Tuesday, 26 September 2017

An Uncertain Future for the Turkish Armed Forces

Published in Articles

By Lars Haugom

September 26,  2017

The secularist identity of the Turkish armed forces is being dismantled in piecemeal ways by the AKP government. There is a risk that the comprehensive changes that are now underway will further exacerbate ideological and political factionalism within the officers’ corps. Ultimately, the politicization of the military and the attempts at its traditional, secularist ethos could provoke a crossing of swords between religious-conservative and secularist factions. Since the coup attempt last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken steps to ensure the loyalty of the current military leadership, while guarding against the possibility of a more politically assertive military leadership in the future. However, it is uncertain if this strategy is also going to restore the internal cohesion of the Turkish armed forces.



BACKGROUND: The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has experienced a most turbulent year following the failed July 15, 2016, military coup attempt.  Not only did the TSK suffer a great humiliation as a national institution at the hands of the coup plotters, but the coup attempt was followed by large-scale purges of military personnel; so far, around 7,500 have been discharged from the ranks of the armed forces. The discharges include over 4,200 officers, 150 of these with the rank of general and admiral. The number of generals and admirals has been reduced by 38 percent over the past year. The reduction in total military personnel during the same period was at a more modest 7.8 percent.   

There are also comprehensive plans underway to restructure the TSK and reconfigure civil-military relations in Turkey. The president will now appoint the Chief of the General Staff directly, and overall government control in the security field has been strengthened by the increase of the number of civilians in the National Security Council (MGK) and in the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) – the body that decides on senior promotions and other overarching issues in the armed forces. The chain of command at the top has also been changed by subjecting the Chief of the General Staff and the General Staff to the Presidency, while the branch commanders are subordinated to the Ministry of Defense. In addition, it will be possible for the president and the prime minister to give orders directly to the branch commanders, thereby bypassing the Chief of the General Staff. 

The TSK has also been stripped of many units and functions. The paramilitary Gendarmerie and the Coast Guard will now be fully subjected to the Ministry of the Interior, while military hospitals, shipyards and industrial facilities are transferred to civilian management. All in all, the Turkish armed forces are now subjected to comprehensive civilian control.

The military education system is also changing with the closing of military colleges and the establishment of a National Defense University led by a civilian rector. Apparently, the university will form a superstructure for the existing TSK Staff College and for the war academies. Military education will now also be open for graduates from the religious imam-hatip schools and for women wearing the Islamic headscarf, two measures that had previously been utterly unthinkable.  Meanwhile, it is rumored that over 30 percent of the new students to the Land Forces Academy have been accepted on recommendation of officials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which means that there will be bonds of political loyalty between future officers and the ruling party. 

The secularist, “westernized” identity of the armed forces is being dismantled in other, piecemeal ways by the government. In September 2017, the Ministry of the Interior ordered that the Ottoman military tune Segah Tekbir, with lyrics from the Quran, will henceforth be played at soldiers’ funerals instead of Fréderic Chopin’s Marche Funèbre.

IMPLICATIONS: Purges in the officers’ corps over the last year have led to a shortage of manpower in certain personnel categories, such as air force pilots and Special Forces experts. These are personnel types that it takes a long time to train and replace. After the latest discharge of air force pilots, the pilot per plane ratio in the Turkish Air Force is at 0.7 – well below the international minimum standard of 1.5. Within the Land Forces, many colonels have been fast-tracked to the ranks of general. In addition, it is reported that colonels instead of generals and admirals now command brigade-size units, a situation not seen in the TSK since the 1930s. In other words, younger and less experienced officers are now commanding larger units.

On the other hand, the purges do not seem to have damaged the ability of the Turkish military to carry out its missions. The TSK has been involved in several combat operations since the coup attempt, both across the border in Syria and Iraq, and in the south-eastern, predominantly Kurdish provinces of Turkey. Even if these operations cannot all be labeled as military successes, neither have they betrayed any demonstrable reduction in combat effectiveness. In fact, Operation Euphrates Shield in Northern Syria – which was launched in September 2016, a short while after the coup attempt – seems to have boosted the morale of the military after the humiliation of July 15. The timing of the operation could also indicate that morale-boosting was indeed one of the motives for its launch.

