“Take to the Streets”: Turkey’s Failed Coup, One Year Later
Editor’s Note: This week, War on the Rocks is featuring some old favorites from the archives. This article was originally published in 2017.
It has been one year since the failed coup attempt in Turkey and — aside from the senior putschists themselves — no one has any idea what actually happened that day and night or who was in charge. Our lack of clarity about the nature of the coup is even more surprising given the remarkable amount of specific information about this episode.
The movement of Turkish military units from their bases to locations in Istanbul province, beginning at 9:15 pm, is available for researchers thanks to the discovery of a telephone on which one of the putschists was coordinating his movements via WhatsApp. The same is true of Air Force’s flight operations, which researchers were able to track with open source tools. However, the events that led up to the coup, including the actions of senior officials, are not nearly as clear. The coup attempt was, without question, real. The putschists were ruthless and showed little remorse about killing innocent people. They used lethal force to attack Turkish government buildings. It’s also clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was spooked that night, as we saw in his FaceTime interview with journalist Hande Firat that took place as the plot unfolded. The normally confident Erdogan was obviously frightened as he addressed his supporters from an aide’s iPhone.
But still, the story — as told in numerous quasi-official publications — has a missing block of time. At 2:45 pm that day, a tip from a Turkish Army major – identified by his initials, O.K. — that a coup was in the offing prompted a series of meetings with Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, and Hakan Fidan, the director of MIT, the national intelligence organization. Seven hours later, at 9:15, a WhatsApp group for the Istanbul-based elements of the plot was created and the putschists began to take control of Istanbul. But we do not know what happened during the intervening seven hours. This gap in the narrative has proven to be more than enough space for all sorts of theories about the failed coup attempt, ranging from the “false flag” explanation to the notion that the putsch had support from the military’s chain of command.
Despite countless hours of media coverage in Turkey, there is no tick-tock of that night’s event that can stand up to analytical rigor. Similarly, there is no coherent understanding of what the putschists intended to do had they seized power. Senior Turkish officials are reticent to share details about that night. And, when they do, they often contradict previous statements.
The lack of details has allowed different political factions to play a sort of “choose your own adventure,” leading to a rash of speculation about what “really happened” one year ago. Everyone has their own July 15 “truth.” The key, for many, is the missing seven hours and what that period of time could reveal about the days leading up to bloody events on July 15. The Turkish government, in this last year, has established a narrative about the sequence of events after 9:00 pm, rather than to tell the people what actually happened that night. Thus, as Turkish citizens rightly celebrate the failure of what would have been a truly devastating — and horrific — outcome should the putschists have “succeeded,” the outstanding questions about the events leading up to the coup remain unanswered one year later.
The Gulenist Explanation
To mark the first anniversary of the failed coup, the Turkish government has planned a series of commemorative events, emulating the so-called “democracy watches” that took place after the failed coup attempt. The events are meant to represent the idea that ordinary Turkish citizens resisted a violent group of putschists. Turkish citizens did indeed resist that night, taking to the streets hours before their elected leaders asked them to. But who were they resisting? The Turkish government places the blame squarely on Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric whose followers and organization the Turkish government refers to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, or FETO. And some followers of Gulen have admitted that they took part in the bloody events of July 15.
However, it is also true that officers who make no secret about being involved in the coup swear that they are not members of Gulen’s global movement. These men are proud soldiers, and view their actions as being in defense of the Turkish Republic. They do not shy away from admitting guilt, but recoil at being labeled Gulenists. From their leaked testimony, it is clear that these men thought that they were performing a patriotic act to defend their country. The motives for both cadres were clear: The toppling of the AKP government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
To date, there is no clear understanding of the political outlook of all of the officers involved in the coup attempt. Thus, there is no serious discussion about motive, outside of the Gulen-AKP power struggle that has been raging in Turkey since 2013.
The Turkish government maintains that only 1.5 percent of the armed forces (8,651 military personnel in total) were involved in the coup attempt, including 120 high-ranking officers (out of a total of 358, many of whom were promoted to these positions in 2014 and 2015 – the relevance of which is explained below). These numbers are purportedly meant to show that the coup attempt had little support from within the chain of command. The plot, however, was geographically dispersed, with multiple moving parts in different areas in Turkey. This suggests that support was not geographically clustered – a fact that lends itself to the theory that the putschists were comprised of a mix of both Gulenist and non-Gulenist officers.
