How Turkey Came to This

Jul 19, 2016

By Isaac Chotiner

On Friday, a coup attempt by elements of the Turkish military—the longtime adversaries of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s demagogic (but democratically elected) president—plunged Turkey into uncertainty and violence. Details were still sketchy and evolving this evening, with the president, and even much of Turkey’s increasingly repressed opposition, speaking out against the attack on the country’s civilian government, which has been overthrown at other times over the past 65 years. By early Saturday morning in Turkey, the government was claiming that the coup attempt had been foiled, even as reports of violence continued to proliferate.

To discuss these events, I spoke by phone Friday evening with Jenny White, a professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies; White has also written several books about the region. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about the Turkish military’s history of interfering in democracy, religious conflict in the country, and why a successful coup could lead to civil war.

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37 comments on “How Turkey Came to This

  • Alan #2

    The Irony is that many would have made great europeans and contributed much. The ideology (I finally have a place for this word thanks to Phil)of two people are now tearing it apart. Then there is the true secularists and europeans.

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  • I’m a long time supporter of RDFRS. Richard inspired me with his books when I was young. He was one of the brilliant scientists who actually made me realize the realities of the universe. However as a Turkish citizen I have to admit, the approach of the foundation to this topic is extremely superficial.

    First things first, you need to realize that the faction of the military who attempted the recent coup is not the secularists. If it was so at least the secularist party of the country would be backing them and they didn’t, just like the rest of the political parties.

    What the political parties know about coups is that they never actually change people’s minds. You cannot force people into an ideology. You need to convince them. What made Erdogan so powerful in Turkey is the endless attempts to block his legitimate power with various methods. The fact that you’re using a tone that sounds in favor of the coup is a terrible approach. It only makes you look like an enemy of democracy in Turkey, even though most certainly you’re not.

    Reading your news on the subject reminded me of the “rebuke” that Neil Degrasse Tyson gave to Richard. Your method is still extremely ineffective.

    Let me tell you something. It’s good news from Turkey that the coup failed. Now, at least we have a chance of convincing people of Turkey that a secular, inclusive, democratic and liberal government is in fact good for them. We cannot achieve this by supporting an Islamist cleric against a religiously oriented democraticly elected undemocratic leader.

    By the way, your mobile website is a disaster.

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  • Hi godiseru, welcome

    As usual, this site just puts these stories out there for us to discuss and better.

    Still no-one knows who those carrying out the coup were so I am not sure if anyone is supporting them. There are stories and speculation everywhere so you can understand the confusion.

    I, for one, would love to hear some positive news as I am feeling depressed at the moment as to why Turkey has gotten to this point in the first place.

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  • godiseru

    On another thread I expressed the hope that the coup was led by secularists. We could only hope. Things seem to be going downhill fast there now. What I would say to Turks is, be careful what you wish for. An Islamic state hasn’t worked out well in other countries, even where a majority of the population voted it in. Once those fascist reactionaries get into power it’s literally hell getting them out, just ask the Algerians how that went. It took a catastrophic civil war to push the fundamentalists back into the hills. They are still suffering the adverse effects of this years later. I’m very sad that Turkey is headed in the same direction.

    I saw a Turkish woman interviewed there and she said that she will be thrilled when Erdogan brings back the death penalty. Next to her was her family including a husband and grown son. I thought – Don’t you thing that your own husband and son will end up in front of the firing squad someday? Maybe just for some minor infraction of the rules? Get a grip on reality! Fundamentalists bring misery wherever they go! You and your loved ones may be the next victims – believe that.

    While I have my book of quotations out, The Quotable Atheist by Huberman, I’ll add a quote here by Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938).
    Intro from the book:

    Founder, first president and pitiless modernizer and secularizer of the Turkish republic. Removed Islam as the state religion; replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Roman, and religious Arabic-language schooling with secular, Turkish language schools; established universal suffrage (yes, including women); and most important, decreed that men abandon the fez in favor of European style hats; in short filled Turkey to the brim with modernity. One of the few positive things Ataturk said about religion was that since his soldiers thought they were going to heaven, they were conveniently willing to die”.

