OPINION by Iqbal Jassat
Having spent a few days in Istanbul less than two months ago, the notion of a military coup to impose regime change in Turkey didn’t occur to me at all. That it didn’t even feature as a topic of discussion at an international media event on Palestine which attracted close to 500 participants from various countries, gives a clue of the improbability of such a crisis.
Was it simply a blind spot or merely an irrelevant theme unconnected to the conference that didn’t warrant a discussion?
Now that a violent military overthrow of the Erdogan regime has been successfully thwarted, my thoughts go to my wonderful Turkish hosts and friends.
Some of them whom I had contacted during Friday’s tension-filled hours, were shocked and alarmed at the prospect of a return to military dictatorship. One of them who has been a vocal critic of Erdogan’s capitulation to Israel over Gaza, insisted that opposing the coup was his civic duty to protect Turkish democracy.
Days later, as Turkey rejoices at the remarkable way masses of people turned out in the streets by challenging and defeating armed military personnel, questions abound about who was behind the coup and why?
According to a fact-file prepared by Politico’s Barbara Surk he is one of Turkey’s most powerful figures and an influential Muslim imam because of schools his Hizmet movement runs in about 150 countries. Gulen’s enormous wealth is matched by his international stature propelled by a media group he backs.
“Gulen, 75, left Turkey in 1975 and eventually settled in a remote part of Pennsylvania, in the town of Saylorsburg. He remains the leader of the Hizmet movement that runs acclaimed schools and charities in Turkey and around the world, including several in the U.S.
He has considerable influence in Turkey despite the closure of the Zaman newspaper, with which he had been associated. The office of the newspaper and its English-language edition was stormed by government security forces in March. Analysts say Hizmet has suffered following Erdoğan’s efforts to eliminate any opposition to his government.
The president was particularly adamant in his resolve to purge the military, police and judiciary of Gülen’s supporters, weakening the movement that has greatly infiltrated Turkey’s main institutions of power.
In the meantime, it seems likely that Turkey is getting involved in an ugly diplomatic dogfight following Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s official request sent to US for Gulen’s extradition.
Chairing the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party group meeting at the parliament in Ankara, Binali Yildirim criticized the US for asking Turkey to provide evidence of Pennsylvania-based cleric’s involvement in the attempted coup to extradite him.
“It is already clear,” Yildirim said. “However, we will provide them with a pile of evidence.”
In an interesting development mobile phone messages between pro-coup officers appear to reveal they ordered the shooting of people resisting the July 15 coup attempt.
As part of the investigation into the thwarted coup attempt, the Istanbul Prosecutor Office has compiled a series of WhatsApp messages between pro-coup officers, apparently sent on the evening of July 15.
Once a staunch ally of Erdogan, the relationship between the two men soured to the extent that the Pennsylvania-based preacher is now on Turkey’s most-wanted list, accused of terrorism and the failed coup.
Whether it adds up is left to be seen.
What I do find intriguing in the entire saga is the US/NATO factor and its Incirlik military base.
Movement in and out of the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey was blocked on Saturday by local military authorities. The NATO base stores US tactical nuclear weapons.
Though access to it has now been restored and flights are again allowed in its airspace, the mystery about its role in the attempted coup hasn’t been laid to rest.
The Incirlik airbase is of critical importance to the US military, as not only does it facilitate the US’ aerial operations in neighboring Syria and Iraq, but it is also one of six NATO sites in Europe that house tactical nuclear weapons. The exact number of tactical nuclear bombs at the base is classified, although some reports put it at 50 or even 90.
Logic suggests that if Incirlik was used as a launchpad by Gulen’s men as is claimed by Turkey, it would not be possible without the knowledge and consent of Pentagon.
While it is clear that a divided Turkey has demonstrated its ability to rally around Erdogan to protect civilian rule, the challenges faced by the incumbent president has not ended with the defeat of the coup-plotters.
Iqbal Jassat is the executive member of Media Review Network, a thinktank based in Johannesburg.