The Causes of the Coup Attempt in Turkey: A History of the Usual Suspects


“The causes of events,” wrote Cicero, in his Letters to Atticus, “are ever more interesting than the events themselves.” With reported accounts revealing the stunning details of the attempted coup in Turkey, it is important to contextualize the failed military takeover and understand what may have precipitated it.

In its first decade in power, President Erdogan’s AK Party successfully neutralized the military as a political force, through both legal and extralegal means. Yet, the AK Party’s frayed political coalition, conflicts in Syria and southeast Turkey, and the party’s falling out with the Gülen movement, partially restored the military’s standing. Though Erdogan had installed a pliant senior leadership, large portions of the military remained bitterly opposed to the AK Party. With restored institutional confidence and enduring hostility toward the governing party, a faction within the military sought to interrupt Turkish democracy for the fifth time.

Understanding this history demands an appreciation for the relationship between the AK Party and the Gülen movement. Though rooted in different Islamic traditions, the two groups shared a fear and mistrust of Turkey’s military and secularist establishment. The AK Party emerged from the rubble of the Welfare Party, which itself arose from the Islamist Millî Görüs. Welfare was the first explicitly political Islamist party to govern Turkey and the target of the military’s 1997 “postmodern coup” — which deposed Welfare Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and shuttered the party. The coup also changed the life of Fethullah Gülen and his eponymous movement, as he left Turkey for Pennsylvania in 1999 to escape prosecution.

The 1997 coup etched itself into the collective political Islamist psyche in Turkey, shaping its leaders’ views on amassing sustainable power in a hostile political structure. Erdogan and his allies split from the Millî Görüs trend to start the AK Party, which would still be Islamic in orientation but also Western-facing and inclusive of everyone from liberals to Islamists. Though AK Party won a parliamentary majority in 2002, it did so with just 34 percent of the vote, as Turkey’s high electoral threshold kept all opposition parties but the Republican People’s Party (CHP) out of parliament. The Kemalist establishment still loomed over the AK Party. In the pan-Turkic Gülen Movement, the party found ideal partners. With fiercely loyal domestic and international networks of support, strong representation in the Turkish bureaucracy, and a distaste for the repressive establishment, the Gülenists proved to be natural allies.

The AK Party’s earliest efforts to rebalance civilian-military relations instrumentalized the E.U. accession process. To meet the Copenhagen criteria for opening formal accession talks, Turkey initiated a series of E.U. harmonization packages. The seventh such package restructured Turkey’s powerful national security council (MGK), installing civilian majority control and substituting advisory powers for the MGK’s executive oversight. Situating military authority constraints in the context of E.U. accession smoothed their adoption, as the establishment had long prized accession as validating Turkey’s Western advancement.

Re-balancing the MGK could not insulate the AK Party from the military and secular establishment’s meddlesome and menacing actions. When the AK Party slated Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate in 2007, the military responded with thinly veiled threats in an e-memorandum reaffirming its role in defending Turkish secularism. This was the culmination of a months-long battle of wills over whether an Islamist politician could assume the office constitutionally tasked with defending Turkish secularism. After charges were levied that the AK Party served as a locus of anti-secular activity, the party escaped closure by one vote in Turkey’s constitutional court in 2008.

The AK Party-Gülenist alliance then turned to extralegal means to subvert the outsized influence of Turkey’s military and secular establishment. Leveraging the Gülenists’ strong presence in law enforcement and the judiciary, the Ergenekon trial emerged in 2008, followed by the Sledgehammer case in 2010. Gülenists fabricated and planted evidence, launched prosecutions, and presided over cases alleging senior military figures’ membership in shadowy organizations, false flag attacks on Turkey, and intricate plots to overthrow the AK Party government by force. Gülenists in the media first exposed, and then drummed up support for, these political show trials. By the end of it, 15 percent of Turkish general and flag officers were behind bars. This instrumental witch-hunt was not just aimed at the military. It also embroiled opposition journalists, academics, and Kurdish civil society figures. All of this was done with the assent and full-throated support of the AK Party and its supporters.

Yet while the AK Party-Gülenist alliance dispatched its political adversaries, the factions had never fully trusted each other. This distrust boiled over into conflict in late 2012. The AK Party government pursued peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the Gülen Movement — which takes a harder line on the Kurdish issue — opposed the talks. In early 2012, Gülenist prosecutors summoned National Intelligence Organization (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan to testify in the trials surrounding the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the purported civilian arm of the PKK. Fidan represented Erdogan in the broad-based peace talks, and so the summons was rightly seen as the Gülenists taking aim at government policy.

The rift only widened. Gülen himself voiced criticisms of the government’s handling of the May 2013 Gezi protests, when the government’s grip on power momentarily appeared to wobble. In October of that year, the government proposed legal changes to close university entrance exam prep schools — a key source of Gülenist revenue and youth recruitment.

In December 2013, the Gülenists revealed evidence of large-scale corruption that reached all the way to the highest ranks of the AK Party, implicating Erdoğan himself, his family, and key ministerial allies. The attempted coup de grâce failed. Erdogan survived the crisis and unleashed a backlash of sustained intensity that continues to this day. He purged Gülenist sympathizers from every part of the bureaucracy, closed Gülenist media organizations, punished Gülenist-owned companies, and orchestrated the insolvency and takeover of the formerly Gülenist-aligned Bank Asya. Since this eruption, Erdogan has taken every opportunity to accuse the Gülenist movement of functioning as an illegal parallel state subverting institutions and engaging in terrorism.

