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Thursday, July 18, 2024

COLUMN: Turkiye’s Decade of Turmoil: Assessing Losses on the Anniversary of the July 15 Coup Attempt

Turkiye experienced one of its darkest days on July 15, 2016, during the attempted coup. It marked a pivotal moment for Turkiye’s democratic regime, pushing the country towards authoritarianism. A poorly orchestrated group of soldiers attempted the coup but ultimately failed. The aftermath of the coup remained shrouded in mystery, leaving many questions unanswered about what exactly transpired on that fateful night. The circumstances surrounding the attempt were perplexing, particularly given Turkiye’s history of periodic and successful military coups. It seemed unlikely that such an experienced military would execute a coup under suspicious circumstances. As noted in the author’s interview with a CIA officer who was in Turkiye during the coup attempt, “The Turkish military is well-trained, well-experienced in coups, and has advanced weapons. It would not have closed just one way of the Bosphorus Bridge and done a coup.” 

Conversely, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) government appeared well-prepared to thwart the coup plotters. International leaders and opposition parties characterized it as a staged and orchestrated coup attempt, suggesting that the AKP government was aware of the plan and potentially allowed it to unfold to its advantage. In the view of the same CIA officer, “The Turkish government officials appeared inconsistent and chaotic and seemed like actors playing amateurishly; it was embarrassing.” This perception was bolstered by President Erdogan’s description of it as a “gift from God,” which he used as a pretext to consolidate power. The AKP government constructed a narrative, accusing Fethullah Gulen and his movement of orchestrating the coup. In response, Gulen denied these allegations and called for an international committee to investigate the coup attempt. 

The government’s narrative about the coup attempt failed to convince anyone outside of its loyal supporters. Turkish citizens critical of the government’s ungrounded theory found themselves imprisoned. Internationally, the July coup attempt drew comparisons to historical events like the Reichstag fire in 1933, where Adolf Hitler exploited public and political fears after the Berlin parliamentary building was set on fire. Similarly, Turkiye’s coup attempt was likened to the Kirov case in Soviet history. Sergey Kirov’s assassination in 1934, though lacking conclusive evidence, is believed by historians to have been orchestrated by Stalin as a pretext for launching the Great Purges of the 1930s. The AKP government used the coup attempt as justification to purge hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens, primarily targeting Gulenists as the largest group, along with secularists and Kurds, whom they perceived as threats to their regime. 

The world observed as the government conducted flawed investigations and subjected thousands to torture, lacking evidence against the alleged coup plotters. The AKP government used these events as a pretext to shift towards a presidential model resembling those in Central Asia and the Middle East. Today, Turkiye is far removed from its pre-coup democratic standards, suffering significant losses across many sectors. This article discusses Turkiye’s losses and underlines 10 takeaways on the July 15 coup attempt anniversary.  

