Is another Turkish coup imminent?
On 25 February, the flagship Turkish newspaper Hurriyet published a controversial article with the headline "Unease at the military headquarters", implying serious discontent among the country's armed forces.
There is a widespread perception that the newspaper and its piece portend the imminent intervention of the army into Turkey's political life
The army, the article hinted, is disturbed because of the ruling Justice and Development Party's policies since the coup attempt last July and also unhappy with a recent resolution allowing female officers to wear headscarves.
The government was infuriated after the piece ran and President Erdogan - flanked by Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar who was only recently in Mecca praying with the president - slammed the article as “rude and shameless”.
“I know that this is your [Hurriyet] old habits, but know this: you’ve become part of the past," he said.
Erdogan also took time to confront those in the secular elite, infuriated that the army chief - and, in their minds, custodian of Turkey's secular identity - would reconcile with a president who they see as creating a new Ottoman empire. he made it clear that it was entirely normal for the chief of the military to accompany the president overseas.
Immediately after Erdogan promised to prosecute the paper for the publishing the piece, Sedat Ergin, Hurriyet's editor-in-chief, was reportedly fired by the media group mogul Aydin Dogan and replaced with the former editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Milliyet, Fikret Bila.
Shameless or not, there is a widespread perception that the newspaper and its piece portend the imminent intervention of the army into Turkey's political life. Hurriyet, owned by Dogan media group, takes a secular and liberal position on most political issues in Turkey and has been very critical of Erdogan.
Of course, it's not the first time that it has published a controversial article or headlines: in 2015, one of the newspaper's story about Egypt’s deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s death sentence ran with a photo of Erdogan under the headline “He’s won the election with 52% and they sentenced him to death”, referring to Erdogan's election as president in 2014 with 52 percent of the votes.
It’s well-established that the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) presents itself as the guardian of the state's Kemalist ideology. However, its influence over the Turkish political milieu has waned because of its failure to run the country after recurring coups. Since 1960, the army has carried out four coups (1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997) that removed elected governments.
The most remarkable change since the 15 July coup has been the increase in the government's control of the armed forces
In the past, parts of the Turkish political spectrum used to support these coups, but last July, the Turkish populace was uniformly averse to the putsch attempt.
The 15 July coup attempt was a humiliation for the TAF. The government's official narrative is that the military was colonised by the Gulenist Terror Organisation that was about to seize state power. Immediately after foiling the coup, the government embarked on an all-embracing purge to reshuffle the military and other civil service bodies.
The Turkish military has been undergoing a wide-ranging restructuring process. The most remarkable change has been the increase in the government's control of the armed forces.
It has, for example, ended the General Staff’s authority over military schools and given the responsibility to the Ministry of Education. It has also granted the full control over the gendarmerie to the Ministry of Interior and transferred the entire army under the control of the Ministry of Defence.
Reset the clock
All these changes will be enhanced even further if the constitutional referendum is endorsed by more than 50 percent of Turkish voters on 16 April. The proposed reforms will reset the clock on Turkey's entire political system.
The presidency would be completely transformed from a merely ceremonial role to a more powerful executive position where the president becomes the head of the state, the government and the ruling party.
The proposal comes in the shadow of the violent coup attempt that was about to unseat Erdogan and also at a time when Turkey is waging a three-fronted war against Gulenists, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Islamic State (IS) group.
Referendum enthusiasts argue that, as a strong president with full power, Erdogan would be able to effectively confront this broad array of internal and external security threats.
However, opponents believe that the suggested reforms put too much authority in the hands of a man who has progressively demonstrated authoritarian propensities. Critics also argue that holding the referendum during a state of emergency has precluded opposition parties from freely campaigning against the changes.
Ironically, Erdogan is already being criticised for his use of authority with the anti-terrorism campaigns against pro-Kurdish terrorist party PKK and its branches in Syria, the cessation and seizure of media outlets and the wide-scale purge that followed the failed coup attempt. But these are acts of a strong democratically-elected president protecting his country's national security and taking measures that any other president under the same circumstances wouldn't hesitate to make.
I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theory, but I really find it difficult to understand how the Russians, Americans, the Syrian regime and the Kurdish militias somehow managed to unite against Turkey’s Manbij offensive.
Shockingly, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim recently said that “It makes no sense to embark on an offensive in Manbij without cooperating with Russia and the United States.”
The SDF's handover to the Syrian government was undoubtedly a malicious plot to embroil Turkey in a dirty quagmire just before the fateful referendum vote
His comments stood in blatant contrast to fiery statements of the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who said that the Turkish army won’t hesitate to bombard the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Manbij if they don’t withdraw.
This week, following Cavusoglu's comments, the top generals of the Turkish, Russian and US militaries met in the Turkish city of Antalya to discuss their next steps in the fight against IS in Syria.
Just think for a second if Turkey insisted to go all the way to Manbij only to find itself fighting Kurdish militias and Assad forces who recently managed to gain a strong footprint in the city after SDF handed over parts of the city. The SDF's handover to the Syrian government was undoubtedly a malicious plot to embroil Turkey in a dirty quagmire just before the fateful referendum vote.
Diplomatic tensions have also intensified between Turkey and Iran after the two countries exchanged barbs over their roles in the Syrian war and the Middle East.
On a third front, a war of words between Turkish and German diplomats kicked off last week after German officials banned Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag from holding a rally in Germany.
Put all of these pieces together and one legitimately has the right to think that they are not hit-or-miss. They all serve one main propaganda goal: Turkey is losing in Europe and in the region in an attempt to pave the way not necessarily for a military coup, but rather for a soft coup if Turks vote against the strong presidency in April.
Erdogan finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Either he shows tolerance and leniency to bloody putchists, terrorists and conspirators against his country in order to placate his enemies and reduce hostilities, or legally and legitimately beats them with an iron fist by fortifying the presidential system with the referendum and, regionally, gets involved in political solutions to turbulence in neighbouring countries. By doing the latter, Erdogan makes sure that any pending coups or coup aftershocks are limited.
For now, as long as Erdogan continues with his proactive regional policy in Syria, his search for economic substitutes to the European Union in Asia and Africa and his participation in alternative regional and international coalitions, he will continue his walk in the minefield.
- Ahmed al-Burai is a lecturer at Istanbul Aydin University. He worked with BBC World Service Trust and LA Times in Gaza. He is currently based in Istanbul and mainly interested in the Middle East issues. You can follow him on Twitter @ahmedalburai1
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Image: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes the crowd during a rally with the Turkey Youth Club Federation on 7 March 2017, in Ankara, as part of his campaign for a 'Yes' vote in an April 16 constitutional referendum aimed at expanding his powers (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.