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Turkey’s Attempted Coup: Why the Regime Plays Dumb over the West’s Lack of Support

By Abraham Thicke

The Turkish regime’s account of last year’s failed coup focuses on the role played by the Gülen movement in the coup’s orchestration. According to this narrative, Gülenists steadily infiltrated Turkish state institutions over a period of decades, establishing a kind of parallel state, launching the coup in a last ditch bid to gain total control after the regime took measures to curb their influence.

Gülenists aside, few disagree with this description.

However, Western support for the Erdogan regime following the coup attempt has been, at best, lukewarm. Immediately following the coup attempt, Western governments did not rush the Ankara’s aid, nor in the longer term have they been willing to deport/extradite many the regime suspects of involvement. Indeed, many suspects have been granted asylum in the West.

The AKP government and its media organs present this lack of co-operation as evidence of Western collusion in the coup, or at least tacit approval of the plotters’ motives. This fits neatly into the Erdogan regime’s overarching narrative, one in which the regime portrays itself as the sole force capable of resisting a global conspiracy that aims to clip Turkey’s wings and bring the entire Ummah to its knees.

In reality, a coherent account of the tepid Western response to the coup attempt does not require such a fertile imagination.

Why the West is cold to the Turkish regime

First, Turkey is no longer a democracy, and was not one on the eve of the coup. Consequently, claims that the coup was aimed at a democratic government elicit short shrift from the West. In addition, Ankara’s relations with the West have been deteriorating for years. And whilst there can be no doubt Western governments would like to see a Turkey, democratic or otherwise, that is more closely aligned with their interests, it would be a leap to infer the involvement Western states in the coup. But Turkey’s lack of democratic credentials, coupled with its strained relations with the West, may help explain the lack of Western support following the coup.

Second, AKP government’s Gülen focused coup narrative has numerous holes in it. By shining a light centre stage the regime, unwittingly, draws attention to the pools of darkness in the wings. So although the official narrative may explain key elements it also raises many questions, thus far unanswered, regarding the coup’s mechanics and the motives behind it. This again may have led the West to respond cautiously.

Third, Ankara’s response to the coup attempt has been heavy handed and arbitrary. In casting the Gülenists as a fatal illness infecting the state, the regime claims drastic treatment is required. This involves eradicating Gülenists from every walk of life. But the Gülenists are so deeply embedded that their removal, like that of a galloping cancer, risks killing the patient, the Turkish Republic.

Further, in pursuing this agenda, the regime finds itself in dangerous territory; its own definition of what constitutes a Gülenist, or a supporter of the movement, appears to implicate many senior figures within the regime, including President Erdoğan, a matter enlarged upon in the following section.

To complicate matters further, the waves of purges characterizing the state of emergency, in place since the coup, clearly target not just Gülenists and their associates but anyone and anything the regime perceives as a threat. This begs the question as whether regime’s stated intentions diverge from its actual intentions. The ultimate target of the purges may not, after all, be the Gülenists, but the Turkish State.

All of this risks pitching Turkey into the kind of instability that characterizes Iraq and Syria. For the West, this represents the worst possible outcome, and again helps explain the lack of support for the measures implemented by the Turkish regime.

Fourth, the Turkish judicial system, in a dire state prior to the coup attempt, has all but collapsed. This makes it all but impossible for Western courts to return suspects to Turkey.

Fifth, in requesting the extradition of coup suspects, the evidence provided by the regime to justify the requests has repeatedly been deemed to fall short of the standards required. The regime projects the appearance of having little understanding of how judicial system operate in the West. Specifically, the regime does not seem to understand that the principle of separation of powers is taken seriously. This has led to direct requests from President Erdoğan, addressed to Western leaders, to intervene directly to ensure the return of suspects. Such calls can only be counterproductive.

Coupled with this is the regime’s detention of some Westerners, mostly journalists, on espionage related charges. This creates the perception that these individuals are being held hostage, to be used as bargaining chips. Again, this can hardly be expected to garner sympathy for the regime.

Walking the road together, in parallel

Though it would not be easy, the regime is at least theoretically capable of remedying the issues outlined above. Doing so would likely secure the co-operation of the West in bringing coup perpetrators to justice.

The regime is actually heading full steam in the opposite direction.

It shows no sign of slowing down, least of all for the relatively meagre prize of a few coup plotters. In fact, such individuals may serve the regime’s purposes better running free, for they can be used as bogey men to stoke up the siege mentality that props-up the regime’s domestic support.

In addition, the regime would find it difficult to provide evidence strong enough to meet the standards required for extradition from the West. This is not because such evidence is lacking, but because the relevant evidence would represent an acute embarrassment to the regime.

To understand why, it is worth reconsidering the regime’s narrative regarding the attempted coup. Central to this is the steady infiltration of state institutions by Gülenists. What the narrative glosses over, but what is vital to any understanding of events, is the extent to which the regime was complicit in that infiltration.

During the years the Gülenists were busy expanding their grip on the state those who highlighted their infiltration, such as policeman named Hanife Avci, were imprisoned and their work suppressed. Similarly, to smooth the ascent of Gülenist cadres through the army’s ranks, senior officers were jailed on trumped up charges, such as the Erkenekon and Balyoz plots. The regime subsequently tried to distance itself from these injustices. Erdoğan, for example, claimed simply that he was ‘deceived’.

The evidence, however, clearly shows that the relationship between the Gülenist’s and Erdoğan’s ruling AK party was marked more by collusion than deception. Erdoğan, for instance, proclaimed himself in a 2008 ‘prosecutor’ of the Ergenekon case. Furthermore, no actions were taken to address repeated warnings passed from the Turkish army regarding Gülenist infiltration of its ranks.

The collaboration between Erdoğan, his governments and the Gülen movement has been extensively covered by investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, most recently in his book, ‘Paralel Yürüdük Biz Bu Yollarda’ (We Walked These Roads Together, in Parallel). Lest anyone doubt the regime’s anxiousness to draw a veil over these matters, Şık is currently in jail. It was the regime who put him there.

So, to return to matters of extradition, any requests containing sufficiently detailed evidence to satisfy Western judicial standards would amount to a mea culpa. The regime would effectively have to admit being the accessory to a crime.

Consequently, the regime’s professed bemusement that the West has not sprung to its defence and its desire to see coup plotters returned to Turkey are best understood as a sham, loose talk that aims to distract diners from an unpalatable feast. If the coup was a knife thrust aimed at Erdoğan’s heart, it was Erdoğan himself who put the knife in the hands of the assassin. The only misunderstanding involved the identity of the intended victim.

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