Saturday, July 16, 2016

Turkey coup: (At least) Four Theories

In the interest of providing better information to you, my readers, I sometimes take on the task of reading posts from commentators whose views are antithetical to mine, so that I can monitor their thinking and communications strategy.  There are also those, like Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post, who are useful to read because they so consistently get things wrong:  they overthink questions, or force stuff out due to their job-related necessity of producing against publishing deadlines, and embrace wrongheaded ideas.  The logic, of course, is that if Cilizza says A, then not-A is more likely to be true.

Then there are a couple for which both of those are true:  distasteful views, offensively expressed, but also consistently wrong predictively.  Bill Kristol is one; and Dick Morris another.  So, when I read Dick Morris' assessment of the motivation for the plotters of the attempted coup in Turkey, I got a major clue for a theory to discard.  I have an intense interest in Turkey and its role in geopolitics--for me, Turkey's right at the heart of every issue in the Middle East and it can be a determining factor in many of the possible outcomes, whether positive or negative. In the aftermath of the coup yesterday, facts are few and speculation is rampant as to what they were trying to accomplish, and I will be joining in on that.

Morris, who made his name advising the Clintons for their Democratic-lite, centrist "Third Way" triangulation in the '90's, but has since shown himself to be no friend of the Democrats and an extremely unreliable source of political advice, advanced the theory that the coup plotters were trying to save secular Turkey from the Islamist tendencies of President Erdogan. His theory is not ridiculous; the Turkish military views itself as the protector of the secular state formed by Ataturk after WWI and has staged several successful coups against the civilian government in the past when the military leaders saw the government as straying too far from Ataturk's design.   ,

The problem with the theory is that Erdogan's Islamism is very mild.  While it is true that his party has broken substantial new ground in terms of accommodating religious followers of Islam into the Turkish political system, he has not governed as an Islamist, has not attempted to introduce Sharia law, has not taken action against non-believers.  He has governed as a nationalist who represents the aspirations of the Sunni Moslem majority.  Turkey is overwhelmingly Sunni Moslem, over 95%, but the degree to which Turks actively practice varies widely, and there are many diverse strains of Turkish Islam within that broad classification.

So, in fact, my first speculation on the motivation for the coup attempt is the opposite:  it is a bit of a longshot, but it's possible that there could have been a more radically Islamist faction in the military that wanted to overthrow Turkey's government to try to end its efforts in support of the anti-ISIS coalition.  As I have discussed previously,  policies with regard to the Syrian civil war are very complex:  they are first, ardently anti-Assad; second, anti-Kurdish nationalist; and only third, anti-ISIS.  Still, they have done quite a bit:  they allow the US air forces to attack ISIS positions from its Incirlik airbase in southeastern Turkey, they have done more to seal their borders with Syria to prevent infiltration of radicals in both directions.  There is plenty of evidence that ISIS has targeted Turkey to punish it for what it has done--suicide bombers in Ankara and, repeatedly, in Istanbul, topped off by the recent attack (apparently by Chechen supporters of ISIS) on the airport there.  I say it's a longshot, because it may have been unlikely ever to have succeeded, but a successful coup by forces friendly to ISIS would have been a catastrophe for the rest of the world.

For the next theory I would advance I have no evidence whatsoever, but it seems logical to me.  It requires some background.  The sporadic civil war in the southeast against Kurdish nationalism which simmered for decades seemed possibly to have ended just a few years ago.  The head of the movement, Abdullah Ocalan, had been captured by the Turkish authorities; in prison he had urged his followers to lay down their arms, and he seemed likely to make a peace agreement.  Recently, though, it fell apart;  ceased, there were some terroristic attacks blamed on the Kurds, and the violent struggle resumed, at a  much higher level of lethality than before:  Turkish armored forces surround the center of several Kurdish towns, where rebels have barricaded themselves and plan to fight to the death, feeling in fact that they have no choice, as surrender would lead to their movement's liquidation and their own lives' as well.

