Turkey’s Erdoğan defiant on anniversary of 2016 coup attempt

Three years to the day since his government survived an attempted military coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has returned to the now shuttered Atatürk Airport in Istanbul to hail those who fell in the coup in a defiant speech, challenging opponents of Turkey’s controversial foreign policy steps.

The airport was closed this year when the massive new Istanbul Airport opened, but the repercussions of that night continue. The events of the coup attempt have been shaped into a foundational myth for a “New Turkey”, and the country’s domestic and foreign policies veering into uncharted waters under Erdoğan’s rule as the country’s first executive president, after a constitutional referendum held during post-coup emergency rule in 2017.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) blames the coup plot on the Gülen religious movement, which is widely thought to have infiltrated important state institutions over decades and subverted them to pursue its own agenda. 

But after years of wide reaching purges aimed at the Gülenists, the focus has shifted to more concrete rivals, namely, Turkey’s NATO allies in Washington, who have opposed Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 missile defence systems and taken opposite sides with Ankara in Syria, and the European Union, which opposes Turkey’s pursuit of hydrocarbons around the island of Cyprus.

“July 15 was an attempt to subject our nation to slavery … But as much as we will never stop protecting our freedom and our future, those who lay traps for us will never cease their efforts. Those who do not see the Syrian issue in those terms are serving their efforts”, Erdoğan told the crowd.

He did so flanked by guards decked out in armour recalling centuries of Ottoman and Turkish glory, a call back to the historical greatness of an empire that the AKP has made liberal use of in its nationalistic discourse, but also a nod to the president’s own far-reaching ambitions.

“On the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus, and the Aegean, those who see the other side as right have been deceived”, he continued. “There’s nothing to say to those who don’t see the importance of the current period for shaping the 25 or 50 years ahead of us”.

The defining issue of this current period has been Turkey’s turn away from its western allies, signified most recently in the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. Washington has warned of the serious measures Turkey will face for the purchase, but Erdoğan has not backed down on the issue. The first shipment of S-400 parts came last Friday.

“Eight planes came, and more are coming. What did they say? ‘They can’t get them, they won’t, where will they put them.’ And what happened? Did we get them? And aren’t they being set up right now?” Erdoğan said.

The S-400s will be fully delivered and deployed by April next year, said the president. Erdogan also added that Turkey aims to produce S-400s jointly with Russia, signaling increasing military and intel partnership with Moscow.

The missile systems would be not only the most important component of Turkey’s defences, but also marked a shift for Turkey towards producing its own defence hardware, Erdoğan said, reiterating the unconfirmed claims that Turkey and Russia are set to co-produce the systems.

“Seventeen years ago (when the AKP came to power) only 20 percent of our defence procurement requirements were fulfilled locally. Now that figure is 70 percent”, Erdoğan added.

Turkey’s defence industry has developed at a rapid pace under recent governments headed by Erdoğan. However, the figures on local production are difficult to gauge accurately due to the sector’s reliance on intermediate goods, often produced internationally

Turkey’s defence sector is likely to be hard hit if the U.S. Congress goes through with its threat to level sanctions at Turkey over the S-400 purchase through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

In fact, given the currency crisis sparked by the targeted sanctions against two Turkish ministers over the imprisonment of a U.S. Pastor last year, the whole economy will be at risk if the more extensive CAATSA sanctions are implemented.

But Erdoğan was derisive about previous reports on Turkey’s economic fragility, blaming the recent squeeze that saw citizens forced to buy subsidised fruit and vegetables on the costs incurred by the country’s ongoing military operations against Kurdish militants, and calling critics of the government “ungrateful”.

One thing was clear from the speech: Erdoğan is not in a mood to compromise on any of the foreign policy challenges Turkey is currently facing, and does not appear willing to bow to economic pressures or the threat of sanctions from the United States or EU.

Likewise, there was no sign from Erdoğan that he would become any more tolerant of opposition within Turkey. 

The brief talk of a “Turkey Alliance” after the AKP’s shock local election losses in five of Turkey’s six largest cities is well and truly forgotten: during the speech, Erdoğan repeated criticism of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for not actively resisting the coup plotters while thousands of Turks took the streets against them. The comments drew boos from the crowd at the airport.