The purge after failed coup: Erdogan pushes Turkey to the brink

  • Rezaul H Laskar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 19, 2016 13:28 IST
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters outside of his residence in Istanbul July 19. (REUTERS)

The failed coup against Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown light on deteriorating stability in a country that was for long held up to the rest of the Muslim world as a functioning democracy and a symbol of economic prosperity.

Despite leaders of Europe and the US calling on Turkey to respect the rule of law in the aftermath of the putsch, Erdogan has pushed ahead with a swift purging of the military, judiciary and other branches of his government, with some 20,000 officials being either detained or removed from their positions.

Erdogan has even talked of reinstating the death penalty, which Turkey got rid of in 2004 as part of its efforts to join the European Union. He has also referred to Friday’s attempted coup as a “gift from God” that will help him “cleanse our army”.

The developments in Turkey are expected to have far-reaching implications for the campaign against terrorism, especially the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and the role played by Ankara as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East.

They have also resulted in tensions between Turkey and the US after Erdogan demanded the Obama administration extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and has been accused of directing the coup plot. Other Turkish leaders have claimed the US was behind the uprising.

US secretary of state John Kerry, in a phone call to his Turkish counterpart, dismissed “insinuations or claims about any role by the US” as false and harmful for bilateral relations.

The closure of Turkish airspace during the coup led to the suspension of US airstrikes against the IS in Syria from Incirlik airbase. Turkey is a major ally of the US in the fight against terrorism and extremism in the region.

A soldier protects himself from the mob after troops involved in the coup attempt surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul on July 16. (REUTERS)

However, experts believe tensions over the issue of Gulen--who was once a close ally of Erdogan and heads the Hizmet movement that still has considerable influence over Turkish military officers, bureaucrats and members of the judiciary--could impact this security cooperation.

European leaders such as the EU’s commissioner of neighbourhood policy Johannes Hahn have even accused the Turkish government of using the coup as an excuse to crack down on opponents. “That the lists are available already after the event indicates that this was prepared, that at a certain moment it should be used,” Hahn said.

Experts have also noted that Erdogan’s purge has focused on the military and judiciary, two institutions that are perceived as capable of standing up to the president’s efforts to concentrate greater powers in his hands. Since he came to power in 2003, Erdogan has focussed on increasing his authority through constitutional changes.

In recent years, moves made by Erdogan and his AK Party have eroded the secularism seen as the bedrock of the modern Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The military, since the days of Ataturk, was the guardian of this secularism and a statement issued by the coup plotters on Friday had spoken of the elimination of “secular and democratic rule of law” by Erdogan’s government.

For years, Erdogan’s government turned a blind eye to jihadis travelling to Syria through Turkey’s open borders. It was only a string of deadly attacks in Turkish cities blamed on the IS that led to a change in this policy and a belated crackdown on the group’s elements within the country.

Erdogan’s detractors fear he will replace secular elements in the military with generals close to him and this could have an impact on morale at a time when the armed forces are playing a key role in the fight against IS.

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