Erdogan seems much at fault to me, and his motives questionable.  It is arguable that the resumption of war was a tactic in his ongoing self-aggrandizement campaign, an effort to modify the constitution to give himself even more power.  One key for him is to drive the legal Kurdish parliamentary party below the 10% threshold required for representation in the national Parliament.  Hostilities started shortly before a snap election Erdogan called to try to boost his numbers in Parliament--he did gain, but not enough, and the party (called the HDP) remained just above the threshold.

So, the theory is that some elements of the Turkish military are highly dissatisfied with how they are being employed, killing their fellow citizens, and blaming Erdogan.  The one thing I heard from the coup side during the brief period they controlled the public media was that they were doing it to save the country from Erdogan, who "had lost all claim to legitimacy".  Less-specific versions of this military resentment theory  is that they rose up in response to his autocratic tendencies--which are clear, and frequently denounced in the West--and his suppression of civil liberties, especialy freedom of dissent and of the press.

If the intention was to provoke a popular uprising against Erdogan's authoritarianism, it failed spectacularly.  The popular uprising was among Erdogan's supporters--he deftly called his people to the streets by social media, then upon returning to Istanbul's airport from his vacation, and they answered his call.  Even the opposition parties, including even the HDP, spoke out in favor of the constitutional government and against the coup, regardless of what they deemed the motives of the plotters to be.  At the end of the day, it looks as though Erdogan's hand will be strengthened again in the reaction to the coup, with the defense of constitutional democracy ironically ending up in its reduction.

The final theory is a subtle one, but supported by some of the few facts known. Even during the height of the confusion and uncertainty, persons speaking on behalf of the government were already blaming it on followers of a Muslim cleric, Fetullah Gulen.  Gulen has been blamed before by Erdogan, for an abortive coup attempt some years ago, which gave the President the reason--whether invented or not--to purge a number of military officers and prosecute some alleged traitors.

Gulen is a moderate Islamic cleric who was once an ally of Erdogan and has many followers in the country; Erdogan may see him as his greatest rival.  After the falling out, though, Gulen flew the coop and is now actually living in Pennsylvania.  It is hard to imagine that Gulen would think he could direct a successful coup against a powerful government from such a distance, and he has denied any connection with the coup's plotters.  It is just barely possible, though, that Turkey's extensive secret police force caught wind of discontent among the military, whether related to Gulen or not, and that the government provided some secret encouragement to those forces, confident they could suppress the rebellion in the end--as they have done.

Erdogan has moved to accuse Gulen of treason and to demand he be extradited by the US to Turkey to stand trial. The Turkish government, in the aftermath of its success, has also closed Incirlik to military operations, with the argument that rebel air force elements (most of the worst damage and loss of life during the coup resulted from attacks by rogue helicopters and attack planes; generally speaking, the Army elements involved proved unwilling to take on the citizenry) are still afoot.  We shall see how long that condition lasts, but extradition is generally a long, uncertain process and Gulen might plausibly request political asylum.

Of course, more than one of these theories could be true.  The only combination logically impossible is the combination of  Morris' defense-against- Islamism one (which I discount) and my radical-Islamist one.  In particular, the combination of #3 and #4--government provocation of dissatisfied elements--seems possible to me.  We are likely to ever have any definitive proof, barring a statement in public trial from leaders of the plot, which I would not expect will be permitted.

Turkey's messy politics seem likely to involve the US ever more, but for us it is the cost of the assistance from a very significant ally (beyond Incirlik, NATO's Eastern Mediterranean fleet is based in Izmmir, on the Aegean coast).   I will be interested to see how the US Presidential candidates will respond to these challenges:  Hillary Clinton, I am certain, will be well-informed and sensible, while Trump, I expect, will demonstrate a lack of understanding of any of the subtleties, and may have trouble identifying it on a map if asked.

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