A sweeping campaign to arrest renegade military officers, soldiers and other suspects linked to a failed coup plot in Turkey showed signs on Sunday of turning into a nationwide crackdown against opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
The country’s justice minister confirmed that as many as 6,000 people, ranging from commanders to civil servants, have been detained over the incident.
Among those arrested was the commander of a Turkish airbase used by U.S. forces to launch raids on jihadists in Iraq and Syria, a senior Turkish official said. Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, 10th Base Commander at Incirlik Air Base, was detained along with 10 other soldiers on Sunday. The facility in southern Turkey is a major NATO military installation hosting U.S. forces that control one of the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Europe.
Earlier in the day, the state-run news outlet identified Maj. Gen. Ozhan Ozbakir, commander of a large garrison in southwestern Turkey, as one of the officers detained in the latest and ongoing campaign of arrests.
As many as 3,000 soldiers – including senior commanders in the Turkish armed forces – have been seized by authorities in response to Friday’s unrest, which killed at least 265 people and rattled the stability of a key Middle Eastern nation that is a NATO member and important U.S. ally.
Arrest warrants have also been issued for at least 2,745 judges and prosecutors across the country, according to Turkish media reports.
The failed military coup appears to have had the opposite of its intended effect. Erdogan seems to have been emboldened after overcoming the biggest challenge to his 13-year rule, with thousands of supporters taking to the streets in Istanbul and other areas of the country in defiance of the rogue soldiers who hatched an elaborate plot to overthrow the government.
The Turkish leader has alarmed many here over his attempts to consolidate power over the years. And a number of Turks express concern that Erdogan will use Friday’s incident to further marginalize all forms of challenge to his growing powers, whether peaceful or not, even as the country struggles with myriad crises, including unrest from its large minority of Kurdish citizens and spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Nearly three million war-weary Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey, a huge burden on this country of 75 million people. And a series of recent attacks linked to the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists have killed hundreds of people and badly damaged the Turkish economy.
By Saturday, Turkish authorities appeared to have neutralized the last threats from the attempted coup, but it was a greatly diminished Turkey that emerged from the chaos of the night before.
As dazed citizens stumbled through streets littered with the remains of tanks and armored vehicles used by the renegade troops, authorities embarked on a sweeping roundup of thousands of people suspected of involvement in what appears to have been a long-planned effort to replace Turkey’s democratically elected government with a military junta.
The widespread sense of relief that the attempt had failed was tempered, however, by foreboding. Turkey, until recently hailed as a model of democracy in the Muslim world, must now confront the reality that it remains vulnerable to the kind of domestic and military upheaval that once earned the country a reputation as a chronically unstable state.
“People here are celebrating, but what they don’t understand is that they are part of a trap that Erdogan is setting for them. He’s going to use them for his own power,” said Ozgur Guleray, 30, a chef at a restaurant in downtown Istanbul who watched as thousands of revelers gathered in Taksim Square on Saturday evening to celebrate the government’s suppression of the coup attempt.
The extensive violence deployed by those who sought to overthrow Erdogan suggested the plot did not represent a bid to assert democratic principles, despite a declaration to that effect made by the elements of the military who briefly seized control of some of the state institutions, including the national broadcaster.
The night of violence saw tanks commandeereing bridges and highways. Renegade warplanes dropped bombs on protesters and on the nation’s parliament and other government facilities, turning parts of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, into war zones. The dead included 104 alleged coup participants and 161 civilians.
The coup was thwarted in part by the masses of people who swarmed into the streets in response to an appeal by Erdogan, issued over a TV anchor’s iPhone, to come to the help of the embattled government. There were widespread reports on Saturday of bloody revenge killings against rebel soldiers.
A triumphant and combative Erdogan, addressing a huge crowd gathered in Istanbul Saturday evening, hailed the popular outpouring of support and vowed a tough response to the coup plotters.
“By confronting them and chasing them, we will overcome them,” he told the cheering supporters.