  1. Turkiye is no longer a democratic state. The AKP government opportunistically used the coup attempt to seize power and undermine Turkiye’s fragile democracy. They manufactured a supposed villain and instilled fear in the population, suggesting that the country would collapse if the AKP government were challenged. Opposition parties have failed to protect Turkiye’s democracy. Although there are 600 Deputies in parliament, they are largely ineffective. Turkish people believe that parliament no longer serves its intended role as a check on power and that government operations would continue uninterrupted if parliament were disbanded. The President’s power is widely believed to extend to legislation and the judiciary. Judges and prosecutors hesitate to investigate matters that might go against the interests of the AKP government. Almost all media outlets are under AKP control, including so-called secular and opposition media, which often echo the government’s language when scapegoating certain groups and avoid reporting on AKP’s corruption and the questions surrounding the July 15 coup attempt. Furthermore, there is no freedom of speech in the country. Anyone who criticizes the government or mentions government corruption is quickly labeled as a terrorist and ends up in jail.
  2. Turkiye is no longer a Western ally. Its foreign policy has prioritized leveraging policies against the European Union (EU), the United States, and NATO. Turkiye hosts over five million Syrian and Afghan refugees. The AKP government has opened Turkiye’s doors to refugees without proper vetting and immigration procedures, leaving many refugees unregistered. Thousands of immigrants cross Turkiye’s porous borders daily. The decision to open Turkiye’s borders serves two main purposes, according to comments: first, President Erdogan, the AKP leader, sees himself as the caliph of the Islamic world and aims to protect Muslims oppressed by authoritarian regimes. Second, more realistically, Turkiye hosts these refugees to exert pressure on EU countries. Whenever tensions arise between Turkiye and EU countries, the AKP government threatens to open the borders, potentially allowing millions of refugees to flood into EU countries. This leverage has successfully influenced EU countries despite concerns over undemocratic practices and human rights violations, resulting in muted criticism of the Turkish government. Another aspect of Turkiye’s leveraging policy involves deploying the Turkish army in northern Syria to combat Kurdish groups. Despite these groups being US allies against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria, the Turkish government considers them terrorist organizations. Interestingly, Turkiye’s military actions often coincide with messages directed at the American government, indicating strategic maneuvers. Another leverage tactic against the US government is Turkiye’s alignment with Russia in the region. Turkiye purchased S-400 missiles from Russia, a move that violated its NATO membership. The reasons behind Turkiye’s significant expenditure from its modest budget remain unclear. However, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that the AKP government’s primary goal was to send a message to the US government. Turkiye’s leveraging strategies have also impacted NATO. Fearing a potential Russian invasion after the war in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden sought NATO involvement. However, Turkiye obstructed these efforts by accusing both countries of harboring terrorists and sponsoring terrorist organizations. This leverage prompted the US and NATO to engage with Turkiye and seek its approval for the accession of Finland and Sweden. Turkish media portray these strategies as successful policies, but they primarily serve the interests of the AKP government rather than those of the Turkish people.
  3. Turkiye no longer stands as a model country that integrates democracy and Islam in the Middle East. The idea of a model country blending Islam and democracy has never been urgent. Terrorist groups originating from Islamic countries, composed mostly of Muslims, have posed threats to both their home nations and Western countries since the early 1990s. While Al Qaeda and ISIS have not executed another September 11 type attack in the West since 2001, their influence and operational reach have extended across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. According to the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), jihadist groups have carried out 55 percent of terrorist attacks, totaling over 4,000 incidents. Counterterrorism strategies have struggled against these groups, which adhere to a strict interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic teachings. The Western world occasionally fails to grasp the underlying causes of jihadist terrorism, often debating it within the context of existing authoritarian regimes. Turkiye once served as an exemplar of Islam coexisting with democracy, illustrating that Islamic principles can thrive within democratic systems. However, Turkiye’s shift towards authoritarianism has distanced it from the democratic sphere, no longer qualifying it as a model country.
  4. Turkiye has become one of the countries with the most severe human rights violations. The December 17-25 anti-corruption scandals of 2013 implicated several cabinet ministers and President Erdogan’s son, leading to government retaliation against investigators. Despite solid evidence against the accused, the AKP government shut down the corruption investigations and retaliated against the officers. They were arrested with scant evidence and accused of attempting a coup against the government. The AKP government not only imprisoned the investigators but also their family members without sufficient grounds. Many of these investigators remain in solitary confinement to this day. The suspicious July 15 coup attempt further exacerbated conditions for AKP opponents. Although several hundred soldiers were involved in the coup attempt, the AKP government dismissed around 60,000 military personnel, 40,000 police officers, and 5,000 judges and prosecutors. A significant number of these officials were harassed and subjected to torture. According to the 2022 United States Department of State’s Human Rights Report on Turkiye, serious human rights concerns included credible reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests; and prolonged detention of tens of thousands, including opposition figures, lawyers, journalists, and activists.
  5. Turkiye has never been more polarized than it is today. Years of secular repression marginalized conservatives, who predominantly lived in rural areas and aligned with political Islamist parties. The AKP emerged as the successor to these parties, which were disbanded due to their anti-secular activities. Supporters of political Islamist ideologies felt increasingly discriminated against, exacerbated by bans on headscarves (hijabs) in universities. The AKP capitalized on this reactionary environment, positioning itself as the defender of their rights against secular parties. However, the AKP manipulated the sentiments of its supporters, instilling fear about the potential return of a secular government if they did not maintain their support. Today, the AKP government has cultivated a loyal base that overlooks Turkiye’s democratic setbacks, prioritizing fears of a secular takeover that could reinstate university bans and restrict mosque activities. While a return to secular repression seems improbable in modern Turkiye, AKP followers remain deeply influenced by these concerns.
