How do Military Coups Fail?


On the night of Friday 15th July 2016 elements of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected – but increasingly authoritarian – government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a bloody night of fighting in Ankara and Istanbul, and at least 290 deaths, this attempted coup d’etat was decisively crushed as police, loyalist military units and crowds of civilian volunteers rallied behind Erdogan. The Turkish armed forces and the judiciary are now being purged of real and suspected enemies of the AKP government, and a state that is both a NATO partner and a pivotal ally in Southern Europe and the Middle East is experiencing instability as severa as that the country experienced in the late 1970s.

Edward Luttwak has already provided an analysis on the coup’s failure, and has indeed written what could cheekily be described as the authoritative manual on how to take over a state at gunpoint. In this post I want to take a broader view as to how and why military coups end in failure.

Mao Zedong famously observed that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, and the most dramatic manifestation of that statement can be seen when the armed forces turn against their political masters, and the citizenry wake up to find armoured vehicles on their own streets. The spectacle of soldiers overthrowing the constitutional order they have sworn to defend is a subject of enduring fascination even in stable societies. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller Seven Days in May showed the Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting to oust the US President, in order to thwart an arms control treaty with the Soviets. During the early 1970s the prospect of Her Majesty’s armed forces doing the unthinkable and seizing power in the UK appeared to be a genuine threat, given the extent of the country’s political and economic crises, the failure of either the Conservative or Labour governments of that time to address them, and the widespread paranoia at the time. For Turkey, a state which has experienced three successful coups since 1960, military putsches are not academic exercises or the stuff of fictional fantasies.

Yet the plotting and execution of a coup represents can founder due to a series of factors. For a potential junta of generals or colonels to succeed, the following conditions need to be met.

Firstly, plotters have to be able to plan and organise the takeover of the state without alerting any loyalist colleagues in the armed forces, or the country’s security services.

Secondly, they will have to seize and dominate the state’s transport and communications network – roads, rail links, ports, airports, television, telephones and the media.

Thirdly, they have to achieve a shock effect on the government. The President, Prime Minister, monarch, ministers, and senior civil servants must be either arrested (or perhaps killed), or at any rate they should be neutralised. The spectacle of a leader fleeing a country and seeking asylum abroad is usually a sign of the coup’s success.

Fourthly, the coup needs to be executed with such speed that it becomes a fait accompli for potential opponents. Other elements of the armed forces and the security services must be left with the impression that the only choice they have is either futile resistance or acquiescence in the new order.

Finally, the coup cannot succeed unless it has either popular support, or the plotters can at least count on the general population being unwilling to defend the old order.

On organisation, militaries are not monolithic entities, and would-be caudillos have to surreptitiously identify potential allies within the officer corps, running the risk of exposing their scheming in the process. However, regimes which have a genuine concern over a military takeover will often ‘coup-proof’ their armed forces. Generals and admirals will be appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Commanders will be regularly switched so that they cannot build a support base among the soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen they lead. The regime will impose an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure which will make it difficult for plotters to even meet without attracting the attention of the regime’s security services, and can also drive wedges between officers and the rank-and-file through political indoctrination. What worked for Nazi Germany has worked for Arab autocracies such as Iraq and Syria too.

As was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the secret police will often employ agents provocateurs to smoke out potential putschists by encouraging them to take part in bogus plots, and then arresting and exterminating them. Nascent coups can also be snuffed out if the regime prevents routine exercises or the issuing of ammunition, or if it develops its own parallel paramilitary forces that are better armed and trained than their regular counterparts, and manned by troops recruited on the basis of party, clan or ethnic loyalty to the state. Even if likeminded and resentful plotters can meet and plot in conditions of secrecy and security, there are of course other additional snags to deal with. What if more than one of the assembled putschists believes that he should be the next President for Life?

