In many ways, this week is the most symbolic of all weeks since the 15th and 16th of July, 2016. It was at that time when Gülenist terrorists (FETO) who had infiltrated low and mid-level ranks in Turkey’s Army launched a violent and lawless coup against the state. Whilst Turkey had been no stranger to coups during the Cold War era, Turkey’s political stability in the 21st century led many to assume that by 2016, the age of coups was over.
In many ways the age of coups was over because the coup of 2016 was different than any of its predecessors. Whilst no coup can be whitewashed, previous Turkish coups were carried out by top Army officers invoking an erstwhile legal position as constitutional defenders and heirs to the Army of Atatürk. Although the exercising of this power was controversial even at the time, the goal of previous coups was never to overthrow state institutions but merely to oust leaders that the Army felt had overstepped their constitutional position.
In 2016, it was low level terrorists who not content with infiltrating state institutions like insects sought to implode great state institutions, overthrow the state itself, run the Turkish constitution through the fire and begin a reign of terrorist extremism that could have resulted in the mass murder witnessed in countries savaged by Daesh and related terror groups.
Whilst western political parties on the left and right have a strange obsession with disliking Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the fact of the matter is that if the 2016 coup had succeeded, a religious extremist terrorist group would have been in charge of the country that maintains NATO’s second largest army after the United States.
Luckily for the peace of the world, Erdoğan took to social media to rally patriotic Turks against the terrorists and as a result thousands upon thousands of ordinary citizens lived up to the old maxim that “every Turks is born a soldier”.
As such, the ordinary people stopped the coup leaders in their tracks and by the next day, law and order had been restored and the coup plotters were arrested and exposed as shameful villains bereft of any relationship to the cause of humanity.
As a result, the Turkish people were able to prevent their country falling to terror. Likewise, the cauldron of regional terror that in 2016 was still at its peak in both Syria and Iraq was collectively met with the profound realisation that its brethren could not infect Turkey with this same plague as that which grew in parts of the Arab world. As a result, the frontiers of Europe were likewise made safe from the plague of terror spreading in that particular direction. Thus, Europe ought to also be celebrating the defeat of FETO by patriotic Turkish forces.
In the aftermath of the coup, the Obama administration’s failure to condemn the supreme acts of terror against the Turkish people led to multiple accusations from Ankara that Washington had a hand in provoking, aiding or even orchestrating the act of supreme lawlessness. This sent a profound shock to the core of many Turks who never thought that a US administration could stoop to such depths. As countries that previously had no substantial disputes between one another, it was shocking that two NATO partners should reach such an impasse.
Relations under Obama continued to deteriorate as the US began working with the Syrian branch of the PKK terror organisation in the north eastern regions of the Arab Republic. Through the first half of 2016, Turkey’s relations with Russia were also abysmal. These poor relations were made all the more protracted due to the element of a long history of Russo-Turkish wars whose memory fanned the flames of mutual suspicion as both Turkey and Russia were deeply involved in the Syria conflict by mid-2016.
However, by 2017 it became clear that Russia and Turkey were not just seeing relations thaw but that the two historic regional rivals were actually on the road to forming important partnerships for regional stability and bilateral economic development. By 2018, Russia and Turkey were acting more and more like allies whilst relations between Turkey and the US remained (and remain) strained in spite of Donald Trump developing a generally far better relationship with Erdoğan when compared with the more supine Obama.
And thus one gets to the question of the S-400 missile defence systems, part of which have this week been delivered by the Russian government to Turkish soil. The S-400s are categorically not a symbol of Turkey rejecting NATO or otherwise rejecting good economic and security relations with its western partners. But just as Turkey’s enthusiasm for the Belt and Road initiative demonstrates, Turkey is no longer going to be a second rate western nation. Instead, as Atatürk himself wanted, Turkey will continue to look for friendship and opportunities to the east and west.
Atatürk’s earliest diplomatic outreaches were to Iran and the then young Soviet Union. Thus, not only did Atatürk show an ability to look both east and west but he looked also to former rivals as potential future partners.
As such, the S-400s serve the practical purpose of providing Turkey a high level of missile defence capability that was secured at a reasonable cost. But in terms of symbolism, three years after an attempted terrorist coup against the Turkish Republic, it is now clear that Turkey will pursue a unique internal development model and simultaneously pursue warm relations with countries throughout the world. No longer can anyone take Turkey for granted nor make reductionist assumptions about Turkey. This is what Atatürk dreamt of and this is in fact the new reality.