The “New Turkey” brings new problems for the country, the Middle East and beyond

Printer-friendly version

The internal response to the July 15/16 attempted coup was, according to Turkish President Erdogan, a “Gift from God”. He insisted that the “cleansing” would continue and the “virus would be eradicated” along with terrorists wherever they were. Sure enough, a Stalinist-like purge, with lists of names already drawn-up, was implemented with force and the war against the Kurds in south-east Turkey immediately stepped up.

Coup and counter-coup

Without any speculation as to the possible role or knowledge of outside agencies, it looks clear that the coup involved some of the senior levels of the Turkish military, called by the BBC as the coup unfolded, “the guarantors of Turkish secularism”.

This putsch to overthrow Erdogan and his AKP was in all probability wider and deeper than a “Gulenist” movement[1], although the alliances and links between the various shadowy factions and tendencies within the Turkish state are often truly Byzantine in their complexity. For example, the Gulenists have long been accused of being involved in the “deep state” conspiracy Ergenekon, which was supposedly set up around the 1990s as a guarantor of Turkey’s secular traditions, and traditionally, the main opponents of Erdogan’s “moderate” Islamist party,  AKP are not the Gulenists but the Kemalist[2] factions within the military and society at large. But this was not just a new confrontation between the Islamist AKP and the secular Kemalists – indeed, in the wake of the coup the main Kemalist party, the CHP, rallied to the government in a grand display of national solidarity. And there are also complex religious rivalries involved: between Sunni and the heterodox Alevis, and between Erdogan’s version of Sunni Islam and the one promulgated by the Gulenists. But for now Erdogan and the AKP have now tightened their totalitarian grip on the Turkish state, with a three-month State of Emergency enabling them to rule by decree in an atmosphere of fear and heightened state surveillance.

To date (CNN, 9.8.16) 22,000 people have been detained and a further 16,000 arrested on specific charges, including thousands of military personnel, involving about a third of Turkey’s General and Admiral ranks. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested, detained, investigated or sacked along with many thousands of civil servants, and foreign travel has been stopped for many. Altogether 68,000 have been fired or suspended with 2000 institutions shut down. The State of Emergency has led to torture, beatings, and starvation of those detained

Some involved in Erdogan’s inner circle have been arrested and the Presidential Guard has been disbanded. Around 250 soldiers and civilians were killed in the coup on the government side as well as an unknown number of those, wittingly or unwittingly, on the side of the putsch. Dozens of fighter-bombers, dozens of helicopters, thousands of armoured vehicles and 3 ships were used in the coup attempt. From some reports Erdogan narrowly escaped with his life after warnings from Russian interceptions.

The internal destabilisation of Turkey

For some years Turkey has been held up as a stable, economically thriving island, and an example of moderate, democratic Islam, amid a sea of troubles in the Middle East. And indeed, as a state,  Turkey does have a more solid historical implantation than many of its war-torn neighbours like Syria and Iraq. But it remains the case that Turkey has a lot in common with Syria and Iraq in terms of ethnic and sectarian divisions.

The strength of Erdogan’s AKP has been in its delivery on the economic level where the standard of living has risen for most of the countryside and the urban poor. Jobs have been created by borrowing huge sums for state investments and state projects. At the same time Erdogan has profited from the rise of Islam and has pursued a moderate form of fundamentalism in order to enhance the image of a “New Turkey”, demonstrating its power as a potential leader of the Sunni world. Behind the conflict between the Islamist AKP and the secular Kemalists of the army and wider layers of society, i.e. a confrontation between Islamism and secularist nationalism, lies a further religious element. The previous secular Kemalist system was seen as indirectly favouring the Shiite Aleviminority at the expense of the Sunni majority, since the Alevi form of Islam is seen as more adaptable to the modern world. At this level there is a certain resemblance between the previous Kemalist system in Turkey and  the Assad regime, which rules over a Sunni majority while being largely composed of another Shiite sect, the Alawites[3]. The present war in Syria between Alawite and Sunni can only affect and accentuate the religious and cultural rivalries between comparable elements in Turkey. In the wake of the coup, for example, there were reports of pogromist attacks on Alevi homes and shops. 

