Turkey’s Faltering Democracy

Turkish President Erdogan crushed a military coup this weekend but this victory for civilian rule will do little to revive Turkish democracy which Erdogan has been strangling with his autocratic grip on power, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Before this week it had come to be broadly accepted conventional wisdom that the days of Turkish military coups were over. After a post-World War II history in which the military had taken over the government about once every ten years, in the last couple of decades the return to the barracks appeared to be final.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

One of the most successful and powerful civilian politicians that modern Turkey has produced, current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemed to have stared down the generals enough to keep them out of politics.

Friday night’s coup attempt does not necessarily denote a reversal of this more recent pattern. The short-lived attempt appears to have failed. And unlike past coups, this unsuccessful one evidently was instigated not by the top brass but instead by some other not yet identified elements within the military.

The abortive coup does signal, however, fragility in Turkish democracy, in a couple of respects. One is the fact that any such coup was attempted at all. Another concerns probable reasons the attempt was made. Those reasons most likely are related to the autocratic tendencies that Erdogan has increasingly displayed in recent years.

Maybe the plotters thought they were acting patriotically to protect Turkey against those tendencies. Maybe they were thinking in more self-centered fashion about how military officers might increasingly become targets of, and suffer consequences from, Erdogan’s drive to concentrate more power in his own hands. Perhaps we will learn something more directly about the plotters’ motives in the weeks ahead. But it is a good bet that they included some version of the above considerations, and perhaps also a desire to uphold the secularism of the Ataturk tradition against the Islamist inclinations of Erdogan’s AK party.

An Authoritarian Streak

Bearing in mind Erdogan’s increasingly evident authoritarian streak, defeat of the coup is not entirely a victory for liberal democracy. It is likely that this episode will incline Erdogan to make that streak even bolder. That seems more in line with his habits than for him to conclude — which would be a reasonable conclusion — that he had overplayed his political hand and that this overplaying helped to stimulate the coup attempt. The implications for independence of the press and the judiciary in Turkey are not good.

Erdogan and his followers now can point to an actual instance of subversion and disloyalty, not just another of the fabricated ones that have been prominent in Turkey in recent years. There was the “Sledgehammer” case, in which 200 military officers were accused of a plot against the government before being acquitted last year. Even more prominent has been the “Ergenekon” case, involving another alleged plot involving many officers in the military and security establishment; three months ago an appeals court overturned the convictions in the case. Those alleged plots may have been mostly phony; this week’s coup attempt was for real.

Video of the Russian SU-24 exploding in flames inside Syrian territory after it was shot down by Turkish air-to-air missiles on Nov. 24, 2015.

Video of the Russian SU-24 exploding in flames inside Syrian territory after it was shot down by Turkish air-to-air missiles on Nov. 24, 2015.

This whole episode holds nothing good for U.S. interests. At a minimum it will be a major distraction for the Turks away from security cooperation with the United States. There already has been an interruption in operations at Incirlik air base, which plays an important role in air operations over Syria. The distraction comes just when the Turkish government was shifting its priorities regarding the conflict in Syria in a direction that would make them more helpful partners in countering the extremist groups ISIS and al-Nusra.

A more hard-boiled Erdogan in the wake of the coup attempt probably will be less inclined than before to take a constructive and forward-looking posture toward the Kurds, and this will be another complication in dealing with the war in northern Syria. Any harsh crackdown within Turkey, notwithstanding whatever short-term security benefits it buys, may stimulate violent radicalism and terrorism that can touch U.S. interests, reminiscent of last month’s attack at the Istanbul airport.

Not surprisingly, Erdogan has wasted no time in blaming the attempted coup on his former allies and now arch-adversaries in the Gulenist movement. This involves the United States because Fethullah Gulen himself lives in exile in the Poconos. Erdogan’s government earlier had accused the Gulenists of using their positions in the judiciary and prosecutors’ offices to push the Ergenekon case. Expect the official line out of Ankara now to be that the Gulenists were trying to frame others for subversion while they themselves were the real subversives.