    Quote from the book:

    “I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth, and the teachings of science [if I have to slaughter every last one of them}. Superstition must go.”

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  • Turkey in the EU? Laughable. Even if the EU survives the next round of
    ****ITS [Netherlands, France under Le Pen and others].
    At 99.8% Muslim, Turkey can hardly get any more Islamic.

    More worrying is Turkey in NATO- complete with US nukes in the Incirlik airbase. The world is still asleep at the wheel; wake up to Islam before
    it’s too late!
    Still, with every Islamic Jihad attack, every “Allahu’ Akbar” people are becoming more aware, despite the lies and obfuscations of our ‘useful idiots for Islam’.

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  • What happened in Turkey is a good lesson on how not to attempt change in the minds of people. As I understand it, the coup was an attempt to replace the fundamentalist Islamic government with a secular one. A military takeover is no way to accomplish that kind of a cultural change. Change must occur by education and persuasion no matter how long it takes. Hopefully these 7th century religions will be replaced with reasoning prevailing. Sometime in the distant future there will be no more religion. All people on earth will QUESTION AUTHORITY and ideally leaders will all be well educated and open to being questioned, not charismatic dogmatists.

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  • Roedy #10
    Jul 20, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Turkey seems so backward, yet they got into NATO and they are pushing to get into the EU.

    That’s easy to explain!
    NATO needed airbases, over-flight clearance through national airspace, and local co-operation in both Iraq wars – and now somewhere near Syria!

    This is what Turkey wants for Incirlik:

    To avoid relying solely on the 1980 US-Turkey Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement, Turkey wants to open Incirlik not only to US warplanes but also to the aircraft of anti-IS NATO members France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Canada. What Turkey wants to accomplish here is to affix NATO legitimacy to the operation by reinforcing the perception that operations against IS targets in Syria are part of a NATO mission. Turkey wants to open the operational use of Incirlik to NATO and not confine it to the United States.
    Turkey insists that operations, flight routes and targets should be decided collectively by the coordination cell, but subject to Turkey’s final approval. This means decisions made at Incirlik must be conveyed to Ankara immediately. The coordination center in Ankara must be kept informed of all operations and flights in real time with Incirlik.
    Ankara is trying to insert a clause that gives it the authority to send back the coalition planes in case of contravention of the agreement.
    Since Incirlik Air Base has limited capacity, and though the United States is pressing to open the Malatya and Diyarbakir Air Bases to operational flights, Ankara wants them to be available only for emergencies and for the aircraft to leave those bases as soon as the emergency is over.

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  • 13
    fadeordraw says:

    I very much appreciated Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Jenny White, a professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. Thanks.

    “The generals are Kemalists” ( sounds like they are Knights Templar sworn to uphold “laicism”, from “laïcité, French, is the absence of religious involvement in government affairs, especially the prohibition of religious influence in the determination of state policies; it is also the absence of government involvement in religious affairs, especially the prohibition of government influence in the determination of religion” (Wikipedia). The Kemalists were established under Atatürk as he modernized Turkey by, among other targeted things, removing Islam from the governance of the country. And the comment that with increased democracy, so the increase of religious influence for vote getting is a worrisome thought.

    It is interesting to note that Erdogan seems to have several similarities with Atatürk, particularly their control of power. Anyway, what about laïcité legislation and the USA, with Kemalists knights charged with overseeing adherence?

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  • How exactly did Erdogan know who to sack? He got rid of 2600 judges, a lot of admirals in the military, etc.

    So far about 1,577 university deans (faculty heads) have been asked to resign in addition to 21,000 teachers and 15,000 education ministry officials.

    Some 626 institutions have also been shut down, most of them private educational establishments, officials…

    I can understand why Erdogan wants to bring back the death penalty. He is a killer.

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  • Olgun #12
    Jul 20, 2016 at 5:57 pm


    I find all those requests for Incirlik the right of a sovereign country and member of treaties.

    I agree, but my comment was addressing Roedy @#10

    Turkey seems so backward, yet they got into NATO

    . . . . . . as to what NATO wanted from the agreement.

