Erdogan Purge of Foes Risks Weakening Turkey in Other Wars

What's Next for Turkey After Coup Attempt?
  • Military, police lose 15,000 personnel to post-coup crackdown
  • Eroded judicial independence may invite greater conflict

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping crackdown on opponents may leave him exposed in the face of other mounting threats.

QuickTake Turkey's Continental Divide

Erdogan’s purge of security services and judiciary after a failed coup risks weakening the ability to fight on two other fronts: Islamic State radicals who have killed hundreds in suicide attacks, and Kurdish separatists waging war in Turkey’s southeast.

Vowing to crush those allegedly behind the botched takeover on Friday, authorities have detained more than 6,000 soldiers and suspended nearly 8,000 police officers, according to government and media reports. More than a sixth of the country’s judges and prosecutors have been removed from duty.

“How does one army person know if he can trust people he’s working with?” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, head of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund in the United States, said in a conference call with reporters. “That’s obviously going to affect security.”

Gulenists Targeted

Bulent Gedikli, chief adviser to Erdogan, said suspended civil servants will be immediately replaced.

“Purges in state institutions won’t affect the government’s functioning,” he said. “On the contrary, it will eliminate obstacles created by those who have been planted within institutions.”

The campaign against supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the man Erdogan blames for the attempted coup, has done more than sideline large blocs within the 620,000-member military and 250,000-strong police force. Dozens of senior military and police personnel, including generals, are no longer in place to determine security policy.

“One of the people arrested was the commander of the 3rd Army, which is based in the southeast and has been one of the main forces dealing with threats from the Kurds,” Unluhisarcikli said. “There are also people arrested who are involved in anti-terrorism operations. That is bound to have an effect on internal security.”

The government’s preoccupation with wiping out opponents may make Islamic State an even more formidable foe.

“If the leadership is going to be spending their time on a witch hunt, then that will further distract the Turkish military and make them less of the reliable partner” in the U.S.-led fight against the militant group, said Derek Chollet, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, on the conference call.

“There’s very little the U.S. can do further militarily in Syria without the cooperation of the Turkish military,” said Chollet, who is now senior adviser for security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.

‘Serious Dent’

The purge risks allowing Islamic State to bolster its ranks in Syria and Iraq, according to the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultant.

“Turkey plays a central role in stemming the flow of foreign fighters, but the government may be distracted by internal issues,” it said in a note to clients.

Erdogan, who has consolidated the powers of the presidency since his 2014 election to the historically ceremonial office, is seizing on the coup attempt to root out lingering opponents within the civil service whom he accuses of setting up a “parallel state.”

“The numbers seem excessive, but right now, this is about preventing the next wave of attacks against civilians and government buildings,” Erdogan’s press office said. “Obviously the courts will consider evidence and reach their verdicts.”

The president has offered no evidence to back his claim that the putsch was engineered by Gulen, a onetime ally who’s lived in the U.S. since 1999. More than 200 people died in the takeover attempt.

Independence Compromised

The scale of the purge dwarfs an earlier round following law enforcement probes into alleged government corruption in 2013. Erdogan denied the graft allegations, which implicated members of his family and inner circle of political and business allies, saying they, too, were a Gulen-inspired “coup.”

The government passed a law increasing its control of the judiciary after the earlier purge. It has tightened its grip even more since the weekend: About 2,750 of Turkey’s nearly 15,000 judges and prosecutors were removed from their jobs, according to Metin Feyzioglu, head of the country’s bar association.

“A serious dent has been opened within the judiciary,” Feyzioglu said. While he said he assumes Turkey’s top judicial board, which ordered the detentions, has taken measures to maintain a functioning system, “it seems to be a difficult task.”

The extent of the purge may heat up the government’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, with whom it has been locked for most of the past three decades. Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union consider the PKK as a terrorist organization.

“In the short term, his government is going to be more nationalist and that’s bad news for the Kurdish question,” Unluhisarcikli said.

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