National Security & Defense

The Five Strangest Facts about the Coup in Turkey

Soldiers surrender to police at Taksim Square in Istanbul, July 16, 2016. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)
Conspiracy theorists will be busy for years.

The flames from Turkey’s attempted coup had not yet gone out before the conspiracy theories started. Drawing on Hitler’s rise to power, those who viewed the coup skeptically compared it to the Reichstag fire: an instance of attempted insurrection that a ruler already tending toward autocracy uses to cement his own power. Indeed, the vast scale of the post-coup repression undertaken by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fuels these theories, which lie somewhere on the spectrum from suggesting that Erdogan knew about the coup but did nothing to stop it, to accusing Erdogan of having orchestrated the coup himself.

The conspiracy theorists are just that — theorists — but that doesn’t mean they’re not basing their hypothesis on some happenings that were, in truth, quite odd. Here are the five strangest things that happened during Turkey’s attempted coup.

Strange Thing Number One: This is the strangest. Erdogan’s jet was allowed to fly around Turkey unperturbed while it searched for a place to land. Not only that, but two putschist F-16 fighters had Erdogan’s plane in their sights and didn’t do anything about it. Presented with the opportunity to shoot down Erdogan’s plane, they decided to not open fire. This is the sort of thing that will propel conspiracy theorists for years. If you think the coup was staged, the fact that putschists opted not to kill the president against whom they were rebelling seems like a prime piece of evidence that Erdogan was in on it from the start. There may, of course, be an easier answer: The pilots may have been under orders not to kill Erdogan, so that he could be captured once he landed, or something along those lines. Still, awfully good treatment for Erdogan, isn’t it?

Strange Thing Number Two: In an effort to capture Erdogan — who was on vacation in the seaside city of Marmaris, in Turkey’s southwest — 25 soldiers descended by rope from helicopters idling above his hotel. It’s like a scene from a James Bond film, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see during a coup, all glaring floodlights and men clothed in black. But they were thwarted by their own bad timing: Erdogan had left a half-hour earlier. The strangeness here is double-edged. First: That word of putschists moving in on Erdogan’s position had leaked out of their own inner circle is a remarkable oversight, and one that put the coup plotters behind the eight-ball from the very beginning. Second, that they arrived shortly after Erdogan had left seems strangely convenient for the narrative that Erdogan will use to bolster his own power in the ongoing repressions: that he narrowly escaped capture himself, that the coup was a serious threat that could easily have gone the other way had it not been for a happy coincidence of timing.

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Strange Thing Number Three: You’ll be familiar with the photographs of soldiers surrendering in the early-morning amber haze on the Bosporus Bridge, where the thwarted coup had begun. I expect they’ll be easily recognizable for years. It’s not altogether surprising that soldiers surrendered after their coup had failed. But wait, soldiers surrendered to police officers? Soldiers, armed with tanks, allowed themselves to be arrested by lightly armed police officers without vast bloodshed? It may not be nefarious, but there’s certainly something strange going on there. Part of the explanation here might be that the soldiers who had seized the bridge could have been unaware that they were actually participating in a coup, and were instead simply following orders from superiors; as such, they would be reluctant to open fire on civilians and would not be wholly resistant to arrest from civil authorities. The problem with this theory is that it’s not quite true: Leaked messages show that coup leaders ordered their soldiers to shoot police officers who offered resistance. So maybe the soldiers just lost their nerve when confronted with crowds of people opposed to their coup and saw no better option than to submit to security forces. Whatever the case, it’s possible we’ll never quite know. Conspiracy theorists have their fodder anyway.

Strange Thing Number Four: Erdogan’s allegations that the coup was orchestrated out of a small compound in central Pennsylvania. Seeing as that compound is home to the exiled Fethullah Gulen, an ally-turned-adversary of Erdogan, “strange” might not be the right word to describe the allegations. But you have to imagine the surreal atmosphere that must have enveloped the quiet town of Saylorsburg, Pa., on Saturday, when dozens of pro-Erdogan Turks living in the United States showed up at Gulen’s compound to protest his alleged involvement in the coup, for which there is not a shred of evidence.

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Strange Thing Number Five: Perhaps this one’s not so strange, but it’s still something that’ll motivate conspiracy theorists and those who believe the coup was staged. I’m referring to the sheer scale and speed of the post-coup repression. Since Saturday morning, Erdogan has fired 3,000 judges, removed 30 governors, arrested 6,000 soldiers and over 100 top-level military officials, and dismissed 9,000 police officers. Rumors are circulating that Erdogan maintained a list of people suspected in conspiring to mount a coup against him — in other words, a Nixonian enemies list, with an autocratic flair — long before the coup even began. Now he’s using the reality of the coup to purge the military, police force, judiciary, and provincial government of those he already suspected of disloyalty. You can see why people think it was all staged.

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