    Turkey is indeed developmentally backward.

    In some areas, surfaced roads which can be navigated without the use of 4 wheel drive vehicles, are yet to be built, so there might be priorities more important than military spending!
    Admittedly there have been significant recent improvements.


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  • Olgun #16
    Jul 21, 2016 at 6:47 am

    Not sure about the source but…. the plot thickens

    @ your link – Without air cover to protect them, this report says, these CIA coup forces were overwhelmed by both Turkish police forces and ordinary citizens and President Erdogan was able to land safely in Istanbul to guide them to victory.

    If this is true, it looks like a similar try-on of the disastrous destabilisation of Libya by Western air strikes on Gaddafi’s troops in support of puppet “pro-democratic” rebel militias.

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  • vrej #14
    Jul 21, 2016 at 12:31 am

    How exactly did Erdogan know who to sack? He got rid of 2600 judges, a lot of admirals in the military, etc.

    The military figures were probably involved in the coup, but the others must have been viewed from a previous list of people promoting alternative political views to his own, or judges who might rule on constitutional violations or not rubber-stamp his actions.

    It also provides a golden opportunity to appoint replacement yes-men loyal to Erdogan.

    The European Union says Turkey’s measures against the education system, the judiciary and the media following the failed coup are “unacceptable”.

    In a statement, High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn said they were “concerned” by Turkey’s decision to declare a state of emergency.

    The move gives Turkey’s leaders “far reaching powers to govern by decree”.

    Thousands of people have been sacked or arrested following the failed coup.

    The two top EU officials urged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to respect the rule of law, rights and freedoms.

    And they also warned Turkey over its decision to suspend the European Convention of Human Rights, saying it must stick to the conditions by which a suspension is permitted.

    The government insists it will not affect the daily life of citizens and that the state of emergency will only root out the “virus” behind the coup. It points out that similar measures are in France since the Paris attacks last November. And President Erdogan says this actually aims to protect democracy and human rights.

    But given the criticism of the president for curbing both while in office, doubts persist over how an increasingly authoritarian leader will use this, especially given the recent purges.

    France and Germany have spoken out loudest but Mr Erdogan has been typically forthright in his response, telling the French foreign minister to “mind his own business”.

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  • This coup attempt was madness of a religious sect that is supported by USA. But it is shown as a secular-fundamentalist conflict in western media. Ironic!

    The religious sect that is governed by Fethullah Gulen (resident in USA) is far more fundamentalist than Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE)! They are disgusting conspirators. Their methods were far more disgusting than Scientology’s methods.

    They were good with RTE when USA was good with RTE. In those days they framed up secular officers of our army. Some retired (!) CIA agents wrote books against Kemalist (secular) system! RTE liquidated a lot of secular officer in our army. Gulen’s men had infiltrated our army decades ago. When secular officers was liquidated, they took important positions.

    Afterwards, when USA had problems with RTE and Gulen’s men took action.

    I’m an atheist and I hate RTE. But I hate CIA and Gulen more… I believe that if honest people of the USA knows the true face of their goverment, CIA and their media, they are ashamed.

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  • Nedim

    As far as I know from where I am in the US, it isn’t known who was behind the coup. If it was two different groups of fundamentalists then I don’t know what to think about the future of Turkey. Erdogan came out right away blaming Gulen for the coup but how do we know if it’s the truth or not? I’m not sure what to believe. I really wish the secularists in Turkey can find the courage and the means to topple Erdogan before he absolutely locks the whole place down in an authoritarian dictatorship. I don’t care if he was democratically elected or not – if he intends to move Turkey straight into an Islamic state then he has to be stopped irregardless of how he came to be in that high position. You know what the Islamists say, one election – one time. And then that’s the end of the elections. Finished.

    Is there any American left who is so naive that they don’t know that the CIA is out there in the world meddling in the governments of other countries? If so then they’re living under a rock. It’s pathetic the level of stupidity here though. Just watch the Republican national convention if you want a demonstration of that.

