On July 15, some members of Turkey’s military attempted a coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Forces loyal to the government as well as civilian supporters thwarted the coup by the next morning as President Erdoğan addressed the nation from Istanbul. This week, experts from Foreign Policy at Brookings offered their analysis about the implications of the coup attempt and aftermath for Turkish democracy, the regional situation—including the civil war in Syria and the fight against ISIS—and Turkey’s critical role in regional, European, and global affairs. Here are video highlights of their remarks. Visit the event’s page for full event audio and video of the discussion.
“This coup attempt did catch the country, maybe the world and people like us, by surprise. And it was a shock.” – Kemal Kirişci, TÜSİAD Senior Fellow
Kirişci noted that despite the fact that Turkey has experienced many coups from the 1960s to the present, “nevertheless it still came as a surprise because [government reforms] gave us the impression that the days of military coups were really, for good, behind us.” He also called the level of violence “shocking” and noted “question marks about whether the rule of law after the initial storm will be respected.”
Kirişci later discussed why the ruling AKP party failed, in his view, to succeed in reforms. “If you ask them today,” he said, AKP leaders would say:
it’s all about conspiracies. It’s about the West, it’s about the EU, it’s about the interest rate lobby. Lots of about others. Why is it that AKP failed to question itself, to be self-critical, to be able to succeed, to bring about what the world and a good part Turkey had hoped for? … How is it possible that AKP people, and supporters of Erdogan, failed to see that Turkey, amongst all the other countries in the Muslim world, was the one who made the greatest progress in terms of these democratic values, but also in terms of the economy, and in terms of social life at large?
“I would still like to believe that that Turkey is still out there in spite of all these knocks,” Kirişci said, “in spite of all the beating it has taken. I still have this deep inside me, maybe wishful thinking, but hope that Turkey is going to emerge from this experience.”
(Read “The geopolitics of Turkey’s failed coup” by Kemal Kirişci.)
“We should be paying attention to institutional collapse of Turkey. This is unprecedented. This is no longer just a governance crisis.” – Ömer Taşpınar, Nonresident Senior Fellow
In his remarks,
said that “this used to be a country where there was a sense of law and order” and that, despite polarization and “a sense that something was very wrong in Turkey in the institutional framework in the country” as recently as 2013, President Erdoğan “appeared to be in control.” Taşpınar also called for a discussion of the role that the Gülen movement—a liberal Islamic social and political movement associated with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who resides in the United States—had in the crisis:
What is it? Is it as supporters of the Gülen movement claim, a civil society organization composed of individuals who are inspired by the theological, religious views of Fethullah Gülen? Or is it, as the Turkish government and AKP are now saying, a terrorist organization which intends to basically overthrow the government, which has a secret agenda, which is a centralized organization, which takes orders from [Gülen].
“… I think that in some sense we averted a disaster, for a lot of reasons. But I think one of them more regionally is that it this would have offered further definitive proof that there is literally nowhere in the Middle East or perhaps even the world where Islamist parties can come to power in democratic elections and stay in power without some kind of military coup, or civil war …” – Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow
Hamid argued that the narrative that Islamists parties cannot come to power by democratic means “would strengthen more extremist groups throughout the region.” Which is, he said, “an argument that groups like ISIS constantly use, that democracy cannot work … [and] the only way to have a true Islamic state is through brute violence through savagery [and] through terrorism.”
Hamid also discussed the Islamist-secular divide in the country, based on his interviews with current and former AKP figures. “This coup is not about Islamist versus secular,” he said, “But there is still a broader Islamist-secular cleavage in Turkey which has contributed to a lot of polarization. And my view is that it’s likely to get worse. And this will persuade many in the AKP party, including of course Erdoğan and his circle, to push harder on what they call the ‘normalization process,’ essentially undoing the Kemalist legacy of many decades.”
“There’s always a tendency when we have a crisis with one key ally in a key region to decide that the base that we’ve got there and use so much is irreplaceable. I actually think this is a good example of when this is not the case.” – Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence
Addressing specifically the post-coup status of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey— a key regional military base and home of Turkish, American, Saudi, and British air force units—O’Hanlon said that “we have a lot of options in the broader Middle East” for air operations, including Kuwait, Bahrain, two aircraft carriers, and even Italy. “It’s not as if the access to bases is the constraining factor on our military effectiveness in our war in Syria and in Iraq.” However, O’Hanlon explained, “we still rely enormously on Turkey on the ground” and that to be successful in Syria requires a great deal of collaboration with Turkey.
Relief on the ground inside Syria, to mitigate the refugee flows, the kinds of things we are trying to get going now with small numbers have to expand if we are going to be successful. And I don’t believe airlift or access exclusively through Iraq is a particularly good way to think about how we are going to have to operate in the future.
O’Hanlon also spoke critically about the Obama administration’s approach to the conflict in Syria, which country he called the “epicenter” of terrorism both operationally and in the apocalyptic vision of ISIS. “I think it’s time to recognize that containment of the Syria crisis, which is Obama’s policy, is not working,” O’Hanlon said, and then outlined the tools and policies needed to address the crisis.
Senior Fellow Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, moderated the discussion and the Q&A session that followed. Kirişci responded to one set of questions by calling the coup attempt a “huge earthquake, and the earthquake is having its after effects.” Continuing, he said:
I would still like … to believe that eventually these series of earthquakes are going to settle down and rationality will prevail. It’s possible … that Erdogan will use what the Washington Post called the “Gift of God” to consolidate his rule, but at the end of the day, we have to recognize that many people call him a great political mathematician. He has to recognize that his rule has to enjoy a degree of legitimacy and that legitimacy is critical to running this very complex and dynamic economy. Turkey is not Russia; Turkey is not Iran; Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s economy has to work for him to be able to rule, and this is why I am still attributing a lot of significance to rationality, rather than emotions, hatreds, [and] desire for revenge.