After nearly a quarter century travelling in and studying the Balkans I can assure you that nothing is as it seems on the surface. There is conspiracy upon subterfuge upon intrigue. Think of a hybrid between clan loyalties, Mafia-style lawlessness and modern politics, each informed by varying degrees of religion. There are long and deep historical ties between the Balkans and Turkey. In a myriad of ways it is Europe’s doorstep to the Mideast as well as the Mideast’s bridge to Europe. When looking at the recent coup attempt, but especially its aftermath, it is critical to keep that in mind.
This week members of the military attempted a coup in Turkey, aimed at returning the government back to a more secular posture. There is a provision within the Turkish constitution that allows for such a dramatic act by the military, long seen as the secular champion of the modern Turkish state. There is no shortage of those within Turkey and outside, especially throughout the Balkans and Europe who believe that the Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan may have even staged the coup to eliminate opposition and consolidate power. indeed, following the supposed coup Erdogan has arrested nearly 10,ooo thousand people, including university professors, critics, judges, soldiers and journalists. Thousands of teachers, prosecutors, judges and civil servants have been sacked.
The Guardian Newspaper quoted the editor of the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar, as saying effectively that Turkey now has “an oppressive regime where the law and liberties will be suspended, press will be censored, and the parliament eliminated.” Today the Erdogan government did indeed consolidate power, today imposing a three month state of emergency.
But why would it be in Erdogan’s interest to undertake such a drastic upheaval? The answer may well lay to the south and east in Northern Iraq and Syria where ISIS has suffered a series of severe internal and external setbacks. Some analysts believe that ISIS is nearing the point of collapse. Turkey, on the other hand has benefitted from ISIS both on the battlefield and elsewhere.
Turkey’s fight is not with ISIS, and it is caught between sometimes tacit and sometimes overt support for ISIS and its responsibilities to NATO. Turkey’s fight has been with the Kurds. In contested border areas, such as the town of Kobani there are accusations that Turkey has aided and perhaps even abetted ISIS fighters besieging the town. Turkey was a major source of funding as it purchased millions in black market oil from ISIS. ISIS fighters are reported to travel relatively unmolested across Turkish borders.
Hit recently by a spate of high profile terror attacks, like the one last month at Istanbul’s airport Turkey has been laconic over investigating the attacks. The airport attack seemed to have been a message to Turkey over a recent pipeline agreement with Israel. Those attacks however, did not garner the emergency measures seen under the failed coup attempt. Hint, ISIS really isn’t about the atrocities, though that’s what captures all the attention. ISIS is about the ideology. They attempted to carve out a state and build an infrastructure from scratch, but that seems to have failed as the so-called Islamic State is rotting as much from the inside as it is being eroded from the outside.
A not likely scenario is that the Erdogan government is paving the way to absorb the ideological legacy of ISIS. Erdogan likely is clearing the way for just that eventuality. Turkey has been sliding towards extremism and fundamentalism, a path to the perceived Ottoman glory of the past. The staged coup scenario allowed him to clear away opposition pursuant to that provision in the constitution that would all but exclude any real opposition. In that scenario ISIS isn’t gone, it just moved West to Ankara and put on a suit. In the process Erdogan’s desire to be the Sultan of a resurgent Ottoman caliphate fits nicely with the hopes and dreams of the original ISIS, carving out a state long the Tigris and Euphrates.