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  • LaurieB,

    Thanks for your comments. I want to give you a list of Fethullah Gulen’s references when he applied for Green Card. My reference is the biggest secularist newspaper in Turkey.

    George Fidas
    Alexander Karloutsos
    Morton Abramowitz

    Fethullah Gulen claims he is Mehdi (Islamic equivalent of “Messiah” approximately) to inner circles of his vast sect. Other members of his sect believe he is a saint (“evliya” in Islamic jargon). But they don’t confess their beliefs. They say “He is only a opinion leader”. Bullshit! We are in Turkey and they are around us. We know their beliefs very well…

    USA goverment does not support secularism in Turkey or in another country. They want fundemantalist but easy control regimes; like Saudi regime. They know controlling of a secular Kemalist regime is not very easy.

    If people interest, they may see Grafam Fuller’s books. He recommended Turkey “moderate(!) Islam”. We wrote “Kemalism should be die”.

    In conclusion, the coup attempt in Turkey is not an attempt of secular people.

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  • LaurieB #21
    Jul 22, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    Is there any American left who is so naive that they don’t know that the CIA is out there in the world meddling in the governments of other countries? If so then they’re living under a rock.

    There were US and British people working undercover in Turkey – way back in the first Iraq war!

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  • Nedim

    They were good with RTE when USA was good with RTE. In those days they
    framed up secular officers of our army. Some retired (!) CIA agents
    wrote books against Kemalist (secular) system! RTE liquidated a lot of
    secular officer in our army. Gulen’s men had infiltrated our army
    decades ago. When secular officers was liquidated, they took important

    Exactly the dangerous game he should not have been playing. He got himself into a position where he could trust no one.

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  • Olgun #24
    Jul 23, 2016 at 8:28 am

    Exactly the dangerous game he should not have been playing. He got himself into a position where he could trust no one.

    There is now news coming out which suggests some method in this.

    Turkey has detained the nephew of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, in connection with the failed coup attempt, state media report.

    Muhammet Sait Gulen will be taken to the capital, Ankara, from Erzurum, the eastern region where his uncle was born, the Anadolu news agency says.

    Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the coup attempt on Mr Gulen.

    Earlier, the president extended the period in which suspects can be detained without charge to 30 days.

    A statement carried by state media also ordered the closure of more than 1,000 private schools and more than 1,200 associations.

    The moves follow the state of emergency declared on Wednesday in the wake of the failed coup.

    Muhammet Sait Gulen is reportedly also wanted over the leak of questions from 2010 civil service exams.

    In May this year, another nephew of the cleric was detained in connection with schools run by Mr Gulen’s Hizmet movement, according to a state media report at the time.

    Mr Gulen, who was once an ally of Mr Erdogan but then fell out with him, has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.

    The Turkish leader has said the state of emergency will allow the authorities to restore order and deal with the aftermath of the failed coup effectively.

    At least 60,000 state employees have been detained or suspended in an internationally criticised purge.

    Education ministry officials, private schoolteachers and university heads of faculty together account for more than half the people targeted.

    The schools and associations whose closures have now been ordered are suspected of having links to Mr Gulen, Anadolu says.

    Other institutions ordered to be shut down included 19 trade unions, 15 universities and 35 medical institutes, the agency said.

    Also on Saturday, Ankara’s chief prosecutor Harun Kodalak was reported by Turkish media as saying that 1,200 soldiers detained in the wake of the coup had been released.

    Those freed were said to be low-ranking soldiers. Thousands of other service personnel, including more than 100 generals and admirals, remain in detention.

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  • Due to western media’s propaganda, western people think Turkish citizens who vote for RTE (50%) are fundemantalists and they want Sharia!

    Another bullshit! A lot of public opinion researches show that only 10% – 15% of Turkish people demands Sharia! Also great portion of the people who say “I want Sharia” don’t know what Sharia means. They hate Saudi regime and other Sharia regimes. They think “It is not real Sharia”. But they can not explain reasons of why it is not real Sharia and what is “real Sharia”!.. When they look at Saudi regime they see only injustice and they don’t want to reconcile their beliefs with injustice. They imagine “real Sharia” as imaginary happiness age of Mohammad! They are certainly ignorants but not fundemantalists. Besides women-men relationships in Turkey are not like Arap countries even in so called” fundamentalist families.