The intense focus on the Gulenist role has prevented any serious conversation about motive or lessons learned from the decisions made in the years before the coup that contributed to the events of July 15. The evidence suggests that the military promotions process in Turkey is deeply politicized, with competing ideological factions trying to shape the ideological outlook of Turkey’s most decorated officers. These efforts backfired. In the days after the coup, some 34 percent of Turkey’s flag ranking officers were purged, which suggests that at least a third of Turkey’s flag-ranking officers decided to take up arms to topple a civilian government.
What We Know
Just before 10:00 pm local time on Friday night, Turkish army trucks parked at a 90-degree angle on Istanbul’s first bridge, blocking the transit of civilian vehicles across the crowded thoroughfare. Twenty minutes later, reports from Ankara emerged of low flying F-16 aircraft making high-speed passes over the city’s low-slung concrete buildings. Hours earlier, in Ankara, surveillance footage shows putschist soldiers escorting Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff, Hulusi Akar, out of the General Staff building, presumably to a waiting helicopter for a short flight to Akinci Air Base.
According to the dominant narrative about the coup attempt, Akar’s aide de camp, Levent Turkkan, betrayed him, pulled his service weapon, and sought to co-opt the 65-year-old general into the putsch. When Akar refused, Turkkan used his belt to choke the general, before calling for his arrest. Once at Akinci, the purported military leader of the coup, either Air Force Gen. (ret.) Akin Ozturk or Gen. (ret.) Mehmet Disli, former two star general in the land forces (and the brother of an AKP member of parliament), is said to have asked again for Akar to join them, according to his leaked testimony. As the conversation continued, the exasperated putschist is reported to have called Gulen on the phone. Gulen’s personal representative, Adil Oksuz, is said to have been the “civilian Imam” present at the base, along with other associates with Gulenist connections. He was arrested near the airbase hours after the attempt failed, but released by a Gulenist in the judiciary — and is now on the run.
The rapid spread of news about the unfolding coup prompted Turkish citizens to leave their homes and to move towards the reported location of gathered soldiers. H. Akin Unver, a fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, and Hassan Alassad, CEO and founder of the data and analytics company of Eqlim, found the earliest protesters took to the streets just after the coup started, and well before President Erdogan called on people to take to the streets. The first wave of protesters came from conservative districts and were later joined by those galvanized by the recitation of salah prayers, broadcast throughout Turkey from mosque loudspeakers. The flood of people was the first indication that the night would be bloody.
As the night unfolded, the putschist soldiers did what one would expect them to do in a coup attempt. They took control of the two Istanbul airports, sent a team to the main government television station, TRT, and released a statement in the name of the Peace at Home Council, a reference to founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous foreign policy dictum, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” The putschists also answered calls from nervous allies, including the United States, who were watching the events unfold in real time. In the American case, the inability to contact Akar led to speculation that he was dead and that other elements of the chain of command had asserted control over the armed forces. Turkey’s civilian leadership, meanwhile, maintained contact with U.S. officials in country, communicating with Erdogan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, according to my interviews with U.S. officials.
Erdogan was on holiday in Marmaris, as has become routine in the week after the end of Ramadan. The story of his escape varies, depending on the source. What is not in doubt is that, at some point on the night of July 15, three teams of Turkish special forces personnel boarded helicopters at Cigli air force base for a 120-mile flight. The sequence of events is still up for debate. According to one version of the story, Erdogan learned about the unfolding coup attempt from his brother-in-law. In a separate interview, Erdogan said he learned about the coup before it began, around 8:00 pm, and, in a third version, he learned of the coup attempt around 4:00 pm. In any event, Erdogan’s aircraft left Dalaman airport, turned north, before settling into an orbit over the Black Sea.
At some point, the commander of the first army in Istanbul, Unit Dundar, realized that the messages that Brig. Gen. Mehmet Partigoc, one of the conspirators, was sending from the General Staff building were in violation of standard protocol. The strange sequences of messages, starting at 9:30, alerted Dundar that something was amiss back in Ankara, after failing to make contact with Akar or Yasar Guler. Dundar then made contact with Erdogan and instructed him to fly to Istanbul, where his men could be counted on to guarantee his safety. The president’s plane landed, apparently after coming under missile lock by an F-16 flown by a coup supporter at some point during the journey. However, the rogue F-16 pilot chose not to fire because he thought the president’s aircraft was a Turkish Airlines flight.
