Imperialism, Turkey

Failed Coup in Turkey and the Emerging Equations in the Middle-East – Aditya Prakash

The failed coup by sections of the Army and Air Force in Turkey and the subsequent massive arrests and purge in military, police, judiciary, education department and press by Erdogan Govt. to tighten its control over the country have been both the result and cause of intensifying contradictions in Turkey and the larger Middle-East. This intensification is linked to growing contradictions among imperialist powers and among the regional powers aligned to them.

To go briefly into the events preceding, Erdogan’s project to carve out an area of influence in Levante with the blessings and aid of US and other western powers, has come a cropper. Islamic State, emerging from the resistance of Iraqi people against US led aggression and bolstered by imperialist machinations in Syria, has unnerved the monarchies in the region which are caught between supporting the Sunni Islamist groups and suppressing their own people. While they embarked on these objectives as complementary to each other, these groups are threatening to assume a life of their own becoming players in their own right or along with their benefactors. Arab Spring, that upsurge of the people’s struggles in Arab countries which imperialists and their allies sought to utilize to their own advantage, has been drowned in the blood of ruthless suppression and sectarian strife. Democratic and dictatorial faces have flitted across the stage acclaimed by some powers and declaimed by other powers. The amorphous middle class nature of these upsurges was no match for the hardnosed power brokers of monarchs and military dictators. These outbursts of people’s anger were sought to be utilized to usher in a new Middle-East of the US imperialists’ dream, suppressing this anger with military boots when it threatened their allies and attempting to direct them towards regime change where it was against the rulers not to their liking.

In shaping these tumultuous events the decline of US imperialism played an important role. Faced with disastrous wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan resulting in killing and maiming of thousands of Americans and drowning of trillions of dollars in the war quagmire and explosion of financial economic crisis resulting in piling up of huge debts and bringing the effects of the crisis on the shoulders of the people, workers and middle classes, US imperialism could not sustain its unilateralism of Bush period. It could not throw its military into further conflicts in the Middle-East as its earlier military adventures and killing of hundreds of thousands and displacing millions of Iraqis and Afghans had made the people of these countries further steeled in their resolve to fight US imperialism. Though the leopard might become weaker, it cannot change its spots. It planned to achieve its hegemonic designs by means other than dispatching its army, feet on the soil, to these regions. In this latter period, US’s adventurous policy of regime change in Libya and Syria though without stationing large number of its troops on their soil but by launching air attacks and arming, training and directing the mercenaries to achieve its objectives, was put into practice again killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions.

Turkey had opened its borders for the flow of fighters, arms and supplies into Syria with whom it shared a long border. It threw away the mask of zero problem with neighbours and good relations with Assad to join the move to overthrow the Syrian Govt. Coming of Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt for a brief period after the Arab Spring boosted them to claim Turkey as a model for ‘democratic’ Arab countries. In those heady days, Erdogan and his allies dreamt of a neo-Ottaman hegemony of the Middle-East. Relations with Iran which had been smoothly developing till then were also downgraded. To position themselves as champions of Arabs, Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders made a great show of their concern for Gaza leading even to deterioration of their longstanding relations with Israel. In brief, Turkey was positioning itself as the local policeman for western imperialism. However, the contradictions within US led camp came to fore with the strong opposition from Saudi led Gulf monarchies (barring Qatar) to MB rule in Egypt. MB is hostile to these Gulf monarchies and thousands of its activists are in jail in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf emirates. MB’s Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. Western imperialist powers which were trying to come to terms with MB, soon accepted the military rule giving a rude shock to MB rulers of Turkey where too, military coup had been common.