    Besides RTE is not a satisfactory figure for real fundamentalists in Turkey. Yes, they vote for him, because they don’t have another option. They are afraid of success of a secular party.

    RTE is a so-called fundamentalist and a populist demagog, not more…

    So why both so called fundemantalists and other people vote for RTE? There are complex reasons hard to explain in a short message and I think it is out of scope.

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  • Nedim Değirmenci #28
    Jul 23, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    A lot of public opinion researches show that only 10% – 15% of Turkish people demands Sharia! Also great portion of the people who say “I want Sharia” don’t know what Sharia means.

    It sounds a lot like the Roman Catholics and C of E Protestants, who say, “I believe in evolution”, but also have compartmentalised beliefs in miracles, exorcisms, and god-did-it by persistent interference to produce human worshippers!

    “Believing” in things and supporting them when asked, without any detailed understanding of what the subject is, is a characteristic of “faith-thinking” and “learning” verbal stock answers, by memorising indoctrination!

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  • I recommend everybody who interest situation in Turkey to look at photos of people who act against the coup attempts.

    Please don’t look at “chosen” photos in western media, please write “coup attempt” and/or copy paste “darbe girişimi” in google and search visuals.

    How much “fundemantalist” do you see in that photos? Not so much isn’t it? Besides some people in that photos look like “fundemantalist” are “so called fundemantalist” indeed.

    In conclusion, you can not understand Turkey via to compare it with Arabian countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan. Kemal Ataturk’s effect is still alive. Even you speak people who suppose themselves as fundemantalist and enemy of Ataturk, you take notice their beliefs and way of life are not same as
    aforementioned countries people.

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  • Nedim

    I can appreciate your attempt to distance the Turkish society from the “Arabian” countries but I think I should remind you that many Muslims, both moderate and fundamentalist don’t necessarily relate to the description “Arabian”. Iranians will have nothing to do with that label and as you mentioned above, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan won’t either. Many Lebanese won’t accept the label “Arab” and something that is interesting is that in the past decade I’ve heard many secular North Africans begin to distance themselves from the label “Arab” as well. This is encouraging because they are expressing a dislike of the values and lifestyle of the countries on the Arabian peninsula and they are rejecting the Wahhabi strain of Islam that has been exported from that area in the past years. The big indigenous tribes of the Maghreb – Kabils in the north, Tuareg in the south and Cherouia (sp?) in the southeast have been assertive in promoting their own genetic and cultural identities.

    Now, why I mention all of this is because none of this distance saved the North Africans from a devastating invasion by the Muslim Brotherhood. They invaded that place by stealth and by utilizing the common folk’s belief that religion is a good and necessary thing in every person. I will say that the North Africans were in general a very moderate secular society until the late eighties when the Brotherhood reached a critical mass and started a reign of terror there. I was living in Algeria in the eighties for some years and I was shocked to hear many of these moderates express the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood would bring on an Islamic state that would support the poor and downtrodden and wipe out the extreme corruption in the military dictatorship in that country.

    These common folk had no way to understand that they were allowing a hoard of brutal murderous fascists to completely take over and destroy their culture as they knew it until it was too late. When they all realized what they had allowed to happen they were in the middle of a civil war with hideous atrocities perpetrated on a daily basis.

    I’m hoping that your fellow Turks will rise up and block these nefarious murdering Islamic thugs in your country. Please don’t be complacent or you will all lose time. They have a very sneaky method to gaining the trust of the public. They offer health care and financial support to the poor and widows but there is a terrible price to pay for this.

    If an Islamic regime is solidly established in Turkey it will take decades to throw it out and recover from the dark age it will bring down on the place like a pall. I’m so sorry but from those of us who have watched this process happen in countries that we know and love, it is obvious to us that Turkey is hurtling straight down Islamic drain. So sorry for you all.

