Erdogan’s Blazing Surge in Power since 2016: From Withstanding a Military Coup to Regional Kingpin

  • The 2016 failed military coup gave Erdogan full political power domestically
  • Now controlling the army, Erdogan expanded Turkey’s geopolitical reach in MENA
  • Erdogan’s strong domestic power allowed him to weather the Turkish economic crisis since 2017, diverting public opinion through interventionist foreign policy
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The failed 2016 political coup significantly changed the power dynamics in Turkey

Erdogan was able to implement the nationalist-Islamist policies he had unsuccessfully pushed for during his whole political career. 

Throughout his political career as Turkish Prime Minister (2003-2014), Erdogan and his AKP party have consistently tried to alter two pillars of Turkish society: Kemalist secularism and involvement of the army in politics

Receiving an Islamic education and having graduated high school with an Imam diploma, Erdogan played a central role in shaping Turkish conservative politics as a young adult. This education fueled his drive to promote a Turkish branch of Islam (Hanafi Islam, a branch of Sunniism) in Turkish society, alleging that with 95% of the country following Islamic faith, Islam had to have a place in Turkish politics. Erdogan’s affinity towards political Islam made him a target for the Turkish political class, which was still heavily Kemalist, and strove to defend the traditional secularism of the Turkish state. 

Consequently, he was barred from Parliament in 1991 after being elected, and from holding the office of President after being imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a religious poem. The political parties Erdogan was involved in were accused of threatening Turkish secularism and subsequently banned. This led Erdogan, along with his future rival Gülen, to found the AKP in 2001. 

In 2014, Erdogan was elected President of Turkey. He remained an extremely divisive political figure, drawing millions of anti-Erdogan protestors to the streets in 2007, and notably 2013 in the Gezi Park Protests. The Turkish president lost favor with the country’s liberal/centrist electorate, who reject his nationalist-Islamism rhetoric and want to defend Turkish secularism. 

Erdogan’s religious reforms are embodied by the change of the “Presidency of Religious Affairs”, or Diyanet. Created by Mustafa Kemal to oversee Turkey’s Hanafi Sunni branch, the office manages 77,500 mosques, employs the country’s imams, handles Qur’anic education and daily prayer calls.

Originally designed by Attaturk to control religious rhetoric and keep religion out of politics, the Diyanet became the promoter of Hanafi Sunni Islam in Turkey, essentially the state’s religious wing under Erdogan. The Diyanet employs over 150,000 people and has a budget of $2 billion, more than most Ministries, including the Ministry of Health or Interior. Since 2006, the budget has quadrupled and staff has doubled. By reforming the Diyanet, Erdogan linked his religious aspirations to his political ones, once more unifying state and religion in Turkey. 

Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle to Erdogan’s total domination of Turkish political life lay in the Turkish army. Since the inception of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Turkish army has seen itself as the defenders of Kemalism, notably secularism. It had removed 4 democratically elected governments since 1960 to preserve the integrity of the Turkish Republic.

Attaturk’s proclamation: “There are two Mustafa Kemals. One the flesh-and-blood Mustafa Kemal who now stands before you and who will pass away. The other is you, all of you here who will go to the far corners of our land to spread the ideals which must be defended with your lives if necessary. I stand for the nation’s dreams, and my life’s work is to make them come true” became a guiding principle for the army, and a major thorn in the side of Erdogan. 

Many of his political struggles (banned from public office, dissolution of parties…) were inflicted by the army. As such, one of Erdogan’s main objectives was to prevent the army from intervening in politics. Between 2007 and 2013, hundreds of Kemalist military officers were tried (many of them accused of plotting a coup to overthrow Erdogan in 2004) and replaced by Erdogan supported Islamist-leaning officers. Although partially successful as Prime Minister and in the early years of his Presidency, the army remained a significant threat to Erdogan’s power, and to the Islamist policies he sought to implement. 

The shift in Turkish domestic politics following the 2016 coup is integral to Erdogan’s continuing power 

The failed coup allowed Erdogan to implement a presidential system, while rallying the army’s support 

On July 15th 2016, elements of the Turkish army, allegedly following orders from Erdogan rival Gülen, tried to overthrow the AKP government. The plotters cited the erosion of democracy, increasing authoritarianism, loss of civil liberties and an unstable economy as the reasons for the coup. They failed

Erdogan seized the opportunity to cleanse the army and civil service of any opponents, whether they were involved in the coup or not. 77,000 people were arrested and 160,000 removed from their jobs amidst an unprecedented wave of repression. Although significant doubts remain regarding the group or individual truly responsible for the coup attempt, Erdogan successfully rallied the military to his side, while purging elements that were not loyal to him directly. 

