On July 15, 2016, as F-16s were flying over Istanbul and Ankara, people took to the streets beneath the piercing roar of the fighter jets and stood in the path of the rebels’ tanks. When the coup attempt was thwarted, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who described it as a gift from God, seized the opportunity to consolidate draconian powers.
There is still a lot of discussion over the events that occurred that day and the opposition dug its own grave through its post-coup attitude, Aykan Erdemir, a former deputy in the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and former U.S. State Department employee Henri Barkey, said in a podcast with Ahval’s Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar.
Turkey blames U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers, known as the Gülen movement, for the failed 2016 putsch, and has since sacked hundreds of thousands of public officials and army personnel in a series of purges and designated the group as a terrorist organisation.
“From the very first moment of the coup attempt, my interpretation was that the main backbone of the putsch was Gülenist officers and civilian extensions of the movement. When we look back, we see that this prediction is not wrong,” Erdemir said.
Barkey said that the coup was still partly a mystery for him.
“It is a fact that the Gülen organisation is behind it. But I do not understand; the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) appoints a lot of officers every year and cleans itself constantly. Because of constant fear of infiltration, the TSK runs a continuous cleaning mechanism. I cannot understand how so many Gülenists have entered such an institution,” Barkey said. “When we look at the developments after the coup, hundreds of officers, more than 200 generals and admirals were dismissed. Many people are in prison. Were they all Gülenist?”
Many generals and admirals were pushed out of the Turkish military following the failed coup under the pretext of criminal prosecutions, administrative dismissals, early retirements and forced resignation schemes.
Alongside the officers accused of planning and carrying out the coup attempt, more than 10,000 military cadets also lost their places at military schools in the ensuing purges, and hundreds of them have received life sentences for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order by force and violence”.
“There is a ruthlessness in the operations of the government. The most significant example is those poor cadets,” Barkey said. “They just followed orders. They did not know anything else. These are 18-year-olds. The government threaten everyone at once. They try to give a message that no one can oppose them.”
Both analysts said that nobody knows much more about the details of the failed coup today than they did four years ago. A parliamentary commission had suspended its work on a report about the coup attempt abruptly in 2017 when Erdoğan expressed his disapproval over the deepening investigations.
“There are two reasons that tell us it will not be easy to get to the bottom of the coup. Firstly, if the truths come out, that means many opposition figures and institutions who have been criminalised since the coup by the government will be acquitted and the ruling coalition will turn out to be real culprits. That’s why they will do everything to prevent that,” Aydemir said.
There are several journalists, members of NGOs, and politicians who were accused and jailed for allegedly abetting and aiding the Gülen movement without any solid evidence, Aydemir said.
Barkey said that “Gülenists infiltrated the bureaucracy with Erdoğan’s permission. He knew who the Gülenists were, so he dismissed so many people. If there were Gülenist officers in the TSK, they came to these posts with the approval of the government and perhaps that is the reason behind their dismissal.”
Erdoğan was expecting that the staunch critiques of his government would line up behind the putschists, however, he was left empty handed as the opposition stood against the attempt and defended the elected government despite their disapproval, Aydemir said.
“Erdoğan has missed the opportunity to label the opposition as illegitimate as coup backers and to effectively liquidate the opposition. Therefore, we see the efforts of the Erdoğan regime to criminalise the opposition in other ways,” he said.
But, the opposition dug its own grave with its post-coup policies, he added. Turkey’s opposition parties, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party, the Felicity Party, and the Great Unity Party joined Erdoğan’s call for national unity after the failed coup.
They staged a million-strong political party rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapı square in wake of the failed coup.
“The opposition got through a tough coup exam, with a high level of democracy credits, but after Yenikapı, it supported the coming authoritarianism and dug its own grave, perhaps because of its lack of vision, or it was forced to do so,” Aydemir said.