PLEASE NOTE I EDITED THIS POST DUE TO AN ERROR IN THE TITLE
July 20, 2016
by Avi Melamed
A military coup in Turkey (July 15-16, 2016) was oppressed and failed.
Though crushed, the attempted coup, which was apparently led by some factors within the Turkish army, indicates the deep and dangerous crisis which Turkey is experiencing that stems from serious challenges it is facing both internally as well as externally.
Within a period of 13 years under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – in his tenure first as Prime Minister, and since his election to the presidency in 2014, Turkey has dramatically changed.
Turkey, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, gained independence in 1923. Since 1924 Turkey has written three Constitutions – 1924,1961 and 1982. Each specifically describes Turkey as a democratic, secular Republic. The Turkish army is even formally appointed by the constitution to defend and secure Turkey’s secular identity.
Yet, under the leadership of Erdoğan, Islam has become the dominant characteristic and identity of Turkey at the expense of secularism. And Erdoğan has in fact, become a dictator. Strongholds of secular Turkey such as the army, intellectuals, the media and non-profit organizations are monitored and persecuted by the Erdoğan dictatorship. His political opponents, as well as journalists who criticize him, are imprisoned. Human and civil rights are violated on a daily basis in Turkey.
This dramatic change in Turkey’s identity, a country of 80 million people, inevitably increases the political tensions between Islamist and secular camps in Turkey. This growing tension, coupled with a series of accumulating challenges, finds Turkey steeped in a deep and dangerous crisis.
Domestically, Turkey confronts growing economic challenges. Though some argue that Turkey’s economy under Erdoğan is booming, the reality is quite different. The growth of the Turkish economy is artificial, achieved mostly through a very generous credit system. Yet, the easy credit terms Turkey offers its citizens are based upon loans the country itself has taken – and this increases Turkey’s budget deficit. Turkey’s economy has been traditionally based on the manufacturing and export of mid-range products as well as incoming tourism. These two major income sources have proven to be very vulnerable for Turkey. Turkey’s production industry faces tough competition from China (and others), while terror attacks in Turkey have resulted in a sharp decline in the volume of incoming tourism. Thus, Turkey has faced growing difficulties in paying back its loans, and its national debt has therefore dramatically increased.
Turkey also confronts serious security challenges. It is engaged in a war against the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, as well as in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
Cities throughout the country are plagued with constant terror attacks.
And Turkey harbors millions of Syrians fleeing from Syria which only exacerbates the pressures and mounting domestic challenges.
Turkey’s foreign policy also has serious challenges.
Not so long ago, Turkey’s foreign policy was guided by two principles.
One was the concept of “zero conflicts” – according to which Turkey would conduct friendly relations with all of its neighbors.
The second, Erdoğan attempted to crown himself as the dominant leader of the Muslim Sunni Middle Eastern states.
In 2016 Erdoğan’s ambitious policy is in ruins.
Turkey has tense relations with Russia, the United States, Iran and Egypt, and finds itself on a collision course with Syrian President Assad – who prior to the outbreak of the war in Syria was a strategic ally of Turkey and a close friend of Erdoğan.
The war in Syria, Turkey’s escalating tension with the Kurds, and the Iranian regional aggressive policy, has forced Erdoğan to recalculate his regional policy.
One example for the change in his policy is in the context of his relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Erdoğan’s aspirations have been a constant source of tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as well as Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are not big fans of Erdoğan for three main reasons.
First, because of his attempt to position himself to be the leader of the Sunnis in the Middle East.
Second, because he positions himself as the role model and patron of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which is formally defined by Saudi Arabia and Egypt as a terror organization.
Third, because of his support for Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement which identifies itself as the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine. Egypt and Saudi Arabia view Hamas as a destabilizing factor and Egypt even views Hamas as threat to its security.
From 2007 until 2013, as the Muslim Brotherhood was gaining momentum throughout the Muslim world and Erdoğan’s aspirations to become the leader of the Sunni Arab Middle Eastern states seemed well on their way to being realized, he was outwardly and unabashedly critical of the Saudis and the Egyptians – the two major states in the Arab world.
Now that the Middle Eastern winds have changed, as often happens in this neighborhood, Erdoğan’s tone has changed…
Not only is he actively seeking the friendship and support of the Saudis as well as the Egyptians, but the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is brutally oppressed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia – including the Egyptians suffocation of the Hamas tunnel industry – does not seem to bother Erdoğan a bit.
Another example of Turkey redefining its regional policy is its relationship with Israel.
In May 2010, Israeli marines raided the Marmara, one of six ships of a flotilla launched from Turkey whose goal was to reach the Gaza Strip and bypass the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip.
(A major organizer of the Flotilla was an organization called IHH, a Turkish Islamist NGO connected to political Islamic organizations and connected to radical Islamic organizations involved in terror attacks in Europe, and one of the Islamic organizations in Turkey that formally condemned the United States for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, describing it as an act of “American Terrorism.”)
While five of the Flotilla ships surrendered to Israeli authorities, and docked in Israeli ports, the sixth ship, the Marmara, refused to comply with the Israeli demand. Thus, Israeli forces raided the ship. The takeover turned violent, resulting in nine people (most of them Turkish) being killed and dozens of wounded on both sides.
The incident resulted in a crisis between Israel and Turkey and diplomatic relations between the two were severed. That being said, commercial relations between the two states endured and even increased, since the incident.
