Inside a Failed Coup and Turkey’s Fragmented Military
The recent coup attempt in Turkey revealed profound political cleavages in the Turkish armed forces. The coup pitted a minority — but nevertheless significant — faction of the Turkish military against the majority of the country’s armed forces, which remained loyal to their commander in chief, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The coup nearly succeeded in achieving what, in retrospect, appears to have been its primary objective: the killing or capture of Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Hakan Fidan, the chief of the country’s intelligence agency, MIT. The plotters, using a number of well-placed insiders, did manage to take the chief of the general staff, Hulusi Akar, hostage. The clashes resulted in 240 deaths. Turkish government officials allege that the plot was hatched by followers of Fetullah Gulen, a self-exiled Turkish cleric, currently living in Pennsylvania.
The following account remains incomplete and relies on a Whatsapp conversation between some of the coup plotters, open source data, compiled by blogs like The Aviationist, as well as discussions I have had with Turkey based journalists and colleagues, all whom prefer to remain anonymous. I relied on pro-government sources, including state-owned and government aligned media outlets, but sought to compensate for their biases in my analysis. The complete story has yet to be told and all of the details have yet to be released publicly.
The story of the coup suggests a relatively large plot that drew support from numerous parts of the Turkish Armed Forces, spanning various commands around Turkey. The number of senior officers involved, including the commander of Incirlik air force base where U.S. aircraft are now based for the fight against the Islamic State, suggest that the Turkish military is divided. The narrative following the coup is that this was a small, ill-conceived group of plotters who failed to overthrow the elected government, but this narrative is at odds with information coming out about the extent of the plot. This was a larger and far more credible attempt than has thus far been reported.
The fact that this was relatively well planned — if hastily implemented — coup attempt has several implications — namely that the Turkish military’s senior leadership is deeply factionalized, with one sizeable minority of officers willing to use force, even though their decision risked civil war. This suggests that Turkey is unstable and faces serious challenges in the near term in ways that will surely impact American and Western security interests in the Middle East and Europe.
The Coup: An Air Force Led Assault with a Limited Ground Component
The planning for the coup appears to have begun months ago, but was implemented hastily, after MIT learned of the plot at 4:00 PM on Friday. Despite this, the putschists were able to marshal air and armor units to carry out a near synchronized attack on pre-designated points in Istanbul, Ankara, and the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris, where Erdogan was on holiday. The leader, according to Sabah, was Muharrem Kose, a retired colonel. General Mehmet Disli, a retired two star general in the land forces and the brother of an AKP member of parliament reportedly ordered the start of the military operation, setting in motion a complicated operation that involved air and ground units and a number of current and retired senior officers. To date, 103 admirals and generals have been arrested (out of a total of 358), which corresponds to 28 percent of the total in the Turkish Armed Forces.
The military aspect of the coup began around 10:00 PM, first with the closing of the two Istanbul bridges connecting the European continent with Asia. Simultaneously, up to six F-16s from Akinci, an airbase some 12 miles north of Ankara, began a series of supersonic passes over Turkey’s capital city, refueling from four tankers flown from Incirlik Air Base, near the city of Adana. There are reports that F-16s from Diyarbakir air base also joined, perhaps providing two of the six F-16s. Incirlik has been a home to U.S. Air Force units since the 1950s. Lately, it has served as the hub for the U.S.-led air war against the ISIL. The base, since 1980, is under the command of a Turkish officer.
The F16s were soon joined by at least two Cobra attack helicopters and an additional Sikorsky SU-70 tasked — it appears — with strafing TURKSAT, Turkey’s main satellite television provider, as well as Golbasi, the headquarters for Turkey’s elite, special police forces. The putschists also sent eight cargo aircraft from Kayseri to Malatya airbase with weapons for the plotters, according to the military blog, The Aviationist — a detail since confirmed in Murat Yetkin’s column in Hurriyet Daily News.
The F-16s also attacked the Turkish parliament and Erdogan’s palace while ground forces advanced on the prime minister’s residence. All three buildings sustained some damage, but the Parliament building was the most heavily damaged. Meanwhile, in Istanbul, land forces, most probably based somewhere nearby, did fire on protesters on one of the two bridges spanning the Bosphorus in the opening hours of the coup. Some of those who had come out to demonstrate against the unfolding operation were killed.
