A Former Top Turkish Advisor Explains Why Erdogan Is The Coup's Biggest Winner

"Honestly, had there been another person at the same post, the coup might have succeeded."

Days after the failed coup, the outlines of the plot, the forces behind it and the resistance to it, are becoming clearer. Mass arrests are now underway, leading to concerns over human rights violations. Yusuf Muftuoglu was a top advisor to Turkey’s former president, Abdullah Gül, who held office from 2007-2014 and a co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Muftuoglu, who spoke with The WorldPost from Istanbul, provides an insider’s perspective into the politics behind Friday’s coup attempt and its consequences. 

As more details emerge, it seems the plot to overthrow the Turkish government was more far-reaching and serious than at first thought. What have you learned?

This indeed was a harsh, not a soft coup. It was a far bigger military attempt than first estimated. Surely, it did not have the support of the whole armed forces, but it did have enough cross-divisional support to go operational. General and colonel level officers within the gendarmerie, air forces and land forces led the attempt, but it is pretty apparent that many other units either supported, or remained silent, instead of standing against the effort. The main leaders are said to be Gen. Akin Ozturk, former chief of air forces, Gen. Adem Huduti, chief of Turkey’s 2nd Army, and Gen. Erdal Oztürk, chief of the Third Army Corps. There are, for now, 103 other high ranking officers that have been arrested who are believed to be among the mastermind team, nearly all in the levels of generals and colonels. 

It wouldn’t be wrong to argue that the plot was planned and executed by the level just beneath the highest rank. That tells a lot about its potential and magnitude.

The chief of general staff and some other chiefs of air, land, gendarmerie and navy forces were abducted by the coup plotters in the very early hours. It must be underlined that the chief of the general staff, Hulusi Akar, did not bow to the demands of the plotters, and hence the coup could not become part of the command chain. Yet, because the chiefs were abducted, and thus out of touch, there was no central command to stop the coup attempt.

The government acted quickly to make it known that it was the attempt of a small fraction outside of central command, and hence the huge mass of land forces did not move to step in. Had they moved in and joined forces with the plotters, this coup attempt would have likely succeeded. 

'During the last 15 years especially, AKP governments have concentrated on empowering the police force immensely, precisely due to their fear of the threat of a coup by the military.'

Who did the coup target?

The coup targeted President Erdoğan, first and foremost. The latest details tell us that Erdoğan was able to escape from a special killing squad with a time difference of less than an hour, thanks to the early warning to him by the commander of the 1st Army.

Many state departments and government offices in Ankara were directly targeted. But since the coup plotters lost legitimacy after the first couple of hours, and because the main mass of land forces did not join them, they couldn’t proceed to arrest elected officials, which generally is seen as the defining moment of a coup.

Still, the coup plotters either attacked from the ground, or mostly, bombarded key buildings throughout the night from the air (thanks to their air superiority): the headquarters of MIT (Turkey’s intelligence agency), the police forces, the Parliament, the headquarters of the chief of staff (after abducting him and taking him to the Akinci air base) and special forces. The headquarters of special forces was among the first hit by the plotters’ helicopters, reportedly killing 47 special forces officers. The presidential palace in Ankara was also bombarded. The Marmaris hotel where President Erdoğan was spending his holiday was attacked by helicopters and the attempt to kill the president was foiled.

Why did the coup fail?

The coup attempt seemed destined to fail from the early hours because it did not consider that the whole social dynamic of the country had changed ― as well as the whole world. In the old-fashioned style, the coup plotters occupied the headquarters and main studios of TRT, the public broadcaster, in Ankara, while the most influential two news channels of Turkey, NTV and CNN Turk, continued their totally anti-coup broadcasts from Istanbul [though CNN Turk was later interrupted as was TRT in Istanbul].

Erdogan and former Turkish President Abdullah Gul attend the funeral of a victim of the coup attempt in Istanbul on July
Erdogan and former Turkish President Abdullah Gul attend the funeral of a victim of the coup attempt in Istanbul on July 17, 2016.

Since the government removed most of those associated with the anti-Erdoğan Gulenist movement within the communications-related departments of the state back in December 2013, as a measure to prevent them disseminating information against the government, the plotters were unable to block the social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, for quite a long time.

Two of Turkey’s three mobile operators, Turkcell and Turk Telekom all boosted their coverage capacity throughout the night, giving free credit to their customers. It took hours for the plotters to understand that they had to block the whole media to succeed, but it was late. Despite that, they were able to stop CNN Turk’s broadcast for almost an hour, and they shut down Hurriyet, Turkey’s biggest daily. 

More importantly, the coup plotters totally dismissed the Istanbul factor. The AKP and its predecessors have governed Istanbul, without interruption, since 1994. In these 22 years, not only did they immensely modernize the municipal structure, but also effectively made Istanbul the second capital of Turkey. In recent years, Presidents Gül and Erdoğan made it a routine to spend at least 2-3 days a week in Istanbul.

This process created stronger ― and much more globally-linked ― state institutions in Istanbul that are under total control of the government. And those institutions strongly resisted the coup attempt, orchestrated the public outpouring and enabled resistance. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality was the most essential. Just two examples: When the plotters blocked Istanbul’s two bridges, the Istanbul municipality increased the frequency of the car ferries between the continents. The Istanbul municipality’s lorries of different sizes blocked the entrances and exits of Istanbul’s most influential army barracks, as well as main roads that link those barracks with city center, effectively creating the first layer of a resistance. As of today, those lorries still block the entrances of nearly all of Istanbul’s barracks, and the other municipalities around Turkey are following suit.

