Sunday,18 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Sunday,18 March, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s quashed coup and the region

The regional ramifications of the failed coup in Turkey have yet to take shape as the country’s domestic woes consume attention, Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

A coup attempt in Turkey is big news on a global scale. In the region it touches many nerves: its target, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is as divisive regionally as he is at home. The ideological symbolism of his defeat or survival matters to millions in this part of the world (almost all governments included) where the aftermath of the Arab Spring still seems to reel from the choices and failures of 2011 where political Islam played a central role.

The cascading effect of people’s revolutions, counter-revolutions and a popular coup since 2011 appeared to have reached a grinding halt. Now that the region has just witnessed a failed coup, many are asking if it will have the kind of impact that resonates across borders.

“Because of its geography and its orientation, a successful coup in Turkey would have totally scrambled regional geopolitics,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. The dynamics of the Syrian conflict, Iraqi politics and the region’s Islamists would have been dramatically altered.

"It tells you that in a hugely weakened Arab state system, non-Arab regional players like Turkey, Iran and Israel are playing a huge role in the region far beyond their limit," said Hanna. 

Turkey, which had no hand to play in the 2011 uprisings, soon found itself engaged in the aftermath. Erdogan supported the region’s Islamists, especially Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood after they were ousted in 2013, and hosts most of its leaders and supporters in exile. Turkey actively supported the uprising against Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad since 2011, sponsored rebels against that regime and quickly became host to three million Syrian refugees who fled the war by crossing the 822 kilometre border with Turkey (which also served as a highway for thousands of fighters who joined the Islamic State group in Syria). But Ankara’s failure to influence events were exacerbated by the backlash of terrorist attacks that hit home since Ankara joined the US-led anti-Islamic State group coalition in 2015.

The last suicide attack that targeted Istanbul airport just last month killed 36 and injured 147.

Erdogan’s anti-Assad policy also damaged relations with Russia, a supporter of the Syrian regime, sinking to unprecedented lows after Turkey downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border last year.

It became clear last month, after Erdogan mended ties with Russia, that Turkish priorities in Syria had shifted from focussing on toppling Al-Assad to curbing the Syrian Kurds — indeed, that Turkey has revised its regional foreign policy. Ankara also ended a six-year rift with Israel at around the same time. More recently, Turkey’s prime minister was quoted as saying that his country would like to normalise relations with Egypt.

Amid these foreign policy revisions, Erdogan came close to meeting the fate of Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi when a coup attempt 15 July failed to remove him from power. 

As Turkey grapples with its post-failed coup aftermath, observers are questioning its ability to maintain the regional roles its president sought for his country -including efforts to fight IS- now overwhelmed by domestic woes.

Turkey has pursued a widespread purge across state institutions with the military receiving the lion’s share, with 3,500 soldiers and 120 generals and admirals arrested to date.

“The efficiency of the Turkish army, especially as a NATO member, is at question now,” said Mustafa Al-Labbad, director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Of course, it’s still the second biggest army in NATO, but its roles in Syria and Iraq will be affected by the purge. More importantly, how does this impact the Kurdish militant PKK [in southeast Turkey]?”

Others argue that Erdogan's regional calculations might be different. According to Mansour Al-Marzoqi, a Saudi political researcher at Sciences Po de Lyon, France, Turkey’s role in the anti-Islamic State coalition is mostly logistics, intelligence and financial, as well as providing an international political umbrella, which means its continuation in Syria doesn’t require much of the Turkish army.

Although there was a regional logic to Erdogan’s pre-coup U-turns, in easing tensions with Russia, Syria and to a lesser degree, faint attempts with Egypt, Al-Marzoqi argues that, paradoxically, his internal standing now gives him “free leeway to pursue his foreign policies as he pleases, which might mean more involvement in Syria. That raises the probabilities of disagreement with Russia, in which case his reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood would increase, and that might lead to a re-surge in tensions with Cairo.”

The botched coup’s other repercussions might be harder to analyse. Heated debate in Egypt between supporters and critics of the putsch and comparisons it unleashed posed questions on its resonance here. The Tunisian Revolution inspired the Egyptian uprising in January 2011, while Morsi’s ouster in 2013 impacted Tunisia’s political scene, ultimately forcing the Islamist Al-Nahda to make concessions to secularist parties and avert a political crisis.

"The Arab world's position is a bit nested and imbricated," said Al-Marzoqi. There appears to be a wide rejection of the coup, but there are three types of reasoning, he added. There is the Brotherhood line which sees in Erdogan's Turkey the last hope for support; the pro-Syrian revolution line which sees a reliable ally in the fight against Al-Assad; and the third, pro-democracy line which sees in the failed attempt to overthrow the ballot box the brought Erdogan to power (as opposed to Erdogan's person) a source of inspiration. 

While comparisons with Turkey — especially with regards to civilian-military dynamics — are inviting, Hanna argues they are misplaced.

“The civilian supremacy that has permeated the entire spectrum of Turkey’s politics can’t but have resonance, even at a symbolical level, for others,” he said. “These things matter in terms of symbolic import regionally. But there is the otherness. Things that happen in Turkey or Iran don’t quite have the same impact as things that happen in an Arab country.”

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