Turkey's Failed Coup: What Happened, Who's Behind It, What Happens Next?

Image: Protests against the attempted coup in Turkey. Photo by Pivox, CC BY-SA 4.0.

How Turks answer the 'who dunnit' question depends a lot on their political views.

Turkey on the night of on 15-16 July looked a lot like the opening scene of the 2013 blockbuster Man of Steel. Dissatisfied elements of the military staged a coup against a political elite they saw as out of touch with reality and worse, treasonous. Although the Turkish junta failed just like its Kryptonian counterpart, as Paul Pillar wrote on The National Interest on 16 July, democracy “sort of” survived in the critical NATO ally. And the worst may yet to come for Turkey and its most important global partner, the United States.

What happened?

Around 9 p.m. local time, reports began to surface on social media that military units were establishing road-blocks in Istanbul and Ankara while Super Cobra helicopters and F-16 fighter planes conducted low-altitude flights over Turkey’s two largest cities.

In Istanbul, soldiers reportedly blocked the two bridges straddling the Istanbul Strait (Bosphorus) with tanks while armored units moved in to Atatürk International Airport. In the capital Ankara, tanks positioned themselves at critical intersections and several helicopter gunships began patrolling the sky. Clashes took place between junta forces and military and police units loyal to the government.

Around 11:15 p.m., Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım set up phone calls with television channels and confirmed an ongoing “coup attempt.” Soon after that, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was on vacation at the Aegean town of Marmaris, connected with media outlets via FaceTime and called upon citizens to march against the junta. Crowds soon followed suit. Around that time, an anchorwoman read the junta’s statement on state television, TRT. Curiously, the junta could not air its statement on other TV channels.

Meanwhile, civilians flooded the streets amidst gruesome images. Between 2 a.m and 4 a.m. TV channels showed the armored units blocking Bosphorus Bridge firing at civilians who had heeded Erdoğan’s call. In Ankara, helicopters fired at crowds who had gathered near the new presidential palace and the national assembly even as members of parliament were holed up inside.

Everything happened quickly after that. A defiant Erdoğan flew in from Marmaris and gave a speech to the crowd at Istanbul airport; all four political parties in parliament condemned the coup attempt; and military and police units in Ankara stormed the junta’s strongholds. Around 6:45 a.m., TV channels showed troops — many of them conscripts dragged into the bloody mess by their superiors who told them that it was a “special exercise” — surrendering to police on Bosphorus Bridge.

According to latest estimates, around 190 people died, 1,440 people were wounded, and nearly 6,000 members of the military and judiciary were taken into custody for their alleged role in the coup plot.

Who’s behind it?

How Turks answer the “who dunnit” question depends a lot on their political views. Three narratives have emerged since 15 July.

Scenario 1

President Erdoğan, his supporters in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and many of their opponents have blamed the cleric Fethullah Gülen for the attempted coup. Known to Turkish audiences as simply “Pennsylvania” for his self-exile in the Keystone State, Gülen is the leader of a global network of schools, businesses and charitable organizations. The septuagenarian preacher is also accused of establishing a secret network within the Turkish state.

A former ally of Erdoğan, Gülen fell out with the Turkish president over a corruption and illegal-surveillance/phone-tapping scandal in late 2013 / early 2014. Erdoğan subsequently orchestrated the mass purge of Gülenists from the bureaucracy. More recently, media outlets, corporations and universities affiliated with the Gülen network have been taken over by the Turkish state. Another round of purges within the military and judiciary were expected later this summer.

For AKP supporters and many secular Turks who dislike Gülen, the coup plot was a last-minute attempt to prevent that outcome. Pro-AKP folks also point to Turkey’s recent normalizing of relations with Israel and Russia (as well as the prospects of a similar normalization with Egypt) and accused Gülenists of worsening their country’s woes.

Scenario 2

In contrast, Gülenists and some secular Turks argue that the coup attempt was merely a dog-and-pony show for Erdoğan to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a Putin-style executive presidency. Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan and his AKP have consolidated their popular support whenever the military (or the Gülenists) threatened their rule. In recent years, Erdoğan has signaled his clear dislike of not being able to concentrate all power in his hands, even though his party has maintained comfortable majorities in parliament save for a brief period in 2015.

Accordingly, Erdoğan’s critics argue that he basically set up a false flag operation to secure popular support for his political aspirations.

Scenario 3