Being the jam in the East-West sandwich isn’t always a sweet deal. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan battles to maintain his command against an army coup on Saturday morning, his grip on the country has certainly been adversely hit. Even if he manages to overthrow the plotters and stay in power, the relationship with the army is going to be tenuous at best.
In the past, the Turkish army had intervened in 1960, 1980, 1997, and this time around Erdogan is lost for cause. This is an army he sanitised of the so called ‘trouble-makers’ and set up as his choice of generals. It was his military pyramid. That there should have been so much disaffection in the ranks as to effect a coup puts him on the backfoot and must come as a quite a shock, for it is a betrayal.
At a time when the Western ally, and the bridge between the EU and the Middle East, is rickety at best, this development must deeply worry the West and the Nato alliance. Between acts of terrorism and the influx of 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and the massive loss of revenue from a tattered once multi-billion dollar tourism industry, Turkey has been left at the mercy of ill-winds.
Erdogan’s promises flap in that wind.
The paramount question that will be asked today is if the famous Gülen movement (founded by Fethullah Gülen, who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and the works on the principle of Hizmet (" Service") by its followers and Cemaat ("the Community/Assembly") could have been involved in this latest attempt.
What began as an academic and socio-religious movement, based on active but quiet pacifism if you accept the inherent paradox, gradually became a powerful shadow government permeating every level of Turkish society including the police and the security agencies.
Gülen, it is said, has influence in high places around the world, like a massive and silent river with tributaries that access the global corridors of power in over 180 nations. Started in 1982, it inducts students starting from kindergarten upwards and today has a following estimated at four million. It functions through medicine, charity, business, education, professional cadres and the media, and has been called as Turkey’s parallel state.
Erdogan’s willingness to make Gülen a political bedfellow in the years after 2002 led to huge chunks of extra-constitutional authority being exercised by Gülen's followers. Loyalists were inducted into posts of authority.
In 2014, that ball of wool began to unravel. Erdogan not only flung it out of bed but threw it under the bus admitting that he had ‘naively’ surrendered far too much authority to the Gülen sect and practically called for a purge.
These past two years, he has been a nervous Nellie looking for goblins everywhere and almost being paranoid about the 'foe'. Perhaps he wasn’t wrong.
Somewhere in the next couple of days it will be clear exactly how deep the Gülen penetration was into the army. If this is just a battalion or a brigade gone renegade with a bunch of mid-level officers or one in which the army chief has a hand will be telling. So far the army commander has not come on air indicating that he and the larger segment of the army will still back with Erdogan even if it is to keep the facade in place for commercial reasons.
On the foreign affairs front, the break up with Gülen will hurt him tremendously because it now not an unseen foe.
There is another thorn in his side and that is his war with Kurdish rebels, and the open house on the PKK; while at the same time the tacit turning of a blind eye to the access granted to the Islamic State into Turkey, is now extracting its price.
While the public is still prepared to give the democratic process a thumbs up and shun the military – as can be seen by the prompt arrival, courtesy social media, of thousands of Turks onto the streets to protest the coup attempt – the discomfort is not temporary.
Turkey has changed today.
Whatever be the end it is very bad news in every way. An unstable Turkey is equivalent to an unstable equation between the West and the Middle East, with extremism finding for itself another fertile land in which to establish a presence.
It is a weak comfort that earlier coups rendered space to democratically elected governments.
For Nato, it is like the loss of a tyre on a truck running out of gas. For Europe, the clogging of a migrant filter. For the world, another blessed land scarred for now. For Erdogan, himself a hobbled future in which he has to fight four fronts; the army, the militants, Gülen and the sinking economy...all this while still keep his job.
In there lies the irony. Even if the coup fails it has done its job of destabilising a nation.