The Failed Coup in Turkey .. Causes and Implications

By: Dr. Said al-Haj*

Turkey will perpetuate the memory of the fifteenth of July, 2016 as a milestone station in its modern history. The foiling of the coup attempt in its first wave, at least, led many Turkish people to call for declaring this day as the “Day of Democracy” to be marked by the country annually.

Three stages

 The night of the coup attempt was very long, very difficult, very hot, and carried fast variables, where the country moved from the edge of the success of the military coup and the removal of state institutions and its elected leaders to the scene of the president’s and the government’s control over the situation. But, a deeper look at what has happened indicates that there are three different stages that the country has gone through:


  • First: the stage of the decisive move of the coup group, where they blocked the bridges and main roads in the country, besieged the headquarters of the General Staff leadership, bombed the parliament, targeted the headquarters of the General Intelligence, halted work at the airport, occupied the state television building, and broadcast ‘Statement No. 1’ from there.


  • Second: the phase of Erdogan’s initiative and the government’s reaction, where the President appeared via a telephone call on a private Turkish TV channel, where he was unperturbed, with high self-esteem and trusted his people. He drew the masses to the squares and asked them to receive him at the airport. Then, a series of government steps followed over its security apparatus and through the steadfastness of the people in the squares and around important institutions. Finally, the scene ended with the surrender of the armed groups in the streets.


  • Third: the phase that was subsequent to foiling the coup, which showed that its arrangement was beyond the capabilities of the “parallel entity” -the influential leadership in Fethullah Gulen’s ‘Service’ terrorist group. The arrests and detentions pending investigation included counterbalancing commanders in the Turkish army, such as the commanders of the second, third, and fourth armies, as well as the former commander of the air force and the leaders of the Gendarmerie (Ganderma) Foundation. The arrests also included about 3,000 judges, prosecutors and members of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Tip of the iceberg

According to these data, the scene during the night of July 16 was just the tip of the iceberg with respect to the coup attempt. Military counterbalancing commanders have appeared (most notably the Third Corps commander) on the television channels of Turkey that night and called the soldiers “to return to their barracks”. However, none of them participated on the ground to face the coup military groups, and later it turned out that there were suspicions about their involvement in the coup attempt.

The Turkish President, who is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces according to the Turkish Constitution, looked incapable of leading and directing the military institution to confront the putschists. He relied exclusively on the security and police forces, the army’s special forces in addition, of course, to the intelligence service, led by his right arm Hakan Fidan, which seemed to have a prominent role in the confrontation.

Therefore, Erdogan’s statements did not include a call for the army to intervene, but he only called on the public to take to the squares and announced that he would be among them. But, he restricted the accusations to Gulen’s parallel state, denying the idea of the army’s involvement as an institution, considering the putschists as a “minority” within its structure, while the army as a whole was “clean and patriotic and cannot shoot at citizens”, even though the army actually did so in previous coups.

In this sense, it seems that Erdogan’s intelligence, composure and insight has guided him to this speech due to a lack of confidence in all the military leaders (the first army chief reportedly supported him), which achieved two goals: First, to try to neutralize the military institution and corner it in the moral responsibility, embarrassment, and trial in front of the popular conscience; and second to be able to invest the opportunity in uprooting the groups of  “Gulen” in the army and the judiciary.

The causes of failure

 The statements of the Turkish officials and field developments indicate clearly that the coup attempt refracted, fell and did not achieve its goal of controlling power, despite the fact that the same statements emphasized that “the danger has not passed completely” and called on the masses to remain in the squares and state institutions for fear of a second wave. Several important and critical factors have combined to ensure that failure, most notably:


  • The coup attempt was limited from several angles:


– On the geographical level, it was only in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul.


-On the level of participation, a few sectors of the army were involved.


-On the level of implementation, the President and the ministers remained free (Erdogan talked about a failed attempt to assassinate him).


-On the efficiency level, the participating forces were too weak and few in number to dominate the squares and the various state institutions.


-And on the level of logistics control, the putschists were unable to silence the private media which turned to a breather for Erdogan and his government; the coupists only contented themselves with a temporary control of the official channel of television, which they lost quickly.


