As post-coup purge intensifies, a vision of Erdoğan's Turkey

More than 18,500 people have been detained or suspended, cutting deeply into ranks of police, Army, and judiciary and further reshaping the country. 

Depo Photos/AP
Police officers escort Adm. Atilla Demirhan (c.) and a group of military personnel detained in Mersin, Turkey, on Tuesday. The Turkish government on Tuesday escalated its wide-ranging crackdown against people it claims have ties to plotters of last week's attempted coup, firing tens of thousands of public employees across the country. The dismissals touched every aspect of government life.

After the failed coup in Turkey, cometh the purge.

Turkish media show scores of humiliated would-be putschists, huddled and shirtless as they await arrest. And every news cycle brings fresh images of alleged coup-plotters being escorted into custody, some of them evidently beaten.

Already, more than 18,500 people have been detained or suspended, cutting deeply into ranks of police, Army, and judiciary. And the sheer scale and speed of the new purge looks increasingly like a political witch hunt, raising questions about the negative impact on those pillars of Turkish state power.

One-third of Turkey’s 350 or so generals are now in custody, nearly 20 percent of all judges and prosecutors suspended, and even 30 out of 81 provincial governors have been detained. Analysts say that puts the NATO member’s military effectiveness in jeopardy, and will undermine its war against Kurdish militants and the self-declared Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it’s a moment that goes to the heart of the Turkey he is building, and now – taking advantage of what he believes to be a democratic, post-coup mandate – is tapping to further reshape the nation such that his increasingly authoritarian, Islamist brand of rule faces no challenge.

President Erdoğan’s harsh response speaks to a renewed – and perhaps justifiable, some say – paranoia, as he vows to rid Turkey of a “virus.” He has said that “traitors will pay a heavy price for the betrayal of this country,” and says God granted a blessing “because this will cause our armed forces to be cleansed.”

But at stake may also be internal stability in Turkey, which serves as a frontline bulwark against regional turmoil in Syria and Iraq, hosts 3.1 million refugees, and is home to NATO’s second-largest armed force. Turkey provides an airbase at Incirlik for US planes to strike IS targets, and some US nuclear weapons are stored there. 

“These [detention] numbers are so huge…. The image of the Turkish armed forces is seriously harmed,” says Metehan Demir, a defense analyst and journalist based in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

“Turkey has been fighting against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and IS for a long time, and Turkey needs key people, the experts, to carry out this war professionally,” says Mr. Demir. “We are worried about it. If the state knew before about these [pro-coup] people, why did the state did not take the necessary steps before? This is the question.”

Erdoğan perhaps saved his divisive 13-year rule by using FaceTime at a critical moment, rushing back from a holiday as the coup deepened late Friday night – as his ministers meeting in Ankara reportedly expected to die if they were overthrown. He called his Islamist supporters out onto the streets in the name of democracy, against a “gang of terrorists” loyal to a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen.

For years, Erdoğan has overseen several purges of so-called Gülenists, removing thousands of policemen, judges, and prosecutors, especially after leaked wire-tapped phone call recordings in December 2013 that appeared to show high level corruption that included Erdoğan himself.

The Gülenists are accused of creating a “parallel state” in Turkey, which pro-Erdoğan officials describe with a term they coined, calling it the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, or FETO.

Yet despite those earlier moves against Gülenists – which focused on the police and judiciary, not the armed forces – anti-Erdoğan believers remained entrenched enough to mount a coup attempt.

“In the military, the problem is absolutely beyond the Gülen issue,” says Aaron Stein, a Turkey specialist at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “This was not a small cadre of people, contrary to the prevailing narrative. This was a sophisticated if poorly executed plot to decapitate the Turkish government. And they nearly succeeded.”

The purges will be felt keenly by the Turkish military, which as an institution of state “may be broken,” says Mr. Stein. “The armed forces are, once again, seeing significant turnover in the officer corps. This will absolutely undermine the institution’s effectiveness.”

The military has so far witnessed the arrest of 6,319 soldiers and officers, with more arrests every day. Recent rumors of a coup were so prevalent months ago – along with speculation that Erdoğan was taking advantage of them to consolidate power – that the Turkish General Staff on March 31 issued a statement saying any action outside the chain of command was “inconceivable.”

Then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said there was “no way” the Turkish military was “outside the democratic system,” and that the “Turkey of the past is far behind us.” Four such military interventions have taken place since 1960, the last in 1997 to force resignation of an Islamist government.

That confidence echoed Erdoğan, who in 2012 said that the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) he helped to found, which has won ever-increasing electoral victories since 2002, wanted to be “next to the purity of snow,” and was coup-proof. Turkey, he said, was “no longer a country where whoever gets up early in the morning can deliver a coup.”

And yet, a map of the locations where Turkey’s senior officers were arrested shows dots evenly spread across the entire country.   

Relieved of their weapons

Still, the purges are reaching far beyond the military, with hard-to-quantify results. So far the Ministry of Interior has suspended 8,777 officials, some 7,900 of them police officers relieved of their weapons and police identity cards – critical forces in charge of Turkey’s response to IS, which has mounted multiple suicide attacks in the past year.

Another wheel in Turkey’s security machine has also been hit: Some 2,745 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed, as well as the provincial governors and 47 district governors.

The purges have also expanded far beyond security and judicial organs, prompting more speculation of a political witch hunt.

On Tuesday the suspensions were also announced of 257 personnel in the prime minister’s office and 492 people from the Religious Affairs Directorate – even though thousands of mosques across the country repeatedly broadcast the call to prayer in the early hours on Saturday, and asking people to take to the streets “for God” and playing national songs.

Later Tuesday came more purges: Suspension of 15,200 teachers and staff by the Ministry of Education, for alleged ties to Gülen or the coup; a demand for the resignation of 1,577 university deans by the Higher Education Board; and finally 21,000 licenses for private teachers revoked.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim today warned Turks against “feelings of revenge” after the coup. And senior officials likened coup-plotters to “terrorists” of IS and the PKK.

One editor of a pro-AKP newspaper charged that the US was “behind the coup” and “attempted to kill” Erdoğan. As anti-American sentiment has grown, fanned by Erdoğan and other top officials, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington supported pursuing justice against the perpetrators, “but we also caution against a reach that goes beyond that.”

Today Turkey formally submitted an extradition request for Gülen, the official Anadolu News Agency reported.

The opposition take

But the breadth of the purge worries opposition leaders. Noting large crowds in public squares nationwide each night since the coup – encouraged by Erdoğan’s call to celebrate democracy, and public transport made free until tomorrow – the largest opposition party said people “have the right to rise against the coup.”

But the Republican People’s Party (CHP) also warned that the “investigation should not be seen as a chance for revenge and liquidation” of political enemies.

The scale of arrests “are clearly aimed at consolidating control over the bureaucracy,” especially the judiciary, says Stein. “The natural response for any person will be to be far more cautious when making decisions.” 

“There has been an ongoing, deep-rooted investigation into these people for a long time by the state, and these lists were kept secret,” says Demir, noting that years ago, cells within the police and judiciary were “wiped out,” and included some high-level removals.

“There were also rumors of similar sleeping cells within the Turkish armed forces, and nobody cared about it,” adds Demir. “Some people were playing down its importance … saying they would be cleansed over time. Nobody thought they were that powerful.”

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