Three hours after this story began to break it’s increasingly clear that we are seeing the biggest Happening of 2016 to date, far overshading the Nice terrorist attacks yesterday. As Lenin purportedly said, “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”
The initial regime response was to blame the Gulenists, but it is clear now that it is in fact a Kemalist faction within the military (their branding of themselves as a “peace at home council” is a direct allusion to Kemal’s foreign policy). A key question going forwards is to what extent the military is united against Erdogan, or whether it is just the officer ranks taking the lead (in which case rumors of Erdogan’s demise might be “highly exaggerated”). That the head of the General Staff, instead of making statements as the coup leader, has instead been detained, suggests that the second interpretation is closer to the mark. However, it’s well known that Erdogan had replaced the upper ranks of the General Staff with his own loyalists. The question then becomes to what extent the changes percolated down the ranks.
It appears they haven’t – not enough, at any rate, to avert the seventh Turkish military coup since 1913. Ankara and Istanbul are apparently under military control, as are most of the airports and state TV channels. The military has surrounded government buildings across Turkey, including the Parliament and the Presidential Palace, in what currently appears to be an extremely well-executed coup that could not have been carried out if the military had truly been significantly divided. The F-16s seen in the air indicates that the Air Force supports the Army. Erdogan has been reduced to calling on social media for people to go out into the streets, even though the AKP ruling party itself had ironically repeatedly banned both social media and street protests in the past. Even as he calls for this supporters to go out into the streets, latest rumors have Erdogan asking for asylum in Berlin and/or London (there are jokes on Runet that he could soon be the ProFFesor’s new neighbor in Rostov).
The next key question, then, is what will be the response of the other actors in Turkish society and abroad: The people, military units stationed outside Istanbul/Ankara, the Kurds, and the “international community” (aka the US and its allies).
Despite the well publicized problems of its tourist sector, as the Russians boycotted Turkish beaches after the Su-24 shootdown and Europeans increasingly stayed away out of terrorism fears, the wider Turkish economy has not been doing at all badly – growth was 4% in 2015, rising to 4.8% in Q1 2016. In contrast, the last coup in 1980 had been preceeded by one of the worst crises in Turkish economic history, featuring a multi-year recession and triple digit inflation. Erdogan’s approval rating in 2015, at 39%, was still quite respectable, even if significantly down from 62% in 2013. It was also higher than Yanukovych’s 28% approval rating on the eve of Euromaidan. It is reasonable to expect a large level of popular opposition to his ouster, though given the overt violence and military curfews, we might not see the sort of mass marches in support of Erdogan that helped return Charles de Gaulle to power after the insurrections of 1968 (who had in the meantime fled to a French military base in Germany in a curious parallel to Erdogan’s rumored asylum request).
Although a low-intensity civil war against the PKK has reignited under Erdogan, so far as official politics are concerned, the Kurds remain supportive of Erdogan – who at least stresses a more inclusive Islamic “many-national” identity for Turkish citizens (much like official Putinism with regards to Russian minorities) as opposed to the more overtly Turkish civic nationalist Kemalists who oppose him.
Finally, Turkey is a member of NATO, and friends look out for each other. Obama has already stated that all parties in Turkey should “support the democratically elected government of Turkey,” a sentiment that was conspicuously lacking during Euromaidan, even though Yanykovych was just as democratically elected as Erdogan and not any more corrupt, but unlike the Turkish strongman imprisoned zero journalists to Erdogan’s dozens, wasn’t anywhere near as violent at breaking up protests, and hasn’t had family members implicated in buying oil from ISIS. But US double standards on which regimes deserve color revolutions and which do not is hardly breaking news but a long well known and banal reality. And it matters as well. In the event that the coup does end up succeeding, with Turkey’s financial indicators cliff-diving, the position of the military junta will be precaurious and isolated, which might well lead it to strongly reaffirm its loyalty to its Western allies and supranational institutions.
Which probably means that, understandable as it might for Russia to celebrate, doing so might well be a premature. The obvious reason is that the success of the coup is not yet a done deal (indeed, even as I write this, momentum seems to have shifted again as compared with several paragraphs previously).
But another reason is that a Kemalist military junta will not necessarily be any better for Russia (and Syria) than Erdogan, and quite possibly, worse.
Up until the Syrian Civil War, there was a lot of BRICS/”Rise of the Rest”-style triumphalist fanfare over strengthening ties between Turkey and Russia, expressed in Russian tourism to the beaches of Antalya, burgeoning gas projects, and nuclear power plant construction. These sentiments completely reversed after the Turks shot down a Su-24 for crossing into its borders for a few seconds. In recent weeks, however, it appears the Turkish and Russian leadership agreed to bury their differences, with Erdogan sending his apology(-but-not-really) letter to Putin, and Russia lifting the ban on charter holidays to Turkey. And as if on cue, Kremlin propagandists have gone from “remove kebab” mode to hailing yet another victory of Putin and waxing lyrical about the prospects for renewed cooperation.
