On July 13, THO gathered a panel of distinguished experts and government officials to reflect on the ramifications of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey one year after it happened.
The panel featured the following experts:
- Amb. James Jeffrey – Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey; Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
- Former Congressman Cliff Stearns – Executive Director at APCO Worldwide; President of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress
- Mark Hall – Film Director and Producer of “Killing Ed,” a feature-length documentary on the network of charter schools operated in the U.S. by the Gulen movement
- Mujeeb Khan – Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley
The event also featured special remarks via live video from:
- H. E. Mevlut Cavusoglu – Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey
- Amb. Matthew Bryza – Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center; Former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan and former Director for Europe and Eurasia in the U.S. National Security Council
- Metin Dogan – July 15 Coup Attempt Veteran
The event was moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien-Hosein (Producer for TRT World).
The Significance of the July 15 Coup Attempt
“They say the true strength of a nation lies in its resilience to withstand shock,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the audience via Skype. He said that the July 15 coup attempt organized by Fethullah Gulen and his followers in the Turkish military aimed “not only to overthrow the democratically-elected government but destroy the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey.”
The severity of the coup attempt – which left more than 200 civilians dead – was illustrated by Metin Dogan, who has come to be known as “#TankMan” on Turkish social media. Dogan was one of the civilians who took to the streets on the night of the coup attempt; he lied down in front of a tank, expecting to be crushed. He described how the tank indeed moved towards him, but it stopped just inches from him.
He told the audience that on the night of the attempted coup, he was struck by how calmly the Turkish media was reporting the unfolding tragedy. He was concerned that viewers would not fully understand the seriousness of the attack and decided to confront the putschists on the streets.
Alexi-Noelle O’Brien-Hosein called the July 15 coup attempt “a watershed moment for Turkey.” She told the audience how the putschists raided the Istanbul headquarters of her network, TRT World, where they removed her colleagues from their offices and desks.
“The media played a critical role as journalists became targets as well as crucial witnesses to how the night unfolded,” she said. “It was a night of chaos, and a turning point for Turkey.”
“I...could hear the sonic booms of the fighter jets and thought they were bombs,” Amb. Matthew Bryza, who was in Istanbul during the coup attempt, told the audience. He described how he was amazed at what he saw on live TV and was shocked to see President Erdogan appear on CNN Turk via FaceTime, from which he was able to “rally” Turkish citizens to push back against the coup.
Until that moment, “the coup was unfolding in a way that looked worrisome for the government here and for all of Turkey.”
The coup attempt involved “F-16s, coordination of commando units, [and an] assault on all special operations – police and army forces [and] headquarters,” Mujeeb Khan said, emphasizing that it could have succeeded if the putschists had not been forced to act earlier than they initially planned due to an expected purge of Gulenist officers at the Supreme Military Council meeting in August 2016.
The Role of Fethullah Gulen and His Followers
“From my perspective, there’s no question that this was a real coup attempt,” Amb. Bryza said. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said that the followers of Gulen had “infiltrated the state, business, media, and the civil society” in Turkey prior to the coup attempt.
Amb. Jeffrey said that “everybody, or essentially everybody” in Turkey believes that followers of Fethullah Gulen were behind the coup attempt. “[I]n official Washington, I’ve never heard of any significant challenge to the idea that the Gulenists were behind it because there is no alternative argument that has any credibility that I know of within the U.S. government service.”
However, Khan noted that the U.S. government seems hesitant to extradite Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, because it claims that “there is no direct evidence linking Mr. Gulen” to the coup attempt, even if it was carried out by his followers within the Turkish Armed Forces. He also said that Gulen himself has acknowledged the possible participation of his followers but has denied his own involvement.
Khan said that during a workshop held at the University of Utah with prominent scholars who have done “extensive fieldwork” on the Gulen movement, the scholars were asked to answer the following question: “Could such an operation involving Gulenist officers in the Turkish military have been launched without Mr. Gulen’s explicit approval?”
He said the scholars reached a consensus that “everything that they knew” about the way the movement operates would make such a reality impossible. “This is a very, very rigid hierarchical movement, very top-down, centralized, [and] micromanaged,” he said.
Khan said that the Gulenist coup plotters knew better than to allow for “electronic evidence of their communications regarding the coup,” noting that Adil Oksuz – who was the “air force imam...leading the coup operations” – had traveled to the U.S. over 100 times since 2013, often visiting for “only two days at a time.” He had even visited the U.S. only days before the July 15 coup attempt.
As such, “there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that this was orchestrated from the top,” Khan said. He also noted how the mafia in the U.S. would also issue orders face-to-face rather than electronically; as a result, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was passed, which allowed the person heading an organization in which all members were involved in patterned, systematic criminal activity could also be prosecuted, even if evidence of the issuance of direct orders was not available.
