In recent months, the Turkish government has faced existential threats both from its own military and from terrorist militants on the war-torn Syrian border.
On July 15, a faction in the Turkish military attempted to overthrow the Erdogan government by taking over the capital, Ankara, and the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. Since its founding, the Republic of Turkey has witnessed a string of military-orchestrated coups following a similar pattern: the army, unhappy with the existing government’s policies, would intervene to install a new, typically more secular, regime. The July 15 coup, however, lasted only two days and ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Despite the military takeover of the Turkish state broadcaster TRT, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the nation via FaceTime and urged Turks to resist the coup. Early the next day, Erdogan landed in the Istanbul airport to reclaim control of the government and the soldiers occupying the Bosphorus Bridge surrendered.
The government accused Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric and long-time Erdogan rival currently living in Pennsylvania, of masterminding the coup and demanded that the U.S. government extradite Gulen to be tried in Turkey. An Al-Jazeera opinion editorial by Kani Torun, Deputy Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Turkey’s Parliament, dubbed Gulen’s followers a religious “cult [that]infiltrated government institutions, in particular the education ministry, security services and judiciary.”
Shortly after demanding Gulen’s extradition, Erdogan’s regime launched a severe crackdown against his sympathizers, purging over 50,000 people including judges, teachers, police, and journalists. Turkey also disbanded its elite presidential guard unit after some guards were accused of aiding the coup attempt.
In direct response to the failed coup, Erdogan instituted a three-month state of emergency. The mandate allows the government to hold individuals for 30 days without charge. Erdogan also called for the reinstatement of the death penalty, claiming the current framework of the law “will leave weak [Turkey’s] defence against [political sabotage].”
The coup, however, turned out to be only one of the many security issues Turkey confronted over the summer. On June 28, three attackers opened fire in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and detonated a bomb, killing 45 civilians, including 19 foreign nationals. The Turkish government accused the Islamic State (ISIS) of orchestrating the bombing and later charged 13 suspects in connection with the attack.
Despite the government’s efforts to preserve domestic peace, chaos erupted once more on August 20 when another bomb exploded at a Kurdish wedding in a town near the Syrian border, killing more than 50.
In response to the terror attacks, Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria on August 24 to recapture the town of Jarabulus, a major ISIS stronghold near the Turkish border. The move represented a serious escalation of Turkey’s previously held role in the Syrian conflict. The U.S. provided air support and Russia, despite its close alliance with the Assad government, took no meaningful steps to stall the offensive.
Russia’s subdued response to the Turkish invasion might have been a result of Erdogan’s visit to Saint Petersburg earlier in August, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November in an attempt to normalize ties. Erdogan and Putin discussed the return of Russian tourists to Turkey, a joint gas project, and the overall expansion of economic relations.
Reeling from terrorist attacks and a close encounter with civil war, Turkey made a bold claim for influence in the Syrian conflict, where the U.S. and Russia used to dictate its role. Moscow’s promise to expand economic ties might signal the Kremlin’s desire to gain Turkey’s support for a resolution of the Syrian war favorable to Putin and Assad.
Whereas Turkey had previously insisted that Assad step down before the peace process could begin, the government has since indicated that it would be willing to accept Assad’s role in a political transition. On the other hand, Washington worries that Turkey’s offensive aims to curb the territorial ambitions of the Kurds in Iraq, whom the U.S. previously aided in their fight against ISIS. Regardless of Erdogan’s final goal, the world can expect to see Turkey become a more active player in the world of international affairs in the coming months.