THE JULY 15TH FAILED COUP ATTEMPT IN TURKEY: Causes, Consequences, and Implications in Comparative Perspective

Executive Summary

■ On July 15th a group of soldiers inside the Turkish military—ordinarily an expert executioner of military coups d’état – carried out the seventh coup attempt in Turkey’s checkered history.

■ Post-coup investigations have revealed more and more details that confirm the initial allegation that the defeated coup attempt was masterminded by officers loyal to the Gülen movement, a shady group designated as a terrorist organization in 2014 by Turkey, which not only has huge representation within the Turkish state structure but also has strong international networks.

■ ‘Classical’ military coups d’état during the Cold War were characterized by four main features that enabled them to overthrow a government: speed, secrecy, extra-legality, and army officers as its primary actors. As the military was then the most powerful political actor in many different parts of the world, it had the most capacity to lead action against unwanted incumbent governments.

■ It has become increasingly apparent over the two decades after the Cold War that in many places, coups will no longer succeed if carried out in the old fashion.

■ From any perspective, July 15th was a wild attempt ending in colossal failure, with no ultimate resemblance to any of the coups that preceded it.

■ The coup plotters seem to have believed that the coup would have been completed by early morning through a quick, forceful course of action, as required in a classical coup. This was why the Gülenist prospective junta named their coup operation ‘Operation Thunderbolt’.

■ What doomed this classical coup attempt was Turkish intelligence picking up on the conspiracy. Once the coup plot was exposed, those opposing the coup had the time, courage, and tools at their disposal to mobilize in opposition to the coup and resist it.

■ The General Staff in 1980 began their coup d’état at 03:00 and finished it by the early morning, experiencing no resistance from any quarters.

■ It was enough for the coup plotters in 1960 to send a captain with two foot soldiers to the radio station in Ankara and tell about 50 soldiers on duty there that they were taking over the radio and that these soldiers must just go home. It must have taken about 10 minutes to acquire control of the sole important broadcast.

■ The proliferation of TV channels from the early 1990s onwards and their increasing presence in Turkish households were the causes of the unorthodox coup method used in 1997.

■ The July 15th military junta did not underestimate the nature, quality, and power of Turkey’s new media environment, because if they had started the coup attempt at 3 am as first planned, they probably could have taken control of the vast majority of the Turkish media.

■ However, once their plans were disrupted by intelligence services, they had little chance of “convincing military actors that the success of the coup had the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance was minor”: a factor crucial for coup success.

■ The fact that the July 15th military junta still went ahead despite clear orders from the General Staff to stop all movements (flights, tanks, soldiers, and trucks) indicates that they were zealous ‘crusaders’ willing even to risk civil war in order to take over the country.

■ Despite the bloodshed and violence after the 1960 and 1980 coups d’état, those behind these coups were hesitant to resort to guns to make their coup attempt successful.

■ Military officers plotting a coup are usually aware that coups carried out without clear narrative often find themselves lacking ‘legitimacy’ in the wider society. Several of the mid-ranking officers behind the 1960 coup, including its leader General Gürsel, wanted to wait for the right time at which people would consider a coup legitimate even before military intervention.

■ It was the prevailing chaos all over the country that led people to largely welcome the 1980 coup with open arms in many places. The pre-coup disorder provided the necessary context for another coup. In 1997, several civil society organizations and political parties, first and foremost the CHP, clearly supported the coup process. In fact, their cooperation with the military was a sine qua non for the coup to be carried out—not as a classical coup, but as a new type, carried out by a network of secularist allies.

■ A striking feature of the July 15th coup plot was the absence of any pretense of neutrality. In this sense, the July 15th coup plot diverges from the 1960 and 1980 coup attempts but maintains the spirit of the 1997 coup attempt though it is a far radical version.

■ The July 15th coup plotters also relied on instability in the European Union in terms of its internal coherence, problems with economic and political power projection, and its ethical sway. More importantly, they may have thought Obama was unlikely to take radical steps to initiate sanctions on Turkey in the case of a coup in his final five months in the White House.

■ Coup d’état attempts are most fragile in their early moments. The ambivalent American message at a time when a democratically-elected government was still battling a vicious coup attempt almost felt like a clear support for the coup plotters.

■ The government must take the news that the Turkish Military Academy in Ankara and Air Force Academy as well as Kuleli Military High school in Istanbul were involved in the coup attempt. Addressing the post-coup environment in all these schools (not only in Ankara and Istanbul and not only the Military Academy) is key to rehabilitating the Turkish armed forces in the long term, especially if it is remembered that the interventionist mentality in the army about the politics spreads through military schools.

■ The government must also be careful and vigilant not to allow the military to revert to its old ways of closing the army’s doors to certain segments of society.  The unacceptable extent of Gülenist infiltration into the military should not be used to justify blocking more conservative-minded citizens from entering military schools and other echelons of the army.

■ Though it looks certain that the coup attempt was initiated and carried out largely by Gulenist officers, it remains possible that it rode on the crest of a ‘neo-nationalist’ grievances within the officer corps.

■ With the news that former defendants in the Balyoz military trials have now been reinstated to important positions within the Turkish armed forces, the problem from now on may not be having a ‘fractured military’ but instead having a ‘lack of balance’ between fractions within the military.

■ Military reforms need to be redesigned and then brought back onto the government’s short and long-term agenda. The AK Party has addressed this issue largely through formalities such as removing Article 35 which the military had used to legitimize its interventions, from the Internal Service code of the Military. AK Party should rather address the essence of this issue through a long-term strategic restructuring and transformation plan for the army.


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