O.K.’s tip-off about the coup attempt was reportedly made some seven hours before the Istanbul-based putschists began to drive towards the Bosphorus bridges. Following the tip, Fidan, head of the MIT intelligence organization, reportedly called Akar, who then tasked a subordinate, Army Chief Gen. Salih Zeki Colak, to look into the tip. Fidan, or a subordinate, also spoke with Erdogan’s security detail. He spoke with the commanding officer at the Army Aviation School Command, Hakan Atinc about Deniz Aldemir, a helicopter pilot who would later take part in the coup. According to Aldemir‘s leaked testimony, on the morning of July 15 Colak took part in a two-hour briefing after which he proceeded to move heavy-lift and attack helicopters to Akinci and to ferry one ton of ammunition to the base. The timing fits with the reported creation of another WhatsApp group at 6:45 that night, titled “Turkiyem.” The details of this group have not leaked to the press, but some speculate that the chat was used to oversee the start of the coup operation.
At Incirlik Air Force Base, some 250 miles away, Bekir Ercan Van, the Turkish Air Force commander in charge of the base, made the final preparations to support putschist flight operations. At least two tankers, and perhaps as many as four, were involved in the coup attempt. A third set of Air Force officers working on an apron on the northern side of Kayseri’s joint military and civilian airport prepared an A400 transport aircraft and C-160 cargo planes for take off. They loaded the aircraft with weapons needed to sustain combat operations after the decapitation of Turkey’s elected government. These eight aircraft first taxied east along the runway, before taking off one by one towards Malatya’s Erhac Airport.
Upon arrival, these planes were intended to transport up to 5,000 troops from the Turkish gendarmerie, reportedly using a fake order, to Ankara, where they would then be asked to hold key government institutions. Malatya is also home to Turkey’s 2nd Army. This force was previously under the command of Adem Huduti, who was once lauded in Turkey’s rabidly pro-government press (in an article since deleted from the pro-AKP Sabah’s website, but still available on A Haber’s website) for his leadership of operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the days after the coup, Huduti was purged from the military for his alleged role in the coup.
The plotters communicated via WhatsApp with elements based at Akinci Air Base. To date, there is no clear description of how command and control worked during the coup attempt, although it appears that WhatsApp was the mechanism each putschist element used to communicate, with groups reported for Istanbul, Ankara, and and a third that makes reference to a battle in 1071 in Turkey’s Mus province between the Byzantines and the Seljuks. Yet, there are no details about the operations at Akinci , including how this central node in Akinci communicated with the officers at the General Staff building, or who was in charge of the military side of the operation. The most likely candidate is the aforementioned Akin Ozturk. However, Ozturk has maintained that he tried to stop the coup attempt, and that Akar would back up his story. Nine days after his arrest, Ozturk penned a letter to Akar and Yasar Guler, the current commander of the gendarmerie, wherein he reiterated his previous claims, including that Akar, whom he referred to as “our commander,” would act as his character witness.
The putsch started to fail some two hours after it began. However, in an oft-overlooked aspect of the episode, elements of the national police did swear allegiance to the putchists, thinking they had no choice. They reversed course after the street protests overwhelmed the relatively small number of coup soldiers on the streets in Istanbul. In response, the putschist chain of command authorized the rogue pilots to use force. The result was a series of bombing raids on the Turkish parliament and police forces, as well as attack helicopters strafing the intelligence headquarters in Ankara. In Istanbul, on the first bridge, the soldiers opened fire on the gathered protesters. In total, 248 civilians and 24 putschists were killed during the failed coup.
Turkey’s four major political parties, all gathered in parliament as it was being bombed, condemned the coup. Over three weeks later, at the end of the “democracy watches,” the government held a massive rally in Istanbul’s Yenikapi, on a man-made peninsula built into the Sea of Marmara. The rally attracted an estimated 1 million people, mostly dressed in red to represent the Turkish flag. The purpose was to celebrate democracy and capture the spirit of unity that had engulfed the country. The rally excluded Turkey’s third largest party by number of seats in the parliament, the Kurdish-majority HDP, and the leader of the main opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was booed. The television crews on hand to cover the event muted the crowd noise during Kilicdaroglu’s speech, according to a contact in Turkey.
Choose Your Own Adventure: The Missing Seven Hours
On May 22, more than 220 alleged putschists, including Akin Ozturk, Mehmet DIsli, Levent Turkkan, and Mehmet Partigoc, went on trial. The trial has allowed the defendants to lay out an alternative theory about the events of July 15. Former Brig. Gen. Erhan Caha, for example, claimed that the putschists were under Akar’s command, and that MIT, the intelligence organization, also had a role in the plot. As proof, Caha cites the fact that no order was given to confine soldiers to their barracks. The claim of MIT involvement seems absurd. The night of the coup, a Cobra helicopter attacked MIT headquarters, prompting a gun battle and the use of MANPADS to defend the building.