In Libya, Gaddafi Govt. was overthrown under the cover of western airstrikes. But the resultant conflict led to the rise of several militias controlling different parts of Libya. The west supported Govt. was driven out of capital Tripoli and western powers are backing military commander Haftar’s forces. Shocks emanating from Libya shook a large number of countries of northern and central Africa. In Libya itself, some of the forces loyal to Gaddafi and some Islamist groups emerged as Islamic State controlling Sirte and a strip along the sea coast. But in Syria, the other target of West backed regime change, the struggle prolonged with Assad Govt. holding on in battle against jihadi groups financed by Gulf monarchies and armed and supplied by Turkey, US, France and other western powers. Besides loyalty of the armed forces of Syria, support from Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon and Russia played a pivotal role. Russia and China opposed Western powers’ efforts to seek UN Security Council approval for intervention in Syria. US Admn. was not willing to send its armed forces in any case. Rise of Islamic State in 2014 further complicated the situation, emerging as the main opponent of US backed Govt. of Iraq and Russia backed Govt. of Syria and displacing other Islamist groups.

With US and other western imperialist powers unwilling to intervene and anti-Assad forces increasingly dominated by Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra, the war reached a stalemate. In this situation, Russia launched its air strikes against Anti-Assad forces in Syria in the name of combating terrorism. Russia increased its forces at its Syrian base and stationed a strong naval contingent in the Mediterranean injecting a new element into the ongoing complex conflict in the Middle-East. Turkey’s influence on the events in Syria was totally marginalized with Turkey carrying the burden of US led and Saudi financed adventure in Syria. Syrian Govt. with Russian air support could take back many areas particularly from the forces close to Turkey and those specially ‘trained’ by US and other western imperialist powers. The attempt by Turkey to shoot down a Russian air force plane further narrowed its options in Syria with Russia stationing monitors to track down planes over Syrian sky and with its international isolation over the incident. Turkey is an important member of NATO. After USA, it has the largest ground forces among imperialist powers. But when Turkey tried to drag NATO into its conflict with Russia over alleged violation of its airspace, the NATO response was very guarded.

While Turkish leaders’ plans to overthrow Assad went awry, another important factor started growing in the conflict which seriously affected Turkey. Kurds living in northern Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq started asserting their rights over their area. This area was any way detached from the areas controlled by Assad Govt. Kurds of Northern Syria (Rojava) waged a heroic resistance against Islamist groups for control over the area. Their successful resistance against Islamic State in Kobane galvanized Kurds in the entire region. Kurds made a significant advance towards realizing their national aspirations which have long been suppressed by the states in the region. Largest number of Kurds live in South Eastern Turkey and Turkish Govt. has since long been suppressing their national rights including their language and culture. Rising strength of Kurds in Syria particularly their relations with Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) seriously alarmed Erdogan and other leaders. On the other hand, US imperialism has been collaborating with some sections of Syrian Kurds in its drive to oppose Islamic State which brought it in conflict with Turkish Govt. which chided USA for hobnobbing with Kurdish ‘terrorists’. Turkish authorities realized that the Syrian adventure had been a costly affair for them. They tore away the earlier agreement with PKK and launched military operations against Kurds in Turkey which have created war like situation in Southeastern Turkey.

In the period since Arab Spring, the pro-US forces and jihadi groups had gained in strength in Turkey. They operated freely here with the approval of the Govt. But the Syrian situation and renewed fight with Kurds increased internal turmoil. Adverse situation in Syria and rise of Kurd forces was leaving Erdogan led MB Govt. with no option but to follow US footsteps and be part of the US-Israeli designs in the area including a ‘controlled rise’ of Kurd forces which were aligned with US imperialism. Rulers of Turkey, rather than utilizing US and other western imperialist powers in their game of carving out larger area of influence in the region, were being sucked up in the US-Israeli designs which were not to the liking of the rulers of Turkey. Turkey was asked to fight Islamic State and tolerate rule of Kurds in Syria bordering Turkey. Erdogan led MB felt squeezed in this tight embrace and started openly criticizing US and western imperialist powers.

