Turkey’s Weekend of the Long Knives

President Erdoğan survived another geopolitical game of chicken — though not without cost.

As last weekend began, Turkey was plunged temporarily into violent chaos as troops attempted to overthrow the country’s government. The military’s move was loud and bloody, including bombs dropped on the parliament and presidential palace, but ultimately ineffective. Turkey’s elected government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reestablished its authority within hours.

As coups go, this was a total flop. The number of troops directly involved was quite small—enough to attempt the takeover of some critical government buildings and infrastructure—but far too few to seriously challenge the government. In the end, the effort reportedly cost the lives of 265 Turks, including 104 coup participants, as well as more than a hundred civilians caught in the crossfire. Most of the short-lived fighting between rebellious troops and police loyal to the government happened in Istanbul and Ankara, leaving the rest of the country largely untouched.

Turkey’s impressive military once knew how to manage a coup d’état. They pulled off full-fledged coups in 1960 and 1980, plus a “post-modern” one in 1997, forcing out a civilian government without actually rolling out the tanks. The military is the core institution of the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923 out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The creator of the army and the state, Mustafa Kemal, popularly known as Atatürk (Father of the Turks), wanted a powerful military to act as the guardian of the new republic’s cherished constitutional values—above all, secularism.

Thus, every so often, the Turkish military threw out a government it didn’t like, usually because it felt that the civilians were moving away from Kemalism. Since Turkey boasts the second-biggest army in NATO, the United States generally kept its protests to a minimum, not least because during the Cold War the Turkish military was a strategic necessity to keep the Soviets at bay. Neither did many in the West really mind that the Turkish military was keeping the country’s Islamic extremists at bay, too.

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