The Counter-Coup in Turkey

It was ironic that, as members of the military launched a coup against him on Friday night, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey resorted to guerrilla media tactics — broadcasting via the FaceTime app on his cellphone — to urge Turks to oppose the plotters. Mr. Erdogan has been no friend to free expression, ruthlessly asserting control over the media and restricting human rights and free speech. Yet thousands responded to his appeal, turning back the rebels and demonstrating that they still value democracy even if Mr. Erdogan has eroded its meaning.

That erosion now seems likely to accelerate, exacting a terrible price from Turkey’s citizens and posing new challenges to international efforts to confront the Islamic State and halt the killing in Turkey’s neighbor, Syria.

Given the chaotic and bloody events of the last two days, there is little doubt that Mr. Erdogan will become more vengeful and obsessed with control than ever, exploiting the crisis not just to punish mutinous soldiers but to further quash whatever dissent is left in Turkey. “They will pay a heavy price for this,” he said, chillingly. “This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.”

Since coming to power as prime minister in 2003, Mr. Erdogan has become an increasingly authoritarian leader who has steered his country far from the vision of a model Muslim democracy that many, in Turkey and around the world, had longed for. The volatile Middle East cannot afford to have another state unravel, especially one that is also the essential bulwark of NATO’s eastern flank and has the largest army in the region. In a statement late Friday, the United States emphasized its “absolute support for Turkey’s democratically-elected, civilian government and democratic institutions.”

Turkey’s military has a history of mounting coups to defend secularism, although the army has not seized power directly since 1980. There have long been tensions between Mr. Erdogan, whose AKP party has its roots in Islamism, and the military, and he has worked methodically to weaken the army as an institution. More recently, however, the army was seen as regaining some of its clout because it was steering clear of politics and managing a brutal war against Kurdish separatists.

Mr. Erdogan moved rapidly on Saturday to round up his adversaries, real or imagined. Authorities reportedly had detained nearly 3,000 members of the armed forces, including a brigadier general, and purged the judiciary of 2,745 judges. Mr. Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania, who was his ally until a bitter falling out three years ago. Mr. Gulen’s followers were known to have a strong presence in Turkey’s police and judiciary, but less so in the military. Moreover, Mr. Gulen condemned the coup on the website of his group, Alliance for Shared Values.

An estimated 265 people, including “coup plotters” and civilians, were reported killed during the insurrection, which began Friday night when a faction of the army seized two bridges in Istanbul. The uprising involved tanks, jet fighters and attack helicopters; some forces strafed the headquarters of the Turkish intelligence and parliament in Ankara, according to news reports.

In a strategic sense, the fallout from the mutiny is already being felt. Turkish authorities on Saturday halted American-led strike missions against Islamic State that have been flying from Incirlik air base, a vital operations center. Given the apparent split over Mr. Erdogan within the Turkish military, ties between the American military and Turkish military, a critical link in the Turkey-American relationship, will be trickier to manage. That could impede cooperation on Syria and other matters besides Islamic State, American officials say.

As the response to the coup demonstrates, Mr. Erdogan retains significant support in his country of 80 million people, even as he has become increasingly polarizing. One might hope that this desperate uprising might prompt him to reach out to his opponents, but Mr. Erdogan’s pattern points in the opposite direction. The weekend’s upheaval and lingering political tensions are likely to compromise Turkey’s democracy and its ability to be a stabilizing influence in NATO and the region.

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