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  • Olgun #32
    Aug 4, 2016 at 5:09 am

    Again, the source can be questioned but this would be what the majority of Turkish people will be thinking.

    It would seem that interfering foreign agencies continue creating strife and chaos, in their meddling attempts to install more puppet governments!

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  • Olgun #34
    Aug 7, 2016 at 11:51 am

    It seems that as there are indications of western involvement in the coup attempt, Erdogan is seeking to restore alliances elsewhere!

    The leaders of Russia and Turkey have patched up a damaging quarrel, pledging to restore close economic relations.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian trade sanctions on Turkey would be phased out “step by step”.

    “The priority is to get back to the pre-crisis level of co-operation,” he told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St Petersburg.

    Their relations soured last November when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber on the Syrian border.

    It is Mr Erdogan’s first foreign visit since an attempted coup last month. He has since launched a far-reaching purge of the armed forces and other state institutions.

    Speaking in St Petersburg Mr Erdogan thanked Mr Putin, saying a call from the Russian leader after the coup “meant a lot psychologically”.

    He said “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis will be restored”.

    After Turkey shot down the Su-24 jet Russia imposed trade sanctions and suspended Russian package tours to Turkey.

    Now Russia has decided to resume those package tours – an important source of income for Turkish resorts.

    On the Syria conflict Mr Putin acknowledged big differences with Mr Erdogan, but said “we will look for solutions”.

    The war of words over the downed Russian jet delivered a big blow to trade. Turkey’s exports to Russia in the first half of this year fell to $737m (£567m) – a 60.5% slump compared to the same period last year, Turkey’s Daily Sabah reported.

    The dispute put two major joint energy projects on hold – the TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black Sea and the Akkuyu nuclear plant being built by Russia’s Rosatom in Turkey.

    Russia halts Turkey gas project talks

    In St Petersburg both leaders pledged to restart those projects. Akkuyu will benefit from being designated a “strategic investment”, Mr Erdogan said.

    Before the dispute, Russia was a major export market for Turkish fruit and vegetables – so now Turkey is anxious to get the Russian import ban lifted.

    In June, the Kremlin said Mr Erdogan had apologised for the downing of the jet and had sent a message expressing “sympathy and deep condolences” to the family of the dead pilot.

    Then, after the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey, Mr Putin expressed support for Mr Erdogan. He did not criticise Mr Erdogan’s crackdown on political opponents and purge of alleged “plotters” in state institutions.

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  • Alan

    All the accusations of a false flag coup or a real attempt at a coup is still making the rounds but evidence seems to suggest that Western involvement is real. It questions who really shot down the Russian jet and how much power Erdogan had. If Erdogans men did not shoot down the plane the either the false flag, a preemptive strategy to gain back power could be true as well as the western assisted coup. There is also stories of the coup being brought forward knowing that Erdogan was going to strike the next day. A mess either way you look at it.

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  • Olgun #36
    Aug 9, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    All the accusations of a false flag coup or a real attempt at a coup is still making the rounds but evidence seems to suggest that Western involvement is real.

    Turkey seems to be getting less help than could be expected from NATO allies!
    A high-ranking Turkish military officer has reportedly claimed asylum in the United States after authorities in Turkey linked him to the failed coup.

    Mustafa Ugurlu had been on a posting to a Nato base in Virginia at the time of the 15 July botched coup.

    Turkey has purged its military ranks of some 100 generals accused of being part of a shadowy movement that follows a US-based Turkish preacher.

    Rear Adm Ugurlu disappeared on 22 July, a week after the coup.

    US officials told Reuters news agency that an unnamed rear admiral was seeking asylum, and he was later named by Anadolu Agency as Mustafa Ugurlu.

    A Turkish embassy official in Washington told Reuters that the rear admiral had failed to report for duty after a detention order was issued. “He left his badges and his ID at the base and after that no one has heard anything from him,” the official said.

    Rear Adm Ugurlu was named by prosecutors in the western Turkish city of Izmir, according to Anadolu, as part of a military espionage case involving the leaking of information.

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