The Turkish Army Has Lost its Lustre

After 20 years of rule by the Justice and Development Party, has the influence of the armed forces, who used to intervene directly in running the country, disappeared? The harassment of its former and current personnel indicates that the government’s confidence in the army is far from absolute.

May 3, 2016: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting the Special Forces Command in Ankara
Yasin Bulbul/Turkish Prime Minister Office/AFP

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won early parliamentary elections in 2002, the arrival in power of this new faction, self-identifying as conservative and democratic, seemed at the time like a chance to extract the country from the impasse into which it had been plunged by a half-century of cyclical military interventions (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) which saw the Turkish army become a political actor in a system where, as Steven A. Cook put it, it was in power, but did not govern.1 Historically the military was without question at the heart of the establishment of the contemporary Turkish nation-state, but their involvement in the political arena from 1960, when they came out of their barracks for the first time in the republican era, was something different. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) was a general who, once he became chief of state, saw himself above all as a reformist civilian president. During the Kemalist period, the army played a role in maintaining order, but it was not an authority exerting a determining influence on the conduct of state affairs.

After the Second World War, in which it did not take part as such, the army even looked like an ageing institution, somewhat antiquated, attracting derision from Adnan Menderes, the Democratic Party prime minister who came to power in 1950 after the liberalisation of the one-party Kemalist regime. By that time a military career had become distinctly less attractive.

A double power

The coup of 27 May 1960 thus permitted the army to establish itself at the heart of this new parliamentary system and to set itself some rules: it would remain pluralist but would assure the survival of the national state founded in 1923 and respect the prerogatives of the elites who constituted its agents (the military, judges, high officials, etc.). Henceforward two powers cohabited in this set-up: a civilian government based on competitive elections in the framework of a parliamentary system, and a state power which took on several sovereign tasks (security, defence, diplomacy) or even hegemonic ones (higher education) and oversaw the civilian institutions.

Turkish society is not docile, and the profound crises that it went through prompted the army to intervene several times in the second half of the 20th century. After another diffuse intervention in 1971, the military imposed a long period of purgatory on democracy in 1980, overhauling the party system and formulating a constitution which strengthened or established a certain number of institutional safeguards, such as the National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, MGK) or the Higher Education Council (Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu, YÖK). This document marked the high tide of Turkish military interventionism. It led to a system where the influence wielded by the army was so sophisticated that when the civilian bodies crossed the red line, there was no longer any need to bring the tanks out onto the streets: it was enough to strike postures or issue declarations swiftly taken on board by their wayward addressees. In 1997, the “postmodern coup d’état” saw the military dispense with the government headed by the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, which showed the effectiveness of the system in place, but did not resolve the fundamental problems and led five years later to the definitive victory of the AKP.

From entente to confrontation

But when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took over the government in the spring of 2003, it was not the moment for revenge. Marked by the bitter memory of his incarceration in 1998 after a verbal provocation, the new prime minister advocated consensus, a position shared by General Hilmi Özkök, then chief of staff. It was not until 2007 that open conflict broke out, on the presidential election. The efforts of the military-political establishment to prevent the election of an AKP member to the Presidency of the Republic failed, and the Erdoğan government emerged strengthened by this test. He began to take on the Turkish military, starting by stripping it of its judicial privileges (the right to try civilians, the monopoly over justice for the military).

But in this period, the weakening of the army’s position in the system stemmed above all from the Ergenekon and Balyoz affairs which provided the framework for a series of conspiracy trials, led by special prosecutors named by the regime, and mainly drawn from the Gülen movement. Hundreds of secular personalities and above all retired or active senior officers were arrested in successive waves, including the former chief of staff İlker Basbuğ (2008–2010), who was given a life sentence in 2013. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meanwhile effectively took control of the Supreme Military Council (Yüksek Askeri Şura, YAŞ), which controls military promotions and in particular nominates the members of the General Staff.

The AKP, an anti-establishment movement from the fringes, had thus penetrated the core of the system, but could it continue to take on the state and its army, at the very moment when danger was looming on the borders as the Syrian conflict deepened? What was more, the intense struggle of the majority party against the power of the state dangerously empowered those who led it. A real state within the state, the Gülen movement, having silenced the military, now went on to defy the government, or even to threaten it directly when there was a first wave of arrests in ruling circles in December 2013. It was the start of a relentless struggle between the party in power and its former partners, in the shape of a first harsh purge of the judiciary and the police, where the Gülenists had some major sources of support. However, the denunciation of their misdeeds necessarily led to the liberation and subsequent rehabilitation of their victims, starting with the military men stricken by the Ergenekon and Balyoz affairs, now presented as simply machinations hatched by what was being called the “parallel state”.

The failed coup d’état of 15 July 2016, part of an uprising by units strongly infiltrated by the Gülenists—notably in the air force and the gendarmerie—and joined by a series of actors with mixed motives, looked like the last act of the war pitting the AKP against its old allies. But even if it seemed to sound the death knell for the Turkish military, with the army placed under the orders of the Ministry of Defence, the government was left to wonder about the military’s composition, loyalty, and political leanings.

