Turkish State and Society in Precarious Position

The attempted coup d’etat against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came as little surprise to some observers of Turkey. And apparently, it was not a surprise to Erdogan himself. E.U. officials have suggested that prior to the recent unrest, the Turkish government had already drawn out a list of those it wanted to purge after any attempted coup. This does not signify a false flag event, but implies that the Turkish government, like most governments, has prepared lists of enemies to be disposed of in opportune times (even the prospective Donald Trump administration is preparing a list of government employees it wants to fire if elected).

Among Erdogan’s political opposition, some had hoped their resistance to the coup may encourage the president to adopt a more pluralistic position. Instead, the government has arrested or detained almost 60,000 people. A travel ban on academics has also been partially implemented and virtually all university deans have been asked to step down. These are the narratives that make the headlines–but there is another important story that has been largely overlooked:

The Syrian conflict has played a key role in all of the major turmoil in Turkey over the last month–including the attempted coup. Turkey has traditionally had a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors. However, this policy began to unravel in 2011 when Erdogan insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign. Thereafter, Turkey would begin hosting Syrian rebels and refugees on its soil, demand that the international community  depose Assad, and even threatened on multiple occasions to directly intervene. This increasingly confrontational posture towards Assad was expanded to his allies–fraying critical Turkish relationships with Russia, Iran, and Egypt and drawing Turkey closer with populist Islamist movements, both domestically and abroad.

None of this sat well with the military. It was perhaps in an attempt to shore up support from secular nationalists within the armed forces that Erdogan recently performed a dramatic about-face on many of his controversial foreign policy positions: his administration abruptly sought to mend fences with Russia and Israel, and even signaled a willingness to reconsider its posture towards Egypt and Syria.

Of course, the problem Erdogan faced is that ISIS is also a keen political actor, is strongly opposed to these maneuvers, and has the capacity to serve as a spoiler: a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the shooting down of a Russian fighter in November, ISIS attempted to derail the reconciliation–deploying highly-trained operatives from the Russian Federation and former Soviet Republics to execute a massive attack on Attaturk International Airport. While the attack does not seem to have succeeded in undermining the rapprochement between Ankrara and Moscow, it may have played an important role in motivating the coup: convincing some within the Turkish military that the situation was spiraling out of control, and that direct and dramatic intervention was necessary.

The question, of course, is where do things go from here: will Erdogan continue to back away from his confrontational (and largely disastrous) foreign policy? Will he seek to bring down the temperature of domestic politics? Or will he go in the other direction–not only consolidating power in the aftermath of the coup, but doubling down on his controversial policies as a sign of defiance against the military?

Erdogan’s decision will be vastly consequential–not only for Turkey, but for the broader region, and indeed, the world.

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