Making the Most of a Coup

6 MINS READJul 15, 2017 | 14:04 GMT
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rally in Istanbul after last July's failed coup attempt. The would-be coup quickly turned into a political opportunity for Erdogan, who has consolidated his power in the year since.

No state leader likes the thought of putschists plotting to bring him or her down. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan certainly knows how to make the most out of a coup attempt. In the year since a faction of the military tried to overthrow his administration, the Turkish president has neutralized a large swath of his political opposition, undertaken major reforms to enhance his powers and stayed the course with his expansionist foreign policy. And though his agenda still faces several obstacles ahead, Erdogan will keep invoking the victimhood narrative to maintain a tight grip on power at home while balancing an increasingly complex set of relationships abroad.

The failed coup led by a group of soldiers loyal to Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen quickly evolved into a political opportunity for Erdogan. The president, who had already reached his term limit as prime minister and whose party had weathered a rocky election cycle in 2015, was preparing to use the half of the electorate that still supported him to rewrite the constitution in his favor. Voters would decide in a referendum whether to expand the powers of the presidency and give Erdogan a shot at retaining the office through 2029. The referendum's success was far from certain, however, given Turkey's deeply divided electorate and slowing economy. To make matters worse for Erdogan, a faction of Gulenists with sway in several critical state institutions was threatening to get in his way.

Even so, the Gulenists were too isolated a political minority to carry the support they needed to overthrow Erdogan and his movement. The Turkish people proved decidedly more opposed to the coup than they were to the president. Erdogan quickly seized on that advantage to forge ahead with a crackdown that reached well beyond the revolt's main perpetrators to include virtually any known or potential political adversary. The government's swift response sapped Turkey's democratic institutions of their strength and hollowed out the country's once fiercely competitive media.

Still, that wasn't enough to secure the president's hold on power. To realize his goals with the constitutional referendum, Erdogan had to also secure the support of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Wooing the MHP entailed demonstrating a hard-line, zero tolerance approach to the Kurds. The Gulenist purges quickly gave way to sweeping crackdowns against the ethnic group, and the government launched security operations to limit voter turnout in majority Kurdish areas. Having besieged the Kurds, silenced the opposition media and persuaded the MHP leadership into negotiations behind the scenes, Erdogan was ready to roll the dice on the constitutional referendum. He eked out a slim victory in the vote, which took place in April, clinching 51.41 percent at the polls and a chance to stay in office for another dozen years (provided he wins re-election in 2019.)

The Europeans haven't taken kindly to Turkey's increasingly authoritarian path. In response, Brussels tried to withhold concessions, such as visa-free travel, to pressure Turkey into tempering its stringent anti-terrorism laws. Their efforts, however, did little to sway Ankara and instead reflected a misunderstanding in the European Union of Erdogan and his domestic agenda. The more the bloc tried to shame the Turkish president, the more fuel he had to stoke the nationalist fires burning at home by claiming that the voracious European powers were once again out to weaken and divide Turkey. As Kurdish political and militant campaigns intensified beyond Turkey's borders, threatening to undermine the country's territorial integrity, Erdogan had a strong enough national security platform to stand his ground against Europe. The president, moreover, understood well the leverage he had with the bloc in Turkey's compliance with or disregard for the deal it struck with Europe to curb migrant traffic onto the continent.

As uncomfortable as Europe is with Erdogan's Turkey, it needs Ankara's cooperation on the migrant issue to give moderate politicians on the continent a fighting chance against their nationalist opponents. The standoff will keep working in Turkey's favor, enabling Ankara to steer its negotiations with the bloc toward issues of greater interest to it. EU accession talks are not what the country is after (nor are they what Europe wants). Instead, Turkey is focused on matters such as upgrading its lopsided customs union agreement with the European Union. Ankara, after all, wants to ensure that its trade access to the bloc doesn't fall behind as Europe pursues trade deals with major partners such as Japan and the United States.

And though Western powers find Ankara's trajectory unnerving, Turkey will be a critical ally for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as Russia continues its hybrid warfare strategy to try to divide Europe. Ankara, meanwhile, also will have to tread lightly with Russia, since Moscow can still interfere with its agenda in the Middle East. Controversial decisions, including a preliminary agreement to manufacture and assemble Russian S-400 air defense missiles in Turkey, reveal the extent to which Ankara is willing to test the trust of its NATO partners.

But from Turkey's perspective, the West is not sympathetic enough to its needs. Ankara, for example, has had difficulty understanding why the United States and Europe don't simply follow its lead and brand all Kurdish militants as terrorists. (Of course, the answer lies in the fact that Washington and its coalition partners need reliable militant proxies to further their strategic goal of neutralizing the Islamic State.) The United States and Russia alike have blocked Turkey at multiple points on the Syrian battlefield, frustrating Ankara's divide-and-conquer strategy against the Kurds. At the same time, though, Ankara is playing a longer game. Erdogan knows that as the fight against the Islamic State winds down, Turkey will have more room to enlarge its military footprint in northern Syria and Iraq to keep Kurdish autonomy in check and to compete more effectively with Iran. In the meantime, Turkey will try to navigate the United States' mercurial relationship with Russia to maintain a foothold on the battlefield and avoid getting caught in a collision with Moscow.

Ankara's relationships with other powers in the Middle East are likewise bound to get more complicated in the coming months. Under Erdogan's rule, Turkey has remained steadfast in its ideological agenda to promote Islamist political activists throughout the region. It has recently demonstrated its commitment to the endeavor by reinforcing Qatar as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates try to cow Doha into giving up its ties to Islamist groups. Ankara is using the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf as an opportunity to deepen its military influence in the region starting from its fledgling base in Qatar. Despite the interest Turkey and Saudi Arabia share in mounting a strong Sunni defense against Iran, their diverging views on Islamist groups are deepening the rifts between them.

It's been a year since Erdogan made his unforgettable appearance on a shaken news anchor's smartphone to declare victory against the rebels who tried to overthrow him. In that time, the Turkish president has taken extraordinary steps to consolidate his power in a country whose people are still split more or less evenly by admiration or disgust for their leader. But love him or hate him, there's no denying that Erdogan has managed to extend his political shelf life at a time when Turkey's foreign policy is getting only more complex.

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