  • The decisive influence for the appearance of President Erdogan quickly on one of the private TV channels, which gave a clear suggestion that the situation on the ground was not resolved. Also, Erdogan’s persistence, composure and guidance for the masses was an inspiring factor to increase the number of citizens who took to the streets and faced the military groups. Then, his appearance at the Istanbul airport was to mark the foiling of the attack and the relative control of the situation.


  • The large crowds of citizens in various squares of Ankara and Istanbul and their defense of the various state institutions, especially Istanbul Municipality, Ataturk Airport, the building of the public security, and the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges in Istanbul gave a clear picture of the coup’s lack of a popular incubator and contributed to restraining the repression which could be exercised by troops in the field and limited its action.


  • The Turkish media, particularly the private ones, provided a window for the appearance of President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim and a large number of political and military leaders, in rejection of the coup and calling for countering it. Also, Erdogan’s appearance on the CNN TURK TV channel through a telephone call (a widespread anti-Erdogan TV channel) was a crucial factor in changing the events.


  • The unified stance of various Turkish political parties since the first minutes of the coup of rejecting it and confirming its support for the elected institutions and personalities, deprived the coup movement of the pretext of protecting democracy and political life in the country.


  • Finally, the decisive stance taken by the police, security and intelligence agencies, and the special forces in confronting the coup groups in the field, under the absence of the various sectors of the army, as well as the critical role that was expected of the intelligence service specifically in the contexts of information and field confrontation – This was the most important factor in foiling the coup attempt.

Future Implications

It is hard that this watershed event in the history of modern Turkey could pass without leaving important repercussions on the future of the Turkish domestic scene and the course of AKP in general.


In the first place, the failure of this attempt can be a decisive factor in ending any future coup, due to the damage caused by the previous four coups and trials of leaders and officers and recent achievements of Turkey. The echo of failure and severe moral pressure on the military institution in addition to the expected procedures in the arrest of participants in the coup will have a direct impact on this.

On the other hand, the concentration during the coming few days and weeks will be on countering Gulen’s parallel state terrorist organization, which is the first convict of plotting the coup attempt, and eliminating it entirely from the military and judicial institutions, which has actually begun from the early hours of the coup failure, where more than 2,700 judges and prosecutors who belonged to it were suspended.

In the medium term, the talk about Erdogan’s crucial role in foiling the coup will increase his popularity and the citizen’s confidence in him. Citizens will be more convinced of the idea of targeting Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and the President, which will give the latter a chance to activate and accelerate the new Constitution and the presidential system. The unity of the various parties against the coup and the spirit of harmony and calmness that has prevailed since July 15, may help in easing the political polarization among them (political parties) despite differences. It will also prepare the ground for a quiet dialogue -at least among themselves- that may be useful in finding intermediate and practical solutions for the Constitution file, which needs a community and a political consensus more than a numerical majority.

But strategically, all these developments will be an opportunity for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party to restructure the Turkish armed forces and adjust its compass of loyalty and ideas, particularly as they (the armed forces) are in an unenviable position after indirect responsibility for what happened, the failure of the coup attempt and the campaign of arrests, which has affected and will affect counterbalancing commanders there.

Erdogan understands more than any other personality that a 14-year period of power is not enough to change the doctrine and ideas of the military institution that used to revolve around a sense of excellence as the Republic’s institution and the protector of its principles. Also, the military institution is not satisfied with the Islamic and conservative background of the leaders of the Justice and Development Party, and there is expected objection to the extensive arrest campaign in the military and judiciary institutions that could spur similar action in the future.

Most of what the Justice and Development Party has done since 2002 falls under the gradual and slow reforms under the roof of the Constitution. But today, the AKP may be in front of a chance to make quick and profound changes in the structure of a number of institutions, most notably the military and the judiciary institutions, so as to ensure its survival under the roof of the Constitution and tamed by the political leadership’s decision. Such variables are indispensable for Turkey in order to achieve stability and development in the long and strategic term.

The moment of the failed coup was a severe plight for Turkey, but it has probably carried with it many grants related to the details of the Turkish domestic politics now and strategically. As for its potential impact on the Turkish foreign policy –as one of the theoretical reasons for the coup attempt- we will not be able to deal with it in this article, but later we may come back to it in a coming article.

* Said al-Haj is a Palestinian doctor, writer, and a researcher in the Turkish issues.

(Published in al-Jazeera on July 18, 2016, and translated for MEO)