Turkey’s President Erdoğan counter-coup cleanup

By: Kyle R. Brady

A night view of Istanbul, Turkey.

Is President Erdoğan ignoring the lessons of the Iraq War at his peril?

Following the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey[1] — wherein factions within the Turkish military and government allegedly conspired to depose President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan[2] — the government of Erdoğan now faces a serious and growing threat:  a potential insurgency found within the thousands of Turkish citizens formerly employed by the government, military, or public sector.

In the post-coup period, Erdoğan has not only retained his position but has also undergone[3] a multi-step[4] process of substantially[5] consolidating his power[6] within the country[7]. After formally blaming Fethullah Gülen[8] — a Turkish man and moderate Muslim reformer in self-imposed exile in the United States[9] — for orchestrating the coup, Erdoğan has proceeded to purge the government and military of anyone accused of supporting or sympathizing with Gülen. This effort has resulted in the removal of thousands of bureaucrats, government officials, judges, teachers, and members of the military from their positions, simply as a result of the allegations of the government — a government that increasingly answers solely to Erdoğan.

In the process of undertaking this purge, Erdoğan has ensured a number of outcomes for the immediate future. The first, and most evident, outcome has been the transformation of Turkish democracy into a democracy in name only, as it is incrementally replaced with a loyalist and increasingly autocratic structure that answers more to its leader than the state’s underlying principles or the well-defined rule of law. Second, the civilian-controlled[10] and structurally weakened[11] Turkish military is no longer seen as the defender of the people and the democracy, despite their decades-long status as such[12]. Third, Turkey’s member status within NATO is likely to come into question[13], particularly as Erdoğan’s state increases formal ties with President Putin’s Russia[14].  Lastly, as a result of Erdoğan’s response to the coup, the Turkish government now has greater control over their own anti-terrorist efforts and, by nature of the newly loyalist government, freedom[15] to swiftly[16] pursue any individuals or groups they deem to be terrorists[17], including members of minority or separatist groups that have long troubled Erdoğan[18].

In addition to the clear outcomes of Erdoğan’s post-coup maneuvers — the subject of much discussion by journalists, academics, foreign policy professionals, and others within the field —  there exists another distinct problem that has received scant, if any, attention: the group of well-trained, disaffected, and now-subjugated Turkish citizens who have had their lives upended.

One of the most widely acknowledged mistakes of the Iraq War was the swift disbanding of the state’s military and police forces[19]. With this simple act, the United States and its allies created an entire group of individuals who no longer had a source of income or personal pride, but were well-trained in their field, motivated to serve their fellow Iraqis, and fight for what they believed in. This substantially contributed to the extraordinarily difficult problem of insurgency within Iraq — and, eventually, helped to birth ISIS — as many of those who were trained in various aspects of fighting, training, and organizing applied their talents to a familiar purpose and in opposition to those who had deposed them.

This is, precisely, a problem that Erdoğan may soon face: thousands of Turkish citizens who are well-trained in the arts of war, education, and government but have been removed from their posts, stand accused of treason, and are disaffected at the hands of the state they formerly served. It seems unlikely that Erdoğan has yet to realize his potentially grave mistake, nor is he likely to ever do so, given the increasingly loyalist nature of his government. Instead, as he continues to remove citizens of all kinds from their positions, he may be creating the foundation for a widespread insurgency that is entirely unrelated to Turkey’s longstanding problems — both real and perceived — with terrorists, separatists, minorities, and nationalists. Moreover, should he continue down this path, Erdoğan may alienate himself from the general population and create the conditions for his own removal through a populist uprising, rather than a military coup.

It would, therefore, be advisable for Erdoğan to understand and apply the lessons of the Iraq War to his country, his interest in power, and his reforming of government: those who are relied upon to maintain order and function should not be disavowed or disbanded en masse, lest they band together to focus their talent and training on a newer, emerging threat found much closer to home.

Any opinions expressed are directly and expressly the author’s own; they do not represent — unless stated — his employers (past, present, or future) or associated/affiliated institutions.




Kyle R. Brady is an imminent postgraduate student at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies, holds a Masters in Homeland Security from Pennsylvania State University, and has primary interests in terrorism, law enforcement, and contextualizing security concerns. Previously, he graduated with Departmental Honors from San Jose State University’s undergraduate Political Science program, where he focused on both international relations and political theory. You can follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleBradyOnline and his personal blog at http://blog.kyle-brady.com. He can be reached through email via: brady.k@gmail.com.


[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/15/world/turkey-military-coup-what-we-know/ 

[2] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/07/what-caused-the-turkish-coup-attempt-214057

[3] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-idUSKCN0ZX07S

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/europe/turkey-prisoners-erdogan.html

[5] http://www.wsj.com/articles/erdogan-convenes-emergency-security-summit-over-coup-attempt-1469015066

[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/07/turkey-erdogan-coup-future/491696/

[7] http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/08/06/turkey-chooses-erdogan/ 

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/11/politics/turkey-us-fethullah-gulen-ultimatum/

[9] ibid.

[10] https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2016/07/31/decree-tightens-civilian-control-over-turkish-military/qSdjjrhmpHRuCUKpwQLTwM/story.html

[11] http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/20/middleeast/turkey-military-failed-coup/

[12] http://www.vox.com/2016/7/19/12225564/conspiracy-turkey-military-coup

[13] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/turkey-military-coup/analysis-erdogan-s-purge-coup-proof-turkey-s-military-may-n630791

[14]  http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/09/world/turkey-russia-erdogan-putin-meeting/

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/02/the-west-is-supporting-terrorism-against-turkey-claims-erdogan

[16]  http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/07/how-erdogan-made-turkey-authoritarian-again/492374/

[17] https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/24/in-erdogans-turkey-everyone-is-a-terrorist-kurds-pkk-terrorism/

[18] http://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-struggles-to-fight-war-on-two-fronts-1458174473

[19] http://time.com/3900753/isis-iraq-syria-army-united-states-military/

Image Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/city-bridge-cityscape-istanbul-45189/

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