Turkey three years on after the failed coup attempt

Turkey three years after the failed coup attempt: leaner army, more assertive foreign policy
5 min read
15 July, 2019
Analysis: Three years after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, Ankara is pursuing its national interest with fewer distractions, writes Ömer Özkizilcik
Turkey marks this year third anniversary of the coup attempt with events [Getty]

Turkey marked the third anniversary of the bloody attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, an event whose impact is still felt today.

On July 15, 2016 Turkey faced one of its most traumatic nights in its recent history when putschists within the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish security apparatus attempted a coup against the government, threatening the very fabric of Turkish democracy.

Ankara accuses former ally-turned-foe Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric exiled in the United States, of ordering the attempted coup and designates his movement as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO). Gulen, based in Pennsylvania, strongly denies Ankara's claims and the movement denies it is a terror group, saying it promotes education and 'moderate Islam'.

Only with the strong resistance of the Turkish people, who confronted tanks and armed opponents with Turkish flags with their bare hands, prevented the coup plotters from succeeding. Many of these civilians got trampled on by tanks or killed by gun fire.

But three years on since the failed coup attempt, there has been a clear shift in Turkey's foreign policy.

Decrease in numbers and increase in effectiveness

After the coup attempt, the entire Turkish administration was cleaned from 'FETO' members who infiltrated Turkish institutions over the span of 30 years, as Ankara alleges.

As a result, Turkish Armed Forces personnel was downsized from 562,000 in May 2016 to 351,000 in September 2016. But the loss in numbers had the opposite effect than the expected decrease in capacity and capability. 

"The purge of thousands of 'FETO' members from the security bureaucracy, army, and police facilitated the effectiveness of intelligence collection and inter-agency intelligence sharing as well as operational initiative," Rifat Öncel argues.

"It seems that some key intelligence that warned about the potential terrorists attacks was deliberately covered up by 'FETO' members in the past. These individuals also impeded security operation against the terrorist cells," he adds.

Lack of trust towards Western partners

During the night of the coup, 241 Turkish citizens were killed and 2,194 were injured by the plotters. However, the overarching Western media narrative focused more on the fate of the plotters and less on the victims, amplifying dubious news reports claiming soldiers were beheaded while ignoring the real shocking moments of Turkish civilians being trampled by tanks.

Many Turkish people also feel that Western state representatives were late to express their condolences.

It took Germany, whose biggest ethnic minority are Turks, three weeks to send a representative, instead of the expected German president to Turkey. On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the very first to call Erdogan and express his condolences.

Many 'FETO' members in Turkey allegedly fled the country to seek asylum in European states like Germany, Sweden, Greece, Belgium, France, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. This situation has affected how Turkey views its Western partners; for example, Erdogan has accused Germany of supporting 'FETO'.

This lack of trust with other European countries has brought Turkey and Russia closer together, especially since ending their crisis over the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey.

In mid-December 2016, Putin and Erdogan agreed on Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, as a new venue for Syria peace talks with Iran also joining in. The Astana format was born thus and it has arguably become the only effective process in regards to the Syrian war, despite its flaws and criticism from Syrian opposition groups.

Pro-active and assertive foreign policy

The Astana talks came after Turkey put boots on the ground in Syria and took an active role in the fight against the Islamic State group (IS).

On 24 August 2016, 40 days after the coup attempt, the Turkish Armed Forces together with the rebel Free Syrian Army launched Operation Euphrates Shield with the stated goal of securing northern Aleppo from extremists.

On January 20, 2018 another joint operation dubbed Operation Olive Branch was launched to clear Afrin from YPG militants that Ankara designates as terrorists.

Additionally, Turkey has set up 12 observation points across the frontlines in Idlib in order to de-escalate between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime in line with the agreements reached in Astana.

Even today, Turkish presence in Syria remains and the possibility of another military operation into northeast Syria is high.

This change in Turkish policy towards Syria is partially a result of the failed coup. Before it occurred, Turkey tried to lead from behind by supporting the Syrian opposition.

Indeed, ambitions of the Turkish government to launch a military operation in Syria to establish a safe-zone in northern Syria had been vehemently rejected by Turkish Armed Forces. One of the alleged main coup plotters, Semih Terzi, was responsible for the Syrian operations of behalf of the Turkish Armed Forces. Only after the night of the coup did the Turkish Armed Forces accept to take responsibility in Syria, increasing their engagement massively.

Turkish courts have labelled 'FETO' as a 'Parallel State Structure'. The conclusion has been that members of this group working in Turkish institutions were not responding to the elected executives of the state institutions but to their superiors within the Gulen movement.  

With state apparatus free from alleged 'FETO' elements, this arguably opened the way for the Turkish government to take bolder decisions and implement them in line with Turkey's national interests.

Indeed, Turkey observers argue that prior to the coup attempt, Turkish foreign policy was sabotaged by the interest of the 'FETO' group. But since the failed attempt, Turkey's foreign policy has been driven more by the country's national interests, they say.

Ömer Özkizilcik works at the Directorate of Security Studies at the SETA Foundation in Ankara, Turkey.

Follow him on Twitter: @OmerOzkizilcik