This led to escalation of conflict between Erdogan led MB and followers of Fethullah Gulen, Islamic preacher based in Pennsylvania in USA. The two had earlier cooperated closely in fighting ‘secular’ Army establishment in Turkey. Followers of Gullen with the support of Erdogan Admn. had infiltrated Army, police, judiciary and different wings of the administration. Gullen’s followers run a vast network of educational institutions, hospitals, charities and religious establishments across Turkey. These elements had served Erdogan by staging trials of ‘secular’ Army officers in a series of trials against attempted coups by the Army officers. Gullen followers, while running almost a state within a state and a vast secretive network in different wings of the state, base themselves on the Derveshi tradition of Sufism in Turkey. But the real conflict came when the Gullen network opposed Erdogan’s attempts to corner more power in his hands and to go against the interests of western imperialism. The dwindling strength of Kemalists in the Army and other wings of the state had lowered the utility of the Gullen network for Erdogan led MB. The extensive reach of the Gullen network and its dominance over several aspects of social life is well known in Turkey. US has not only sheltered Gullen on US soil but allowed him to conduct his activities.

The first open salvo in this battle was fired by the Gullen network in judiciary. They started trial of Erdogan loyalists on charges of corruption. Erdogan called these trials a judicial coup. Since then Erdogan and his associates have been targeting the Gullen network. This internecine struggle would have continued but for the change in the relations between Erdogan and Western imperialist powers, particularly USA.

Erdogan dismissed Davutoglu, the pro-West Prime Minister who had challenged his authority in the Govt. and had tried to marginalize him and his followers after the inconclusive elections when MB led ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) had failed to win majority. Erdogan replaced him with his loyalist. He also tried to mend ties with Russia. He wrote a letter apologizing for downing of Russia’s air force plane, a demand from Russia which he had earlier refused. There were reports that Turkish Govt. had tried to establish contact with Assad led Govt. of Syria. Erdogan also talked of improving relations with Iran. In brief, Erdogan was trying to reset relations with Russia and Iran. On the other hand, media associated with ruling AKP tried to point fingers at US for creating troubles in Turkey. Even the attack at Istanbul airport was painted by the media as a CIA operation. Erdogan led AKP Govt. had been irked by western criticism of their attack on the Gullen network and by US attempts to rope in Turkey into its changed strategy for the Middle-East which had little scope for advancing the interests of Turkey as envisaged by Erdogan and his associates. This US led framework included Kurd forces in Syria which are an anathema to Erdogan and MB. Souring of relations between Turkey and USA had been going on for some time. There has been growing perception in Turkey that western powers want Turkey to do their dirty work but not to include Turkey into European Union.

The coup went into action on the evening of July 15, 2016. Army units came out into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Air force planes bombarded the Parliament building. 16 air force planes flew from NATO base at Increlik. Erdogan was taken hostage. However, the Army command and police took speedy action and a major part of Army and police took a stand against the coup. Erdogan could speak on TV calling on people to come into the streets against the coup. Lack of participation of the main command of the Army made its failure a common perception. From the conduct of the coup it is apparent that it was ill-planned or might have been forced at a time when preparations for the same were not yet completed. From what has emerged after the coup, it was quite a serious but premature attempt by certain forces to take over power. It is quite possible that the coup was preponed due to some leaks about its preparation. It is being said that the coup was to be timed prior to a meeting of the Military Council in August, in which a number of Gullen supporters were tipped to be demoted and new officers were set to be promoted. However the hand of the coup plotters was forced due to this information being leaked to the Army and police authorities. According to Fars News Agency of Iran, it was the Russian intelligence which tipped off the Turkish authorities of the impending coup. This piece of information, not confirmed by other sources however, is lent credence by the reactions to the coup attempt.