Observed on a longer timescale, relations between Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey have been characterized by pragmatism – or at least as near can be considering the absurdly large scope for geopolitical hostility between them, regardless of which particular faction rules either country.
Consider the following contested spheres of influence:
Central Asia: Especially Azerbaijan, which is closely related to Turkey, while Russia backs Turkey’s bugbear Armenia along with Iran; as well as the Turkic peoples of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where Turkey is also interested in extending its influence. Clashes here can be expected to accentuate when Russian Eurasianism and/or Turkish Pan-Turanism strengthens.
The Balkans: Turkey is historically a sponsor of its Muslim coreligionists there, while Russia is a historical sponsor of the Orthodox, especially Serbia. The situation there is now fairly calm there, but this might not last whenever the Balkans enters one of its periodic flareups of instability, especially if Russian Pan-Slavism and/or Turkish Islamism becomes more influential.
Crimea: Turkey is a historical sponsor of the Crimean Tatars, who have a divided (if not hostile) relation to Russia. The Ukraine has warmed up greatly to Erdogan’s Turkey, especially after the Su-24 incident (to be expected of a country whose politicians call on ISIS to behead Russian airmen). Not an issue while Russia remains strong, but liable to be a subject of Turkish demands or even claims should Russia’s position weaken, e.g. if Putin is replaced by pro-Western liberals.
Syria: The most recent focal point, as Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman and Russia’s “warm water ports”-national focus both spiked at the same time. There is also a nationalist and Turanist element in this for Turkey; the guy who shot the Russian fighter pilot as he was parachuting down was not an Islamist, but a “Gray Wolf” nationalist and the son of a nationalist MHP politician.
Note that the MHP itself is intimately connected with NATO, Operation Gladio, and the Turkish “deep state” that Erdogan has repressed, but none of which can be at all described as friends of Russia (except perhaps a few marginal Duginist Eurasians). Indeed, it is rather curious that this “Khaki Revolution” has come at the precise time when we are seeing a sort of “Erdosliv,” or the apparent surrender on Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman and Turanian pretensions in Syria (Turkish equivalent of Putinsliv, the much prophesied but as yet unrealized Russian betrayal of the LDNR), which took the form of the restoration of ties with Russia, followed by making up with Israel and amazingly, Syria itself in recent days.
Now if Erdogan was to be now replaced by a military junta, as per above, the new regime will find itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not much is known about the motivations of the coup plotters, but let us play a thought experiment. An easy way of (re)gaining favor with the West, as well as appease hostile sentiment within Turkey itself, would be to – ironically – reverse that very same Erdosliv, bearing in mind that the State Department hawks themselves have been in no rush to normalize relations with Assad. In the short term, this might involve reopening munitions supplies to the rebels in Aleppo and Idlib, making the planned SAA offensive against them untenable. Once Hillary Clinton and her R2P/humanitarian bombing clique comes to power, comes to power, even more daring – and perhaps outright apocalyptic – provocations might ensue against Russian forces in Syria.
Or maybe – even probably – not.
Even so, this particular conjunction in Turkish foreign policy developments and the coup against Erdogan is probably not a complete coincidence. And while it is tempting to celebrate unreservedly the troubles of a man who has become close to universally disliked outside Turkey – his human rights abuses amongst liberals, his support of ISIS amongst conservatives, the downing of the Su-24 amongst Russians, his support for Islamists amongst Syrians – it is worth looking closely at what the alternatives to him would entail.
Ultimately, there is a reason that the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought a war pretty much every other decade. Exchanging Sultans and Tsars for Presidents is probably not going to alter the underlying geopolitical faultlines.
Now to be sure, Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman stance after Erdogan gave up on FM Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy until a month ago did lead to competition with Russia along many fronts. But if Turkey was to change in a more Eurasian direction, unlikely as the prospect might be, tensions might diminish over the Balkans (more centered around religion) but might instead intensify over Azerbaijan and Central Asia (more centered around ethno-cultural identity). And if Turkey were to become more explicitly tied to Washington and NATO, especially under a Clinton Presidency, then that might be the worse outcome of them all for Russia, for Syria, and for world peace.
After all, even a hostile but independent Turkey can be feasibly played off against a hostile West, whereas a “nationalist” Turkey in thrall to the neocon globalist agenda might end up turning out to be but a copy, if a more powerful one, of Maidanist Ukraine to the north.
EDIT +6 HOURS AFTER COUP BEGAN
It does increasingly look like the coup has failed. The critical moment appears to have been the failure to arrest Erdogan and other senior members of the government from the outset (though since many of the coup plotters were officers, not generals, they presumably just didn’t have the necessary high level access… they did apparently bomb his hotel, but by that time, he had already left). And, as I suspected, Erdogan’s not insubstantial popularity played its role as well, with crowds coming out to protect him with their bodies and the conscripts doing the gruntwork of the coup being unwilling to get too bloody.
I suspect that Erdogan will now simply be too consumed with domestic factors to pay much heed to foreign policy in the months ahead. This is probably good.