Turkey's Erdogan leaps headlong into purges and war

Turkey's Erdogan leaps headlong into purges and war
Comment: Political commentator Ahmet Insel reflects on July's aborted coup against Erdogan’s government, and the escalating tensions behind Turkey's movements in Syria.
8 min read
18 Oct, 2016
The thwarted coup allowed Erdogan to present himself internationally as a strong leader [Anadolu]

Interview: Orient XXI's Chris Den Hond interviews political commentator, Ahmet Insel on how this summer's attempted coup in Turkey has influenced Ankara's domestic and foreign affairs.

Chris Den Hond - On 15 July 2016, the F-16s, the tanks and the soldiers came out in Ankara and Istanbul. Was this a genuine coup d’etat, or a coup mounted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself?

Ahmet Insel - It was a genuine coup d'etat. If it appears to have been incompetently executed, that's only because it failed. It failed because an intelligence breach forced the plotters to initiate their action sooner than they'd planned.

Those involved were not just Gulenists, but also ordinary Turkish army officers disillusioned with the state of Turkey, who saw a need to seize power from a government they considered corrupt. As soon as Erdogan was sure the coup had been quashed, he began to turn it to his advantage. Who profits from crime? Those in power, whether or not they instigated the crime.

C.D.H. - Erdogan asked the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who he considers to be the orchestrator of the coup. The US refused. Is that why Erdogan turned towards Moscow and Iran?

A.I. - Relations between Turkey and Russia had been improving before the coup d'etat, after Turkey apologised to Moscow for the shooting down of a Russian plane by the Turkish air force in Syria in March 2016. Last spring, Turkey was at the height of its international isolation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was viewed extremely unfavourably by the West.

But with a third of generals under arrest... the army was now entirely subservient to the government and no longer a brake on entry into Syria

Turkey was suffering from tourism and export embargoes. The Iranians were adding pressure by showing support for the Syrian Kurds, of whom Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), power-holders and army have always had an obsessive fear.

The government aimed to end this isolation by re-establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel had paid compensation to the victims of the Mavi Marmara attack, and from June 2016 Turkish officials, including the new prime minister, Binali Yildirim, began to suggest the possibility of a transitional period of negotiations with Bashar al-Assad.

The thwarted coup allowed Erdogan to present himself as a strong leader on the international stage. He used this to subdue his army and facilitate a Turkish intervention in Syria.

It failed because an intelligence breach forced the plotters to initiate their action sooner than they'd planned

The Turkish army was already reeling from the rigged trials orchestrated by Gulenist police and judges (at the time when Gulen and the AKP were working hand in hand), yet the army's reticence had always been a major obstacle to intervention in Syria.

But with a third of generals under arrest, more than 7,000 armed forces officers dismissed and still more under threat of suspension, expulsion or forced retirement, the army was now entirely subservient to the government and no longer a brake on entry into Syria. The "reconciliation" with Russia allowed Turkey to move onto Syrian soil, instead of just bombarding it from its own territory as it had done previously.

C.D.H. - This was in order to join the fight against Islamic State?

A.I. - The intervention was justified as being part of the fight against Islamic State, but it actually reflected Ankara's fixation with the Kurdish problem in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), along with the Kurdish-Arab alliance the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF/QSD), had just expelled Islamic State from the town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates.

In doing so, they'd crossed a line in the eyes of Ankara. Turkey's entry into Syria had more to do with opposing the Syrian Kurds than with banishing Islamic State or Fatah al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) Front.

The obsession with the Kurdish question is shared by the Turkish state, Erdogan's government, the military, the nationalists and the Kemalists. This is firstly because the issue remains unresolved within Turkey itself, where the majority of the region's Kurds live.

If Turkey's 900km border with Syria - which is flat, rather than mountainous like that with the Kurdish region in Iraq - were to become an autonomous Kurdish zone within Syria, things would look very different for the Kurds living in Turkey.

For the Turkish government, there are three sources of terrorism: the Gulenists, Islamic State and the PKK

The Turkish state is conscious that, if frustrated, Turkish Kurds could easily follow the example of their Syrian comrades and demand greater autonomy. Secondly, the Syrian Kurds are to a large degree under the hegemony of the YPG, which has close ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The creation of a zone of Kurdish control along the Syrian frontier would effectively mean handing over a 900km stretch to the PKK.

