Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Breaking Point for Coup Attempt in Turkey
People stood on a tank, holding a Turkish flag after they stopped it in Istanbul, early Saturday.


By Stephen Kinzer  
JULY 16, 2016

Terror bombings in Turkey, including the one last month at Istanbul Airport that took more than 40 lives, are blowback from Turkey’s wildly adventurous policy in neighboring Syria. Now the blowback has reached President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. Turkish military commanders have launched a coup to overthrow him. Erdogan thought he could ride the tiger by supporting militant forces in Syria, but the tiger has thrown him off.

When he was at the peak of his popularity a decade ago, Erdogan proclaimed a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Now he is at odds with nearly every country in the Middle East and beyond. His spectacular misplaying of Turkey’s strong geopolitical hand has brought bloody results. When the Syrian conflict broke out five years ago, Erdogan gave President Bashar al-Assad, who he considered a protégé, advice on how to react.

When Assad rejected his advice, Erdogan was infuriated and resolved to destroy his former friend. He allowed foreign fighters to cross through Turkey in order to join ISIS and other militant groups. When these jihadi fighters were wounded, they returned to Turkey for treatment. Turkish border guards who tried to stop an illegal shipment of arms to militants in Syria were arrested.

Eager to win votes at home, Erdogan declared that his real enemy was not the militant forces the United States is fighting in Syria, but the region’s Kurdish minority. This produced a bizarre situation. The United States has been supplying weapons to Kurdish forces that Turkey, our supposed enemy, attacks. Turkey, our supposed ally, supports ISIS and other militantly anti-American forces.

Under intense pressure from Washington, Turkey has recently begun to back away from this policy. It has reduced its support for militants. This has naturally led ISIS to consider Turkey a traitorous new enemy. That is why it is launching terror attacks on Turkish soil.

This escalation was apparently too much for some military officers. Turkey’s military class is trained to consider itself the country’s “emergency brake.” Elections are held regularly and the elected civilians rule. Behind them, though, lurks the military. When senior officers decide that elected officials are running the country off the road, they step in.

Over the last few years, Erdogan has systematically repressed civil society and the press. He has effectively made it a crime for anyone to criticize him. His closest associates, including family members, have been implicated in large-scale corruption. Military officers could have swallowed all of that, since neither repression or corruption is new in Turkey. But the spectacular failure of Erdogan’s foreign policy may have been the breaking point.

For a time, Erdogan seemed eager to make a deal with his country’s Kurdish citizens and resolve their grievances once and for all. Then, partly to win votes, he reversed course, adopted the rhetoric of Turkish nationalism, and declared the Kurds his greatest enemy. American officials tried to persuade him to focus instead on ISIS, but until recently he refused to listen. The Obama administration became disgusted with him. Some military officers apparently noticed.

Turks who were horrified at Erdogan’s megalomania will cheer this uprising. They will also worry. If the coup fails, no one knows what comes next. If it succeeds, the same is true. Many Turks welcomed the coup of 1980 because it ended a period of violent chaos, but it was followed by a wave of brutal repression. Regardless of how this episode ends, it pushes Turkey toward the abyss of instability.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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