The Middle Eastern region has seen many upheavals and protracted conflicts. A lot has already been written about how ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups use Turkey as a gateway to Syria further fuelling the Syrian civil war that has consumed lakhs of lives and created umpteen refugees in far-off lands. Turkey has been at the forefront of this quagmire in Syria and Iraq by impeding the fight against ISIS while covertly backing rebel groups and targeting the Kurdish rebel groups working with the US Coalition as part of SDF. Turkey, under President Erdogan has been in the process of reinventing its role as the regional powerhouse seeking to recreate the Ottoman Caliphate; a dream that Erdogan has successfully sold to the Turkish population. The recent events of a failed coup by a rebellion in the Turkish armed forces and the purge that followed only reinforces the said point.
Events in Turkey on 15th-16th July 2016 moved swiftly when a faction of the Turkish military seeking to dethrone the elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government of AKP moved tanks and the army in Istanbul and the capital city, Ankara. The rebellion military faction took advantage of Turkish President Erdogan’s absence as he was on a vacation in a resort in Marmaris on the Mediterranean coast. The rebel forces arriving in military Black Hawk helicopters to get President Erdogan targeted the neighbouring resort to the one in which President Erdogan was staying, giving him ample time to escape to Istanbul. However, when the Turkish President was airborne from Marmaris to Istanbul, 2 rebel F-16 jets were locked on his aircraft but did not fire. The reason is a mystery. Meanwhile Erdogan’s Gulfstream assumed the identity of THY 8456, a Turkish Airlines jet, with other F-16’s loyal to the President in pursuit of the rebel jets. Realising their botched up operation to overthrow the President, the rebel forces flew across to Greece and landed the chopper at Alexandropoulos seeking asylum. The Greek authorities have put these eight people on trial.
While these events were unfolding swiftly in Marmaris, the news of a rebellion by the Turkish armed forces began filtering out through social media. Tanks rolled on the streets of Ankara, and F-16 jets flew at low heights with the rebellious faction declaring a coup by surrounding the Military HQ. Istanbul’s two main bridges; the Bosphorus and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet were blocked by the rebellious faction. Hours later, the Turkish Prime Minister issued a statement saying that there was an illegitimate coup underway and those responsible would be dealt with in the strictest fashion. While the rebellion faction of the Turkish military captured popular TV stations, President Erdogan through Facetime broadcasted a message to his party AKP and the people in Turkey to come out on the streets and oppose this illegitimate coup meant to dethrone an elected government and president.
On this clarion call by President Erdogan, thousands turned up on the streets opposing the rebellion faction of the Turkish military and protested against the coup. The rebel faction used tanks, gunfights etc. on the people protesting against the coup and even bombed the parliament but were overwhelmed by the popular support President Erdogan received on his landing in Istanbul and later Ankara. The coup in Turkey failed; leaving nearly 300 dead and hundreds more injured in the process. The failed coup was led by former Turkish Air Force General A Ozaturk who was once a military attaché in the Turkish Embassy in Israel in the mid-90s.
The failed coup attempt Turkey on July15-16th 2016 sent shockwaves across the capitals in the region and beyond given that Turkey is the US’s second largest NATO ally with US nuclear weapons based at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. Turkey also plays a critical part in the US’s war against ISIS/Daesh in Syria with airstrikes being carried out of the Incirlik base. After the coup attempt fizzled out, President Erdogan blamed Fethullah Gulen his arch-rival based in Pennsylvania (USA) for orchestrating the coup. President Erdogan and the Turkish Prime Minister openly pointed fingers at the US for harbouring an alleged coup plotter and asked that he be extradited immediately. Meanwhile, the Turkish government also closed down the Incirlik airbase to US operations against ISIS/Daesh in Northern Syria hampering the coalition forces. The Turkish Government even cut power to the airbase as it suspected the rebel F-16’s were filled with fuel from fuel tankers from the base and were backed by its military commanders stationed at NATO/US airbase. While the US like the EU categorically denounced the attempted coup, it called on the Turkish government to provide credible proof linking Gulen to the coup for any extradition claims. The US Secretary of State John Kerry also made it amply clear that Turkey’s actions post-coup and insinuations could lead to the review of its role in NATO while the EU stressed on President Erdogan to deal with the alleged coup plotters in accordance with the Rule of Law and not bring back the death penalty, as that would scuttle its EU membership bid.
After the coup failed, President Erdogan cracked down on dissidents across the board rounding up more than 50,000 people as backers of the Gulenist Coup. The Turkish state in a purge resembling Stalin suspended 15,200 teachers in the Education Ministry and 21,000 in Teachers in private schools; detained 6,000 soldiers and sacked 7,850 police officers and 2745 judges including Supreme Court judges. In addition to this nearly 1,577 University deans resigned, 1,500 finance ministry officials and 614 Gendarme soldiers were dismissed, 492 religious clerics were sacked, and 37 TRT broadcasters, PMO Staff, Generals, Admirals and military level commanders were rounded up, and some of them were even kept tied naked in detention centres.
This crackdown by President Erdogan has an eerie resemblance to the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany after which Hitler seized complete power; suspending all basic civil rights. On 21st July, President Erdogan nearly six days after the alleged coup; imposed a state of emergency in Turkey for three months. Moreover, Turkey in a further crackdown on the Press has shut down 18 TV channels, 3 newswire agencies, 23 Radio channels, 45 newspapers and arrested 30 Journalists. Turkey has also shut down 15 universities, 934 schools, 104 foundations, 109 dormitories, 35 hospitals, 1125 associations and 19 unions. This is being touted as an attempt by the Turkish state as an act to cleanse the Turkish society of people who support Gulen or his school of though and are considered as potential adversaries to President Erdogan’s reign.