Lest there be any thought about Erdogan overlooking the U.S. connection: when the Turkish president made his first statement upon landing in Istanbul Saturday morning, he framed his accusation that Gulen had committed treason as a “message for Pennsylvania.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “Turkey’s Faltering Democracy

  1. Hannes Minkema
    July 21, 2016 at 07:32

    This ‘coup’ is an obvious false-flag operation led by Erdogan. This is so obvious, I don’t know where to begin explaining it. And I find it mind-boggling that so many sensible people discard this perspective so easily.

    Fact: Turkey is the ‘Cradle of Military Coups’. If ANY army in the world knows how to execute a military coup, it is the Turkish army. Yet this so-called ‘coup’ was less than amateurishly organized, and failed every chapter of a “Coup 101” textbook.

    – it was NOT started at nighttime, but during the busy evening;
    – the head of state was NOT neutralized, but left alone; as were the members of his government;
    – the media (television, internet) were NOT put on hold, apart from one single tv station;
    – the country’s crucial infrastructure (main roads, airports) was NOT taken hold of;
    – the identity of the main putschists were INVISIBLE to the people, and even today they are;
    – the number of military involved was LAUGHABLY small;
    – apart from incidents, there was NO serious physical resistance to people & police opposing the ‘coup’;
    – the coup was over in about two hour’s time;
    – there was NO substantial backing for a coup among the military staff;
    – young soldiers participating in the ‘coup’ told that they believed to be part of some anti-terrorist operation.

    Add to this the facts that:
    – Erdogan ‘happened’ to be away from Ankara and Istanbul;
    – Erdogan the social-media-hater ‘happened’ to make use of social media RIGHT AFTER social media were re-installed that night; he ‘happened’ to know how to use Facetime and to send mass-sms’s;
    – Erdogan ‘happened’ to have just left his hotel when the hotel was supposedly attacked;
    – Erdogan’s airplane ‘happened’ to be left alone by two F16’s flying by in the hands of presumed putschists;
    – Erdogan ‘happened’ to arrive in nightly Ankara in time for the photo opportunities and ‘happened’ to have his speech ready;
    – in a few hours, Erdogan ‘happened’ to have lists of military, judges, education and other personnel ready who he claimed were responsible for the ‘coup’;
    – although late at night, Erdogan’s police forces were massively up-and-running in no time;
    – although late at night, the many Turkish mosques were up-and-running calling people to go out in the streets, with particular prayers and music fit for the particular situation.

    One must be VERY naive to believe that Erdogan did not have a hand in this ‘coup’. If an affair sounds too unbelievable to be true, it probably isn’t true. Either Erdogan fully orchestrated it, or he had prior knowledge of any coup plans in low military ranks and provoked it, manipulating the events into those we have seen last Friday night.

    Looking for a culprit, the question is, as always: cui bono? Who profits? It is obvious that the two hours that this so-called ‘coup’ lasted have propulsed Erdogan’s dictatorial policies years & years ahead.

    Lastly, it is obvious why Erdogan is hell-bent on re-introducing the death penalty ASAP. The dead don’t speak.

  2. IAL
    July 19, 2016 at 02:54

    If not a plan by Ergodan, as surmised by the EU, then why all the “lists” of offenders already prepared prior to the “coup” (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-07-18/erdogan-purges-8000-cops-europe-voices-concern-coup-was-staged-prepared-arrest-lists) and why were no shots fired by the “coup” members if jets were locked on to Ergodan’s airplane (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-07-17/why-they-didnt-fire-mystery-coup-pilots-had-erdogans-plane-their-sights-and-did-noth). Plus, Bilal Ergodan is a know ISIS collaborator (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-11-25/meet-man-who-funds-isis-bilal-erdogan-son-turkeys-president) and so is daddy Ergodan. Ergodan is playing the US. If not, why kill the guy in charge of the campaign against ISIS (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-07-18/top-turkish-official-charge-campaign-against-isis-found-dead-shot-neck)?

    Ergodan is a nightmare for moderate muslims in Turkey – anyone that understands anything about Turkey should be able to see that Ergodan is not interested in democracy or democratic principles – he is more akin to Hitler because of his treatment of “political prisioners” (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turkey-coup-disturbing-picture-shows-8437742). He clearly wants to establish a caliphate-like dictatorship – like Saudi Arabia. In other words, a backward Sharia hell-hole worthy of a Neanderthal.

