Analysts see Erdogan bungling victory over inept putschists

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Istanbul on Jan. 3, 2014.


By BENJAMIN HARVEY | Bloomberg | Published: July 18, 2016

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's harsh response to the weekend's poorly planned putsch may be an overreach that risks provoking another attempt, according to military experts who study coups d'etats.

Payback was swift and sweeping. By Monday, almost 20,000 people had been arrested or fired, including military personnel, judges and interior and finance ministry officials. Civilian mobs were filmed beating surrendering soldiers and attempting to throw some of the wounded over a bridge in Istanbul. Crowds on the street chanted for the return of the death penalty, which Turkey banned as part of its talks to join the European Union.

"What he's doing right now is a very risky game," said Naunihal Singh, an assistant professor at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, and the author of "Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups." "It risks, at the worst, another coup attempt, and more likely, mutinies by people who think they're being treated unfairly."

The wiser move would be for Erdogan to allow the armed forces to deal with the insurrection on its own terms rather than taking it upon himself to punish soldiers "with his own judges and prosecutors," said Edward Luttwak, author of "Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook." While Erdogan's supporters are more passionate and more numerous than his opponents, he said, the sense of despair among those who oppose him shows no sign of abating.

"Turkey is a country crammed full of people who feel underrepresented," Hev Okcuoglu, a 36-year-old who works in publishing, said in an interview in Istanbul on Sunday. "There remain no legitimate outlets for people to express their dissatisfaction."

Such sentiments leave open the possibility that Erdogan's harsh response will only goad his enemies to learn from their mistakes and try again, Luttwak warned.

"They now realize that the mistake was not capturing Erdogan," he said. "So he better watch out. The lesson of the coup is to grab the guy first."

The coup was so puzzlingly incompetent that some Turks, raised to revere their conscription army, have speculated that it could have been staged as a pretext for Erdogan to wipe out the last vestiges of opposition in Turkey. Still, conspiracy theories are less probable explanations for the failure than incompetence, according to Singh and Luttwak.

"A coup d'etat is essentially a technical activity that requires planning," Luttwak said by phone from Chevy Chase, Maryland, on Sunday. "They didn't do a very good job."

The attempt was squashed just hours after it began at 10 p.m. on Friday. At dawn, live television footage showed soldiers abandoning their tanks to surrender to unarmed civilians on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. Why the soldiers were deployed to the bridge at all, when Erdogan was known to be holidaying at a hotel in Marmaris 450 miles away, is just one of the puzzling decisions made by the coup's leaders — who remain unidentified.

Cengiz Candar, a veteran journalist and Middle East expert who coined the term "post-modern coup" for the Turkish army's successful ousting of an Islamist government in 1997, is one of those who see a conspiracy in the swiftness of the response.

"It gave the impression that Erdogan and the government were prepared for a coup attempt and had ample intelligence as to who in the state system would be associated," he wrote in a column for the Al-Monitor website. "It seems to me the most likely possibility is that Erdogan — presumably with the blessing of Western forces — worked with some of his own people in the military to arrange a coup hoax."

Dursun Cicek, an opposition lawmaker and former navy colonel who spent five years in prison for his alleged role in the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup allegations — later revealed to be an elaborate fraud aimed at de-fanging the nation's military leadership — had another explanation.

"This coup attempt was planned in a rush and executed with too little power," he said. Members of the military associated with the Fethullah Gulen religious movement "did it because they knew they were going to be thrown out of the military soon," he said. Speaking on Haberturk television the night of the coup attempt, prosecutor Necip Iscimen echoed that view, saying a group of lower-level officers rushed into the coup in desperation, knowing they were likely to be purged.

The most obvious mistake by the rebels made was their failure to contain Erdogan, according to Luttwak.

"The first rule is you have to immobilize — capture or kill — the leader that you're trying to overthrow," he said. "He's a leader, he will have followers, for whatever reason, and you want to prevent him from mobilizing them."

Instead, while the rebel soldiers clashed with police and civilians on the bridge in Istanbul and rogue air force jets bombed parliament in Ankara, Erdogan called into CNN-Turk television via Facetime to urge his followers onto the streets. By the time reports emerged of helicopters shooting up the president's hotel on the Turkish coast, Erdogan had been gone for about 4 1/2 hours, according to a timeline published by Hurriyet Daily News.

"The moment he has a press conference, you've already lost," said Singh. The coup plotters failed to present any credible leadership option that could have rallied support to their side, instead issuing a statement in the name of the army, whose top brass came out publicly to disavow it. "The initial broadcast lacked considerable credibility and it was undermined by what was happening in the streets."

The ball is now in Erdogan's court, and Turks are bracing for a crackdown unmatched in its ferocity.

"It is only natural to expect Erdogan to assume more power and tighten his control over institutions," Inan Demir, chief economist at Finansbank AS, said in an e-mailed report on Monday. "First, Erdogan can use his existing powers and control over judiciary to purge the dissidents; indeed this has already begun as 2,745 judges (more than one third of all judges in Turkey) were removed from their posts less than 24 hours after the attempted coup."

While the numbers "seem excessive," they're aimed at preventing "the next wave of attacks," Erdogan's press office said by text message on Monday.

"Imagine that these are in charge of Turkey after the coup," Burhan Kuzu, a senior lawmaker of the ruling AK Party, said by phone. "Thousands of people would die. It is not possible to show mercy to them."

Onur Ant and Isobel Finkel contributed.

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