A new political-military paradigm

The old paradigm under which the Turkish army was a unified institution installed in the heart of the system had had its day. The failed 2016 coup showed a body riddled with outside influences and deeply divided. It was followed by significant purges and defections, especially among the officers posted to NATO organs. From now on, the government’s problem was no longer to guard itself against an institution which was a strong and influential political actor, but to manage a community destabilised by recent changes, making it unpredictable. In such a context, putting the army under the Ministry of Defence seemed as much like its ultimate submission to civilian control as it was an attempt to safeguard the integrity of the institution, by placing it under the authority of its former Chief of Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, who had remained loyal during the putsch and become a prominent political figure in the new regime.

Cohabiting in the body of the army which had survived the coup was basically members of the old guard of secular officers who had not risen, new cadres close to the AKP, indeed certain Islamic fraternities such as the Süleymancı, and above all an increasingly influential network of ultranationalist officers who no longer hesitated to display their Islamic identity. This religious sensitivity aspect of military nationalism was not new. It turned its back on the army’s traditional NATO orientations dating back to the Cold War, preferring “Eurasian” values, most often very anti-Western, a change which greatly delighted radical firebrand activists like Dogu Perinçek, who had always espoused such ideas. These orientations, of course, were not unconnected to the pan-Turkic tendencies of Turkish nationalism in the early 20th century (the Young Turk movement), but in current times, they also echo the rapprochements which Turkey has pursued in recent years with Russia.2

This precarious balance masks above all a race to reshape the army through its current and future recruitments. For starters, after the failed putsch of 2016, the government disbanded the special schools and academies which were the reservoir for autonomous military recruitment, with their cadets reallocated swiftly and randomly to traditional universities. The academies were officially replaced by the new Turkish defence university, which rapidly admitted recruits close to the AKP. It should be added that from now on, enrolling graduates from the Imam Hatip religious schools also became possible.

Next, the Ministry of Defence, which basically controls the general staff, stepped up recruitment of “specialist sergeants” (uzman çavuş). They only required a secondary school certificate and were trained up in six months. This new method of recruitment in fashion added to the need for a modernisation of the army which would require its professionalisation at the expense of conscription, deemed, here as elsewhere, costly, and inappropriate. In addition to the reduction of military service, recent reforms also allowed conscripts to shorten their time under the flag by paying a fee.

Along with a redefinition of the armed forces’ missions, these measures have contributed to a reduction of capacity, partly offset by the recruitment of the politically engaged such as the uzman çavuş, whose mobilisation was made more necessary by the increased number of units deployed in external theatres. One might conclude that henceforth those who control the professionals of this new army (whose overall numbers amount to 355,200), and especially the “specialist sergeants”, will have a decisive influence on it.

An increasingly segmented institution

Yet the minister of defence has not lost interest in the generals. He may have entered politics himself, but he is not keen to see some of his active colleagues trying to do the same thing and perhaps overshadowing him by becoming over-mediatised war chiefs, sometimes winning favour with the presidency. The general commanding the 2nd Army during the 2018 intervention at Afrin (northern Syria), Metin Temel, and the admiral who strongly influenced Turkish policy in Libya, Cihat Yaycı, learned this to their cost when they were given “promotions” to sideline them. The government wants to maintain the authority of the one upon whom the compromise reached after the 2016 coup rests, more so because new schisms have appeared in the army. First, some high-ranking officers are questioning Turkey’s external interventions. The critical situation of the Turkish army in the Idlib enclave of northern Syria prompted the resignation of two experienced generals in September 2021, well ahead of retirement age. Secondly, quite apart from the purges, recent reclassifications undertaken supposedly for technical reasons—primarily a reduction in the number of colonels—have fuelled a feeling of uncertainty or even injustice in the ranks. Thirdly, high-ranking retired officers continue to constitute a pressure group which can break cover if necessary, as illustrated by the publication in April 2021 of a letter signed by 104 ex-admirals concerned about the fate of the Montreux Convention regarding the regime of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits after the President had plunged into the construction of a canal which would bypass one of them, and had reneged on the ratification of the relevant treaties simply by issuing decrees.

Finally, the resumption of the Kurdish guerrilla war, and the proliferation of the Turkish army’s interventions abroad, favours the spread of chauvinistic, ethnic religious and frankly ultra-nationalist sentiments in army ranks, some of which had been rehabilitated after the Ergenekon affair. This phenomenon reinforces in parallel the influence achieved at the heart of the new presidential system by the National Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) of Devlet Bahçeli, which allowed the AKP to push through the constitutional amendment of 2017, to maintain a majority in parliament, and to see Recep Tayyip Erdoğan re-elected to the presidency in the first round in 2018. In this respect the convergent positions of the leader of the extreme right and the head of state, now calling for the dissolution of the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) and dubbing as “terrorists” the students sleeping out in the parks of Istanbul to protest rent increases, are an eye-opener. It is no doubt explained by the role of kingmaker achieved by Devlet Bahçeli’s faction since 2016, but perhaps it also suggests that such influence is restricted to civilian circles.

1Ruling but Not Governing. The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, John Hopkins University Press, 2007.

2Jean Marcou et Mitat Çelikpala, Regard sur les relations turco-russes. De la rivalité dans un monde bipolaire à la coopération dans un espace eurasiatique ? Institut français d’études anatoliennes, Istanbul, 2020.