He reiterated his accusation that a U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, was behind the plot, and called for his extradition by the United States. “Once they hand over that head terrorist in Pennsylvania to us, everything will be clear,” Erdogan told the crowd.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, during a stop in Luxembourg, said the United States would support investigations to determine who instigated the coup attempt. He invited Turkey to send evidence, which he said the United States would consider under U.S. legal standards.
Kerry also criticized the coup attempt, saying that elections are the proper way to settle disputes in a democracy.
“I must say,” he added, “it does not appear to have been a very brilliantly planned or executed event. But let’s reserve judgment until all the facts are in.”
The Gulenist movement in Turkey denied involvement and condemned the coup effort.
Erdogan and other government officials stressed that the plot involved a “minority” of fringe Gulenist supporters, and the response on the streets indicated that those involved had no popular support.
Nonetheless, details of the coup plot that emerged Saturday suggested the existence of a serious threat to Turkey’s cohesion from within the ranks of its powerful military, NATO’s second-largest army and a major U.S. partner in the war against the Islamic State.
Among those detained were Gen. Erdal Ozturk, commander of the Third Army, Turkey’s largest field army, and Gen. Adem Huduti, the commander of the Second Army, which controls the country’s borders, as well as a rear admiral who had until recently commanded the coast guard, and multiple colonels in charge of mechanized brigades and other key army units.
The alleged mastermind was Gen. Akin Ozturk, who commanded the Turkish air force until last summer and was a member of the Supreme Military Council. He also has been detained and will be charged with treason, officials said.
The air force appears to have been deeply involved, with pilots commandeering F-16 fighter jets and helicopters and seizing control of at least one military air base, Ackinci, outside Ankara.
Some personnel at Incirlik, the NATO air base that is home to the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in Europe and about 1,000 U.S. troops, are also suspected of taking part in the attempted government overthrow, a senior Turkish official said.
“We suspect that Incirlik was used to refuel hijacked aircraft last night,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. It appears, he added, that “a small group of Turkish troops stationed at Incirlik supported the coup attempt.”
U.S. officials said the United States had boosted force protection levels on bases in Turkey to their highest level, and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara warned Americans to stay away from Incirlik, outside the southern city of Adana.
U.S. bombing runs over Iraq and Syria remained suspended because much of Turkish military airspace remains closed, and the U.S. government has adjusted its flight roster to sustain the anti-Islamic State war effort, said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook. Power was cut to the base, but U.S. operations there run on “internal power sources,” he added.
Though the coup attempt failed, the effort will be a tremendous blow to the prestige of Turkey’s military, and more broadly Turkey’s standing as a regional power, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The United States’ reliance on Incirlik for the war against the Islamic State must now be in question, he said, and the trustworthiness of Turkey’s military, at home and abroad, will be in doubt.
“The military was considered the most trusted institution in the country,” he said. “The Turkish military will experience a freefall in its standing.”
Some of those involved in the coup attempt appear to have fled as the plot fell apart. On Saturday, Greece announced that a Turkish military helicopter made an emergency landing at Alexandroupoli’s airport. Greece detained eight men aboard, who requested political asylum. Turkey has requested their extradition.
Turkish authorities also detained 2,475 judges and other members of the judiciary who were suspected of supporting what appeared to have been a far-reaching operation. Evidence seized by investigators suggests that the coup plotters had drawn up extensive lists of people who were to be installed as governors, administrators and heads of government agencies in the event that the operation succeeded, according to the senior Turkish official.
The government is still not sure it has rounded up all the coup participants, and there are fears that “rogue” aircraft may still be on the loose, he said.
Nonetheless, in Istanbul, a semblance of normality returned. By early afternoon, the bridges across the Bosporus were reopened and traffic began to move again after a night of gunfire, explosions and violent confrontations.
Small groups of residents gathered on corners and debated in hushed tones, and shelves in many local shops were completely empty after a late-night rush to stock up on food and water.
The U.S. Embassy had warned citizens against heading to the airport amid reports of ongoing sporadic gunfire, but later in the day, commercial flights appeared to be returning to normal. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it had barred American commercial aircraft from flying into or out of Turkey.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, Liz Sly, Hugh Naylor