Although most American media has moved on from its coverage, Turkey is still reeling from the failed military coup attempt that began on July 15. The coup was an attempt to oust Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While the prelude to the coup and the events that have taken place since then are complex matters, it’s been difficult to glean even the most basic information about what’s happening there due to the Turkish government shutdown of media outlets and the public’s predisposition towards caring more about Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
In order to get the clearest sense of the when, where, why, and how of things, we spoke to author and former American diplomat, Brady Kiesling. Kiesling resigned from the United States Foreign Service in 2003 in protest of the Iraq war. His letter of resignation was published in the New York Times. He currently lives in Athens, Greece, and has been following the situation in Turkey closely.
How would you describe the national mood leading up to the failed coup attempt in Turkey?
I should preface this by saying I haven’t spent a lot of time in Turkey recently. I have friends who go there, I read a bit about it, but I’m not the best barometer of the situation. I will say that Turkish friends have highlighted a lot of concerns. The polarization in Turkish society has grown, it’s like the polarization in US society. The blue state, Western Turkey: the European-looking modernizers, secularists. The red state, Eastern Turkey: the followers of Erdoğan. The tension and anger has been growing over the past couple of years as it becomes clear that Erdoğan is moving toward a one-party system with himself as essentially absolute ruler.
Do you feel like support for the coup and for Erdoğan respectively was drawn along those partisan lines?
In recent years Erdoğan’s government has been trying to reshape the army to more accurately reflect the Ak Parti’s ideology [Editor’s note: The Ak Parti is also known as the Justice and Development Party, and Turkey’s prime minister is the party’s leader]. More conservative socially, more Islamist—but the officer corps still, especially in the air force and the navy, has been more progressive, technological, secular. The military has been very concerned about this, but they’ve also learned from past coups that military intervention in politics has never worked very well. So the prevailing wisdom in the military has been to just grit their teeth and ride it out.
My impression, and it’s only an impression at this point, of what triggered the coup, is the advance word that the next round of military promotions was going to purge a large part of the officer corps with the forced early retirements of a lot of people who were seen as not particularly loyal to Erdoğan. Erdoğan says it’s purging “Gülenist” officers, but frankly I think it’s more accurate to say anyone who’s not with the program of the Ak Parti was going to be pushed out. And so the coup was a hasty attempt to preempt those personnel changes.
It’s been somewhat difficult to gage where Turkey’s citizens were feeling during the actual coup attempt, and whether there was any popular support for it. Are you able to speak to that at all?
The problem is, politics is personality driven almost everywhere, more than ideologically. A secret coup always has the disadvantage that you don’t have a senior personality that ordinary people can use as a basis of judging how they feel. The coup plotters did not have any ability to prepare public opinion for what they were doing. They did not have a clear message, certainly they did not have a enough support from media or elsewhere to get a message out quickly enough to much good. They did not have the full support of the military, which as I said has great reservations about intervening in politics these days. So most of the population stared blankly, but there’s a very substantial core of Ak Parti activists—people with government jobs, especially in Istanbul where the Ak Parti has controlled municipal government for a very long time. These people, when Erdoğan called them out into the street, they would go. Some of them have ties to organizations with weapons and the like, and police, so it was a serious miscalculation on the part of the coup plotters. They assumed that people would either share their anger at the government or at least sit quietly, but they were wrong.
Most of the news coming out of Turkey recently is of arrests and purges from the public sector, especially education. What do you sense is Erdoğan’s long term strategy here?
The end game is to wipe out the ability of the old, secular Atatürk party [the Republican People’s Party or CHP] to promote its traditional values, by essentially freezing the educational system, dismantling military officer corps training, and replacing it with something directly under [Erdoğan]’s control. Replacing judges, shutting down media outlets—essentially silencing half of the ideological discourse in Turkey. The coup was a perfect excuse to do this, and as you see, there’s been no meaningful reaction, so it looks like he’s going to succeed.
Do you have a sense of how Erdoğan’s campaign compares to what other leaders have done after failed coup attempts in other places?
I cannot think of anything as sweeping. I guess you could say that the Bolshevik Revolution—I don’t have enough detailed history to give you a clear example. I think you could find examples in Russia after the revolution. You could also argue that this is the most dramatic shift in Turkish society since [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk’s own reforms, which were actually even more sweeping, more brutal, more out of the blue. Atatürk’s reforms worked. They transformed Turkey from being a waning multi-national empire into a modernizing nationalist state. Now you have Erdoğan essentially trying to go back to a sultanate with himself as the sultan.
Has this coup attempt and Erdoğan’s reaction to it represented a permanent shift in Turkish democracy in your view? I know he’s declared a three-month state of emergency, but I’m curious whether he’s likely to continue consolidating control past that point?
Let’s step back a second. The first problem is that [there is] no opposition, in the sense that [Fethullah] Gülen and the Gülenist movement is not a serious threat. It is an ideological current, but sort of a more quietest form of Islam with a very long-term perspective, but certainly no interest in coups and direct seizure of power, more a slow transformation of society.
Erdoğan I think has deliberately created and manipulated this image of an external enemy in the form of Gülen, and there’s something very 1984 about that. A crucial factor is [Erdoğan]’s perception that the European Union is no longer crucial to Turkey’s future. I think the Brexit vote has played a substantial role in his decision that he does not need to pretend to be a democrat anymore. It’s clear with the Brexit vote that Europe is not going to be expanding any time soon in the way that he’s interested in, so there’s not point in his sacrificing his power or his country’s national sovereignty in any way to join. A second factor is the influence of NATO and the United States in Turkey is much less. Essentially he does not consider Russia to be an existential threat to Turkey anymore. NATO was very useful, but it’s become more and more clear that NATO will never adopt his view that NATO’s job should be to suppress the Kurds, keep the Syrians in line, and that kind of thing. The mission of NATO is too much at odds with his own personal mission.
The external constraints on his behavior have kind of evaporated. It’s very hard to see something that can reverse this process. His own death, when it happens, will strain the system, and I’m very curious to see if one of his sons-in-law will be put into the job. The Ak Parti is a personality-driven party, it’s not really an ideological party as far as I can tell. That will be the next stage. Is Turkey going to become North Korea? I hope not, but you can’t rule it out.
I wondered whether you felt like any of the sort of traditional political apparatuses, such an an election, could be used against Erdoğan in the future, but it sounds like you don’t see that as being particularly likely.
I don’t think Erdoğan will allow elections to take place that he could lose. I think at this point, especially with the intervention in the judiciary and the intervention in local government services, everyone knows who has to be the winner in the next election, and the state apparatus will serve that mission or else people will lose their jobs. Essentially the democratic mechanisms have been taken over, and there are no longer checks and balances.