What is interesting is the reaction of different powers to the coup attempt. Western powers including US Admn. waited for the coup to fail to mouth their opposition to the coup and support for democratic institutions. Even Gulf monarchies including Saudi Arabia waited for the outcome before giving their reaction i.e. condemning the coup. On the other hand, Iran came out openly against the coup even while the same was in progress. Russia also reacted adversely to the coup at an earlier time. This pattern of reaction showed that coup plotters were favourably disposed to the western powers and were viewed with suspicion by Iran and Russia. In Turkey the opposition parties condemned the coup and lent no support to the coup plotters. After the coup Erdogan Admn. went into overdrive to cleanse the Army, police, judiciary, education department and other wings of the Govt. of the followers of Gullen. Western powers, which were slow to react to the coup, were quick to react to these large scale arrests and dismissals.

After the coup there is widespread opinion in Turkey that US Admn. was behind the coup while Gullen is being projected as the main perpetrator. A cabinet minister was the first to make this open allegation which was later asserted by other ruling politicians. Even Erdogan himself alluded to this in his statement. The involvement of air force units from NATO air base, participation of military commanders from the US base in Southeastern Turkey are some of the pointers about the origin of the coup. Media in Turkey and this time not only ruling AKP controlled media is openly talking of the US backing of the coup. There is a mention of a US General Campbell who has been NATO commander as a mastermind of the coup. Fox News carried a report against this insinuation stating that Campbell was in their studio when the coup unfolded as if it was any proof against his involvement in the coup. US Secretary of State John Kerry himself condemned such insinuations and also asserted that following of democratic norms is a must for membership of NATO which is an obviously false but significant allusion to continuation of Turkey as NATO member. There is also talk in Turkey about the agreement on refugees hammered out between EU and Turkey and whetheror not it should be scrapped.

While it is very difficult to decisively prove the involvement of US agencies, the political and military developments in the region, the reactions of different major imperialist powers and regional powers allied to them to the failed coup, and the plethora of circumstantial evidence being bandied by media in Turkey point towards involvement of US in the coup. Any way that is the perception which is being openly encouraged by the Govt. which has not hidden its suspicion of US agencies being behind the coup. Involvement of military units – army and air force – from NATO bases give some credence to this wide perception.

Another interesting feature of this failed coup has been the opposition to it from Kemalist elements in the Army and Air force. These forces have been the main carriers of the earlier coups. Their strength has however been depleted by successive trials and arrests, dismissals and jail terms under the charges of plotting coup, a systematic campaign conducted by AKP Govt. with the help of the Gullen network. In this coup these elements have opposed the coup by the Gullen network and are participating in purging the state agencies of the followers of Gullen.

Since the failed coup, Erdogan and AKP Govt. have made certain moves. In the foreign policy arena, Turkey has apparently tried to normalize relations with Russia. The two air force pilots who had shot down the Russian air force plane have been arrested among the participants in the coup. Through this Erdogan Admn. has sought to emphasize that the shooting down of the Russian plane was the handiwork of the forces of the Gullen network in the Air Force. Turkey has also opposed stationing of US naval vessels in the Black Sea to counter the Russian fleet, though earlier they had demanded it to prevent Black Sea from becoming what they used to call a Russian Lake. Improving relations with Iran may be another area of thrust of post-coup Erdogan Admn. However, it is yet to be seen whether the present moves of Erdogan Admn. are to pressurize the US and its western allies to deliver Gullen for trial in Turkey and placate Turkey Govt. in other ways or a real move away from the western alliance. While the answer to this question may yet be in the making depending on a number of factors, this much is clear that this would not be business as usual with US and other western imperialist powers. The disquiet which these relations were facing over some period past is going to develop into marked change in relation within the alliance.

This development coming after Brexit, has put a lot of strain on the western alliance. Exit of Britain from the EU has severely dented US influence in Europe. Britain has been its bridgehead for influencing Europe. After Brexit, US has been strenuously emphasizing that it would not make any difference to the military alliance of NATO. However, howsoever US may strain, Brexit will cast its shadow over the US influence in Europe. US attempts to pit new Europe, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe which came out of the Soviet orbit, against the old Europe, mainly Franco-German alliance, will definitely suffer a setback because these countries of Central and Eastern Europe would need and remain under the umbrella of the European Union which provides outlet for their trade and their workforce as well as is the supplier of capital goods. Recent NATO summit in Poland could not hide its disquiet. With waning of US influence in Europe, US fears that European powers may not become willing partner in its game of pushing NATO to the east and combating Russia. These powers may adopt a softer line towards Russia whom US Admn. is increasingly perceiving as a rival in Europe and Middle-East. With post-coup developments in Turkey, US may be faced with further erosion of its influence in these regions i.e. Europe and Middle-East.