    All the while, the US appears to be doing NOTHING regarding restricting Turkey, when the data that this Turkish fool is supporting ISIS keeps popping up in non-mainstream media and some MSM outlets.

    The US should not be in the business of supporting regimes such as Turkey (under Ergodan) and Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud. We cannot have a war on terrorism and look the other way when supposed allies are clearly in league with the likes of ISIS.

    This situation is a prime example of why the US intelligence community has lost ALL CREDIBILITY with many Americans. The real question is how far the US government is willing to go at this point to betray the values of democracy and the principles on which this country was founded.

    Regardless of the answer, the way this, and the Saudi situation, are being handled by the “intelligence” communty and the President and his cabinet is UNACCEPTABLE. We look to be the Neville Chamberlin of the 21st century in both of these relationships.

    This government must stand for democratic and ethical principles. If it does not, it should remove “IN GOD WE TRUST” from the currency because there is no way that either of these countries are bound to the will of good or to a God of good while being simultaneously linked to ISIS and terrorism.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      July 20, 2016 at 13:46

      As the guy said above, it might be because they were already under surveillance.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    July 19, 2016 at 01:41

    This Turkish coup is a he said he said, if ever there was one. I at first though how this coup was a poorly managed coup, and I just knew our faithful CIA could have never pulled off such a bad coup performance. I mean what would Kermit have to say, as Langley hangs it head in shame. Then I remembered, how everything these days with our tax dollars is ‘out sourced’. It wasn’t long ago there were stories abound about our CIA Syrian moderate rebels were fighting our Pentagon’s moderate freedom fighters. So, just because this Turkish coup looks to be amateurish don’t count out the fact that we don’t know if this coup was primed by let’s say the State Dept., or the Pentagon, or any other authority other than the CIA. I mean the CIA can do way much better than this. Yet, we can’t leave out American involvement when speaking of the Turkish coup on 7/15/16. It more than likely did have American fingers in it, but at this stage it’s better to keep our eye on Erdogan. I also won’t pass over the fact that it wouldn’t be beyond Erdogan’s political nature to have instigated a false flag that would look like this.

    Forget the who’s who behind the coup. Think of what this means to Erdogan to have a Reichstag Fire moment soon after his meeting with Putin. Do you wonder where Erdogan’s apology tour to Russia maybe taking Turkey? If Erdogan purges his whole army excluding a few to enough troops to seal the Turkish Syrian border, which will allow Russia and Syria to retake Aleppo and then there is a big sea change, well then without a doubt NATO will get the message on how a current NATO member just went rogue. What will NATO do, with a disillusioned mix of vassal state boot lickers coalition who’s own future with NATO is in deep doubt, when hearing their countries roar of the crowd? By this time next year will there even be a EU or NATO with enough of support to rally anything, or anybody except a few window cleaners for their new SS looking NATO headquarters.


    I notice Netanyahu is getting friendly with Putin. Okay, it was here when after reading this I got to thinking. What if Turkey allies with Russia? What if Erdogan is willing to accept Assasd? Turkey will get more if siding with Russia and Syria. Israel will get a decent stretch of land on the Red Sea side of a newly defunct Saudi Arabia. Yes, in my mock up the Saudi Royals are gone. Iran and Israel will shake hands, because they will both divide Saudi Arabia. There’s the end of the terrorist militia with Saudi’s out of the way. Israel will be in a position to put Jonathan Pollard in charge of U.S./Israeli relations. If Putin gets this done, it would be nice if he would start the long overdue disarmament program this world so desperately needs.

    The U.S. could do well in this new world, if it can learn to share with others. America will need to respect every nation of the world’s sovereignty, and with just that as a requirement, the U.S. will need to become Neoconless in order to make this happen successfully. It won’t be the end of the U.S.. Well, it won’t be the end, as long as U.S. Leaders don’t get to anxious and summon the nuclear football. I hope those political stooges don’t believe everything they saw on the First Strike power point presentation they were given in the Situation Room. If Obama orders Kerry to play it straight with Lavrov, and to quit lying, then this will be a start. My dream would be for the U.S. to team up with Russia, and China, along with a other well intentioned nations, and stop terrorism. Something tells be that with a decent amount of truth, and a quality international bonding of interest the terrorist would vanish over night.


