Erdogan's Putsch Turkey's Post-Coup Slide into Dictatorship

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Part 4: NATO Fears and Nukes

The German government is viewing developments in Turkey with great concern. The biggest question is the direction in which Turkey will develop. Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned with Erdogan over the weekend and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Even if there have so far been no signals from Ankara that the government there might revoke the refugee deal, most assume that will happen sooner or later. Similar fears are plaguing NATO at the moment. Last Friday night, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with the Turkish foreign minister and then on Monday with Erdogan. In those conversations, Stoltenberg made clear how important it is that Turkey respect democratic principles -- as he did in a SPIEGEL interview a few weeks back. "NATO is based on shared values," he said in June. "Democracy, individual civil liberties and the rule of law."

But Turkey is too important to the alliance, both strategically and geopolitically, for Western politicians to be able to do all that much to counter Erdogan. In addition, Article 13 of the NATO Treaty states that a member of the alliance can leave voluntarily. "NATO has no mechanism with which to impose sanctions against its members," says one NATO official.

NATO partner Turkey had already become alarmingly unstable even before July 15. In the southeast of the country, the military has rekindled fighting in a hopeless war against Kurdish guerrillas. And the putsch attempt has now further weakened the state and the army.

In recent days, Erdogan has had around 100 generals and admirals arrested, about one-third of the military leadership. Many of those suspected to be behind the putsch held important positions within the armed forces, including Adem Huduti, the commander of the Second Army, who coordinated the deployment against the Kurds in southeast Turkey, and Bekir Ercan Van, chief of the Incirlik Air Base, which is used by the US and Europe in the fight against Islamic State.

That is not welcome news for the Pentagon: The US holds NATO's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons at Incirlik. Indeed, the putsch attempt in Turkey underscores the risk of storing weapons of mass destruction in an unstable country. In the US, too, more and more people are demanding that the US withdraw from Incirlik. "America's Nukes Aren't Safe in Turkey Anymore," the magazine Foreign Policy declared in a recent headline.

'Broadly Defined, Well-Planned Operation'

In early April, the Americans demonstrated just how uncertain they consider the situation in Turkey to be. Washington flew out family members of US soldiers for security reasons and at the same time reinforced its own units by deploying hundreds of additional Marines there.

To tighten his control over the army, Erdogan can now swap out the military leadership, but he cannot replace all of the soldiers. He doesn't even know how many conspirators still remain among the ranks of the armed forces. In contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan is not a man of the apparatus. He's an outsider who has never been entirely recognized by the military. The army has always viewed itself as the protector of the country's secular tradition, as the heir to the political legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Atatürk. They're suspicious of Erdogan's Islamic fervor.

Istanbul-based political scientist Sinan Birdal, who has worked for the Turkish military for many years, contradicts the theory that the putsch was staged by a small group of people with connections to the Gülen movement. He says the group was composed of soldiers from a variety of different units and bases. "This was a broadly defined, well-planned operation," he says. Birdal believes there was and still is a lot of pent up frustration over Erdogan within the military. He considers a second putsch to be an "entirely realistic scenario."

But as much as Erdogan distrusts his soldiers, he is also just as reliant upon them -- at least for as long as he continues to refuse to find a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Kurds.

Diyarbakir, the most important Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, is severely damaged. The military and special police units have engaged in bitter street fighting there with YPS, a PKK-aligned youth organization. In many parts of the historic city center, entire streets are blocked off.

Gray plastic tarps block views of the areas where the fighting is taking place and police monitor the entrances to the town. It has been reported that there are still corpses lying inside, and residents are unable to return to their homes. Business used to flourish here and tourists also visited, but residents now say that Diyarbakir is a "dead city."

Fierce Fighting

No one embodies the dashed hopes of Kurds as much as Selahattin Demirtas, a chairman of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. One year ago, his party landed seats in the national parliament for the first time, leading many in Turkey to hope for an end to the confrontation between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority. But Erdogan, who had once pursued the peace process with the Kurds, felt that HDP's success was a threat to his power and reverted to the 1990s policy of confrontation. He began fomenting hatred against the Kurds in order to profit politically.

On Erdogan's orders, more than 10,000 soldiers attacked cities in the country's southeast, imposed curfews and engaged in fierce urban combat with the PKK youth. They erected trenches and barricades and declared "liberated zones." The youth reacted with brutality, killing around 500 police and soldiers, most of whom were shot by snipers. More than 1,000 people were killed and several hundred thousand were forced to flee.

Demirtas sits inside his party headquarters in Ankara. He is besieged by friends and looks pale, but he still takes time to talk. Demirtas believes the war against the PKK fueled the July 15 insurrection. He says it was Erdogan who equipped the military and gave the generals free rein in the country's south. "The armed forces no longer felt bound by any laws," Demirtas says. He warns that, following the military coup, there could now be an Erdogan coup -- and possibly even a civil war in its wake.

Some observers fear that the crisis in Turkey could prompt Kurdish separatists to push for the secession of the Kurdish southeast, an idea that appears to be gaining popularity among Kurds. Ibrahim Halil Baran, a prominent Kurdish intellectual, says he thinks the putsch wasn't necessarily a bad thing for Kurds. "The Turkish side is now occupied with itself," he says. "We Kurds should take advantage of Turkey's weakness in order to achieve our aims."

Dictatorship? Putsch? Civil war? The Turks appear to be cursed by violence, and only a few appear to have the strength to look ahead to the future.

