- Ali H. Aslan has served as correspondent for Turkey's largest independent newspaper, Zaman, until it was forcefully taken over by the government in March 2016, when several of its journalists were arrested. Initially, Zaman had supported Erdogan's AKP party, but has in time become more critical of it and its leader, especially after AKP put an end to corruption investigations against the government. The governmental takeover of Zaman was justified by alleged links between the newspaper and the Hizmet movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of attempting to build a parallel state in Turkey.
Dan Tapalaga: Relations between Ankara and Washington seem to erode in the wake of the coup attempt. John Kerry said NATO would scrutinize Turkey's commitment to democracy, urging Turkey to stick to democratic principles after the coup attempt. But as it is not clear, what can NATO do in this specific case?
Ali H. Aslan: NATO should continue stress on Turkey’s commitment to democracy, because it’s part of its charter and it’s in the best interest of both transatlantic allies and Turkey. Turkey and NATO do not have the luxury of losing each other. A weakened military and eventually destabilized state and society would diminish NATO’s operational abilities in the strategically important region. Therefore, it’s important that NATO makes sure integrity and effectiveness of Turkey’s key institutions such as military and judiciary are preserved.
D.T.: We saw horrible images with officers and soldiers being tortured, killed and humbled by AKP supporters. Thousands of people were purged from the army, the judiciary and the military. What impact these scenes have already for ordinary people in Turkey? Is there any risk for a civil war?
A.A.: Had the coup plotters succeeded in toppling the government, a civil war could have followed, especially given the strong societal support for Erdogan. Since the coup has been thwarted, Erdogan has become more powerful than ever and it’s less likely that he will be challenged in a way that might turn into a civil war.
There is a lot of fear among opposition and dissenters, especially having seen how Erdogan survived a violent coup and his diehard supporters’ devotion to their charismatic leader. Opposition has acted responsibly and acted in favor of elected government during the coup. The goodwill period might continue for some time. Hence, I would be surprised if there is any serious organized effort against Erdogan regime any time soon. The only active opposition elements might be nationalist Kurds, who have proven to have engaged in several acts of riot and mass protests for decades.
D.T.: Do you think USA would extradite Fethullah Gulen, as Erdogan is demanding now? How do we know for sure that Mr. Gulen is not involved at all in the coup attempt? He denied, but Erdogan and other officials are still accusing him for plot. What do we know for sure so far about who is behind the coup attempt?
A.A.: We cannot know for sure whether Gulen was involved in the coup since there has not been any investigation and due process yet. Gulen has denied any role and publicly accused any sympathizers who might have taken part in the coup with ‘treason’. Using violence and terrorist tactics are in total contradiction with the moderate teachings and values of the Gulen movement. However, if there are any radicalized elements and rotten apples, Gulen movement would harshly condemn and disown them.
Given the monopoly of Erdogan and his party over the executive, legislative and judiciary branches and media, it will be very difficult to independently authenticate the findings of a coup investigation. Therefore, I’m afraid there will always remain questions about what has actually happened that night and who the masterminds were.
That’s also why Gulen called for an investigation by an ‘international organization’ to determine his alleged role in the coup. And he said he would ‘accept the outcome’ of the independent international investigation. US has been asking Turkey to provide legally actionable evidence against Gulen. Despite the fact that Erdogan has attributed 2013 corruption investigations to Gulen and described it as a coup, his government has not officially requested extradition of Gulen for almost three years now, most probably due to lack of sufficient evidence.
We should wait and see if at this time they would be able to provide credible evidence. If Ankara provides sufficient evidence and convinces US government and judiciary with Gulen’s alleged link to the coup, US would extradite Gulen. This is not a matter of political preference for US, as Erdogan would like to present it to his own nation and boost anti-American sentiments; it’s a matter of principle and rule of law. Just because the government of a US ally is furious with an individual, US cannot violate its own laws and democratic principles.
D.T.: Romania is a strategic ally of the US, but has in the same time the interest to maintain good relationships with Turkey at the Black Sea. Do you think that the strategic plans that NATO conceived with Poland, Romania and Turkey will be affected? If Turkey will be isolated now, Putin's Russia will be one of the winners.
A.A.: NATO will make sure Turkey is not isolated due to strategic and tactical reasons, including operations in Black Sea. However, if Turkish government decides to part ways with NATO, which I find very unlikely given Ankara’s national security dependence on transatlantic allies, it’s a different question. Ankara cannot afford losing the NATO shield against Russia and Iran, who are historical rivals. So, no matter how harsh Turkish government’s rhetoric might be, the pragmatist and realist in Erdogan would eventually not go that far, thinking about security and economic implications of a possible departure from the transatlantic club.
D.T.: Is there any real opposition in Turkey in this moment? Who can oppose Erdogan and his despotic rule?
A.A.: About half of Turkey’s population has been alienated and often suppressed by Erdogan’s regime. But the opposition is fractured and Erdogan plays their divisions skillfully. Each opposition group puts forth their own narrow selfish interests, failing to join forces or act in coordination. Erdogan, on the other side, has been largely able to keep his own half as a single block. Unless there are fundamental changes in organization, leadership and culture of the opposition, Erdogan will remain poorly challenged.
D.T.: What do you predict for Turkey in short and long term? Will Erdogan strengthen his power or will he face protests and internal political crisis?
A.A.: In the short term, Erdogan will consolidate his power more by further eroding checks and balances and increasing his votes in Turkey especially after the coup attempt from which he came out as a hero. He must have guaranteed to garner the support for a constitutional amendment for executive presidency, which will help him take complete control of the state officially. Turkish electorate loves tough leaders. Turkish state bureaucracy will be more subservient. Big businesses will hesitate supporting opposition parties or any new political initiative against Erdogan.
Erdogan has effectively used the coup attempt to finalize his Islamist revolution which has already been underway especially in the last six years. This could well be Turkish version of Iran’s 1979 moment. In the long run, if the economy gets worse or if the treatment of dissenters gets even harsher, the opposition might get more encouraged to challenge his autocratic rule. However, since the fabric of Turkish society will continue to be transformed via education, media, economic opportunities and corruption money, I expect to see Erdogan’s Islamist outlook more embraced by new generations.