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Erdogan Flies to Istanbul, Declares Coup Dead, and Vows Payback

After urging Turkish citizens to take to the streets to turn back an attempted military coup, Erdogan landed in Istanbul early Saturday to retake control of the country.

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On Friday evening, Turkish military personnel blocked bridges over the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, deployed tanks to the city’s main airport, and sent low-flying jets and helicopters to patrol over the capital of Ankara.

Updated, 9:55 p.m. EST: After urging Turkish citizens to take to the streets to turn back an attempted military coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Istanbul early Saturday to retake control of the country.

For hours on Friday evening, Turkey’s political present and future were literally in the air. Erdogan was rumored to be in his private jet seeking political asylum in Germany or perhaps in the U.K. Turkish army troops had taken over the country’s two biggest cities with tanks, jets, and loudspeakers. Turkey’s latest attempt at a coup d’état had come and, after some flutters and shots and explosions, gone.

The scene in Turkey, a important NATO ally in the fight against the Islamic State, was triumphant as Erdogan returned. The autocrat had urged Turks on social media to take to the streets to defend his regime — via Twitter. His first post-coup TV appearance came via Apple’s FaceTime feature.

“They are going to pay for this in the harshest way,” Erdogan said after landing. He set up shop behind a rickety wooden table in a room in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, named for the secular founder of the modern Turkish Republic that Erdogan has sought to dismantle, and scene of the country’s last deadly terrorist attack.

“There has been a movement within the armed forces starting this afternoon. A minority within the armed forces has unfortunately been unable to stomach Turkey’s unity. It was the [Gulen Movement] itself. This group has penetrated the armed forces and the police, among other government agencies, over the past 40 years. What is being perpetrated is a rebellion and treason. They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey,” Erdogan said.

“Law enforcement has started arresting military officers of various ranks. Those who stain the military’s reputation must leave. The process has started today, and it will continue, just as we fight other terrorist groups,” the Turkish president said, lumping his own army together with the Islamists and Kurds that the country has battled for decades.

Martial law was declared in Turkey, convulsed by military takeovers at least three times in the past half-century. How Erdogan’s return will be taken remains to be seen.

Updated, 8 p.m. EST: U.S. President Barack Obama has rejected the ongoing attempted military coup in Turkey, meant to depose Erdogan.

In a statement late Friday, the president called on all parties to “support the democratically elected government of Turkey.” His view on the ongoing incident was announced during a readout of a call between the White House and Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The president and secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed. The secretary underscored that the State Department will continue to focus on the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Turkey,” the White House said in a statement.

This sentiment was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her spokesman tweeted that Turkey’s democracy “must be respected.”

The State Department warned Americans in Turkey on Twitter to “shelter in place” and confirmed that martial law had been imposed in the country.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported that Turkey’s national intelligence spokesperson said the coup had been repelled.

As the attempted coup progressed into Saturday morning, Turkish time, the extent of the violence is becoming more clear. The Anadolu Agency, Turkey’s state-run news outlet, reported 17 police officers were killed in a helicopter attack on the special forces headquarters on the outskirts of Ankara. The agency also reported a bomb detonated outside the Turkish parliament building in the capital.

According to high-ranking officials in the Turkish government — including Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who spoke to Turkish television channel NTV — it was an attempted military coup against the government of Erdogan, who has alarmed many in the country with his staunchly Islamist views. The Turkish military has traditionally seen itself as a guardian of the country’s secular heritage, and tensions between Erdogan and the Turkish armed forces have been growing for years.

A group claiming to represent the Turkish military issued a statement announcing that it had “completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged.”

There were conflicting reports about Erdogan’s status, with some Turkish media outlets reporting he was poised to give a statement and others reporting he had left the country on his private jet. Erdogan made a statement late on Friday night through a FaceTime call broadcast on CNN Turk where he denounced the coup attempt and vowed that the perpetrators would be punished. He urged Turkish citizens to defy a military-announced curfew, saying, “I call on our people to gather in squares and airports” to oppose the attempted government takeover.

If successful, the coup would put Washington in a bind. Erdogan was freely elected to the leadership of one of his region’s most powerful countries, and Turkey — a NATO member — has recently repaired its relationship with Israel, the closest American ally in the Middle East. Publicly endorsing a military coup would be politically challenging for a White House ostensibly committed to the expansion of democratic values abroad.

At the same time, many in the Obama administration have grown concerned about Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian policies, which have included a broad crackdown on journalists and human rights advocates in the country. Washington has also accused Erdogan of failing to do enough to stop the flow of foreign fighters loyal to the Islamic State into Syria.

An aide to Erdogan condemned the coup in a text to Foreign Policy Friday.

This is an attack against Turkish democracy,” the aide said. “A group within the Turkish armed forces has made an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government outside the chain of command.”

The Turkish military also seized control of the state broadcaster TRT. In its statement, the group went on to confirm that all international agreements entered into by Turkey would still be adhered to.

CNN Turk and the semiofficial Anadolu Agency announced that Hulusi Akar, the head of Turkey’s armed forces, was currently detained at the military headquarters in Ankara. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a warning to Americans, urging them to contact family and friends to let them know they are safe.

The timing of the coup could be related to a yearly summit that Turkey’s military holds, which determines promotions within the top ranks of the armed forces. In 2011, the entire top brass of the Turkish military resigned over anger at the arrest of senior officers who were accused of plotting a coup. The summit was supposed to be held on Aug. 1: Some observers speculated that this coup attempt could have been conducted by factions within the military who feared they would be sidelined then and moved to preempt that development.

If the Turkish military succeeds in forcing out Erdogan, the Obama administration will face a reprise of the challenges it faced in 2013, when the Egyptian military forced out and then arrested President Mohamed Morsi. In the aftermath, the White House refused to call Morsi’s ouster by what it was: a textbook definition of a coup.

“[We are] taking the time to determine what happened, what to label it,” then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the time.

“We’re just not taking a position,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki at the time, adding that “each circumstance is different.”

Psaki, using words that would later be echoed by other senior administration officials said, said “there were millions of people who have expressed legitimate grievances” against Morsi, a committed Islamist. “A democratic process is not just about casting your ballots.… There are other factors including how somebody behaves or how they govern.”

In the case of Morsi, the fate of $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt was hanging in the balance as Washington weighed how to describe his ouster. If the White House had labeled it a coup, Washington would have had to suspend the funds. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ultimately chose to praise the Egyptian military for “restoring democracy” in the country. The United States now recognizes Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who led the coup, as Egypt’s president.

Below, FP has embedded footage from the ground in Turkey:

FP staff writer Siobhán O’Grady and fellow Henry Johnson contributed to this report. 

Top photo credit: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images

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