Now embodying the strength of Turkish democracy amidst an illegal military coup, Erdogan eliminated the future risk of a Kemalist coup from the army. After the military purges between 2007 and 2013, the 2016 coup was the final nail in the coffin of the Turkish army’s political autonomy, now answering directly to Erdogan. Backed by the army, the Turkish president then moved to solidify his control over Turkish politics. 

Riding the wave of the failed coup, which boosted his popularity to soaring levels, Erdogan moved to implement a presidential system, moving away from the past parliamentary system. This political reform was one of Erdogan’s main political objectives since his entry into government.

Although he argued it would give Turkey more political stability and long-term political vision, the Turkish president clearly aimed to maximize his executive powers, consolidating his hold over Turkish politics. In the 2017 referendum, the “YES” vote won 51.4% of the vote, although the judiciary branch (now purged of 2,745 judges) allowed unstamped ballots to be counted, raising suspicions of fraud. 

Nevertheless, the 2016 failed coup allowed Erdogan to rally the military to his side and to implement a presidential system. Effectively, this gave him total power in domestic and international affairs. This newfound power would mark a sharp turn in Erdogan’s foreign policy. 

How did the 2016 attempted coup impact Erdogan’s geopolitical leadership? 

It gave Erdogan a free hand in foreign policy, removing domestic constraints in his leadership style

As Prime Minister and in his early presidency, Erdogan’s foreign policy motto was “don’t make enemies, make friends“, which revolved around a zero-problem policy with Turkey’s neighbors. This policy was largely driven by Erdogan’s hopes to enter the European Union, continuing a decades-long Turkish project to do so. However, Erdogan was also kept in check by the army, from whom he needed authorization to make major foreign policy moves. This constant oversight, and the threat of a coup, kept Turkey’s foreign policy mostly friendly and open to the rest of the world. 

However, after the failed 2016 coup and 2017 referendum, Turkey’s foreign policy radically changed. Now backed by the army, Erdogan sought to use the full might of Turkish hard power to promote the country’s regional interests. Aiming to impose Turkey’s geopolitical influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and MENA, Erdogan intervened in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan, Libya, and even in the South Caucasus in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Turkish president exacerbated tensions with Greece over territorial waters and gas reserves, with France over their rivalry in Libya, with the EU by threatening to release millions of refugees into Europe, and with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

He strengthened ties with Putin, receiving S-400 ballistic defense systems, much to the anger of the US, while dividing zones of influence in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus with his Russian counterpart. Erdogan also managed to take full advantage of the Trump presidency, regularly counseling Trump and convincing him to abandon support for the YPG in 2019. 

Furthermore, Erdogan has overseen the consolidation of an extremely prolific Turkish defense industry, 14th in the world in terms of sales. This arms industry has produced the MKE MPT, standard assault rifle of the Turkish army, Altay battle tank, APCs, and artillery. The hardware allows Turkey to be entirely independent in terms of defense and military capability, giving Erdogan the option to conduct offensive warfare operations without support from other nations. Consequently, Erdogan is free to conduct far more aggressive foreign policy, relying heavily on hard power. 

Nevertheless, no military hardware out of Turkey has been more influential, or effective, as the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) Bayraktar TB2. Giving Turkey air superiority at a much lower cost than traditional fighter jets, these combat drones were extremely effective in attacking ground targets (infantry, tanks, APCs, armored positions…), as well as air defense systems such as the Russian Pantsir S-1.

The TB2 was employed in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, each time with devastating effects for opposing factions. Turkey has also started training other states’ militaries, notably Libya’s GNA and the Somali government, with great success thus far. This allows Turkey to internationalize its army, combat methods and equipment, securing lucrative defense contracts with other states while consolidating Turkish influence abroad

All of Erdogan’s moves culminate to one ideal: neo-Ottomanization. Often referred to throughout his speeches, the Turkish president seeks to recapture the Ottoman Empire’s historical zones of geopolitical influence, spanning from the Caucasus to North Africa and everything in between. Turkey’s interventionism, diversification of geopolitical partners, development of an independent arms industry, willingness to engage in regional tensions, going head-to-head with the EU, all signal that through Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is once again a great global power.

