July 20, 2016

Turkey: Focus on Post-Coup Purge amid State of Emergency Increases Vulnerability to Pre-Existing Security Threats; Normal Business Operations Likely to Resume Quickly Executive Summary

On July 20, in the wake of the failed July 15-16 coup bid by factions within the country's military, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, ostensibly to "eliminate the threat to democracy" in Turkey. Claiming the push to topple him was masterminded by US-based leader of the Hizmet movement and rival Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan had already launched a sweeping retaliatory purge against suspected opponents of the Turkish administration - primarily within the military, judiciary, and police establishments. Although intended to further secure the president's position, the declaration amid the ongoing hunt for alleged threats to Erdoğan's authority has potentially adverse side effects. The government's temporary new powers and the intensive focus on the crackdown will likely further tax the resources of the country's already strained intelligence and security services, reducing their effectiveness in detecting and thwarting other threats, including those from terrorism, at least in the short- to mid-term. Operations to apprehend alleged coup participants could result in isolated skirmishes between law enforcement and suspects. Moreover,  pro-Erdoğan elements emboldened by recent mass displays of patriotic sentiment could harrass opposition activists or groups, as well as foreign nationals whose leaders have expressed concern at the scale of the purge. However, given the potential for economic turmoil, already evident in the falling value of Turkey's currency, the authorities will do their utmost to show that Turkey is stable despite the coup attempt.


Key Judgments:

  • The nature of the threat to foreign travelers and businesses is largely unchanged, although the potential for security incidents nationwide will remain somewhat higher over the upcoming weeks.
  • In the background, intelligence and security services' counterterror capabilities may be temporarily diminished due to diversion of resources to the government's crackdown.
  • An increase in anti-US sentiment is likely as friction between Washington and Ankara over demands for Fethullah Gülen's extradition unfold; similar sentiments may apply to other nationals if their leaders weigh in negatively on the scale and tactics of the purge.
  • Most residents and travelers in Turkey will be able to settle back into their pre-coup routines quickly, despite the declaration of a state of emergency.  


The Failed Coup and Ensuing Purge

During the night of July 15-16, a faction within the military calling itself the "Council for Peace in the Homeland" launched a bid to overthrow the Erdoğan government. Mutineers within some armored and infantry units of the military seized key locations, primarily in Istanbul and Ankara, while combat aircraft struck the parliament and General Staff buildings, as well as police headquarters in the nation's capital. Loyalist military and law enforcement units moved to put down the uprising as tens of thousands of civilians answered a call from the president and took to the streets to resist the coup attempt. Within several hours, the move against the government collapsed, with Erdoğan regaining control by the morning of July 16. About 260 people died and 1,400 were injured in the failed bid to seize power.

The Turkish leadership swiftly named Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania, US-based leader of the Hizmet movement and former Erdoğan political ally turned -rival, as the mastermind behind the failed ouster - an accusation Gülen has denied. Vowing to rid the country of alleged Gülenist influences, Erdoğan immediately launched a massive nationwide purge of perceived enemies to his authority. Initially focusing on the military, law enforcement, and judiciary establishments, the administration's hunt soon expanded to engulf other government sectors, as well as academia, with the number of resulting arrests and sackings rising into the tens of thousands.


Strain on Security Forces

The nationwide purge is undoubtedly placing new pressures on Turkey's intelligence and security services at a time when the country can ill afford it. Although generally very effective in the performance of their duties, these agencies have already been stretched somewhat thinly due to the resumption of hostilities with Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) insurgents in 2015, the threat posed by the presence of Islamic State (IS) cells and other terrorist groups in Turkey, and other national security concerns. Aside from the arrests and dismissals of thousands of soldiers and law enforcement officers, including several high-ranking military intelligence chiefs, the redirection of valuable resources to support Erdoğan's vigorous effort to identify and neutralize political adversaries could reduce, at least temporarily, the intelligence and security establishment's ability to monitor other existing targets and counter the threats they pose.

 Law enforcement officers from outlying areas will likely be repositioned to bolster presence in large population centers - particularly Istanbul and Ankara - leaving police units in smaller cities and towns, as well as provincial areas, understaffed and slower to respond to routine criminal complaints.

Although the nature of the risk to foreign travelers and businesses is largely unchanged, the potential for security incidents nationwide, including acts of terrorism, will remain somewhat higher than pre-coup levels for the duration of the purge due to the increased pressure on security resources.


Potential Violent Incidents

Several factors contribute to greater potential for sporadic violent incidents following the failed overthrow attempt. Law enforcement operations to apprehend persons alleged to have been involved in the coup are ongoing and unpredictable. Police raids or other security operations can sometimes end in localized skirmishes. On July 18, authorities clashed briefly with 11 soldiers at Istanbul's Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) while attempting to arrest them. Security forces fired warning shots  into the air; no injuries were reported. The following day, officers shot and killed an armed man in front of Ankara's courthouse, where coup-related criminal hearings were taking place; no information has been released about the man's possible intent.

The wave of patriotic sentiment that has swept Turkey in the immediate wake of the defeat of the mutineers could embolden some Erdoğan supporters to engage in isolated acts of vigilantism or other violence against perceived foes of the administration, particularly in city neighborhoods well known for their anti-government leanings. During the night of July 17, supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly attacked Alewites in Istanbul's Okmeydanı and Gazi neighborhoods, as well as Antakya's Armutlu district before being driven off by groups of local leftist activists.


Eventual Opposition Backlash

It as yet remains unclear how wide the purge may extend or how long it will last. The state of emergency is slated for three months, though Erdoğan could have instituted a six-month decree. There is no guarantee that Erdoğan will not use recent events as justification to crack down further on legitimate dissenting voices, including established political opposition groups and journalists critical of his policies. A move of this nature is almost sure to eventually draw some degree of backlash in the form of anti-government demonstrations, although a widespread wave of civil unrest is extremely unlikely - especially in light of the state of emergency, and against the current backdrop of strong patriotic sentiment.  The impact of any such protests that may materialize would probably be limited to localized business and transport disruptions.


The Gülen Factor

Turkish accusations that US resident Fethullah Gülen was the prime instigator in the July 15-16 coup attempt and demands for his extradition to face charges in Turkey have created friction between Washington and Ankara. While it is too early to predict what practical implications the resulting diplomatic posturing between the two countries may have for foreign businesses in Turkey, the pro-government Turkish media is keeping the issue in the public eye, commonly referring to those arrested or sacked in the administration's crackdown as FETÖ-cüler ("members of Fethullah's terrorist organization"). US nationals and companies operating in Turkey should remain prepared for occasional low-level incidents stemming from a generalized uptick in anti-US sentiment.  Such occurrences should reduce in frequency as government and media rhetoric subside with time.


The State of Emergency and Impact

Under Turkish law, the Council of Ministers, which is chaired by Erdoğan, has enacted the state of emergency for three months. During this period, the Council has the authority to restrict civil liberties and pass decrees that carry the weight of laws, without parliamentary approval. Erdoğan claims the decision will allow his government to eradicate elements that participated in or orchestrated the coup attempt. The state of emergency and the ongoing purge will probably have little direct impact on the average Turkish resident or foreign businesses operating in the country, remaining largely "background noise" from their perspectives. Nevertheless, it will serve to keep the population generally on edge as the measure further unfolds over the upcoming weeks, resulting in widespread rumors and numerous security scares. Isolated acts of violence by Erdoğan supporters could also occur. Moreover, the scope of the administration's hunt for enemies will likely bring a number of unintended consequences by potentially weakening the ability of key governmental structures to cope with standing security concerns, including terrorism, for the short- to midterm.