  6. The Turkish economy is currently experiencing a collapse, largely due to the impact of authoritarianism and widespread corruption. These factors have significantly undermined Turkiye’s economic stability. International investors have lost confidence in Turkiye, leading to a significant outflow of foreign capital. According to statistics from the Turkish Institute, the inflation rate has soared to 85.5%, marking one of the highest rates observed in the past two decades. The minimum wage, which is determined by the government, has steadily eroded in value over the years, failing to keep pace with inflation. As a result, many workers find it increasingly difficult to meet their basic needs despite being employed. Furthermore, the pension provided to retired individuals is currently around $300, highlighting the financial challenges elderly citizens face. These economic hardships reflect broader systemic issues within Turkiye, impacting the livelihoods of its citizens and posing serious challenges to the country’s economic recovery and stability.
  7. Turkiye has joined the ranks of countries like Russia and China accused of abusing Interpol. It faces widespread criticism for misusing Interpol by indiscriminately branding government opponents as terrorists or criminals. There are allegations that Turkiye manipulates INTERPOL mechanisms, particularly Red Notices, to target political adversaries. These notices lead to serious repercussions, including asset freezes, passport revocations, and travel restrictions, severely damaging the reputations of individuals labeled as international criminals. Additionally, Turkish authorities exploit the Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) system by falsely classifying dissidents’ passports as lost, stolen, revoked, or invalid. This tactic aims to facilitate their deportation back to Turkiye if they attempt to travel abroad. Since the 2016 attempted coup, Turkiye has unlawfully canceled tens of thousands of passports despite a constitutional court ruling that only courts—rather than police or government officials—can authorize passport revocations and travel bans. It should be noted that Turkey leveraged its position as the host of Interpol’s general assembly in 2021 to advocate for a crackdown on critics and political opponents who have fled the country. The concern arose following statements by Turkey’s interior minister, who indicated that his government intended to use the three-day event in Istanbul to urge Interpol officials and delegates to locate, apprehend, and extradite Turkish dissidents abroad, especially those labeled as terrorists by the Turkish government.
  1. Turkiye’s corruption has evolved into a kleptocracy. The country’s position in the Corruption Perception Index has deteriorated significantly, dropping from 52nd place in 2013 to 115th in 2023. The December 17-25 anti-corruption investigations uncovered that AKP officials received millions of dollars in bribes through a corrupt contracting system. It would not be an overstatement to say that one-third of government funds end up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in the country. The current corrupt system directs millions of dollars to high-ranking party members through major government contracts, while lower-level AKP members benefit from smaller contracts. Almost every government contract is susceptible to embezzlement. The AKP government’s aggressive response to the December 17-25 investigations sent a clear message to current investigators: avoid probing any corruption linked to the AKP. Even opposition parties hesitate to scrutinize government officials associated with AKP leaders and ministers. This environment of opportunism has fostered a significant group of untouchables, including politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople. Their corruption is not limited to Turkiye but extends beyond its borders, with corrupt Turkish businesspeople involved in illicit activities in Africa, Ukraine, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Notably, the AKP government’s strategy involves cultivating large networks of accomplices within bureaucracy, politics, and business. Members of this network must pledge loyalty to the authoritarian regime, knowing that any disloyalty could lead to the loss of ill-gotten gains and imprisonment.
  2. Turkiye has become one of the foremost exploiters of terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks, terrorism has become a key tool for gaining international influence. The global fight against Al Qaeda has made counterterrorism a top priority and a critical area of international cooperation among nations. However, it has also been manipulated by authoritarian regimes. These regimes, understanding its importance to the Western world, have competed to create their own terrorist lists, often targeting political opponents who are deemed threats to their regimes. Turkiye has now aligned itself with authoritarian states that exploit terrorism. Since the July 15 coup attempts, Turkiye has initiated 2.2 million terrorism investigations. Despite this, databases such as GRID have only documented a few hundred terrorist attacks attributed to organizations like the PKK. For example, GRID recorded 434 terrorist attacks between 2018 and 2023. According to the Turkish government’s terrorism criteria, all purged state officials, including police officers and military personnel, face terrorism charges. However, none of these individuals have committed violent acts or misdemeanors, yet they have been unfairly deprived of their rights by the AKP government.
  3. Turkiye has become a significant hub for drug trafficking. After the corruption scandals of December 17-25, the entire anti-narcotics department was purged, replacing skilled officers with inexperienced ones loyal to the AKP government. This move created gaps that drug traffickers quickly exploited. Before the scandals, Turkiye’s anti-narcotics department was staffed with highly trained officials, many holding advanced degrees. Removing these officials led to a loss of expertise and institutional knowledge within the country’s narcotics enforcement teams. Previously, these officers were successful in intercepting heroin traffickers using the Balkans route, which moves heroin from Afghanistan and Iran through Turkiye to Western countries. The increased risk of seizures in Turkiye forced traffickers to seek alternative routes. However, the overhaul of the department did not just create a vacuum; the widespread corrupt environment also signaled to newly appointed officers that connections with drug trafficking groups were low-risk and lucrative. Consequently, a significant number of police officers became involved in drug trafficking. Iranian methamphetamine trafficking through Turkiye has increased, as has the use of Turkish territory to transport Captagon produced in Syria to Gulf states. Moreover, Turkiye serves as a transit point for Latin American cocaine destined for Europe and the Gulf states, evidenced by major cocaine seizures in Latin America and during transit to Turkiye. This has strained cooperation between European anti-narcotics agencies and their Turkish counterparts, with complaints of declining collaboration levels.

