Ziya Meral is a British-Turkish researcher. He is a Resident Fellow at the British Army’s new Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, founding Director of the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs and serves as the Secretary of the British Turkish Foreign Policy Platform.
For the last few days I have hardly slept. This is not because I have faced any actual personal and physical risks from the failed coup attempt in Turkey. I live a safe life in the UK as a British Turk. Family members and close friends living in Turkey and the fact I spent my childhood there made the developments very personal.
Yet, there is another aspect to it. I work on British defence issues as a Fellow at the British Army’s new think tank the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research. Inevitably, I found myself asking what this coup attempt would look like if it was done in the UK. If one simply translates basic facts into the UK context, this is the direct equal of what happened:
- House of Commons bombed while MPs in the Chamber were making statements against the coup;
- Three helicopters with SAS soldiers attacked a hotel the Prime Minister had just left in Devon;
- The Chief of Defence Staff was tortured by officers close to him to make a statement in support;
- Tanks closed Westminster bridge, and infantry fired at civilians challenging them;
- BBC, ITV and Sky studios raided, presenters forced to read statements at gunpoint;
- British Tornado jets flew over London to scare people and dropped bombs in areas populated with civilians;
- Tanker jets taking off from other parts of the country refuelled them in air;
- MI5 and MI6 were attacked by helicopters;
- Special Branch HQ was bombed by a jet;
- The Prime Minister was constantly on the move, and could only make statements through iphones. British jets locked onto his plane but thankfully did not fire;
- Local councillors and Mayors blocked entrances to military barracks and parked trucks on the runways at Royal Air Force basis to stop them from carrying soldiers to support the coup.
All these, and almost 200 hundred lives lost. This is the scope of events we saw unfolding over the last few days. Their petrifying nature becomes clear once we imagine what it would mean for us here in the UK.
Our initial concern was rightfully for the welfare of British citizens in the country, and thankfully none seems to have been injured and all seem to be safe. Now, we must ask what the UK Government can and should do in engagement with a critical NATO ally.
Sadly, outright lies and scaremongering about Turkey in the lead-up to the EU referendum have damaged the decade-long goodwill British officials had accumulated in the country. It was right for not just the Cameron government, but for all UK governments since Blair, to support the Turkish bid to join the EU, even knowing that realistically it was not immediate. This was done with a clear perspective of British economic and geopolitical interests, as well as a need to engage with Turkey closely on a wide range of issues from narcotics to trafficking to counter-terrorism.
In the process, the UK emerged as one of the most reliable partners for Turkey in EU, even though occasional Turkish media hinted at usual conspiracy theories. It was no surprise that Philip Hammond was among the very first international figures to call Turkish Foreign Minister and ensure him of the UK’s support for democracy – even though Hammond is no longer the Foreign Minister, they had a very good personal relationship.
So what needs to be done now? Here are a few thoughts.
Turkey needs to see a strong sense of “we are with you” as it faces a never-before seen phase in its turbulent history. The UK is well placed to continue that message both for Turkey’s sake – and also the sake of the UK, Europe and NATO.
Turkey also needs to be reminded to ensure its post-coup attempt responses are proportional, legal and fair. It has been disturbing to see talk of the death penalty being brought back. Currently, the purge of state officials has passed 50,000 – based on suspicion that they are part of an Islamic network that is alleged by the government to be behind the coup. Turkey will only listen to outside calls if it can be sure of sincere support and sincere concern for its welfare, and not just the usual finger-waving and threats that we see EU officials providing in abundance.
Turkey will also need substantial support as it restructures its civil service and military. The UK’s experiences in handling such changes, creating small but highly efficient structures, would be truly important for Turkey to learn from and engage with. The UK must push for pro-active engagement in Turkey to be able to tangibly help the process. To that end, a high level delegation with technical experts must visit Turkey as soon as possible.
There needs to be a clear focus by the FCO to encourage more civil society and expert-level engagement between the countries. Some of the current initiatives are only occasional high level meetings, such as Tatli Dil Platform, or long term projects in certain industries such as the financial commitment in sciences and research. We need more NGO, university, and think-tank level engagement with Turkey to be able to strengthen its civil society and help both countries to learn from each other and understand one another.
With current re-orientation of British foreign policy, we have no option but to be more proactive in countries of particular interests to us and can no longer take such ties granted. Turkey might be the first test of the May government to demonstrate a new era of creative British foreign policy.