Another important factor that accounts for why the purges have not impaired the battle effectiveness of the TSK is that the purges have primarily targeted the senior ranks, while the rest of the officers’ corps – with important exceptions for the Air Force and the Special Forces – have been more or less unaffected by them.

However, the implications for the morale and the cohesion in the officers’ corps in the longer term are more difficult to assess at this stage. Since the Ergenekon and ‘Sledgehammer’ (Balyoz) processes (See April 10, 2013 Turkey Analyst), the TSK has been through a long and uniquely traumatic period, and there is a risk that the comprehensive changes that are now underway will further exacerbate the ideological and political factionalism within the officers’ corps.  Political appointments to senior positions in the military, for example, go against a long tradition of meritocracy in the Turkish armed forces, and are therefore likely to stir up controversies in the officers’ corps. The resignation of seven generals and admirals in August 2017, following appointments and promotions made at the YAŞ-meeting three weeks before, can be taken as indication of such dissensions in senior ranks.     

Reportedly, many of the officers who have now been purged are pro-Western and pro-NATO, with educational background from Western military schools and staff experience from NATO. Indeed, a large part of Turkish officers serving in NATO staffs were recalled to Turkey following the coup attempt.  Officers who have replaced those who have been purged are likely to be more conservative-nationalist or Eurasianist in outlook than their predecessors. The Eurasianist officers typically have a secularist worldview, but in terms of foreign and security policy, they advocate closer relations with Eastern powers – Russia, Iran, India and China. Such an ideological shift within the officers’ corps would inevitably complicate military cooperation between Turkey and its NATO allies, and especially so as the relationship between Turkey and its Western allies is already strained on the political level.

By allowing female officers wearing the religious headscarf and graduates from the religious imam-hatip schools to serve as officers, the TSK is now including segments of society that have so far been estranged from the country’s military. Such measures can be seen as a step towards bridging an existing gap between the social world of the Turkish officers and Turkish society at large, thereby bringing the armed forces and society closer together. However, these measures can also be seen as a politicization of the military, where ‘devout’ cadets loyal to the AKP government will gradually fill up the ranks of the officers’ corps, ensuring the future loyalty of the armed forces to the ruling party. Such a process, which would ultimately change the secularist ethos of the TSK and the political outlook of the officers’ corps, will take time, but it could ultimately lead to a crossing of swords between religious-conservative and secularist military factions.

None of the measures that have been taken so far point toward a democratization of civil-military relations in Turkey – save for the fact that the civilian government is elected. The parliament is still not going to have a say over the military; nor is any greater transparency or a more open public debate over defense and security affairs proposed. Absent such measures, the TSK will not become fully accountable to the citizenry and to their elected representatives. 

CONCLUSIONS: Rather than a democratization of civil-military relations, what is developing in Turkey is a system of civilian political control of the armed forces, centered on the AKP government and on the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The increased government representation in the National Security Council (MGK) and in the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) and the new lines of command and control are expressions of this subordination.

On the one hand, the new chains of command and control weaken the position of the Chief of the General Staff by subjecting him and the General Staff to the Presidency, and the branch commanders to the Ministry of Defense. On the other hand, President Erdoğan has been cultivating a very close relationship with the Chief of the General Staff, General Hulusi Akar, and he has strengthened Akar’s position in the military leadership by appointing officers several years his junior to the positions of Navy and Air Force commanders.

These measures may appear contradictory, but they are typical of Erdoğan’s personalized leadership style. By strengthening the personal position of General Akar, with whom Erdoğan is getting along very well, the president is ensuring the loyalty of the current military leadership,  which according to plan will serve until 2019. Meanwhile, by weakening the institutional position of the Chief of the General Staff, Erdoğan is guarding against the possibility of a more politically assertive military leadership in the future. Both these “coup-proofing” measures play well into Erdoğan’s current strategy of strengthening his personal hold on Turkey’s military, security and intelligence apparatus. However, it is uncertain if this strategy is also going to restore the internal cohesion of the Turkish armed forces.


Lars Haugom is Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.

Picture credit: By NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan MC2 (SW) Christopher Hall/NPASE East/NTM-A PAO (Two Turkish soldiers salute) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons accessed on September 26, 2017 

Read 13198 times Last modified on Tuesday, 26 September 2017

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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