Further still, Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT, has a history of tension with Gulen’s movement. In 2012, the movement’s allies in the judiciary sought to have Fidan interrogated for his role in back-channel ceasefire talks with the PKK. The questioning would have, in all likelihood, led to his arrest. In response, then-Prime Minister Erdogan convened parliament at midnight to pass legislation that required prosecutors to first receive the permission of the prime minister before questioning the head of MIT. The move foreshadowed later AKP-Gulen tensions, but also further centralized a key Turkish institution from any oversight. As is often the case in the AKP-Gulen saga, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Caha’s version of events, though dubious, did prompt Akar to pen an eight-page response, wherein he indirectly responded to a number of rumors floating around Turkey about the events that preceded the start of the coup attempt. The rumor posits that after learning about the coup, the government negotiated with the plotters — and it was only after these negotiations failed that the putsch began. Another rumor, linked to the “false flag” explanation, suggests that Erdogan let the coup happen, knowing that it would fail and that he would benefit politically from the fallout.
In his testimony, Akar made clear that the military took O.K.’s tip seriously, but admitted that he did not think a coup attempt was a serious possibility. Akar indicated that he took steps to close the country’s airspace, perhaps in response to the early signs that the Air Force would play a prominent role in the coup attempt. If he did, indeed, close the airspace around 7:00 pm that night (and there is little reason to doubt this), it did nothing to prevent the putschists from getting planes into the air to support their operations. But Akar maintains that these early efforts could have forced the putschists to move up the start time of the operation, which may have guaranteed its failure and could explain why some parts of the operation were executed with precision and organization while other parts were haphazard. His decision not to confine the Army to their barracks, however, remains a point of contention, and prompted speculation that Akar could be forced from his position in August, when the Supreme Military Council meets. It is unclear what good this would have done, though. The putschists violated the order to close the airspace and would likely have done the same with an order to remain in their barracks.
How We Got Here: Gulenists and the AKP, from Friends to Foes
The prevailing theory is that the putschists felt they must launch the coup in advance of last year’s August Supreme Military Council meeting because officers with links to Gulen were slated to be purged from the armed forces. The first reports of the pending purge popped up in March 2016. Oda TV, a leftist-nationalist online media outlet whose reporters had previously been targeted by Gulenist prosecutors during the Ergenekon trial, wrote, “What we understand is that the Cemaat [Gulen’s movement] hasn’t got much time left. Whatever they are going to do they must do by August, before the [Supreme Military Council] decisions.”
The Gulenists had, after all, been on the other side of a military purge and understood the dangers they faced too well.
To place this in context, it is important to go into some detail on the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which were started and led by Gulenists in the judiciary and law enforcement, seemingly with the tacit approval of allies in in the AKP. The Ergenekon investigation and prosecutions that relied on forged evidence to allege a military and “deep state”-led plot to stage a series of false flag attacks at Turkish mosques to incite secular-religious strife. The military, then, would step in to restore calm and topple the AKP government. The Ergenekon case was followed by a second trial, Balyoz (Sledgehammer), which alleged that the military plotted to topple the government at a military planning seminar in Istanbul in 2003. The investigation began in 2010, some three years after the start of the Ergenekon investigation (which grew in scope and number of indictments in the years before Balyoz began). By 2013, over 500 people – many of the senior military officers – had been convicted in connection with the two probes.
Ergenekon and Balyoz aimed to both neuter the military’s ability to resist the AKP and launch a coup as well as, apparently, clear some space to allow Gulenist officers – including many who seem to have been involved in last year’s coup attempt – to rise in the ranks. By last summer, Gulenists had consolidated control over key nodes in the military, and would thus be expected to know about internal efforts to eliminate them. The outcome of this factionalizing of the Turkish bureaucracy has been the weakening of Turkish institutions across much of the government. This has been compounded by the definitive end of the AKP-Gulenist alliance in December 2013.
That month, a series of recordings were released on YouTube that implicated then Prime Minister Erdogan, his closest aides, and his family in a massive graft scandal. Gulenist police officials managed to surreptitiously record Turkey’s most powerful man, Erdogan, his cabinet members, and his family for 21 months without getting caught. The release of the recording set in motion AKP-led efforts to rid the bureaucracy of Gulenists. The AKP began to collect the lists it would use after the coup attempt to purge Gulenists in early 2014. In retrospect, this allowed the party to move rapidly after the coup attempt. The purge of Gulenists from the police force began in late 2013 and early 2014. This culminated in Turkey’s appeals court convictions in April, followed by the overturning of the Balyoz conviction and the release of all of the suspects in June 2014.