'Not as Simple as That'

Lawyer Osman Can agrees to meet at the Divan Pub on Baghdad Street, one of the best-known shopping streets on the Asian side of Istanbul. "When the first tanks rolled into the neighborhood, people in the restaurants applauded," Can reports. "They said, this is a rescue. But it wasn't as simple as that."

A 48-year-old Kurd, Can grew up in eastern Turkey and would later write his graduate thesis on freedom of opinion at the University of Cologne in Germany. From 2002 to 2010, he served as a judge on the Turkish Constitutional Court in Ankara. He describes himself as being secular and liberal -- and yet he nevertheless allowed himself to be persuaded by Erdogan in September 2012 to join his conservative-Islamic AKP. Only five days later, Can was elected to join the party's 50-member executive committee.

Can says he had never intended to go into politics, but at the time he felt AKP was pursuing a liberal brand of politics. Erdogan's government had reformed the constitution in 2010 and strengthened the rights of women. "Those reforms of course didn't go far enough," Can says, "but they were an important step."

Erdogan also seemed prepared to accept advice from a person like him. "I told him that I would be critical of him," Can says, "and he said that was OK." At the time, an AKP constitutional commission was considering the question of what a presidential system might look like. Can studied the proposals and became alarmed. The president, for example, "was to be given the right to dissolve parliament," he says.

Few listened to Can's objections until he complained directly to Erdogan. "Afterwards, we created a new commission and worked for six months on proposals -- for a parliamentary, but also for a presidential system that assured democratic structures." In April 2014, Can's commission presented its work. Erdogan reacted positively.

Unacceptable Disgrace

But then he was elected president and Can's proposals for greater democracy weren't released, Erdogan apparently preferring to avoid a public debate. A short time later, Can's AKP career came to an end: When the next parliamentary elections came around, his name no longer appeared on the party's list of candidates. "Erdogan didn't call me, nor did I go to him, he says. "I had seen that I could no longer be effective."

Does Can's story affirm the interpretation that Erdogan has let his power go to his head and that he is now unscrupulously clearing away any form of opposition on his path to autocratic rule? Can shakes his head. "I can understand this European view," he says. But if the West sees only Erdogan as the bogeyman and disregards the Gülen movement, it won't be seeing the whole truth, he adds. "The more powerful Gülen got, the tougher Erdogan became," he says, and this conflict triggered a wave of irrational political actions.

And the putsch attempt? "I have no proof," Can says, "but I am convinced it was initiated by the Gülen movement." He says he didn't applaud when the tanks rolled in on Friday. "My reaction was: Even if democracy in Turkey is in a sorry state, such a disgrace is unacceptable."

According to Can, the only way out of the crisis for Turkey is through deeper democracy. "Without a democratic constitution, our system will remain vulnerable to further putsch attempts -- and to populism."

By Nicola Abé, Dieter Bednarz, Onur Burçak Belli, Eren Caylan, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Veit Medick, Peter Müller, Maximilian Popp, Roland Nelles, Christoph Schult and Samiha Shafy

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 07/22/2016
1. Different times, different names!
Young people in Germany often ask, how it was possible, for a man like Hitler to seize power in Germany. A look at Turkey now may well help them to find the answer. How easy it is for immoderate leaders to mislead huge parts of the population, who are not prepared to think for themselves, can also be seen in the preparations for the elections for a new president in the USA.
janux99 07/22/2016
2. Islam & democracy
Turkey was one of the few democratic Muslim countries; is Islam and democracy compatible?
jukkakautto 07/23/2016
Kill all who can read and write (Khmer Rouge) and you are serving the cause. Get 80M Turks to home turf and start wondering, if they come with some of their issues too.
ammartekinedinburgh 07/23/2016
4. Why I Stand by Erdogan against the Coup Attempt?
Why I Stand by Erdogan's Side against the Coup Attempt in Turkey and is Erdogan Really Firing Thousands of Teachers, Academics and so on? For those who want to read about what is going on in Turkey from a pro-Erdogan perspective, something different than how it is widely portrayed in the media, I am going to elaborate on this matter extensively. First of all, Fetullah Gulen movement, which is called Hizmet movement by themselves, is not a secular organisation or a charity. The US based cleric Fetullah Gulen is not simply a peaceful preacher. Gulen is the head of a very rich organisation that has networks all around the world, who sought asylum in the US when he had absolutely any charge against him in Turkey, is widely acknowledged to be the head of the coup plot. His movement is a religion based organisation that has congregants from all occupational groups. There has always been discussion on the operational principles of this organisation within Turkey. Not only Kemalists and seculars, but also other religious groups have always disapproved and stood against their methods. Erdogan does not have the best image in the West at all. Arguably, it all started after Erdogan’s and many Turkish people’s disappointments with the EU thanks to never ending stalling of the European leaders on Turkey’s long lasting EU candidateship as well as his unexpected rise with renowned “one minute” in 2009 Davos summit against Israel President Simon Peres. Man, that was some speech, you should check that! Actually, when Erdogan first came into power in 2002, he focused extensively on the relations with the EU and Turkey endeavoured with a great pace to become a member of the EU. But after over and over disappointments, Turkish people and Erdogan gave up on that. Fethullah Gulen himself, journalists who are members of the Gulen movement or sympathetic towards it accuse Erdogan and Turkey with supporting ISIS. This is largely expressed and shared by the mainstream media in the West as well. I think it is also accepted by many people in the West.
nsmith 07/23/2016
5. Time for Plan-B...
Now would probably be good time for the E.U. and Chancellor Merkel to start working on a back-up plan when it comes to preventing any further mass-migrations of refugees to Europe.
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