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[ANALYSIS] Erdoğan’s fear of a coup delayed search and rescue operations after the quakes

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Fatih Yurtsever*

New information and explanations have bolstered claims that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) participated too late in search and rescue operations with all their units and capabilities following two major earthquakes that struck Turkey on Feb. 6. In the first 48 hours of the disaster, the TSK did not receive official orders to provide humanitarian aid in the earthquake zone; rather, some elements went to assist at the initiative of the relevant regional commanders. In other words, the TSK provided far less assistance than it was capable of providing. The TSK received official orders and provided full-fledged help to the victims 48 hours after the earthquakes, resulting in a large number of casualties.

Veteran journalist Memduh Bayraktaroğlu posted a video on his YouTube page on Feb. 14 based on information provided by an official working at the Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) who personally witnessed the events. According to the official, shortly after the first earthquake Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Tourism and Culture Minister Mehmet Ersoy met and began discussing steps that should be taken to deal with the earthquake. The ministers agreed to use the manpower and capabilities of the TSK for search and rescue operations, but when they informed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he refused, and the TSK could not participate in the operations.

Bayraktaroğlu stated that the information he had passed on included serious allegations, but he also stated that if the officials denied the claims, he would broadcast them as well.

There has been no response from the ministers regarding the claims made by Bayraktaroğlu on his YouTube channel about the events on the morning of Feb. 6. Burak Gültekin, an advisor at the Interior Ministry, has denied the claims made in the video without directly naming Bayraktaroğlu. However, Bayraktaroğlu posted another video on his YouTube page on Feb. 19 reaffirming his allegations.

In response to criticism that the TSK was late to respond to the earthquake, Defense Minister Akar issued a statement on Feb. 20. Akar defended the army’s actions, stating that they were mobilized from the very beginning and rushed to help people. He explained that the first earthquake occurred at 4:17 a.m. on Feb. 6 and that the Defense Ministry as well as all the operations centers of the land, naval and air forces requested reports from units at 4:30 a.m. The Turkish Armed Forces’ Humanitarian Aid Command was given instructions, and all military units were mobilized accordingly. Akar said he reported to President Erdoğan at 5:10 a.m. on the state of the army, adding that despite difficulties due to poor weather conditions, the Turkish army made great efforts to transport AFAD teams to the affected areas.

However, Akar’s statements do not change the fact that TSK reacted too late to the earthquakes. On Aug. 17, 1999, immediately after an earthquake in Gölcük, the TSK acted quickly, deploying some 65,000 soldiers within 48 hours to conduct search and rescue, evacuation and shelter operations. Soldiers also set up field hospitals, tent cities and mobile kitchens to help those affected by the disaster, playing a crucial role in the country’s recovery. The Turkish people expected the same response from the TSK but were disappointed when they saw low-capacity efforts in the earthquake zone. In the current disaster, the TSK deployed only 7,500 soldiers in the first 48 hours after the quake, a critical time for search and rescue operations, slightly more than one-tenth of the personnel deployed in the 1999 Gölcük earthquake.

After a coup attempt in 2016 the Erdoğan administration implemented institutional changes in the TSK, weakening the command-and-control functions of the force commands and the chief of general staff over their units and staff. In previous crises, such as the 1999 earthquake, the Naval Forces Command had the autonomy to establish a maritime transportation bridge with warships and transport the wounded to hospitals without orders from anyone. However, in the recent earthquakes, a similar maritime transportation bridge was not established within the first 24 hours, despite the availability of landing and amphibious ships and frigates. The TSK’s usual institutional reflexes in crisis situations have been compromised by the structure set up by the Erdoğan administration. Nonetheless, the TSK remains an institution that can be organized in the field in the shortest time possible for natural disaster relief operations.

An analysis of Defense Minister Akar’s statements reveals that they do not contradict journalist Memhud Bayraktaroğlu’s allegations. While Akar does not explicitly state why the Turkish Armed Forces did not deploy enough troops to the region immediately after the earthquakes, he implies that the TSK was ready to intervene and wants people to conclude that President Erdoğan did not allow them to do so. This statement exonerates Akar and places the responsibility on Erdoğan for the late response of the TSK. The reason for Erdoğan’s decision is speculated to be due to his desire to prevent the TSK from regaining its previous level of credibility and public support as he views it as a threat to his rule.

The recent earthquakes in Turkey and the subsequent economic damage and inadequate reaction by state institutions have tarnished President Erdoğan’s image in the EU and the US. Prior to the earthquake, Erdoğan was viewed as the only political figure capable of stabilizing Turkey, despite his authoritarian tendencies. However, the disaster has caused a shift in perception. Erdoğan himself is now seen as the cause of Turkey’s destabilization. Erdoğan now aims to keep the TSK under tighter control, as he remains wary of the possibility of a coup. For Erdoğan, suppressing the fear of a coup takes precedence over the loss of life caused by the earthquakes.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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