These events moved in parallel to three commando teams in three additional helicopters, based at Cigli air base near Izmir, flying to the hotel where Erdogan was presumed to be staying. The soldiers in one helicopter either fast roped into the building or landed nearby (depending on the source), but Erdogan’s security team had moved him to hotel nearby, missing the assault teams, according to Karim Shaheen, by some 25 minutes to an hour.
By this time, the Turkish military forces loyal to the government scrambled F-16s from Dalaman, Erzurum, Balikesir and, perhaps, Eskishehir to hunt for the putschist aircraft and, presumably, to escort Erdogan’s plane. According to Reuters and The Guardian, at least two putschist aircraft harassed Erdogan’s private plane but ultimately chose not to fire. It is unclear why they chose not to, but it appears as if the attackers could not discern whether or not Erdogan’s plane was a commercial or private jet.
With the benefit of hindsight, this decision is where the plan to decapitate the government began to break down. In Ankara, one of the loyalist F-16s downed a putschist SU-70 helicopter in Ankara. In a series of interviews broadcast on television using Apple’s Facetime, Erdogan managed to rally his supporters to take to the street to protest against the unfolding coup, before eventually landing at Ataturk airport. Turkey’s religious ministry, Diyanet, also began to recite sala, or religious chants, from mosques throughout Turkey in a form of protest against the unfolding events and later as a rallying message for those that took to the streets.
Faced with these protesters, the young conscripts that make up most of the Turkish Armed Forces largely chose not to fire (although the video linked to above does show that some did use force). The putschist Air Force units, in contrast, showed little restraint, which suggests that hardened supporters for the coup came from these units and therefore may have had more buy-in from elements within the Turkish Air Force.
The Implications: A Broken Force
Turkish media report that Turkish intelligence discovered elements of the plan at or around 4:00 PM on Friday. This prompted the plotters to execute before the plan had been finalized. Many of the details of the coup plan remain a mystery. However, after giving the order to start the operation, the putschists brought together air and grounds forces from a large number of bases throughout Turkey. In the days following the attempted coup, Turkish authorities have arrested hundreds of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, including the commander of the 2nd army, Adem Huduti, the command responsible for the border with Syria and Iraq.
In March 2016, Sabah, a staunchly pro-Erdogan newspaper, praised Huduti for his leadership of the current military action against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This now starkly at odds with the paper’s English language equivalent’s current portrayal of him as a Gulenist sympathizer. Huduti’s arrest appears to rule out any large scale intervention into Syria, owing to the fact that the army is now undergoing hasty and unplanned changes in leadership. Huduti’s arrest could also upset the current military operations against the PKK in the southeast, which was the country’s most pressing security concern before the coup.
According to Yetkin, Huduti was to send up to 5,000 troops from Sirnak to secure government buildings in Ankara. Sirnak province has witnessed some of the most intense fighting with the PKK, with 493 Turkish security personnel (both military and police units) since last summer according to data collected by the International Crisis Group. Areas in the province remain under curfew, a fact that lends credence to the prevailing hypothesis in Turkey that the putschists acted before finalizing the attack plan. The movement of this many troops would have taken pressure off the PKK, an outcome that the plotters would probably have liked to prevent. Last Saturday, the day after the coup attempt, 309 military personnel were detained in Sirnak, lending credence to Yetkin’s reporting.
It is unclear if, or how, the putschists intended to govern Turkey. They may have simply deluded themselves into thinking that 50 percent of the country who votes for opposition parties would welcome them as liberators, while the 50 percent of AKP supporters would simply keep quiet and stayed home. Alternatively, the putschists may have planned for some resistance, but decided that they could be pacified quickly. The Aviationist report indicates that the eight cargo planes involved in the coup were transporting weapons, presumably to be used by the putschists in any potential clashes.
Few details are known at this time, but we now have access to leaked transcripts of the Whatasapp conversation group between the main plotters. The transcript does reveal a sense of urgency to arrest Umit Dundar, the commander of the 1st Army in Istanbul — who was appointed acting chief of the general staff while Akar was imprisoned — and to keep “Ankara” informed. The conversation also reveals snippets about post-conflict planning, including the need to provide food and provisions to troops stationed in Istanbul, with the take over of a Logistic Support Base (Lojistik Destek Ussu).