To understand the events of the coup in Turkey, one needs to understand the bitter enmity between allies turned foes President Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen. Fethullah Gulen, a radical Islamic preacher, now based in the US operates one of the largest organisations educating, training and cultivating people since decades in the Turkic way of life by following pure Islamic practices. Gulen, who has always followed and imparted the Nurcu school of thought, was once Erdogan’s ally and has contributed significantly to the rise of Justice and the Democratic Party (AKP) with both practicing similar Political Islamist ideologies and dreams contrary to the Kemalist secular policies of the modern Turkish Republic.
The Gulen Movement or Ceemat as it is called has an informal structure and an obscure functioning somewhat on the lines of the Opus Dei. Gulen has nearly 3 million followers in Turkey and thousands more across the world teaching the Turkic Islamic way of life and inculcating Turkic nationalist values. The Gulen School with one of the largest education networks outside Turkey has been instrumental in raising intellectual elite with deeply ingrained Islamic values contrary to the Kemalist values of Secular Turkey. It has provided one of the largest recruitment bases for various fields in the Turkish administration such as the military, judiciary, universities, civil society, media etc. a trend which seemed to worry friend turned foe; President Erdogan. Gulen was ousted from Turkey in the 1990’s on charges of planning to overthrow the secular Republic of Turkey and seeking to recreate the Islamic Caliphate on lines of the Ottoman Empire. It is indeed ironical that the current coup and feud in Turkey arises from the turf war between 2 persons espousing the same cause and ideology given that the ideology promoted by the Gulen School and President Erdogan’s AKP is Political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gulen, after migrating to the US; set up charter schools in 160 countries globally and 120 charters in the US alone enrolling nearly 45,000 students in furthering the spread of Political Islam.
While the Gulen Movement has spread far and wide across the world with deep penetration in the Turkish society over the decades; it has faced a backlash over its suspicious activities and the ideologies that it has sought to promote. Gulen has also long been touted as acting in connivance with the CIA whose former officers like Graham Fuller and George Fidas backed his Green card application. From Bill Clinton to James Baker to President Obama; they all have praised Gulen’s work and his contribution to world peace. Post the coup, Gulen has also stated that he backs America’s interests and loves Hillary Clinton. The Gulen network has been banned by countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia with its members suspected to be acting as conduits for the CIA in the region. Former Turkish Intelligence Chief, Osman Nuri Gundes, in his memoirs, has stated that the Gulen Movement has been providing cover to CIA for its activities in Central Asia since the mid-90s hosting 130 CIA agents at its schools in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alone. In 2008 even the Dutch Government concluded that Gulen Movement promoted anti-integrative behaviour among the local populace though that decision was later overturned in 2010. Even the Government of Somalia has ordered Gulenists to leave the country following the coup attempt in Turkey while Russia and Pakistan have put the Gulenist movement under strict surveillance after requests from Turkey.
Various investigations and whistle-blowers who have studied the Gulen Movement have stated that it has spent a vast amount of money to infiltrate government, business, media, business houses, law schools, judiciary and runs nearly 17 universities in Turkey alone undermining the secular Kemalist values and is radicalising the students with core values of Political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Wikileaks cables and Stratfor Global Intelligence leaks have discussed the deceptive nature of the Gulen Movement preaching radical Islamic theologies aiming to establish a Caliphate under the cloak of moderate intellectual schools. It is indeed ironical that the US which backed Political Islam through the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in the Arab Spring is in crosshairs with Turkey due to the feud between the 2 factions of Muslim Brotherhood espousing the same causes. While it is known that both Gulen and Erdogan endorse the same school of thought of re-establishing the Ottoman Caliphate across the region, Erdogan’s dream of the Caliphate is not in sync with the US’s backing of an autonomous Kurdish state in Syria and Iraq as a foothold in a critical region. Erdogan’s use of ISIS and Syrian rebels while targeting the Kurds in a way undermines the American effort to gain a strategic foothold in the form of Kurdistan in an Oil & Gas rich region with access to Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The slugfest between President Erdogan and the US is bound to escalate in the times to come with the war of words over the extradition of Gulen. This will further compel Turkey into asserting its independent foreign policy in the region which runs counter to the American dream of hegemony and perfectly fits the bill of Russia, who seeks to gain a strategic foothold in a region that the US has dominated for decades. Turkey’s recent overtures of opening diplomatic ties with Israel and re-establishing relations with Russia further underscore the same point. Even China has recently courted Turkey by signing Nuclear power agreements that could with time mean a shift in the regional balance. Turkey has also been backing Pakistan by withdrawing Diplomats from Bangladesh as a protest of execution of Jamaat-E-Islami leaders espousing the wider cause of a Pan-Islamic bloc. Turkey’s failed coup has only ended up strengthening President Erdogan’s hold and his dreams of an Ottoman Caliphate. The ball has been set rolling for the further expansion of Political Islam across the Islamic world and beyond something which will have reverberating consequences on the world order. While the attempted military coup in Turkey may have failed, the subsequent successful coup by President Erdogan over the secular Kemalist values of Democratic Turkey has opened the gateway to Political Islam worldwide.