Above all, it was the presence of an agile and able police force that made the difference in the scenes of heated conflict.

People react against uprising attempt from within the army in Ankara, Turkey on July 16, 2016.
People react against uprising attempt from within the army in Ankara, Turkey on July 16, 2016.

Tell me more about the key role of the police forces. 

During the last 15 years especially, AKP governments have concentrated on empowering the police force immensely, precisely due largely to their understandable fear of the threat of a coup by the military. 

Not only did they increase the numbers, but they also increased their abilities and means after the purge of police who were considered Gulenist-aligned when they participated in the anti-corruption charges and investigations launched against the AKP by prosecutors in 2013. The remaining police forces were the key to stopping the hard power of the plotters on the ground Friday night. In all strategic locations, it was the police special forces that tried to stop and block the soldiers, mostly thru armed means. That is why they lost many of their ranks. 

How important were the mass demonstrations on the street in defeating the coup? 

In the end, it was essentially the masses that thwarted the coup attempt. This is unprecedented. For the first time in a Muslim-majority country, huge masses of people went on to the streets against the armed forces and won

You must have seen many photos of people taking over the tanks, or blocking soldiers. It was indeed the case, and they did it despite being killed in large numbers ― the current counts give civilian casualties at 145 [with Reuters reporting a higher toll of over 230]. Many of them were shot at close range, including Erol Olçak, the legendary publicist of AKP, who was shot dead on the Bosphorus bridge with his son. There are many scenes of carnage, and those scenes of carnage will remain in the psyche of the nation for a long time.

'For the first time in a Muslim-majority country, huge masses of people went on to the streets against the armed forces and won.'

Were the protestors mainly Islamist supporters of Erdoğan, or did other sections of the population also join? 

True, Islamists took the lead in the civilian resistance, but they were not alone. People from many other walks of life, including secularists, nationalists, social conservatives and liberals were on the streets. When the CNN Turk studios were occupied, the journalists over there, who are clearly anti-AKP, were shouting “soldiers out.” In my own rambling around Istanbul throughout Friday night I saw many people from different walks of life: it was more than the AKP base. If I were to make a statistical guess, I would say that the masses on the streets who stood against the plotters and with the government represented two-thirds of the whole. And we can’t say that the remaining one-third supported the coup ― they might have other reasons to stay indoors.

Surely there must have been sympathy with the coup among some portions of the public or otherwise the plotters wouldn’t have tried to take over?

Turkey is a heterogeneous country, and I am quite sure there was a part of the nation who were not actively and publicly against this coup ― including many public figures. It would be wrong to argue that they cheered the coup or supported it, but they remained silent. Indeed, many of them argued that the coup was staged by Erdoğan.

However surrealistic I find the claims of a staged coup, I understand why these people felt so. This is largely due to the polarization that we have come to experience in Turkey in recent years, and the fact that a portion of Turkey is still thinking of any way, including illegal and illegitimate ones, to “topple” Erdoğan.

So responding your question, yes, the coup plotters might have thought that they would get the support of these fractions of the public. But this was a futile thought as their percentages were insignificant.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan light flares as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 18, 20
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan light flares as they gather in Istanbul's central Taksim Square on July 18, 2016.

In what way has the failed coup strengthened Erdoğan? 

Erdoğan is the biggest victor of Friday night, and quite deservedly. Honestly, had there been another person at the same post, the coup might have succeeded. Erdoğan not only has shown the strong leadership to mobilize the masses against the coup plotters, which is unprecedented in Turkish history, but also, and more importantly, did so while he himself was physically targeted. He used a clever mix of modern and traditional channels. This whole process also confirmed once again Erdoğan’s seamless contact with his constituency and beyond. I use the word beyond, as the masses that he mobilized were more than AKP’s 49 percent of the electorate.

Another key impact of the coup is that it has re-unified all Islamists in Turkey with Erdoğan. Especially after the recent ouster of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu there were widening divisions between Islamists over policy toward Syria. This failed coup attempt restored the bonds, as the Islamists were the locomotives of the popular resistance to the coup plotters Friday evening and night. They mobilized, led, and died. I alone know four people among the dead, and they are all Islamists. Their immense power of mobilization, and their perseverance in the face of heated pressure have been key success factors for Erdoğan’s return to Istanbul. 

'Erdoğan is the biggest victor of Friday night, and quite deservedly.'

Now that President Erdoğan is pressing for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, are we likely to see a rupture between Turkey and the U.S.?

Until the failed coup attempt, the U.S. has been firm in its position, saying Gülen is a lawful permanent resident in America and rejecting requests from Turkey to extradite him back home. But the public mood in Turkey is becoming more boldly and comprehensively anti-Gulenist after this failed attempt. Add to that the widely held perception in Turkey that U.S. was complicit in this adventure. Yes, Secretary Kerry strongly denied it [asking for evidence before making judgments], but the public perceptions in Turkey have very different dynamics. 

So I have serious doubts as to whether the Obama administration can still continue with that line, since it seriously needs Turkey in its fight against self-proclaimed Islamic State. And the first signal this week from John Bass, the American ambassador in Turkey, who said that they are ready to discuss Gülen’s extradition. It may not be immediately possible for the U.S. administration to extradite Gülen, as their legal framework requires a different kind of proof standards than the Turkish authorities can likely provide to them, but it is important that for the first time the U.S. declares a willingness on its side to consider some kind of action.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 



Military Coup In Turkey