    • Jeff
      July 19, 2016 at 15:34

      Apparently the coup was not so careless as instantly portrayed in the US. Turkish air force Cobra gunships (from the US with US-trained pilots) attacked each major Turkish intel headquarters, and Erdogan narrowly escaped his resort hotel before it was bombed and attacked by ground forces.

      One can hypothesize that it was organized by the US, Israel, Russia, or Erdogan, but Russia had little motive with Erdogan entreating, and a false-flag by Erdogan has little credibility because unprecedented, and without even faking enough evidence against Gulen to gain his extradition. The lists of persons to be purged were probably ready because they were suspects under surveillance. Gulen may have other business in the US, but the US has always kept a govt-in-exile before coups, as in Vietnam, S America, Ukraine, and Libya, so suspicion is reasonable.

      The oddity is that the US would be so distressed at a Turkey-Syria-Russia rapprochement against ISIL Perhaps we are misinformed that Turkey ever supported them, given that it gave Incirlik base to the US to oppose them: that may be more US propaganda against Erdogan.

      • Joe Tedesky
        July 20, 2016 at 00:03

        Jeff, I didn’t wish to make it sound like Erdogan had engineered this coup. I’m still trying to understand what all happened, myself. Depending who reports on this story, is how the story is reported. Agendas, and biases, are deeply ablazed with the reporting of this Turkish coup. At this moment I have read certain articles which are making me lean in the direction that Erdogan wasn’t behind his own coup.

        Erdogan’s meeting with Putin, may be the reason for this coup. Above in my comment I sounded shocked that one would think the CIA was behind this coup attempt, due to the CIA’s brilliance in the past of pulling off successful coups. I also stated how possibly this could have American fingers in it, but that it were not necessarily CIA fingers, but maybe another U.S. Government entity. Of course I’m speculating, but like many here on this comment board I am trying to at least make some kind of sense with my speculations. I also may possibly be doing a bad job of it.

        I do feel there is a paradigm shift occurring in the Syria/Iraq war. The NATO coalition along with their Gulf State allies are failing miserably. By all appearances Russia seems to be the go to country at this moment. It is possible that Turkey is now going to ally with Russia. This would also mean that Turkey will eventually ally with Syria. With all of this I do wonder where Israel will end up, and likewise for Saudi Arabia. I do believe though we are witnessing a titanic change evolving inside the mechanisms of this Syrian/Iraqi war. To defeat ISIS/Daesh, and to return Syria and Iraq to their becoming a place one can live and thrive in, is something worth praying and hoping for. I just want to see an end to the people’s suffering.

    • Jeff
      July 19, 2016 at 16:10

      It may be that the US right wing is only upset that the Turkey-Russia-Syria rapprochement would preclude attacking Syria once ISIL/AlNusra are removed (if that ever happens). In that case the US would show its Israeli colors by “exiting” Syria to avoid stabilizing Assad by attacking insurgents, while covertly supporting Al Qaeda via KSA in another Afghanistan operation there against Russia.

      • Joe Tedesky
        July 20, 2016 at 00:55

        Jeff go to that link I left in my first comment series, the tass.ru. Read about Netanyahu meeting with Putin. Granted meetings are sometimes not what they appear, but still these two crucial Middle East players is something worth paying attention to. Okay, above I may have gotten a little carried away, where I suggest Israel will gain the whole west coast against the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. If we can believe the news we get, alternative and mainstream, it would appear that between the 28 page 911 report being released, and the alternative press occasionally reporting how the Saudi Royals are on their last trillion dollars or something, it does seem reasonable to believe that the present Saudi government could be a mirage in the sand. Mirage in the sand maybe too flowing, a better word to describe the future for the Saudi Royals is their days maybe numbered.

