The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. hosted a conference on July 10, 2017 entitled, “Turkey: A Year After the July 15 Coup Attempt.” The conference included two panels and a keynote address by General Yasar Guler, the Commander of the Gendarmerie Forces of Turkey.
The first panel focused on placing the July 15 coup in the context of the history of coups in Turkey. Speakers included Hakan Yavuz, a professor of Political Science at the University of Utah; Ravza Kavakci Kan, Deputy Chairperson of the AK Party & Member of the Turkish Parliament; Necdet Ozcelik, a Research Fellow in Security Studies at The SETA Foundation; Ismail Caglar, the Director of Media Studies at The SETA Foundation in Istanbul; and was moderated by Kadir Ustun, the Executive Director of The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Noting that there are four common perspectives on the coup attempt of July 15, Mr. Yavuz offered a brief appraisal of those perspectives. Yavuz argued that the most likely scenario supported by the most evidence is that the coup was ordered by the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, organized by civilian members of the organization, and executed by Gulenist networks in the military. Addressing the belief that the coup was not just a Gulenist action, but was instead driven by a coalition of groups within the military, Yavuz explained that based on the hierarchical and secretive nature of the Gulenist organization, it is unlikely that the Gulenists would have collaborated with groups such as Kemalists or other factions. As the two perspectives that suggest that the coup was either orchestrated by the Turkish government to expand its power or that it allowed it to happen to expand its power, Yavuz offered strong disagreement. Given the AK Party’s strong base of support, using a coup to expand its power would have been simply unnecessary and risky. Concurrently, Yavuz argued that, given how endangered the government was on July 15, it is strange to suggest that it had any prior knowledge or control over the coup itself.
Ravza Kavakci Kan argued that the Gulenist organization is a “mafia-like cult community that utilizes religious terms” to disguise its actions. In her estimation, the events of July 15 were 40 years in the making as the Gulenist organization slowly worked to place members in state institutions. While the events on July 15 were more familiar to older Turks than younger Turks, she applauded the widespread rejection and active resistance to the coup by Turkish civilians. She maintained that those actions will have a long term effect of peaceful resistance to military interventions worldwide. Finally, she addressed concerns about rule of law in Turkey in the aftermath of the coup attempt. She stressed that the arrests that have been carried out have been in line with legal requirements and are focused on removing terror supporters, not on silencing the opposition or consolidating government power.
Necdet Ozcelik explored how and what areas of the military the Gulenist organization sought to infiltrate. He contended that they largely focused on officer positions in areas such as the special forces and intelligence positions. Gulenists also sought to infiltrate the Gendarmerie as it serves as one of the largest intelligence organizations and as well as a law enforcement agency. Gulenists did not concentrate on attaining positions as non-commissioned officers and enlisted personnel as they would not have access to strategic decision making processes. Despite the number of Gulenists officers who have since been removed, Ozcelik asserted that this has only helped Turkish military readiness by removing untrustworthy officers who could not be relied on to conduct their required duties.
Comparing previous coups with the July 15 coup attempt, Ismail Caglar argued that, in some ways, the most recent coup attempt seemed to stem from a very different place from previous coups. Stressing that this did not legitimize their actions, Caglar suggested that previous coups in Turkey were driven by actors who genuinely believed that they were protecting the Turkish state. They may have been short sighted and wrong in that belief, but their actions were done out of a sense of loyalty to their idea of Turkey. Caglar presented the July 15 coup as differing from this nationalist feeling. Instead he argued that it was was about establishing the dominance of the Gulenist organization in Turkey. He argued that, had the coup succeeded, Turkey would not have been a better place for anyone but Gulenists.
General Yasar Guler began his keynote address by briefly covering the situation in Turkey prior to July 15, 2016, noting that Turkey faces numerous terror threats. Addressing the issue of terror groups on a broader scale, Gen. Guler stated that these organizations, like all other contemporary organizations, are learning from previous experiences and instituting those lessons into their new practices. Long before 2016, the Gulenists had attempted to place its members in positions of power and influence to gain control over the Turkish Armed Forces and its assets so that they would be able to utilize them to seize control. The attempt on July 15,2016 was an effort by those Gulenist members of the military to seize control and present the coup as a fait accompli to the rest of Turkey and the world. However, it is very clear that the putschists made up only a small portion of the Turkish military. Gen. Guler reiterated that it should be clear that it was not the military that conducted this coup, but a small radical civilian group which sought to use the military as a tool to seize power.
