The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion One year later, the Turkish coup attempt remains shrouded in mystery

Tarkan Ecebalin stands in his late son Tolga’s former home in Istanbul this month. The father turned the modest house into a museum honoring his child, who was 27 when he was killed during the failed military coup on July 15, 2016. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Shakespeare once famously observed. The same can be said about Turkey at the one-year anniversary of the attempted coup d’état on July 15, 2016. The coup was an amateurish effort at best and fizzled out quickly, but not before some 290 people were killed.

The events of that evening are unclear, confusing and contradictory, and the information that has been revealed so far is conflicting and hardly believable. From the beginning, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assiduously claimed that followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former close ally of his, had mounted the coup attempt.

Almost immediately, a massive wave of purges followed, presumably in an attempt to cleanse the state and society of Gulenist elements. By now, some 150,000 public servants have been fired, and more than 50,000 citizens have been jailed without even a pretense of due process. The charge is always the same: membership in an armed terrorist organization. Those purged have lost access to their livelihood, retirement accounts, housing and the right to ever again hold a job in the public sector. To date, those jailed include more than 150 journalists. Six thousand people have been fired from universities.

Very few details have emerged about the coup, as the government has tried to keep a tight lid on information. What we do know, however, raises a great number of suspicions. First and foremost, fewer than 9,000 soldiers were out on the street that night, most of them unaware of what was going on. Yet, almost immediately, the government fired some 149 generals and admirals representing 46 percent of the general staff of the Turkish military. In addition, many colonels and majors, most of them staff-level officers, were also purged.

If so many were implicated in the coup, then how come so few soldiers were mobilized? The speed with which these officers were dismissed and the absence of any due process indicate that lists had been readied well before the coup attempt.

Most of the officers shared a pro-Western viewpoint. Many were actually serving abroad in NATO installations or as military attachés. They were all recalled, and a great number of them were arrested upon arrival. Their arrests have turned into jail sentences, as few have had an indictment or seen a judge. Even officers who were away on vacation at the time of the coup were accused of complicity.

The Turkish military knows how to stage a coup. It has four successful and two unsuccessful examples to look back on. But this time, instead of the traditional early morning hours when civilians are mostly at home, the organizers chose the late evening hours on a Friday when a vibrant city such as Istanbul is teeming with cars and people enjoying night life. Soldiers were sent to block traffic on the Bosporus bridge — inexplicably, only in one direction. They never bothered to occupy the seat of government or capture its leaders, such as the prime minister and other high-ranking officials. Soldiers chose the state TV station, a poorly watched outlet, to spread their message. The order to the military as a whole was signed by a low-ranking general who had little credibility.

There were other anomalies. By his own admission, the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, who reports to the president, got wind of the coup attempt sometime around 4 o’clock that afternoon. (There are indications that the agency may have learned about the coup even earlier.) Instead of informing the president and other government leaders, Fidan chose to meet with the chief of staff of the armed forces around 6 in the evening. The two of them took no measures to prevent the coup from taking place or to summon the chiefs of the different branches to an emergency meeting. The only action taken was to order a ban on all military flights over Turkey.

Erdogan has said he only found out at 9:30 in the evening, and then from his brother-in-law, not from any state official. When the air force commander was informed by phone that all military aircraft had been grounded, he simply returned to a wedding he was attending. Similarly, the navy commander did not think that conditions warranted his absence from another wedding that night.

Then there is the question of the bombing of the Turkish parliament by F-16s that were also used to buzz the capital. The minimal damage done to the parliament buildings is inconsistent with the munitions that an F-16 packs. Why bomb the parliament building on a Friday evening when it is not in use?

This is not to say that Gulen followers were not involved in the coup attempt. Some Gulenists were seen in and around military bases. If they were involved, it is also very likely that Gulen himself was aware. Still, given the clumsiness with which the whole operation was executed and the lackadaisical initial response by those who could have prevented it, there is a distinct possibility that this from the beginning was an effort at entrapment.

Simply put, what finally transpired was a counter-coup that enabled Erdogan to rid Turkey of his opponents. In the process, he has denuded the military of its fighting abilities, imprisoned some of the best and the brightest, not to mention tens of thousands of innocents, and institutionalized a paranoid style of politics, where allies are enemies and critics are traitors. In the end, this will not serve Turkey well.