As a part of this battle, the AK Party government came to disavow the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer show trials. Turkish courts acquitted the Sledgehammer suspects in 2015 and overturned the Ergenekon convictions in 2016. Erdogan himself suggested that he and his government were duped by Gülenist fabrications and plots.

While this served the government’s greater anti-Gülenist agenda, it also signified a reassessment and realignment of domestic alliances. When the top military brass resigned in protest of the show trials in 2011, their replacements were selected by Erdogan. Stunned by the trials and led by more pliant leaders, the military had seemingly become a less threatening institution to the government. In short, Ergenekon and Sledgehammer had already served their purposes. Always a master of political balancing acts, Erdogan felt he could afford to undo the verdicts.

The military’s role in supporting Turkey’s Syria policies restored somewhat functional civilian-military relations and returned the military to a critical policy conversation for the first time since the trials. Turkish journalists, well-sourced in the military, have written about the chances of a Turkish military intervention in Syria. For Al-Monitor, Metin Gurcan wrote about the government’s intervention calculus, the military’s training for such eventualities, and the private qualms expressed by the military to Erdogan about the risks of intervention. Instead of facing trial for fabricated plots, the military finally returned to the activities for which it is suited and for which it was educated and trained. Both developments undoubtedly instilled a new measure of confidence in the force.

From late summer of last year, the Turkish military adjusted its sights to the PKK. After the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, the Turkish government launched bombing runs and a “hot pursuit” incursion against PKK targets in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Young PKK-affiliated Kurdish militants dug trenches, established checkpoints, and declared local autonomy in some southeastern cities. Through late 2015 and into early 2016, Turkey intensified and expanded its urban military operations to clear cities of Kurdish insurgents.

Though militarily successful, the operations exacted a high price. They killed civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands more, enacted months-long curfews, and destroyed massive amounts of urban infrastructure — including priceless cultural heritage sites. The operations disrupted the fabric of urban life in Turkey’s southeastern cities. They also set off a wave of urban attacks linked to the PKK and its offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), that have targeted military and security personnel.

The military’s view was ambivalent. Fearful of expanding PKK power in light of Democratic Union Party (PYD)-controlled northern Syria, and determined to counter PKK activity in Turkey, the military strongly supported clearing operations against urban militants. At the same time, the operations’ intensity — and the retaliatory attacks they unleashed — created unease. Privately, junior officers expressed fears that the Erdogan government might even order aerial bombings on militant targets in Turkish cities — an order that would give pause to even the fervently anti-PKK military. The conflicts in Syria and with the PKK had unexpectedly empowered the military and elevated its stature. Yet, large portions of the military remembered well that Erdogan backed the Gülenist show trials against their leadership and remained bitterly irreconcilable to Erdogan, his authoritarianism, and his religious conservatism.

Thus, a coup was launched last week by a military faction in a climate of rising institutional confidence, expanded military power, and stronger decision-making influence. It was launched within an institution distrusting, fearful, and deeply resentful of Erdogan’s government. It was also launched amid an unrelenting purge of Gülenist influences from state institutions.

The many plausible motives beg for caution in assigning responsibility, but that has not stopped the government and its media mouthpieces from blaming Gülen for orchestrating the plot. Erdogan seeks to channel public attention to his designated chief public enemy — the “Gülenist Terrorist Organization”.

In the days following the attempted coup, analysis has worried about a U.S.-Turkey rift over extraditing Gülen and about the possibility that Turkey might reverse its support for U.S.-led anti-ISIL operations in Syria. These presumptions seem premature. Erdogan already softened Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s comment that Turkey would “question its friendship” with the United States if it failed to extradite, electing to emphasize the relationship’s importance over resorting to threats. Regarding Syria, Turkey did not join the anti-ISIL coalition merely because of U.S. pressure; rather, it finally recognized the threat ISIL posed domestically.

Ever the opportunist, Erdogan has recognized an opening to amass the formalized broad powers he seeks — and long sought, even before the failed coup. This is why the Erdogan loyalist-controlled judicial appointments board sacked 2,745 judges within hours of the coup. The government has been in the slow process of remaking the judiciary — one of the last state institutions not entirely under thumb. The purges have only deepened — with more than 50,000 suspended or detained, among them teachers, civil servants, and university administrators. The AK Party government has accelerated the process in a way that would not have been possible without the coup attempt.

In focusing on the potential for regional and international fallout, we risk paying insufficient attention to the direct and immediate consequences in Turkey. The coup — the event itself — is so shocking, it prompts expansive thinking about the potential for major international threats. Yet, the driving causes of this coup suggest that the gravest consequences will happen at home. For, while the coup’s failure saved Turkish democracy in theory, it also created the conditions for its further subjugation in practice.


Dov Friedman is a specialist on Turkey and Kurdistan. He serves as U.S. director for Middle East Petroleum, a British-Turkish energy company. The views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not represent the positions of his employer. Follow Dov on Twitter: @dovsfriedman.