        If I had the money these Saudi guys have, I would own 25 luxury houses in 25 different cities in 25 different countries….you would hate me. Jealousy wouldn’t even begin to describe your envy. If I were them I would cash in and get out of the owning a country business, as soon as I could. Running a countrymeans avoiding assassinations, and war, not to mention coups, is an all the time job. I’ve seen these guys party when away from their Saudi home, like party here in get down America, and trust me these dudes love the west. Sorry, I shouldn’t stereotype, but people are people, and fun is fun. Let’s hope something good comes out of all of this…wouldn’t it be nice that on Hillary’s first day in office, she finds there’s nothing to do?

        I once witnessed a Saudi man frustrated with his beautiful America woman date, and his dumbfounded dominance nature ajar, when this girl got tired of his ordering her around all night, and he flipped when she just upped and called a cab. Rejected he sat next to me, and I bought his sadness a brew, and he and I compared cultural notes. He told me how a bottle of four roses was $400.00 back in his country, and how it was illegal, and this was 1979. He was a decent enough fellow but he really couldn’t get over the liberated American women. At the time I thought that good, since I wasn’t in a hurry to put our American girls on any foreign exchange program at that time. Plus, he couldn’t handle that much dynamite.

  4. Abe
    July 18, 2016 at 20:27

    The Turkey Coup Attempt: A CIA-Gulen Concocted Dry Run

  5. Jeff
    July 18, 2016 at 18:15

    A Russian website Katehon.com interprets the coup as a US regime-change attempt:

    “The military coup has obvious geopolitical implications. It comes after a sharp reversal in the direction of the relations of Turkey and Russia and changes on the Syrian issue made by the country’s leaders . On last eve Binali Yildirim said that Turkey intends to restore relations with official Damascus. In essence, this would mean a radical change of the whole geopolitical situation on the Syrian issue and the collapse of the US strategy in the region. Before that Erdogan removed Ahmet Davutoglu from the country’s leadership. US realized that Erdogan decided to change the geopolitical course. United States decided to act and use their networks of influence in military circles, to initiate a coup.

    “We should expect reprisals against both the opposition, in favor of strengthening ties with Russia and Syria, as well as functionaries of the ruling party “Justice and Development”. The pro-Russian course will be frozen.”

    So indeed the US was attempting to replace Erdogan because he was pursuing better relations with Russia and Syria. Clearly the population rallied strongly around Erdogan, and even arrested members of the military. The US mass media portrayal of Erdogan as anti-democratic and authoritarian may well be just propaganda.

    Apparently Turkey has not restored electricity to the base at Incirlik. Sharing of the base was reportedly offered to Russia, which was not interested while NATO is there. It will be interesting to see whether Erdogan closes US bases in Turkey. Turkey denied German officials access to the base today, and they have threatened to withdraw from the NATO mission.

    • Peter Loeb
      July 19, 2016 at 06:27


      Left out entirely was any mention whatsoever of the coup having been
      purposefully instigated by Erdogan himself in order to eliminate
      additional enemies. These rumors were not confirmed and were
      mentioned as the battle was still in progress. Is Pillar aware
      of these allegations? (They may have disappeared into the air as
      soon as spoken.)

      The information in both comments above—Zachary Smith and “Jeff”–
      bear closer scrutiny.Pepe Escobar and the discussion of in “Jeff”
      based on a Russian website.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  6. Zachary Smith
    July 18, 2016 at 13:49

    For another viewpoint on the Turkish situation there is this by Pepe Escobar.


    Erdogan has been a disaster for democracy in Turkey, but at this moment I’d have to say that his housecleaning may be for the best in terms of a Turkish Joe Sixpack. Turkey and Iran are about the only major Muslim nations still standing, and clearly Israel has the both of them in its crosshairs. Consider how Israel has managed the destruction of Libya, Syria, and Iraq without lifting a finger.

    ‘Freedom of everything’ is going to get a thrashing in Turkey, but compare that with the events in Syria. Conditions in Turkey are bad and will surely get worse, but at the moment there is no real prospect of the neocons causing the chaos existing in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. I surely hope I’m not wrong about that.

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