been writing about the dangers of the Gülen movement, has been in jail for over 240 days as a member of this very group.
Hence, even if the proposition that the coup was real is true, what has ensued is a countercoup upon mostly unsuspecting citizens. Erdogan’s aim is to cleanse state and society from all of possible opponents. The Gülen movement to be sure had managed to ensconce itself in the judiciary and the police, but it did this in cahoots with Erdogan. They collaborated on a number of issues from reforming the judicial apparatus to constraining the military until such time as they were the two most consequential forces remaining standing in society. It was a domestic Thucydides trap of sorts, they were bound to fight it out.
MY: How has Erdogan managed to bring the armed forces to heel, after decades when it was an all-powerful institution that threatened civilian leaders?
HB: The Turkish military was politically a spent force by the time the July 2016 coup took place. It had lost all of its traditional power as the ultimate arbiter of domestic politics, having miscalculated when in 2007 it tried to block the ascension of then foreign minister and AKP founder Abdullah Gül to the presidency on account that his wife wore a headscarf. When Erdogan and his acolytes challenged the military by calling for early elections in which the subtext of the contest was both the accomplishments of the AKP and the headscarf issue, the Turkish public decisively favored the AKP.
The military, therefore, had been tamed. Still, the post-2016 coup purges indicate that Erdogan was still worried of the potential power of the officers, especially those with NATO connections. The dramatic purges have served the government well. They have managed to get rid of Gülenists as well as of potential opponents in the officer corps. Erdogan can now shape the military in his own image.
MY: What are Erdogan’s vulnerabilities, amid a growing belief that he is all-powerful?
HB: Erdogan’s successes are also his Achilles’ Heel. The more power he assumes at the expense of other institutions and opponents in society, the more vulnerable he will become. He has a tendency to always blame others, often Western powers, when things go awry. Yet having concentrated power, especially after the April 16, 2017 constitutional referendum, he can no longer avoid responsibility. If there is an economic decline, he may want to refuse to take responsibility, but ultimately the buck will stop with him.
Erdogan is increasingly surrounding himself with people and other institutional structures that echo his own preferences and thoughts. When the AKP was founded, in addition to Erdogan, there were six to nine grandees that constituted the leadership core. They have all been set aside. Those were the leaders who could challenge and question policy positions and options. Erdogan is now surrounded by an echo chamber.
The fact of the matter is that Turkish society is very divided. The April 2017 Constitutional referendum backed by Erdogan was approved by the tiniest of margins. Not only was the contest unfair in that the opposition was shut out from most media outlets and opponents were brazenly arrested in the streets, but voting irregularities and last-minute rule changes created doubts about its legitimacy. Erdogan’s great success to date has also been to divide the opposition. He has benefited from a hapless main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, and its equally ineffectual leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Yet by pushing the envelope too far, Erdogan has provoked Kilicdaroglu to do something of which no one thought he was capable: start a 25-day grassroots citizens march from Ankara to Istanbul, to protest the imprisonment of one of his party’s parliamentary deputies. The march, which concluded on Sunday, July 9, has for the first time since 2013 given hope that the opposition can rally and organize the 50 percent or so of the population that would like to resist Erdogan’s increasingly draconian rule.
In many ways, as smart, wily and formidable a politician as he is, Erdogan, is his own worst enemy.
MY: You’ve been among those accused by the Turkish government of being involved in the coup. You’ve denied it publicly, but why did the Turkish authorities target you?
HB: In many ways, the accusation that I helped organize the coup attempt demonstrates the state of mind of Erdogan and his supporters. The reason I was picked as a culprit was because I was in Istanbul on the night of the coup and was a convenient means to link the United States to the coup attempt. I had organized a workshop on Iran and its neighbors on an island off Istanbul. The pro-Erdogan press, which now represents almost 90 percent of public and private media outlets, had a field day by conjuring lurid scenarios of our activities. The fact that none of it made any sense did not stop them or the political leadership from repeating it over and over again. So much so that many people take it as a fact, including the president’s advisors. This concoction has served the powers to be well because it has, to some extent, helped legitimize the purges they had intended to conduct.