The Turkey of today is not the same country it was at the time of the  previous military putsch in 1980, whose justification was the growing disorder sown by conflicts between right and left political factions, or even ten years ago when the AKP came to power. As a result of the economic boom, which now seems to be ending, both a modern proletariat and a new elite of specialists and intellectuals has emerged in the big cities. A large part of these elements are not at all comfortable with “Islamicisation”. A dangerous situation has thus emerged where the putsch of the old elite (to the extent that they took part in it) has provoked the hatred and thirst for revenge of the AKP supporters. On the other hand, Erdogan has to take seriously the warning that this attempted coup represents. If he goes too far in his “counter-coup” he can, at worst, provoke civil war or a running conflict in the form of armed revolts or new forms of terrorism – even if the resistance of these forces has been subdued for the moment.

At a time when the country has gone from “economic miracle” to one of Morgan Stanley’s “Fragile Five” most at risk, when its productivity and growth is low, while labour costs, inflation and borrowing are rising, the results of further economic instability could be dramatic – collapse of tourism, emigration of new generation of skilled workers, etc.

Additionally, the Turkish bourgeoisie has a long tradition of “exclusion” on which the foundations of modern Turkey were born: the genocide of the Armenians, the massacres of the Greeks and long-standing opposition to any possibility of a Kurdish state. The AKP’s view that all opponents are enemies who need to be repressed has a long history in Turkey.

Further destabilisation throughout the Middle East

Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, Turkey has been affected strongly by the centrifugal tendencies unleashed. The weakening of US imperialism and that of Russia has allowed Turkey to develop its own ambitions, posing as a regional leader of the Sunni regimes. The Erdogan regime has fallen out with Israel, strengthened ties with Hamas and called the al-Sisi government in Egypt which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood “illegitimate”. Its relationship with Russia, which after the coup and Erdogan’s August 9 meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg appears to be warming, has been complicated and fluctuating. In its present situation Turkey can blackmail the west with its links to Russia, China (and Iran), and can play its own cards in the Middle East.

The biggest nightmare for the Turkish bourgeoisie would be the establishment of a Kurdish state. The west has a dilemma here: in their war against Isis they rely on the Kurds for cannon-fodder, providing them with arms, air-cover and “advisors”. Such developments can only strengthen Kurdish nationalism and its ambitions for an “independent” state, even if the Kurdish nationalists are themselves split up into a number of different factions. The clash of interests over the Kurds, with the US, Germany and Britain on one side and Turkey on the other, is stark. Erdogan was close to the Assad regime before the war and during it both have used Isis forces for their own perceived advantages. Assad has also used the Kurdish PKK for the same reasons.  But after a five-year war and Russian (and other) intervention on behalf of Assad, there are signs that Ankara may consider leaving Assad in power while doing some sort of deal with him. Neither Assad nor Turkey has any interest in a Kurdish state or any type of Kurdish autonomous region along the border. Talks have been ongoing for about a year between Assad’s Alawite representatives in Damascus and representatives of Turkey’s Homeland Party[4]   along with elements of Turkey’s military intelligence, with a view, amongst others, of stopping Turkish military support to Assad’s enemies. These Turkish “interlocutors” appear untouched in the post-coup atmosphere, suggesting that these talks will continue. If this is the case it will be at the expense of the west and their Kurdish “allies”[5].

We also need to consider the significance of the fact that Erdogan, the leader of a NATO country,  has accused the governments of other NATO countries – in particular the USA- of having supported the putsch, while at the same time praising Russia for having warned it of the plans for a coupThere is also a question mark over the availability of the Incirlik military base for: up till now it has been considered a NATO base, but Erdogan has said that he would not oppose the Russians using it for operations against Isis. These developments, this game of bargaining and blackmail, are a further sign of the growing fragility of imperialist alliances in the region.  

