On the back of an economic boom, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) grew into a formidable force in the 2000s, boasting a support base that stretched from Istanbul to the Anatolian core. As the confidence of the party and its allies swelled, they sought to neuter the force that had pinned them down for so many years. The government launched the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon trials, designed to uproot the alleged “deep state” of the ultranationalist military officers, politicians, judges and businessmen who challenged the new Turkey. By the mid-to-late 2000s, Islamists had deeply penetrated the military, and Gulenist-run media outlets were regularly armed with intelligence that was used to blackmail military personnel. Through a series of trials, many of which were presided over by Gulenist judges, the military was purged and the ranks of the air force, army gendarmerie and navy were refilled with loyalists.
There is no doubt that Erdogan benefited from the weakening of the military at the hands of the Gulenists. But he also grew wary of just how powerful they had become. From his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, Gulen had begun to politically assert himself and publicly voiced his disapproval of Erdogan’s policies. Then, in 2013, when Erdogan attempted to boost his credentials with the Arab world by capitalizing on Turkey’s confrontation with Israel over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Gulen criticized Erdogan’s anti-Israel stance. But the final straw may have come in late 2013, when the Gulen movement tried to leverage its clout within the judiciary and leaked audio recordings to implicate Erdogan’s inner circle — including his son, Bilal — in a corruption scandal.
From that point on, the gap between the Gulenists and Erdogan’s backers became unbreachable. In 2014, a Gulenist prosecutor began to target one of Erdogan’s key allies, Hakan Fidan, by accusing him of engaging in secret talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). (Gulen seemed to resent that Erdogan and Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, were managing the government’s peace talks with the PKK without involving his movement.) The same year, Gulen blatantly criticized Erdogan’s crackdown on Gezi Park protesters, even seeking the help of secular opposition parties that were fundamentally opposed to his own movement’s views in an attempt to undermine the ruling AKP. As the conflict deepened, Erdogan decided that he would be better off disarming the Gulenists while he still had the power to do so. Equipped with the same weapons that the Gulenists had used against the military, Erdogan launched a domestic and international campaign to decimate his former Islamist allies.
Since 2014, the Turkish government has shut down Gulenist media offices, seized banks and businesses, shuttered schools and sacked judges. But purging the military was a job left unfinished. Erdogan knew that the biggest threat to his rule resided there, but he decided to address it in stages. It appears Fidan may have caught wind of a coup in the making, and he was rumored to be planning to have the perpetrators arrested ahead of the Supreme Military Council meeting on Aug. 1. The putschists, aware their cover was blown, sped up their timetable and launched the coup early, putting their plan into action July 15. Yet the fact that they represented a polarizing minority faction within the military doomed them from the start. They went off the script of a bygone era, taking care to seize state-run media but not thinking to do the same with private broadcasts. Anti-coup sentiments trumped anti-Erdogan ones, as evidenced by the massive crowds in Turkey’s streets and the unity statement against the coup made by the country’s main political parties. The coup started to fall apart just two hours after it began, and within less than 24 hours it had collapsed completely.
At this point in its geopolitical cycle, Turkey has started down a neo-Ottoman path that compels a deeper involvement beyond its own borders, both as near as northern Syria and Iraq and as far as Libya, Gaza and Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Turkey’s leaders preside over Ataturkian borders and have a duty to protect the republic’s national integrity. Policy contradictions will thus become more frequent, and Turkey’s actions may appear almost schizophrenic. The Turkish government has already spearheaded a peace process with the Kurds and referred to vilayets, where minorities can enjoy greater autonomy, only to launch a heavy-handed crackdown, branding any form of Kurdish assertiveness as terrorism against the state a year later.