ISTANBUL—Buoyed by a wave of popular support after suppressing a calamitous coup attempt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun a major purge of the military and the judiciary.
He’s also picked a fight with the U.S. over his onetime ally and now political nemesis, Fethullah Gülen, who’s living in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan portrays Gülen, who denied any part in the coup, as something akin to evil incarnate, and the Erdogan government has been seeking Gülen’s extradition for more than two years.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirin said Saturday that Gülen is “the leader of a terrorist organization” and after the coup attempt, “I don’t believe any country would support him. Whichever country supports him isn’t a friend of Turkey. It is practically at war with Turkey.”
Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu went a step further. “America is behind the coup,” he told the private broadcaster Haberturk.
Secretary of State John Kerry took offense at such rhetoric.
In a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Kerry offered to provide help to Turkish authorities investigating the coup attempt, implying diplomatically that they should present better evidence. According to State Department spokesman John Kirby, the secretary of state added, “public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations.”
Dogan Eskinat, an official at the Turkish predidency, then walked back the statement from the labor minister, who clearly had gone beyond his talking points. “He meant certain people in the country [Gülen and his people in the U.S.] rather than the U.S. government,” he said.
There is no question that the coup has added to existing strains in U.S. Turkish relations. Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, who telephoned Erdogan on Sunday morning, there’s no sign that President Barack Obama has yet picked up the phone to congratulate Erdogan on his survival as a democratically elected leader.
Erdogan had polarized the country with his single-minded drive to increase his powers, his suppression of free news media, and his intolerance of criticism. But after the events of this weekend, Turks of every political persuasion seemed relieved that Erdogan had managed to defeat the plotters.
His rhetoric Sunday was in synch with the public mood of relief and almost exaltation, but his actions were rather more stern.
“If they have guns and tanks, we have faith,” he said in remarks at a major Istanbul mosque. “We are not after revenge. So let us think before taking each step. We will act with reason and experience. The Gülen Movement's [move] received its response. The putschists are the representatives of Gülen's terrorist organization.”
Without waiting for the dust to settle, the government on Saturday announced the arrest of nearly 6,000 people, about half military personnel and the rest from the judiciary and police, and linked them with Gülen, despite his condemnation of the would-be putsch.
Among those arrested: the Turkish commander of the Incirlik base, Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, for alleged complicity in Friday’s attempted coup.
Officials said conspirators at the base had launched an aerial tanker that carried out in-air refueling for warplanes seized by renegade pilots during the coup attempt.
The base was closed on Saturday, as were many Turkish military installations, as Turkish army loyalists arrested the last mutineers, and there were questions about whether the botched coup would cause a pause in the bombing missions from Incirlik against ISIS in neighboring Syria and Iraq. But by Sunday, bombing missions against ISIS targets had resumed, the U.S. military announced.
Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, after the United States, with almost 600,000 personnel, including conscripts, and almost 40,000 officers. Even before the last holdouts were captured, five generals and 29 colonels were among the 3,000 members of the military who were arrested Saturday, according to Sabah, a pro-government daily. At Denizli, a base in western Turkey, the garrison commander, Maj. Gen. Ozhan Ozbakir, was arrested along with 51 other officers, it said. By Sunday, 70 army generals and navy admirals had been arrested, the official Anatolya News Agency reported.
But it’s important to note that those arrested or named in many warrants were on lists that had been assembled already as part of a continuing investigation into purported followers of Gülen, government officials said. When Erdogan declared that the coup may have been “a gift from God,” allowing him to carry out the purges now under way, critics like those cited in the British newspaper The Independent, were quick to suggest a nefarious plot behind the plot.
The arrests targeting the judiciary also had been contemplated well in advance. At an extraordinary meeting, called even before the coup was over, the top judicial administrative body ordered the arrest of 2,745 judges, as well as 11 prosecutors, 10 Court of Appeals personnel, and 140 others.
Eskinat in the president’s office said Alparslan Altan and Erdal Tercan, both members of the of the Turkish constitutional court, were arrested on suspicion of supporting the attempted coup.
Eskinat said the list of those arrested had been compiled before the coup attempt as part of an ongoing investigation. But that did not mean they were not implicated in the putsch. “Every coup attempt has civilians and military elements. You need people to oversee courts martial, pass emergency laws, et cetera,” he said.
In fact, Erdogan in the past two years has already ordered the firing or reassignment of thousands of judicial personnel, police and prosecutors on the grounds they have links with Gülen.
Erdogan made a number of astute moves during the crisis, but he also had the luck that the group trying to overthrow him was hopelessly amateur.
After the would-be junta took control of the TRT state television network, Erdogan made a defiant call to a private television station, CNN Turk, and in defiance of the plotters’ declaration of a curfew, urged followers to take to the streets.
He departed his hotel on the Aegean coast more than an hour before the coup plotters reached it and then took to the air, waiting until loyal military officers wrested back control of Istanbul’s airport.
In Malatya in southern Turkey, one of the military’s biggest bases, Erdogan supporters actually went onto the base and occupied the runway to prevent warplanes from taking off to join the coup, Eskinat said.
Because the coup plotters were operating outside the military’s chain of command — they had arrested Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar — they did not have all the levers of power they would need to fulfill their claim to be running the country. So, for instance, Gen. Umit Dundar, commander of Turkey’s First Army, secured control of Istanbul airport and urged Erdogan to fly there.
By surrounding the parliament with tanks, and bombing the legislators gathered inside, the would-be junta managed to unite all four parties in the parliament against them. And that went for the news media as well, including executives whose publications Erdogan would have preferred to see closed down.
One of the most influential news media executives, Aydin Dogan of the Dogan Holding, which owns CNN Turk and the opposition daily Hurriyet, condemned the coup and called for national unity. He called the attempt a “heinous attack on the state, the nation and democracy.”
“What we should do now is to stick to our democracy and come together as a nation, leaving all political differences aside,” he said in an article posted on the website of the Hurriyet Daily News, the English language daily.
Erdogan owes a lot to CNN Türk, which carried his appeal to the nation to back him.
Now the question is whether Erdogan will try to develop and broaden this base of support.
So far, he’s been selective in acknowledging those who backed him. He telephoned the leaders of two of the opposition political parties, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, which was founded by the father of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, and Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party. But he omitted Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the People’s Democracy Party, a largely Kurdish party, many of whose leading members have lost their parliamentary immunity at Erdogan’s behest and could face prosecution for allegedly supporting a Kurdish rebellion in southern Turkey.
After this triumph of democracy, it’s not clear when or where the purges will stop.