With communications, the would-be coup plotter might be guided by Lenin’s dictum that the first act is to seize the telephone exchange and the telegraph office. In the age of Twitter and the smart-phone it is no longer as easy to shut down attempts by the government to talk to the masses – or indeed to stop crowds rallying each other to defend the status quo. When Communist Party, military and KGB hardliners of the GKChP (the ‘State Council for the State of Emergency’) tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 they were stymied by the fact that the head of the Soviet Air Force, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, declared that his service would oppose their putsch. Without the Antonovs and Ilyushins of the air forces Transport Command, the GKChP was denied a means of moving their own troops and security personnel around a state that spans ten separate time zones.

In Turkey last Friday Erdogan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, not only evaded capture or elimination, but also held their nerve. Erdogan himself rallied his AKP support base with a telephone call to a private TV channel (via FaceTime) which showed that he was (a) alive, (b) at liberty, and (c) still in the country and ready to fight his corner. The attempted coup in Spain in February 1981 foundered because King Juan Carlos broadcast his opposition and condemned its instigators. In the USSR 10½ years later the Russian President Boris Yeltsin emerged as an alternative source of legitimacy, climbing aboard a tank outside the Parliament Building in Moscow to address the assembled citizenry to resist the junta. In all of the above cases, the failure to neutralise effective opposition and to overawe the government contributed to the coup’s eventual defeat.

The routing of the Turkish coup, and the spectacle of soldiers being disarmed by civilians on the Bosphorus bridge, also shows that achieving a fait accompli is easier in theory than in practice. Coups are a nerve-wracking experience both for their instigators and for the troops they command, who often do not have the faintest idea of what they are doing and why. In certain cases, the coup plotters can rely on troops who are ready to gun down opponents in the streets, as was the case with Iraq in July 1958 and Chile in September 1973. But in other cases soldiers (particularly conscripts) who are faced with crowds of protestors or military units defending the powers-that-be can falter when given the order to shoot. It is a daunting decision to open fire on ones own fellow countrymen and women, particularly if you have doubts about whether you are going to succeed.

Then there are the masses themselves. The overthrow of the Estado Novo by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in April 1974 was met with public delight and approval. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in Pakistan in October 1999 appears to have been greeted with popular apathy, while the Egyptian military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 received widespread acclaim (although the Egyptian people may now have cause to regret their enthusiasm. Turkey, like Pakistan and Egypt, has a reputation for stratocracy, but institutional respect for the military appears to have been eroded over 14 years of AKP rule; the Ergenekon investigation of 2008-2009 into suspected coup plotting has arguably contributed to discrediting Turkey’s top brass in Erdogan’s favour, while also delegitimising military intervention in the country’s politics.

There are precedents for popular opposition undermining a military takeover. The Kapp putsch launched by Freikorps paramilitaries in Berlin in March 1920 initially threatened the destruction of the nascent Weimar Republic, as the commander of the German Army Hans von Seeckt refused to call out the troops to restore order. This attempted takeover was however undermined by a successful general strike called by the socialist and communist trade unions. Franco’s coup in Spain sixteen years later was initially thwarted by a popular counter-rising, which contributed to the ensuing civil war. The GKChP in the USSR in August 1991 was thwarted when Muscovites took to the streets in mass protests. In Turkey over the last weekend, even critics of Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule (including the opposition CHP) condemned the coup. If the people are not onside, or are at least disinterested in the outcome, a takeover by the armed forces is usually either averted, or it simply leads to further violence and civil strife.

Turkey currently faces the prospect of an AKP dictatorship being imposed after a failure to impose a military one. Erdogan appears to be settling scores with all potential opponents – whether they backed this coup or not – thereby compounding the instability arising from the spill-over from the Syrian civil war, the renewed Kurdish insurgency and IS terrorism. In this case, there is an ominous precedent set by the putsch launched by pro-Communist Indonesian officers on 30th September 1965. After this coup’s collapse, Indonesia’s top brass launched a purge which killed an estimated half a million people, and also replaced Sukarno’s dictatorship with that of Suharto. Indonesia 1965 demonstrated that a failed coup d’etat can be every bit as disastrous as a successful one. One can only hope that Turkey does not provide another example.

Image: Tanks approaching the Ataturk airport, Istanbul, July 16th, 2016, via wikimedia commons.

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