Since 2010, Turkey had stipulated that the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel was predicated on Israel lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip.
In June 2016, Turkey and Israel signed a reconciliation agreement. Not a trace of that demand is mentioned in the reconciliation agreement.
The harsh Middle East reality has forced Turkey to reevaluate and compromise its regional policy.
The pragmatic, compromising approach exercised by Erdoğan in the case of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel stems from his need to increase his maneuvering capabilities in the shadow of growing domestic and external challenges.
What are the current and predicted reactions of the Middle Eastern players following the failed military coup in Turkey?
One should note that most Arab states did not rush to make formal statements following the coup. They were awaiting the signal from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Saudi King Salman waited almost 48 hours before calling the Turkish President to express his support for Turkey’s stability. One should note the time it took him to call – and no less important – the fact he expressed support for Turkey’s stability… not necessarily for Erdoğan himself.
The Saudi’s position stems from two major reasons.
One, the Saudi King Salman and Erdoğan are able to put aside their mutual hostilities in order to create a base for practical cooperation in a joint effort to block Iran.
Two, Saudi Arabia – with all of its resentment towards Erdoğan, his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as his regional leadership aspirations – still prefers to conduct a conversation with an Islamist affiliated counterpart, rather than a secular affiliated rule.
Arab states, including Egypt, are likely to follow the Saudi position.
Israel expresses a position quite similar to the Saudi’s. This position is another indicator which reflects, yet again – the conjunction of Israeli and Saudi strategic interests, as well as Israel’s interest to secure the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
Similar to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s official statements express support for maintaining stability in Turkey and support for the Turkish people, yet, Israel as well, does not explicitly express direct support for Erdoğan.
Israel, like the Saudis, and like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is not a great fan of Erdoğan, but the relationship between the states are subdued to national and strategic interests and calculations – as they should.
Iran and Syria will probably develop a coordinated – though differing in content – reaction which will include taking revenge on Erdoğan for his support of the rebels in Syria
It is possible that Syrian President, Bashar el-Assad, will try to capitalize on the opportunity to divert international attention from the war in Syria, arguing that Erdoğan’s dictatorship results in instability in Turkey, and he will argue that instability in Turkey is the biggest source of threat to the region and to Europe.
Iran will possibly capitalize on the situation in Turkey to support its efforts to gain international recognition as the solid, trusted regional force and partner in a troubled and unstable region.
Another regional factor which will probably try and capitalize on the failed coup in Turkey is the Muslim Brotherhood who will likely express strong support in Erdoğan.
Why would the Muslim Brotherhood try and capitalize on the failed coup in Turkey?
As the Muslim Brotherhood movement struggles with a deep ideological and political crisis* it can find some comfort in the support of the masses in Turkey for Erdoğan.
Therefore, it is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood will interpret Erdoğan’s endurance as proof that the ideology and path of the Muslim Brotherhood is still attractive and appealing to the masses. This outlook might inject some energy into the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
We already see a precursor for the Muslim Brotherhood position in the statements made by Hamas – the Palestinian organization which defines itself as the branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.
Hamas rushed to announce its support in Erdoğan. Hamas’ support makes sense, given the fact Erdoğan is the role model for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the fact that Erdoğan is a major patron of Hamas. The fact that Erdoğan compromised his demand that Israel lift the siege on the Gaza Strip and, reportedly promised Israel to deport Hamas’ senior military leader based in Turkey, will not affect Hamas’ support for him of course. In the chain of power and fabric of relations amongst the Middle East players, everyone should know their place.
The failed coup marks a significant milestone in the struggle of the Turks over identity, path and direction.*
The seismograph should monitor Turkey closely…
Some foresee a scenario of the violent disintegration of Turkey, similar to the gloomy fate of its neighbor, Syria. I do not think such a development is realistic in the near or foreseeable future. Turkey is not Syria – the fabric of the society is different, the power centers and power structures are different, the traditions and the interests of Turkish society are different.
Throughout its turbulent contemporary history, the Turks have been able to create checks and balances, they have been able to split political power and distribute it between various state mechanisms. Thus, despite a constantly tense political environment, stability in Turkey has been restored more than once after a major political turbulence. That being said, it is clear that the coup indicates Turkey – and not for the first time – is yet at a most sensitive, dangerous crossroads.
Some argue that the failed coup in Turkey will result in a tougher regime and more brutal means of suppression by the Erdoğan dictatorship, thus marking another phase in the transformation of a democratic and secular Turkey into an Islamic theocracy. Others argue the coup sends a very clear signal to Erdoğan that he needs to recalculate his domestic policy and to restrain his appetite for power.
There are many sectors in Turkey which resent Erdoğan. If he continues to persecute and restrict these sectors, it will likely increase the crisis in Turkey, resulting in a more massive eruption.
Erdoğan is often described as a “bully.” Indeed, Erdoğan’s ambition and desire for power is insatiable. He built himself a thousand-room palace in a National Park, disregarding the Turkish court prohibition to do so and has adopted the manners and behavior of a Sultan.
As fantastic as this may sound – the future of Turkey is largely subject to the outcome of the struggle between the pragmatic side and the megalomaniac side of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
(*) For more on this issue please read in my recent book Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth
Avi Melamed is a Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst and the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs and the head of the Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives program for the Eisenhower Institute