On July 15, these interrelated elements came together. By the government’s own admission, its options to the intelligence of a pending coup attempt was limited by Gulenist infiltration of the bureaucracy. This alliance was borne out of mutual interest: Both parties needed to bring the military to heel, or risk a coup that would threaten the broader goals of the AKP and Fethullah Gulen. The drive for ever more power, however, upended this marriage of convenience, despite AKP members traveling to Pennsylvania to prevent a full-scale rupture.
That the AKP and Gulenists were once allied has fueled even more speculation about political favoritism in the execution of the post-coup bureaucratic purge. For many Turks, questions remain about the political arm of the coup plotters, and whether suspected Gulenists linked to influential members of the AKP are being let go with a slap on the wrist. This speculation stems from the fact that every vestige of the Gulenist presence within the state has been targeted, including private assets ranging from finance to media, but known members of the AKP that are rumored to be close to the movement haven’t been targeted with as much vigor. The main opposition party, the CHP, has seized on this to criticize the ongoing purges as anti-democratic.
The history of the AKP-Gulen cooperation has prompted the government to turn inwards and adopt a narrative that externalizes Turkey’s internal problems. The AKP has sought to deflect blame, choosing only to say in the days after the failed coup that they were misled before quickly pivoting to the actions of other countries. The United States is often blamed, either for failing to “show sympathy” or empathy, or for being the invisible hand behind the scenes. During the last few months of the Obama administration, the U.S.-Turkish bilateral relationship deteriorated considerably. The AKP has made a choice to try and forge a warmer relationship with Donald Trump.
The purges have now impacted more than 150,000 people and upended the Turkish bureaucracy. In other words, the government will have to fill thousands of slots left vacant, less than a decade after looking the other way while a political ally expanded its role in the very same institutions. In both cases, the government was trying to protect itself from a civilian coup, led by a hostile bureaucracy of “old elites” affiliated with a rival political ideology. After the coup, the government is repeating the tragic cycle that has eroded the pillars of Turkish democracy.
And yet, researchers still know little about the events of that night. At a July 2017 event in Washington, D.C. with the pro-AKP think tank SETA, Gen. Yasar Guler, the commander of the Gendarmerie forces, shared his firsthand experience from that night, blaming only the Gulensts. His co-panelist, Hakan Yavuz, a professor at Utah State University, cast doubt on the idea that secular officers would have cooperated with Gulenists, citing ideological differences. In a separate interview with Sabah, Yavuz claimed that the United States and NATO knew about the coup beforehand, a common conspiracy theory amongst all political classes in Turkey. And, a third panelist, Necdet Ozelik, a SETA researcher, argued that non-Gulenist opportunists also played a role. In short, there remains a lack of consensus about the events of July 15. Turks of various political stripes have obvious incentives to peddle their own narratives, especially since disagreeing openly with Erdogan these days can come at a high cost. However, the fact that none could agree at a conference that would only take place with the tacit permission of the AKP underscores how little information is actually out there about the failed coup.
Gulenists certainly had a role in last year’s coup attempt, but this is only part of the story. In the past year, almost 170,000 people have faced legal action. 50,000 have been jailed, and another 8,000 are still wanted. Against this backdrop, a referendum was held on major changes to the Turkish constitution that further centralize the Turkish government and empower the office of the presidency. With a narrow 51.4 percent percent majority, the “yes” camp won, paving the way for a November 2019 election, wherein President Erdogan will run for a strengthened presidential system of government that effectively removes any serious check on his authority. The consolidation of his authority following the coup is yet another chapter in the steady erosion of Turkey’s democratic institutions.
The increased authoritarianism in Turkey builds on the post-coup fallout and efforts taken to collectively punish anyone linked to the Gulen movement, regardless of whether they had a role in the coup or not. The post-July 2016 purges are simply a continuation of action taken in January 2014, just after the release of the recordings on YouTube. The recordings, in turn, came about after the breakdown of a political alliance, aimed at politicizing and making loyal senior officers in the Turkish military. This same military, in turn, had elements revolt against the state, and in doing so, killed 248 of their fellow citizens.
The putchists’ motives were, in part, linked to this broader political struggle in Turkey. The discussion in Turkey this past year has sought to externalize this internal problem through the propagation of conspiracy theories about American involvement or lack of “empathy.” A year after the coup attempt, key details that would help shed light on this tragedy have not been released. Debates about who really did it are rampant and conspiracy theories common. There has been too little introspection about the multiple factors that contributed to July 15, and the serious challenges the continuous cycles of purges has had — and will continue to have — on Turkey’s institutions.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.