BEIRUT – Two weeks ago, a section of the Turkish armed forces made a bid to seize power from the Turkish government in a military coup. The army took control of the main bridge and airport in Istanbul, while the Turkish air force attacked government buildings in the capital, Ankara. But just a few hours later, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared on CNN Turk, urging his supporters out on to the streets to protest against the insurrection. By midnight, it was clear that the coup would not succeed, but Turkey was still headed for a period of turmoil.
Turkey is a key player in the United States-led coalition currently fighting the so-called Islamic State group in Syria, and is a powerful member of NATO. Ankara is also one of the strongest supporters of the Syrian opposition and has been funding and arming several rebel groups inside Syria. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Turkey will be pushed into a period of deep political instability and the shockwaves will be felt in the Syrian conflict, according to Christopher Kozak, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study Of War (ISW).
Erdogan immediately accused exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen of organizing the attempted coup. Gulen, who has been living in the U.S. for more than a decade and has a large following both inside and outside of Turkey, has denied these claims. But Turkish authorities are calling for his extradition, dragging the U.S. into the coup’s aftermath.
As Turkey continues to reap the consequences of the attempted coup, Kozak spoke to Syria Deeply about the effect this will have on the Syrian conflict next door. In his view, the turmoil in Turkey will have a major impact on the U.S.’s fight against ISIS, on the Syrian opposition and could alter Ankara’s role on the ground in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What was the reaction inside of Syria to the attempted military coup in Turkey?
Christopher Kozak: What one would expect. From the regime side, you saw expressions of glee that a coup was underway against Erdogan. We had initial reports that pro-regime forces were firing celebratory gunfire from Aleppo to Damascus when they heard about the coup.
This was then replaced by accusations of false plays and conspiracies after the coup failed. The pro-regime media have a very anti-Erdogan stance and after the failure of the coup, they framed it as a project by Erdogan to seize power.
Opposition groups inside Syria expressed support for Turkey, saying the coup’s failure was a victory for democracy and victory for Islam’s governance. This was coming from all the major suspects like Ahrar al-Sham [an extremist opposition group] and other groups in northern Syria that have links to Turkey.
Syria Deeply: What effect will the attempted coup and the subsequent purge of Turkish state institutions have on Erdogan’s policy in Syria?
Kozak: I don’t think that this will change what Erdogan desires to see out of Syria, namely the removal of President Assad and replacement by a government, likely a Sunni Islamist government that is a reflection of the AKP in Turkey.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, President Erdogan is going to be directing the majority of his attention towards what we’re seeing now, which is a wide-ranging purge of major institutions of alleged coup supporters, and these include the major state institutions that have been the external arm of Turkish foreign policy, namely the Turkish armed forces and the Turkish Intelligence Organization (MIT).
In the short term, we will see a turn inward by Turkey that sets up an opportunity for an array of actors on the ground inside of Syria to exploit this moment to make initial gains.
Syria Deeply: You said that the attempted coup will have an impact on Syria’s battlefields. Which actors in the Syrian conflict are likely to capitalize on the turmoil in Turkey?
Kozak: It will likely incentivise pro-regime forces to complete the encirclement of Aleppo city. Aleppo is a key opposition bastion full of groups that receive covert Turkish support. Now is an opportune moment for this, before Turkey can put their house in order.
The uncertainty inside of Turkey will embolden the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to pursue their own interests by either declaring an autonomous region in northern Syria, or by attempting to finalize the connection of their cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border at a time when Turkey will lack the ability to generate a military reaction to this.
Opposition groups will experience a likely disruption of military and intelligence support from Turkey at least in the short term while this uncertain period of detentions, arrests and dismissals is ongoing.
This provides more fuel for these actors, particularly the regime and ISIS, to act against the opposition now, while things may be disjointed.
Syria Deeply: Turkey has long been a supporter of the Syrian opposition. What kind of disruption can we expect to see regarding Ankara’s relationship with the Syrian rebel groups?
Kozak: In the immediate term, there is likely to be some disruption to the flow because of the uncertainty and churn within the state institutions running these programs, particularly the MIT, which has been very much implicated in helping organize support to opposition groups on the ground in northern Syria.
Moving forward, as Erdogan consolidates control over the instruments of the state, he will look to reassert his own interests, even while continuing his domestic changing of the guard. He’s going to look to expand his support to the opposition and he will likely face fewer roadblocks.
In the long term, there will be more avenues open for direct intervention in Syria at the cost of some short-term turmoil where Turkey will likely lose some positions there. This will be followed by a period where there will be more risk than ever that Turkey will provide more direct support to opposition groups on the ground, whether that be more weapons or support to groups that are effective, but also more extremist – or whether that be an actual physical intervention by Turkey itself.
Syria Deeply: Turkey has one of the strongest militaries in NATO, but the armed forces are undergoing serious cuts as Erdogan purges those allegedly involved in the coup. What will the remains of Turkey’s army look like?
Kozak: The Turkish armed forces are going to lose a lot of officers and they’re going to become more responsive to being an instrument of Erdogan and the AKP’s policies. This is instead of being the kind of state-within-a-state that the military had always been. It has always been a kind of independent entity that would reset the government when it veered too far from the policies of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [the first president of Turkey].
The Turkish armed forces reportedly served as a major dampener on proposals from Erdogan for a more active intervention in the Syrian civil war. They have always been very realistic about that and were not willing to get embroiled deeper into the conflict, particularly without clear backing from the U.S. and NATO.
So, over the long term, we could see a scenario where Turkey may actually become more interventionist, if not in Syria, then in other places in the region, because it is more responsive to Erdogan. The innate conservatism that has been a core component of this professional officer class in the Turkish armed forces is going to be eroded by the ongoing clearing of the guard. You’re going to see the military be more willing to participate in these foreign adventures and cross-border operations.
Syria Deeply: Turkey has had a key role to play in the fight against ISIS in Syria, particularly because it has allowed the U.S. to launch strikes against the militant group from the Incirlik air base. How will the failed coup, and the call for Gulen’s extradition, impact Washington’s relationship with Ankara and the ongoing fight against ISIS?
Kozak: What this does is introduce uncertainty that hadn’t been there before about the long-term role that the U.S. can play in Turkey against ISIS. The U.S. still remains skeptical about the accusations, but this mounting tension could play a role in breaking down the tenuous cooperation that has existed, disrupting our operations at Incirlik air base and even risking a loss of access.
We’re looking at a period of domestic instability inside of Turkey for the foreseeable future. There is a very real strain on Turkish society right now. Whether that strain results in political violence or just creeping authoritarianism remains to be seen, but in either scenario, U.S. and NATO are going to have to face hard questions about the role of Turkey inside our alliance structures and whether or not Turkey can play a constructive role.
Turkey has been a relatively complicated actor to deal with in terms of the ISIS campaign, in that Turkey has always prioritized its view of the Syrian civil war differently than the U.S. and Europe. Turkey prioritizes the fight against Kurds and the regime more than the fight against ISIS. In some respects it has been willing to turn a blind eye to ISIS, al-Qaida and other extremist groups because those groups provided useful leverage against those first two priorities. But, for the U.S and Europe, that’s totally flipped.
The divergence in foreign policies is going to come to the forefront now more than ever. Erdogan is increasingly empowered to pursue his objectives and increasingly empowered to assert his foreign and domestic policy though the vehicle of this failed coup.