As more information comes out, it seems that the putschists came far closer to killing or capturing Erdogan and taking hostage the leaders of the armed forces, the intelligence agency, and the prime minister. If they had managed to “succeed,” however, Turkey would now likely be mired in some sort of civil war. For hours on Saturday morning, loyalist and putschist aircraft were operating in the same airspace, with the loyalists having received permission to fire on coup aircraft. The government has retaken control and has begun to carry out mass arrests of suspected sympathizers, across the bureaucracy.
For the Turkish military, the large numbers of its personnel detained since Saturday are certain to have a negative impact on day-to-day operations. The focus will be immediately on the numbers of high-ranking officers detained and how this could disrupt Turkish force readiness. More broadly, the wave of detentions further point to a stark divide between loyalists and putschists, assuming that grounds for the detentions and arrests of the officers allegedly involved in the plot are well-founded. For those not detained, they have profound incentives to be very cautious lest they draw the attention of those looking to “root out suspected sympathizers” in the coming months. This understandable reaction could lead to officers being overly careful, choosing to clear everything through their superior officers. This could slow down decision-making, or result in a culture where policy and talking points are dictated from a central authority — in this case, Erdogan.
Turkey and its Allies
The participation of units at Incirlik Air Base, the hub for U.S. strikes against the Islamic State, could prompt allies to re-evaluate assumptions about Turkey’s future participation in coalition operations. During the uprising, at least four tankers participated, all flying from Incirlik, prompting the arrest of the base commander, Bekir Ercan. This is an embarrassment for the United States and feeds conspiracy theories alleging American involvement and planning of the coup. It also raises questions about the security of forward deployed American nuclear weapons in Europe, of which an estimated 60 are stored in underground bunkers in hardened aircraft shelters at the base.
The bombs were never in any real danger of being stolen during the coup. However, officers responsible for nuclear weapons, even tangentially, should be of the highest caliber. The United States is responsible for these weapons and has the means to provide security, but is ultimately reliant on the Turkish government for security of the base. The incident will, in all likelihood, prompt a reassessment of U.S. operations from Incirlik and the identification of alternative bases to launch strikes against ISIL. It will also re-ignite the debate about forward deployed tactical nuclear weapons and their relevance for the defense of Europe in the post-Cold War world.
The Turkish government is now firmly back in control, but the leadership continues to call on its supporters to remain in the streets to protest the coup — and, allegedly, to prevent a return to violence by plotters still at large. The presence of large numbers of people on the streets has sparked fears of attacks on minority groups, particularly the Alevis who have been targeted in the past by the far right and religious Turkish nationalists. There have been sporadic incidents of vandalism against the majority Kurdish political party’s (HDP) offices in Malatya, Osmaniye, and Iskenderun. To date, the incidents have been sporadic and police have been making efforts to prevent violence, particularly in Hatay. However, the longer this continues, the more likely it is we will see Turkey’s terrorism problem worsen.
The other concern is that the Turkish government will take steps to further centralize power, pushing for hastily drafted reforms to “coup proof” the bureaucracy (which many Western observers thought he had already done). This could further damage Turkish institutions at a time when 30,000 people across the Turkish bureaucracy have been suspended and an additional 9,000 detained.
The damage from this failed coup will continue to put pressure on Turkish institutions, including the military. The recent events suggest that the Turkish armed forces are deeply divided, and these divisions will hamper readiness, morale, and effectiveness moving forward. Already, there appear to be staffing concerns following the arrests, prompting the military to recall at least a handful of officers, previously accused of plotting a coup against the AKP in the widely discredited Ergenekon trial. The military will be asked to continue its operations in the southeast, despite the arrest of the commander previously in charge. The turmoil with the 2nd Army, combined with the officer arrests more broadly, could prompt the government to rely more heavily on special police units or special operations force. However, the latter also appear to have implicated in the coup, with a special forces teams reportedly having raided the hotel Erdogan was staying at near Maramris. This raises more questions about future force readiness in a conflict that has taken the lives of hundreds of security force members since July 2015.
The plotters relied on a number of different air and land force bases to carry out their attacks, and the network of leaders appears to go beyond one group, the Gulenists, for example. The Turkish government has responded quickly and harshly, with mass arrests and forced suspensions. The numbers suggest that a broad effort is underway to force people from the bureaucracy. This, too, will damage the effectiveness of the bureaucracy. Together, the recent events indicate that key Turkish institution are broken and divided — a status quo that is unlikely to change in the near-to-medium term.