C.D.H. - Why doesn't Turkey have a problem with the Iraqi Kurds, or with the leadership of Massoud Barzani, president of the regional government of Kurdistan in Iraq?

A.I. - Because in Iraq, the PKK is far away in the Qandil mountains. The majority of Iraqi Kurds support Barzani (Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP) and Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK). Those organisations don't elicit the same kind of fear. In fact, Turkey has an excellent political and economic relationship with the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

Erdogan's AKP sees Barzani as pious, religious and conservative, open to the idea of controlling the PKK. The Syrian Kurds, on the other hand, are a menace to the Turkish state, not just because they're Kurds, but also because they're secular, modern, left-leaning and sympathetic to the PKK.

The Turkish military presence in Syria remains modest, though; about 50 tanks and 400 soldiers, with some aerial protection and, for the moment at least, support from the US. Turkey is in the process of creating the buffer zone it has been demanding since the start of the conflict.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) owes its successful advances to the management and logistical contributions of the Turkish army. I think it will establish itself on a long-term basis in a zone about 40km deep and 70km wide.

Even those who aren't Gulenists live in fear of being accused. It's a McCarthyist climate, with Stalinist trials

One of Turkey's objectives is to create a military base for the FSA there, rallying support from Arab resistance fighters and local Turkmen. This would enable it to thwart the hope of the YPG Kurds, that they can connect Kobane with Afrin and control all of the territory in between. The town of Afrin (in the north east of Syria) has a Kurdish majority, but the area between Afrin and Kobane does not.

C.D.H. - Turkey has been accused of supporting Islamic State, or at least of turning a blind eye to the movement of jihadists between Turkey and Syria. Is that period now over?

A.I. - The ease with which Islamic State cadres could operate in Gaziantep has been considerably reduced. IS used to be seen by Turkey as merely a gang of slightly unhinged bearded fanatics. It has now become a danger, all the more so since Islamic State considers the AKP no less profane than any other secular political party, and has begun to perpetrate attacks on Turkish soil.

Islamic State is now being shown much less tolerance. Turkey's state of emergency was declared in response to the coup and to "terrorism". For the Turkish government, there are three sources of terrorism: the Gulenists, Islamic State and the PKK.

The government might have no choice but to relax the state of emergency

Erdogan's purges targeted not just the perpetrators of the coup, but also all Gulenist organisations, including charities. The aim was to eradicate the Gulenists. After that, zealous local administrators added the names of any individuals they considered suspect to the purge lists.

The third wave of arrests, a month later, targeted everyone the AKP judged to be supportive of the PKK. Journalists from the Ozgur Gundem newspaper were arrested. Twenty-eight local mayors were stripped of office, four for contact with the Gulenist community and 24 for contact with the PKK. All of these elected officials were replaced by local sub-prefects or vice-prefects.

C.D.H. - Is all this sabre rattling a sign of the strength or the weakness of the state?

A. I. - The Turkish state is in crisis. It's trying to purge not just Gulenists but also any left-wing or Kurdish opposition. There were huge numbers of Gulenists in positions of political power, thanks mainly to the support of the AKP.

Even those who aren't Gulenists live in fear of being accused. It's a McCarthyist climate, with Stalinist trials. Denouncing a superior or a rival in order to take their place has become a common manoeuvre. The functions of public administration are completely paralysed. If you do something your bosses or colleagues don't like, all they have to do is say you're a Gulenist and you've lost your job.

The myth that the AKP is effective or able to control the mechanisms of the state has been shattered. That doesn't necessarily mean the party itself is failing, but we do have paralysis. The government might have no choice but to relax the state of emergency.

The prefecture of Tunceli (Dersim), for example, has suspended 90 percent of its teachers. Every prefecture has created offices to receive the huge numbers of complaints being made about arbitrary and unfair dismissals. The government will be managing these complaints and conflicts for years to come.

Ahmet Insel is a Professor at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris and the University of Galatasaray, Istanbul, economist and political commentator, Insel is a founder of the Turkish publishing house Iletisim and the editor of Orhan Pamuk. His many published works include The New Turkey of Erdogan (La Découverte, 2015).

Follow him on Twitter: @ahmet_insel

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.