Mark Hall expressed his concern about the Gulen movement’s operations in the U.S., which include running the largest network of charter schools in the country. His research for a documentary on these schools has shown that there are approximately 72,000 students enrolled in 167 Gulen movement-affiliated schools in 26 U.S. states.
Hall told the audience that these schools are funneling taxpayer money back to Fethullah Gulen’s headquarters in Saylorsburg, PA; one former Turkish teacher who was brought to Ohio on an H-1 visa to teach at one of the charter schools told Hall during an interview that he was required to kick back as much as 30% of his salary to the movement.
Hall said that at the very least, there is evidence to show that a sizable amount of taxpayer dollars is being used for non-educational activities. At the worst, Hall expressed his concern that this money could have been used as “a source of funds to have fomented some of the problems that you see in Turkey, perhaps even the coup attempt last year.”
Implications for U.S.-Turkey Relations
Amb. Jeffrey explained that the U.S. was initially cautious in its response to the coup attempt because it wanted to learn more information about what was unfolding on the ground. There was no certainty of whether it was a pure military coup, as had happened in 1980, or if it was something else.
“It isn’t that Washington was in favor of a coup. Quite the contrary: Washington supported the democratic regime,” Amb. Jeffrey said. However, due to lack of information about the details of the coup attempt, Washington “waited and tried to get more information.” Amb. Jeffrey said that this was a “huge mistake, and it was perceived as such” by Turkey, which was expecting “an immediate and full-throated endorsement of Turkish democracy, which was under threat.” This situation “started things off in a bad way.”
Amb. Jeffrey also noted that some of the U.S. government response following the coup attempt was due to the fact that the Obama administration prioritized an approach to the region that was centered on the need to defeat ISIS. As such, some U.S. government officials focused more on the shutting down of operations at Incirlik Air Base during the coup attempt or the post-coup attempt arrests of generals who had been working with American military officials instead of prioritizing the fact that elements within the Turkish military had just attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected government of a NATO member.
A year later, U.S.-Turkey relations are further complicated by Washington’s arming of the YPG in northern Syria, which Turkey sees as a terrorist organization. Amb. Jeffrey noted that ISIS will soon be defeated, and Turkey has played a significant role in this effort. Once ISIS is beaten militarily, the focus will shift to what comes next; the U.S.-Turkey alliance will be important in that respect.
Amb. Jeffrey noted that it was good that Secretary of State Rex Tilllerson had visited Turkey recently and established a positive tone, but from here on out, the actions of the U.S. and Turkey will be crucial for determining whether the U.S.-Turkey relationship will improve.
Another complicating factor is the ongoing debate over Fethullah Gulen. Hall noted that beyond charter schools, the Gulen movement in the U.S. has built up influence with local and national politicians, which is souring the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He said that at least in Texas, he hasn’t as yet seen any indication that local government and the police are taking the influence of Gulen’s followers seriously. He noted that in 2017 alone, eight additional Gulen movement-affiliated charter schools are set to open in Texas; the state already has 54.
Amb. Bryza noted that there seems to be a lack of understanding on the Turkish side that the U.S. extradition process is “based on rule of law” and that “a judge actually has to make a decision that the evidence is sufficient to extradite somebody.” Additionally, Amb. Bryza said that certain “unhelpful” statements from Turkish officials – such as Justice Minister Bozdag’s statement that Turkey knows Gulen is guilty, so the U.S. should extradite him – also makes it difficult for a judge in the U.S. to believe that Gulen will receive “fair treatment” if extradited to Turkey.
Amb. Bryza expressed his doubts that the U.S. and Turkey can rebuild trust “in a profound way” if Gulen is not extradited to Turkey and if the YPG does not retreat east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria (especially while the U.S. is supporting the group).
However, Congressman Stearns emphasized that though there are “differences” between Washington and Ankara, “it’s important to think about the U.S.-Turkey relationship in a holistic point-of-view rather than” from the perspective of “individual day-to-day comments from the press.”
Additionally, the strategic government-to-government and military-to-military relations between both countries are strong. He noted that Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and that “Turkey is the only Muslim-majority member of NATO that” allows for “both transatlantic and Middle Eastern partnership.” He said that any “positive” development against ISIS in Syria depends on Turkey.
Additionally, Congressman Stearns emphasized that people-to-people and business-to-business relations need to be closer. Ultimately, he expressed his hope that the strong, close relationship between the U.S. and Turkey will continue.
When asked by an audience member what U.S.-Turkey relations will look like 20 years from now, Amb. Jeffrey said, “I’m absolutely sure [that Turkey] will be a democracy and Turkey will be a NATO ally.”