Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party
It was sudden, bloody, and better orchestrated than it seemed. Turkey’s coup plotters came close to seizing Erdogan, and, contrary to later claims, tried to seize private TV stations. Only a last-minute tip-off allowed the president to escape a military attack on the hotel in which he was staying.
Renegade aircraft bombed the parliament; renegade troops shot civilians on the bridges across the Bosphorus; and a detachment of renegade officers took the chief of staff hostage. But this violence wasn’t enough. Loyal forces assumed control before the next day was out, and Erdogan began his crackdown.
How different Turkey seemed last summer. Erdogan’s AK party had lost its majority, the urban middle classes and the Kurds had thrown him out of power. A coalition government might have taken shape and finally made peace with the principles of liberal democracy, if not as an ideal, at least as a means by which cabinets could be made and the ordinary business of government got on with.
It wasn’t to be. The man with the Palace thrice the size of Versailles, in which there had been concealed (it was related by a journalist doubtless now on a list of enemies of the people) a golden toilet, hung on in a second election.
Formally only a ceremonial president, he governed as though he had been elected to the Elysée in France, still unable to amend the constitution to legitimise his de facto power.
The coup, which Erdogan himself described, unhingedly, as “a gift from heaven” changed all that. He attributed the rebellion (who knows if its true) to the machinations of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fetullah Gülen, and began a ruthless purge of thousands of soldiers, judges, police officers and academics suspected, or at least deemed by the authorities to be, Gülenist sympathisers.
It is safe to assume that plenty of non-Gülenist enemies of the regime were caught in the dragnet, which happened so quickly that it resembled a standard plan, prepared long in advance to round up the usual suspects by the tens of thousands, as soon as a suitable excuse presented itself.
The purge, conducted under a state of emergency passed through parliament by acclamation, leaves Turkey at its weakest for a long time. Every institution of state has been hit. The commanders of virtually every unit posted on the border with Syria have been removed. Universities will be denuded of some of their best professors and at least sixty media outlets have been closed down.
A state in which the only serious danger was the coup itself could probably manage, but Turkey has no such luxury. Its weakened and divided security forces have to face two terrorist campaigns, an old one from the Kurdish separatist PKK, and a relatively new one from ISIS and its network of associates. Meanwhile, Turkey houses almost three million refugees from Syria, and may, thanks to the repression, start generating displaced people of its own.
It used to be fashionable in foreign policy circles to point to a so-called Turkish model of political development in which a brittle dictatorship would lead to a formally democratic but populist and authoritarian ruler. Among Muslim countries, only Turkey was held to have made such a tradition stick and, it was held, could yield peace and prosperity there. They were wrong, we know, because liberal democracy needs restraints which Erdogan was unwilling to put in place against himself, and the strongman, perhaps needed to establish order in the first place, keeps power too long once he’s able to help himself to it.
With it could disappear an essential Western ally. The all-powerful president has focused away from the West. Russia, indifferent to human rights, now looks a more powerful ally. The stumbling block of course is Assad, on whose removal Erdogan is counting, but whose continuing in power remains a central Russian foreign policy objective.
Don’t expect Turkey to make a sudden lurch towards one of its allies. Instead expect it to be distracted; as beneath Erdogan’s pomp lies a huge power vacuum. State institutions can, we may fairly assume, now be expected to show loyalty. But they’ve been made extremely weak by the purge. Erdogan is like a man who, hacking away at the mould in a piece of cheese, ends up slicing much of it away and eventually finds he has destroyed most of the wedge.
It’s a weakened and diminished army that will be sent back into the field to fight the Kurds. A preoccupied police force, paranoid about infiltration, has to protect people from ISIS. Ankara, far from being a solid and stable friend in an inconstant region, has turned Turkey into a huge and destabilising black hole at the worst possible time.