Since 2015, the Turkish president has gone from “don’t make enemies, make friends” to neo-Ottomanization, demonstrating that 2016 was the turning point in his geopolitical leadership: free from domestic struggles, Erdogan is now kingmaker in MENA.

How has the 2016 attempted coup impacted MENA’s present geopolitical situation? 

Turkey has benefitted with Russia from the US’s withdrawal from the region, expanding the Turkish sphere of influence through interventionist foreign policy
An overview of Turkish presence in Syria

By 2016, Erdogan was heavily pushing to secure Turkey’s border with Syria. The Turkish president wanted to prevent the consolidation of a Kurdish state or autonomous region on his southern border at all costs, while being pressured by NATO allies to intervene against ISIS. However, he frequently clashed with elements inside the Turkish army, who were reluctant to engage the army in Syria, where Turkish troops could come in contact against Russian troops supporting the Assad regime (which Erdogan opposes). 

Once Erdogan was able to submit the Turkish army to his command after the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish president immediately sprang to action. He launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, which lasted until March 2017, flushing ISIS out of Northern Syria and the Turkish-Syrian border. From January to March 2018, he put in motion Operation Olive Branch, cutting Rojava in two by capturing Afrin, thus preventing the consolidation of a Kurdish autonomous state in Northern Syria. 

In 2019, after the US pulled out of Syria, Erdogan formed a buffer zone 30km deep inside Syria in cooperation with Russia. This allowed Erdogan to alleviate refugee pressures on the Turkish border, secure the border from infiltration threats and to create a launching pad for future military operations, while further weakening the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Turkish army also worked with the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) in Iraqi Kurdistan to expel the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) from the area. 

Although these operations efficiently neutralized threats on Turkey’s southern border, they also led to grave human rights abuses, which continue to this day. In Afrin, notably, Turkish backed militias roam freely, kidnapping young girls, civilians, leading extortion rackets, stealing property, looting, and assassinations.

This reign of terror has led to tens of thousands of civilians leaving the Afrin area, heading to other parts in Rojava such as Kobani, or towards the Turkish border. Turkey continues to launch raiding parties into Rojava, aiming to control the M4 highway, but causing mounting civilian casualties along the way. 

Emboldened by the sweeping Turkish victories in Syria, Erdogan sought to further expand Turkey’s geopolitical influence. This led to Turkey intervening in favor of the GNA (Government of National Accord) in Libya, which was on the brink of collapse, and pushing Haftar’s LNA from Tripoli back to Sirte. Erdogan reached an agreement with Putin to freeze the battle lines at Sirte and al-Jufrah, splitting Libya into two zones of influence: one Turkish, the other Russian (along with UAE, Egypt, France).

Turkey remains the GNA’s key partner, training the army, providing armaments and lending crucial diplomatic power. Turkey has also received authorization to exploit oil and gas reserves in Libya’s EEZ, although the deal was cancelled by Libya’s Parliament in January 2021. 

In the South Caucasus, Turkey has been arming and training Azerbaijan’s military, while Turkish operators remotely fly Azerbaijani TB2s. Erdogan gave the go-ahead for Azerbaijan to invade Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020, starting a war with Armenia. Azerbaijan’s victory in November 2020 was crucial to Erdogan’s agenda of “One Nation, Two States”, further reinforcing both Turkic countries’ bond on the basis of common ethnicity and culture.

The ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered by Moscow, includes Turkey in the peacekeeping monitoring operation. Thus, Erdogan managed to expand Turkey’s zone of influence into the South Caucasus through Azerbaijan, a strategic hub for gas exports to Europe. 

As such, the failed 2016 coup was integral to MENA’s current geopolitical situation. The failed coup gave Erdogan full domestic power (militarily and politically), which he leveraged to impose Turkish hard power throughout the region. Consequently, Turkey became a major power player in MENA, imposing its zones of influence.

Turkey’s role as a major power in MENA is demonstrated by its ability to send Syrian “mercenaries” (fighters from Turkish-backed groups in Syria) to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan benefited from the US’s withdrawal from MENA, dividing zones of influence with Russia. Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy is set to be toned down with the Biden administration taking a more proactive role in the region, but the Turkish president has effectively restored Turkey’s role of MENA’s superpower.

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief