Why the Failed Turkish Coup is Very Bad News for the War on ISIS
Four days after Turkey’s failed coup, which left 300 dead and more than 1,400 injured, new details have emerged to suggest the putsch came closer to a successful overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan than many observers thought—and the operation could have a major impact on U.S.-Turkish military cooperation in the war against the so-called Islamic State just across Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.
Aaron Stein at the Atlantic Council nails the core problem when he asks, “How can we credibly go to war with a NATO ally in coalition operations when that ally’s army is at war with itself?”
Turkey, remember, has the second biggest army in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after the United States. In the Cold War years, its borders with the Soviet Union were vital to Western strategy. In the age of jihad, the fact that its territory abuts not only ISIS-land, but Iran, gives it enormous geopolitical importance.
The putschists, it now appears, relied heavily on a key NATO installation to carry out the aerial component of their daring plot, which was spearheaded by officers in the Turkish air force. And the enormous post-coup dragnet of suspected traitors already has snared high-ranking military officials who had been responsible for securing Turkey’s frontiers and carrying out coalition policy in Syria.
Had the coup not been detected in advance by Turkish intelligence, forcing the conspiracy to be moved up in the calendar, it might well have succeeded.
According to Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the head of the National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, Hakan Fidan uncovered “‘unusual activity’ within army ranks on Friday afternoon and [visited] the Chief of Staff around 5 p.m. This led to precautions and an inquiry at the senior level, forcing the coup plot to be executed at an earlier time.” CNNTurk corroborated this story.
A Sikorsky attack helicopter and putschist commandos apparently were mobilized to attack MIT headquarters in Ankara and try to kidnap Fidan.
“I think these guys missed decapitating the government by about 30 minutes and we’d have woken up on Saturday with a dead president, a surrounded parliament, and a chief of general staff in custody,” said Stein, my colleague at the Atlantic Council.
Turkish ministers, held up at the prime ministry, certainly seemed to think they were about to die, judging from a careful tick-tock recount of the events by the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen. The putschist’s momentum was canceled by two developments.
The first was the Interior Minister Efkan Ala’s non-attendance of a sham security meeting arranged for him in Ankara and designed to trap him. Ala’s continued freedom throughout Friday night allowed him to form a crisis cell, based out of Esenboğa airport in the capital, from which he could mount counter-coup operations until the Turkish president’s return from his holiday venue at Marmaris.
The second development was Erdogan’s now-famous FaceTime call for demonstrations, broadcast via an iPhone on privately owned CNN Turk after the coup plotters had taken over the government controlled broadcast media. The president’s appeal galvanized not only partisans of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but Turks of all ideological stripes, against the coup.
Next, consider how close Erdogan came to being blown up. As first reported by Reuters, his Gulfstream IV, en route back to Istanbul, was targeted by “at least” two pro-coup F-16s, which locked onto the plane as well as two of its escort F-16s.
Erdogan had just evaded a botched commando raid to capture him alive at his hotel in Marmaris, not assassinate him. Still, as The Daily Beast’s David Axe wrote, “A burst of gunfire or a single Sidewinder missile is all it would have taken to shoot down the plane and kill Erdogan.” What saved him was his pilots’ switching the jet’s transponder to that of a commercial Turkish Airlines flight, which duped the enemy F-16s and ultimately allowed the president’s plane to land at Ataturk International Airport, once it was cleared of pro-coup soldiers.
How did the plotters launch fighter jets and keep them in the sky for so long? The answer is one that should cause U.S. policy and defense planners to temper their insistence that, in terms of bilateral cooperation, the coup won’t have lasting ramifications.
The Turkish press has reported that the alleged mastermind was Akin Ozturk, until 2015 the head of the Turkish Air Force, a former military attache to Israel, and (until the cuffs were slapped on him) a member of the High Military Council, which was due to convene in August. (He was slated to retire after that meeting.) Ozturk was first quoted in the Anadolu state-run news agency as confessing to his role, but later denied it in a statement to Turkish prosecutors. Still, the centrality of the air force in mounting this operation is as indisputable as it is scary.
NATO’s main airbase in Turkey, Incirlik, was not only the launch pad for up to four separate KC-135R mid-air refueling tankers used by as many as four pro-coup F-16s, but its commander, Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, along with 10 of his subordinates, have since been arrested on charges of treason.
According to Stein, it’s highly likely that these officers had a hand in implementing Turkish tactical coordination for the coalition’s hard-negotiated operation to liberate Minbij, an ISIS stronghold in Aleppo. The negotiations took place at Incirlik back in May, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, a day before the coup.
It is true that as of Sunday coalition missions against ISIS were being flown again from Incirlik after the Turks temporarily sealed the base and cut off its electricity from the commercial power grid. But there’s no getting around the fact that the facility was still vulnerable to penetration by hostile actors and that aircraft involved in the plot to topple a NATO government were co-located with U.S. planes on the same tarmac, and presumably gassed up alongside them.
Another Erdogan purge victim was the commander of Turkey’s Second Army, Gen. Adem Huduti, who was arrested at the weekend. The Second Army, based in Malatya, is in charge of all military activity at the Turkish border, meaning that Huduti was responsible for running the nation’s wars against both ISIS in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in Iraq’s Qandil mountains and southeastern Turkey.
Huduti is one of 6,000 military personnel—about 1 percent of the whole of the Turkish armed forces—taken into custody within 24 hours of the coup, preceding a roundup of 9,000 civil servants and 8,000 police officers. A full fifth of Turkey’s admirals and generals are now in prison, as are 26 of its 80 provincial governors.
The nation’s judiciary also has been hollowed out, with 3,000 judges and prosecutors detained, including from the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors.
Meanwhile, all other active public servants have been barred from travel abroad. This apparently includes Turkish Defense Minister Minister Fikri Işık, who will not attend a coalition summit hosted by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Wednesday.
Virtually everyone detained is accused of being a loyalist to Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, against whom the Turkish Ministry of Justice is now apparently building an extradition case.
State Department spokesman John Kirby has ominously floated the possibility that Turkey’s NATO membership may eventually be at risk if it goes too far with retribution. (The protocol for expelling an early member-state of the alliance for human rights violations or the derogation of due process is unclear because unprecedented.) Already there’s persuasive evidence many of those arrested have been tortured.
Another key figure in the fight against ISIS remained loyal to Erdogan’s government. Turkey’s head of counterterrorism operations against the so-called Islamic state fell into the trap set by the putschists on Friday night when he showed up for a bogus meeting at the Presidential Palace. The coup plotters bound him and then executed him with a bullet to the back of the neck.
These are the kinds of wounds to the integrity of Turkey’s military, and to the overall body politic, that will take a very long time to heal. And that question raised by Aaron Stein will remain: How can you count on an ally that’s at war with itself?