Gen. Guler contested the idea that the coup would have succeeded had it occurred at a different time. He argued that the Turkish people and the rest of the Turkish military would still have fought for their democracy. The outpour of public support for the government was a clear democratic reflex to preserve the continuity of the Turkish state.
Gen. Guler urged the international community to come up with policies to combat radicalism based on principles, not based on persons or countries.
Looking to the future, Gen. Guler urged the international community to come up with policies to combat radicalism based on principles, not based on persons or countries. Radicalization is an ever increasing problem that is not only a Turkish problem, but a worldwide problem that grows as power of technology increases. In order to defeat radicalism, it must be properly understood as the process that it is. It is possible to track and understand the common features of groups that promote radicalism, which includes intolerance, close mindedness, and a tendency to accept only their own opinions as the truth.
The second panel, “Security and Foreign Policy after the July 15 Coup Attempt,” included Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Philip Solondz Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Colonel Richard Outzen, a Senior U.S. Army Advisor & Member of Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State; Nursin Guney, a professor of International Relations at Yildiz Technical University; Murat Yesiltas, the Director of Security Studies at The SETA Foundation; and was moderated by Kilic B. Kanat, the Research Director at The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
Focusing on how the coup has affected bilateral US-Turkish relations as well as the status of the relationship writ large, Amb. James Jeffrey began by noting that Turkey was very fortunate to have survived a coup of this scale. Addressing Turkish disappointment in the US’ response, Amb. Jeffrey noted that the Obama administration was slow to respond because of a slow decision making process, not any deliberate effort to slight Turkey. Concurrently, the US military is so focused on fighting ISIS that when Incirlik was temporarily closed on July 15, some military officers did not look at the larger Turkish picture before commenting on the issue. In Jeffrey’s opinion, the most embarrassing fact is that Gulen remains in the US and that the US has not done more to rein in his organization.
In the broader relationship between the US and Turkey, the issues at hand are the general chaos of the Middle East, Iran, and for Turkey, the US’ relationship with the YPG. As with Incirlik, the US’ focus on ISIS has made it hard for it to address Turkey’s concerns about the YPG, but the problem will remain even after the defeat of ISIS. Jeffrey suggested that the US must do more to address these Turkish concerns and the two countries must do a better job of coordinating their policies on Syria in the future.
Nursin Guney examined how Turkish foreign policy has changed in recent years. While Turkey followed a more idealistic foreign policy during the Arab Spring, since the counter revolutions, it has turned towards a more cautious policy she referred to as “defensive neorealism.” It is concerned now with maintaining the status quo and securing itself against the numerous internal and external threats it faces. Concurrently, it has moved towards some interest-based alliances in order to address these threats.
Col. Richard Outzen began by suggesting that oftentimes, the role of experts in the Turkish-US relationship is to help each government understand one another. Like Jeffrey, Col. Outzen expressed understanding for why the US was slow to offer a response to the coup, but also noted that it caused some understandable stress on the relationship. He contended that in the future, he expects Turkish-US relations to recover. The situation in Syria and the coup have certainly created tensions, but he views them as short term concerns in a long term relationship that has strong benefits for both countries.
Murat Yesiltas asserted that we can expect to see some systemic changes in the Turkish state structure. The changing geopolitical situation in the Middle East has already dramatically affected Turkey’s foreign and security policy. Similarly, domestic security challenges cannot be separated from those regional concerns. Murat listed Turkey’s current priorities as firstly restoring and insuring its territorial integrity and border security. The increased securitization of the border will in turn have a large impact on Turkey’s relations with both Syria and Iraq. Secondly, Turkey is looking to increase the number of possible international partners in order to develop a more comprehensive strategy to address the numerous threats it faces.