The Truth on Turkey

Photo Credit: Al-Jazeera

By: Kathryn Hillegass, Columnist

The world watched in suspense on July 15 as members of the Turkish army launched a coup against President Tayyip Erdogan’s administration while he was away on vacation. We witnessed clashes between the military and the police which killed over 250 people, we saw an F-16 shoot down a helicopter, and we watched Erdogan use FaceTime to communicate with his people after the coup plotters hijacked the state-run media. We admired the Turkish citizens who took to the streets in the midst of the chaos in defense of democracy.

And then we stopped watching. Between Syria, Yemen, the elections, and the Brangelina split, Turkey’s failed coup seems like a distant memory. However, ninety days after the coup attempt, the aftershock is anything but over. Indeed, Erdogan’s response to the insurrection—what is commonly referred to as the “Great Purge”—rather than the coup itself, poses a far greater threat to democracy and the sustainability of Turkey as a NATO ally.

Democratic breakdown stems from the erosion of legitimacy, particularly as the executive restricts any lawful means to criticize government policy, just as Erdogan has done by upending liberal institutions across Turkey.[i] In the past 90 days, Erdogan has arrested over 30,000 people and fired more than 100,000 police, military officials, members of the judiciary, and educators.[ii] In early October, Reuters confirmed Erdogan ordered an additional 150 officers assigned to NATO to return to Turkey within three days, indicating that the purge is ongoing.[iii] Additionally, Erdogan continues to blame the United States for its role in the coup, and demands extradition of opposition cleric Fetullah Gulen. And on October 19, Turkey will extend its state of emergency for another three months, providing Erdogan more flexibility to exercise his prosecutorial discretion.

In the midst of this domestic crisis, Erdogan continues to rely on the military—the very instrument that threatened to undermine his administration just three months ago—to project an image of strength in Syria and Iraq. In September, Turkey sent ground troops into Syria allegedly to fight the Islamic State, but more realistically to contain the Kurds along their southern border.[iv] Now, Erdogan insists on last-minute participation in the upcoming Mosul offensive, despite his previous reticence to join the fight against the Islamic State.[v]

While some foreign policy analysts advocate expelling Turkey from NATO due to its authoritarian regression, Erdogan seeks to further entrench his military in Syria and Iraq in order to make any reconsideration of the alliance infeasible.[vi] This is particularly troubling, given that the ongoing purges of countless officials in Turkey will inevitably cause operational and strategic damage to Turkey’s military effectiveness. The longer Erdogan can keep his military ensconced in Syria and Iraq, the longer he can maintain authoritarian-like rule without jeopardizing Turkey’s NATO status.

Washington’s hands are tied. It needs Turkey’s support, particularly for basing rights and controlling cross-border flows of refugees, foreign fighters, and material support to forces fighting the Islamic State. Yet, even with these restrictions, Washington still has the ability to leverage its influence and encourage Erdogan to support a truth commission as a means to repair trust between the Turkish government, the military, and the people. Such a commission may help to assuage tensions over Gulen, but, more importantly, it would signal to the world and to the Turkish people that Erdogan is still committed to democracy.

[i] Juan J. Linz and Alfred C. Stepan, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, p. 93.

[ii] “Turkey Continues Post-Coup Attempt Fallout with Purge of 12,000 Police,” VOA News, October 4, 2016, accessed October 13, 2016,

[iii] Robin Emmott, “Turkey Purges NATO Military Envoys after Failed Coup,” Reuters, October 12, 2016, accessed October 13, 2016,

[iv] Martin Chulov, “Turkey’s Syria Offensice shows how each party is fighting its own war,” September 2, 2016, accessed October 13, 2016,

[v] Tamer El-Ghobashy, “Turkey’s Demands Complicate Battle Plan to Retake Mosul from Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2016, accessed October 13, 2016.

[vi] Michael Poznansky and Keith L. Carter, “NATO members are supposed to be democratic. What happens when Turkey isn’t?” The Washington Post, October 13, 2016, accessed October 14, 2016,

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