Refugees: “... gasoline next to the fire”.

Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-boss of MI6, likened the EU deal with Turkey over refugees as similar “to storing gasoline next to the fire” (Belfast Telegraph, 15.5.16). Turkey will use these millions of “assets” as a further element of blackmail against the EU (which Erdogan has called “a Christian club”). He has already threatened to cancel the deal and the Europeans have been forced to try to placate him. The present purge and the hunt for opponents means that in addition to over 2 million Syrian and other refugees there may be more Turks themselves fleeing the country and adding to the general refugee crisis.

Longer-term uncertainty

As a system in accelerating decay, the tendency towards instability and chaos must be the dominant one on a historical scale. But this does mean that the ruling class is helpless in the face of it and that there are no counter-tendencies. We have seen this, for example, in the UK following the disastrous result of the EU referendum: the ruling class has reacted very quickly to the danger of serious fractures in its own ranks, reorganising its governmental cards in a rather adroit manner in order to present a unified response to the Brexit crisis.  And we can discern similar tendencies in Turkey. Although the Kemalists and Gulenists collaborated in the coup, the fact that the Gulenists were singled out is significant. In the wake of the coup, Erdogan has more and more been stressing the heritage of Ataturk and playing the card of Turkish nationalism rather than Islamism. This could signify a serious attempt to win over the Kemalists, as well as the Alevisand other bourgeois factions, behind the option of an autocratic leader pressing the claims of the Turkish nation (somewhat on the model of Putin in Russia).

The current adulation of Erdogan in the widely publicised street demonstrations could be part of this strategy to build a new unity within the Turkish ruling class. On the other hand, the official pictures showing massive support for Erdogan and the AKP are not to be taken at face value. He’s the winner for the moment having beaten off rival cliques but there are limits to Erdogan’s authoritarian project.. One strength of Erdogan and his party has been a strong economy but as we have said this phase of growth is coming to an end He has never been as popular as the propaganda suggests; anti-government demonstrations in important areas in  2013, sparked off by the protests at Taksim Gezi Park[6], showed the existence of a widespread rejection of his policies  among urban, educated youth in particular. And there remains deep resentment in the military directed against Erdogan and his party. Just a year ago AKP ministers faced public abuse and ridicule from senior military figures at funerals for soldiers killed in operations against the Kurdish PKK. The Erdogan government responded to this public humiliation – at what should be show-case events of state propaganda – by requesting the media stopped its coverage of the funerals (Times, 31.8.15). The military publicly objected to the slain soldiers being called “martyrs” and expressed the view that the military surge against the PKK was part of the strengthening of the AKP’s electoral position against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

At the moment the Erdogan clique has strengthened its position as it has grabbed control back from the putschists but its social control remains uncertain with consequences both inside and outside Turkey.

Boxer, 15.8.16 (This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)


[1]               Fethullah Gulen, an ex-ally of Erdogan, now in exile in the US, runs something of an empire there with control over many institutions and assets reportedly worth some $50 billion. The Gulenist/Hizmet movement has 80 million followers world-wide and has openly supported the Clintons and the Democratic Party. Its Islamism appears to be more fundamentalist than the AKP’s. The anti-Kemalist Gulenists were able to penetrate elements of the Turkish state because of their alliance with Erdogan and the AKP from 2002 to 2011. However, their sect-like structure was increasingly seen by Erdogan as a threat to his rule.

[2] Kemalists – secular nationalists who claim to be in the tradition of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s.

[3] The Alevis and Alawites are not the same sect, although both their names signify their reverence for Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed and a key figure in the Shiite branch of Islam. There are also ethnic differences in the majority of their adherents.

[4]               Homeland Party (YP), a small right-wing conservative party founded in 2002.

[5] On 29 August, the USA strongly condemned renewed fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. As in the past, Turkey has used an offensive against Isis (which dislodged Isis from the town of Jarablus) as a means of escalating its war against the Kurds, and this conflict has now openly spilled over into the Syrian theatre of operations.




Turkish situation