There are additional losses to consider, such as Turkiye’s worsening rank in the organized crime index due to the activities of current criminal groups and increased instances of money laundering. Turkiye is also used by Russian oligarchs and other international traffickers as a location to launder money. Moreover, there has been a rise in activities involving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose members faced spying investigations and subsequently left the country after police inquiries. Most significantly, the authoritarian environment that followed the coup attempt has dampened the hopes of Turkish youth. Many now seek better opportunities abroad in the Western world. 

To conclude, the suspicious July 15 coup attempt has served the interests of the AKP government and its leader. Fearing scrutiny of their wrongdoings and corruption, government members sought assurance against future investigations, knowing the consequences they might face. Thus, the government used this pretext to dismantle Turkiye’s century-old democratic achievements. Currently, the government appears successful in its objectives, as there is no risk of investigating government wrongdoing, with institutions and media fully under AKP control. Opposition parties, through silence and fear, have become complicit as Turkiye transforms into an authoritarian state. Considering Turkiye’s geopolitical significance to the West and its historical role in bridging Islam and democracy, the Western world has lost a crucial ally in the region. The need for Turkiye’s cooperation remains crucial amidst threats from jihadist terrorism and the growing networks of human smuggling and drug trafficking in the region. According to the CIA officer in the author’s interview, This damage of the alleged coup attempt is so profound that it would take the Turkish people a few decades to fix what Erdogan’s regime has done in his era. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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