Idlib escalation shelves talk of coup in Turkey

The survival of the Erdogan government requires periodic activation of coup rhetoric.

al-monitor People react near a military vehicle during an attempted coup in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Tumay Berkin.
Pinar Tremblay

Pinar Tremblay

@pinartremblay

Topics covered

Idlib

Mar 4, 2020

If every country has a topic of conversation that never gets old, for Turkey that must be talk of a coup. In early January, amid news of domestic economic troubles and the Syrian and Libyan wars, talk of a new coup emerged from the Ankara rumor mill.

The chatter grew with tweets and op-eds from supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), so much so that on Feb. 15, journalists asked President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the possibility of a coup against him. Erdogan focused on how the public would react if a coup was initiated. Referring to the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, he said, “Our nation gave them the proper answer on July 15. People gained significant experience about this. So, this time around they would not think twice whether to go out or not. I am confident that my people would take to the streets with whatever they have in their hands.”

Erdogan’s words sustained the coup rhetoric into the last week of February. It was finally curbed with the military crisis in Idlib, Syria.

However, "coup talk" in Turkey will not go away anytime soon. Here are four reasons why:

First, coup chatter resonates among many in Turkey. Military coups have molded modern Turkish history, and most of these coups are seen as foreign interventions in Turkish democratic efforts. Turkish public opinion is divided on numerous issues, but being anti-coup is something the public can unite around. It's probably why Erdogan’s administration keeps rehashing coup rhetoric. For example, in early June 2017, pro-AKP columnist Abdulkadir Selvi spoke of an impending coup that month by members of the Gulen movement. 

The coup talk of 2017 has similarities with such talk in 2020.

Yet again, the AKP's opposition asked for a probe into the Gulenist network, and pro-government media tried to divert attention from the AKP's inaction against the Gulenists, specifically by magnifying two instances that might have gone unnoticed.

The first was an interview that former chief of general staff, Ilker Basbug, gave on an obscure channel, Haber Global. Basbug suggested that the past decisions of the AKP had enabled the Gulen movement’s presence in the army and that they should be held accountable. Erdogan accused Basbug of offending parliament and urged lawmakers to seek legal action against him. Four AKP deputies followed Erdogan’s call and filed a criminal complaint against the general and other officials. 

The second incident was the Rand Corporation’s recent report on Turkey. The pro-AKP media cherry-picked one sentence from the 276-page report to argue that a CIA-backed coup was in the making. The report, which became the centerpiece of hourslong political debates on television, read, “Midlevel officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges. This discontent could even lead to another coup attempt at some point, and Erdogan appears to take the threat seriously.”

Bahadir Ozgur, a columnist for the online news outlet Duvar, told Al-Monitor, “The report is open-source and easily accessible. It is not a secret document. From a rather long document, they deliberately picked one observation with no proper verification.”

Most of the discussions of the report were ad hominem attacks on the researchers rather than criticism of the contents of the report.

A senior bureaucrat told Al-Monitor, “I do not blame the researchers of the report for writing inaccurate or time-lapsed arguments. In the United States, a retired officer now acting as a civilian expert might still have good connections and follow proper protocol for sharing information and views with the public. Sadly, in Turkey, that is not the case.” 

But the contents of the report or the details of Basbug’s claims were not the focus of pro-AKP media. Rather the two handpicked statements were sufficient to muddle the waters and have a full-blown “imminent coup” talk.

Second, the AKP government tries to bundle all opposition under the putschist label. A vivid example can be seen in the prosecution of philanthropist Osman Kavala. Last month, Kavala was acquitted in the Gezi trial for lack of evidence, yet he was immediately rearrested on charges related to the 2016 coup attempt. This sends a message to the AKP base that the Gezi Park protests and the coup attempt were one and the same. 

Timur Kuran, an economics and political science professor at Duke University, provided a different angle: “Pro-AKP media are seizing on every expression of anti-AKP sentiment to make it seem that a coup is being plotted. These expressions consist mostly of anti-AKP chatter and public protests. In a healthy democracy, they would not be illegal or be perceived as coup-plotting. AKP’s cheerleaders are effectively encouraging a coup attempt to justify a new crackdown.”

In sum, coup rhetoric, as mind-boggling as it is, helps clear the government of any accusations that it is associated with the Gulen network. In a system where political might makes judicial right, this works fine. Kemal Can, a columnist for Duvar daily, added that “the coup talk helps the government to design and control the ‘least dangerous topics’ for themselves to be in the spotlight.” The frequent rekindling of the coup talk, then, is a signal of the AKP’s diminishing ability to control the public discourse.

Third, the domestic challenges Erdogan is facing arise mostly from his own base. Kuran said, “AKP's only hope for retaining power lies in an event that would rally the country behind the flag. Another ‘coup attempt’ would serve this goal. Creating a sense of a clear and present danger, it would reverse the decline in Erdogan's popularity, if temporarily, as opposition leaders coalesce around him for fear of appearing unpatriotic.”

In line with Kuran, Can recalled that ex-premier Ahmet Davutoglu has already formed a new party, and another party is on the way from the AKP’s former economy supremo, Ali Babacan. Both have split from the AKP to challenge Erdogan’s administration. Coup rhetoric also labels them, along with other opposition figures, as potential traitors.

Kuran added, “AKP would welcome a replay of July 2016, which provided a pretext for the biggest witch hunt in Turkish history and the removal of remaining checks on the president's power.” Indeed, Erdogan has called the 2016 coup attempt “God’s great blessing,” as he has used the putsch to silence dissent.

Fourth, another explanation can be found in the oft-repeated comments that the Turkish armed forces are stretched thin after years of purges in top cadres, changes in their structure, and military deployments in Libya and Syria. Is that really an accurate appraisal, given the latest posture of the armed forces in Syria? Do we have accurate means to measure and claim discontent in the ranks? Intriguingly, the coup rhetoric encouraged by government elites does not address the military’s morale and capabilities. 

Ozgur explained, “Because this administration is in a tight spot, the coup talk was a tool for consolidation. However, it didn’t provide the desired effect, hence Erdogan ended the chatter. The Idlib war has an impact on this.” Ozgur’s analysis helps us understand how the coup rhetoric has been shelved, at least for the time being.

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