In the Middle-East, US is caught between rival claims of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and their allies. Israel anyway remains its main ally in the region. However, it is the situation in Saudi Arabia which is causing the main concern for America. Saudi led and US supported and aided offensive against Houthis and Yemen Army has not altered the ground situation in Yemen, which largely remains under the control of Houthis and Yemen Army led by Saleh. The recent visit of the Saudi prince to Israel has angered the Palestinians. Though Saudis have denied the official status of the visit, but it has fooled none. Israel continues to expand its grab of Palestinian land and most of the Arab countries are so much embroiled in their existential battles, that they have totally forgotten Palestinians and are courting Israelis. However, resistance of Palestinians against Zionist Israeli rulers continues.

Further decline of US imperialism and its allies in the crucial Middle-East may give rise to newer areas of struggle and protests. As progressive forces are weak in the region, these protests may take different forms but undermining of the old order is definitely on.

Developments in Turkey in the totally unsettled situation of Middle-East have come at a particularly bad time for US and their allies. Their surrogates in Syria are being battered by Syrian Army with Russian air support. Aleppo siege is the recent example of expanding control of Assad regime. The only successes that US forces have scored are with Kurd-Arab forces in some IS areas. And it is this that will have important influence over developments in Turkey. Turkey reckons that it may share common perception with Iran, Russia and even Assad Govt. in Syria towards Kurds. None of these really support Kurds’ national struggle. In particular Iran is against them. Assad regime does not have to bother about it at present but may have to reckon with it in case it is able to extend its control over Aleppo and nearby areas. Russia is likely to go with its regional allies. It is this common perception which may bring these erstwhile rivals on the same page.

On the domestic front, Erdogan and AKP are targeting the Gullen network. However, though they may appear to have been strengthened after the failed coup, but this may not be a reality. The opposition parties had come out against the coup including pro-Kurd HDP. The overall people’s anger against the coup may handicap Erdogan who had sought to increasingly marginalize other opposition parties. Erdogan has called an all party meeting against the coup attempt and has permitted opposition parties to hold rallies after several years. However, Erdogan and AKP are trying to keep pro-Kurd HDP from this emerging scenario. The increasing economic difficulties at home will also undercut influence of Erdogan and AKP. High growth rate over the last decade and more have been crucial in cementing control of AKP in the social and political life of Turkey. The deteriorating economy may compel AKP to come to terms with other parties at least for the time being, particularly in the aftermath of the failed coup when it would seek to tighten its control over different wings of the state, particularly armed forces.

The coup attempt was in a way the continuation of politics by other means. It was an attempt by the Gullen network, with overt or covert support from US imperialism, to overthrow Erdogan and AKP from power. They too would have tried to whip up anti-Kurd hysteria as the documents seized from the dumps of coup plotters indicate.

Over-extended US imperialism is finding it difficult to placate all its allies with their different interests in the region. Rise of Islamic State and its increasing reach in western imperialist countries has further complicated the situation for US imperialism which has to cooperate with Iran and Russia in the fight against IS while pursuing its basic agenda of diluting and eventually eliminating Russian influence from the region. These apparently contradictory steps are confusing their allies and alienating their supporters. But US imperialism cannot help the situation.

Rulers of Turkey did not grasp the emerging complexity and jumped into the cauldron. They have been badly burnt in the process. The failed coup is not the last in the unfolding turmoil in the region. But the development shows the limits of the capacity of the largest imperialist power, the US, in shaping the events in the region and in the world at large.