The weak state of Turkey

Factionalism has left the country unstable in the face of terrorism and a separatist insurgency

February 08, 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May with the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey ©Andrew Parsons / i-Images/PA Wire/PA Images
Prime Minister Theresa May with the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey ©Andrew Parsons / i-Images/PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on her recent trip to the country ©Andrew Parsons/i-Images/PA Wire/PA Images

Last month, Prime Minister Theresa May made Turkey her last stop on a diplomatic tour. This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held his first telephone conversation with the new US President Donald Trump. But the headlines about the £100m fighter jet deal May secured and the possibility of better relations between Washington and Ankara are distractions from the reality that the country is in turmoil. Within four weeks, Turkey saw the new year shooting at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, claimed by Islamic State; the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara; and the Besiktas football stadium attack in Istanbul, claimed by Kurdish militants.

Meanwhile, state institutions, including the security services, are weak, divided and in turmoil. Last July, a faction within the military made an unsuccessful coup attempt. The Turkish government, led by President Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), claimed that the ringleaders were members of the Fethullah Gulen Movement. The government said that the self-exiled Islamic preacher and his followers formed a “parallel structure” within Turkish institutions such as the military, the police force and the judiciary, as well as educational and civil society organisations.

If what the Turkish government said is true, it is a de facto admission of the country’s fragility. What else can be concluded if state personnel were not acting in the interests of the state itself, but rather to a faction answerable to Gulen, an unelected religious figure who currently lives in Pennsylvania?
But the infiltration of Gulenists into state institutions was not a surprise to Erdogan or the AKP. It was they who turned a blind eye, even encouraging the activities of the movement, considering it a counterweight to the secular establishment who have traditionally formed the rank and file of state institutions. It was only after Gulen and the AKP fell out that the foundations of state institutions crumbled.
Indeed, the AKP used the Gulen movement’s “parallel structure” to dislodge the “deep state,” another network within the country’s institutions. For the most part this “deep state” was an instrument of the military and Kemalist elite—followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s first president and secular state builder. It was used to maintain the secularist nature of the Republic and to fight off challenges such as the threat from Islamists and Kurdish separatists, especially during the 1980s and 1990s.
The “deep state” made its mark in the war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey. Its activities resurfaced in 2008 with the high-profile Ergenekon and, later, the Balyoz trials, which involved the arrest and prosecution of many military commanders for plotting against the government. It is widely believed that these cases—which were eventually overturned on appeal—were the work of the “parallel structure,” or in other words, the Gulen movement.
Regardless, the damage to the military was done. Scores of officers were arrested, hundreds resigned and morale fell to an all-time low. Other secularists found themselves marginalised in government ministries and institutions. In order to clear institutions of one clandestine network, the AKP allowed another to replace it.
A similar thing is happening today. After the recent coup attempt, the Gulen movement and its suspected sympathizers are being targeted. Many thousands of public sector workers have lost their jobs including university rectors, high school teachers, police officers and civil servants. As recently as 6th February an additional 4,400 public servants were dismissed. But instead of taking this opportunity to strengthen state institutions, those purged are being replaced by government supporters with factional affiliations, such as followers of the controversial secular nationalist Dogu Perincek.
After the attempted coup there were further purges within the ranks of the military. An additional 40 per cent of officers were removed from their posts. The result is that the already weakened military is no longer a potent force. It will take years for it to regain its strength, morale and capabilities—and this could not come at a worse time. The country is neighbour to an extremely volatile Iraq and, following Ankara’s decision to intervene in Syria, increasing numbers of Turkish soldiers are being killed.
The security climate continues to deteriorate. In 2015 there were 416 terrorist incidents, and since June 2015, there have been at least 415 deaths from attacks perpetrated by the Islamic State or Kurdish militants. The Kurdish populated southeast is once again in chaos since the breakdown of the ceasefire and peace process with the PKK. Ankara has arrested leading members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party on spurious terrorism charges, crippling the possibility of Kurdish non-violent engagement with the state.
As the conflict with Kurdish separatists continues, that part of the country is a humanitarian disaster with many civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of citizens internally displaced. During the 1980s and 1990s the conflict in the Kurdish southeast claimed the lives of around 40,000 people. Without a solution in sight, Turkey risks once again being plunged into prolonged conflict, only this time without a capable fighting force.
The country is looking increasingly unstable with a coup attempt, purges, terrorism, deteriorating security, and a crippled military. Unless its state institutions are strengthened, de-factionalised and depoliticised, Turkey will continue to resemble a weak state.