Turkish generals upset by loss of political influence

The resignation last week of five Turkish generals, prompted by yet another reshuffling of top military brass, has brought an old political issue to the surface: the unwillingness of Turkish military leaders to obey the orders of the civilian government.

Yet it has also shined a light on deepening frustration with the military's reduced role and a fear of being tossed in prison since the failed coup of July 2016. 

More than three years later, it has become almost routine for Turkish authorities to round up Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) officers for alleged links to the coup plotters. According to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as of August, 17,498 officers had been dismissed since the coup attempt. 

“The atmosphere has changed within the TSK since the failed coup,” one Western diplomat familiar with the Turkish military told Ahval. “Officers can’t discuss topics openly and relative trust within the TSK has gone away. Generals in particular feel they are just the prey of the political class.”

A week ago, five Turkish generals were appointed to posts in southern Turkey that are critical for overseeing operations in Syria, and quickly tendered their resignations (three were later reportedly convinced to withdraw their resignations). This sparked speculation that the resignations, technically they requested early retirement, demonstrated their disagreement with the troubled Syrian policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Indeed, Brigadier General Erdal Şener, recently retired Commander of the Joint Task Force Command with the U.S. in Manbij, suggested in an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper earlier this month that in order to save itself from a quagmire in Syria, the Turkish government should make a deal with Syrian President Bassar Assad. 

Şener added that the U.S.-Turkey safe zone deal struck last month was merely an American stalling tactic. It should be noted that Şener was among the generals forcibly retired before the end of their term as part of a military reshuffling that occurred at a High Military Council (YAS) meeting on Aug. 1. 

But this Tuesday, in an interview with Turkish daily Sözcü, Major General Ahmet Ercan Çorbacı ruled out speculation that he resigned last week as a reaction to his appointment to a Syria mission. He said that he and the other generals resigned largely to express their dissatisfaction with the way appointments and promotions were being made, based more on political loyalty than merit and seniority.

At that Aug. 1 YAS meeting, the number of generals and admirals was reduced from 241 to 233 and no promotions were made to the ranks of full generals or rear admirals.

This was followed by last week’s reshuffling by Erdoğan, which spurred the resignations. On Wednesday, Erdoğan responded to the resignations, issuing a presidential decree that reshuffled the positions of six generals.

Since the 1923 founding of the Republic, Turkey’s armed forces have played a key political role as the guardian of secular democracy. At least five times over the past 60 years Turkey’s military has moved to intervene and overthrow the government. Four attempts were successful, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, while the fifth, in 2016, famously failed. 

The real reason behind the recent resignations may be growing resentment to the government’s subordination of the armed forces in the wake of the failed coup, which appears to have ended its guardianship role of the Republic’s secular character.

A key problem is that the government’s subordination of the armed forces has not taken place within the usual paradigm of civilian control, but rather as the politicisation of the TSK. At the same time, recent decisions on the promotion and retirement of generals and admirals is known to be part of a long-overdue military restructuring. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkish military commanders have several times spoken publicly about the need for TSK to get smaller, yet more mobile and effective with advanced capabilities. 

This restructuring never materialised, mainly due to fierce opposition among military brass, who saw it as a severe reduction in their political influence and the end of their guardianship role.

Yet it now seems that the Turkish government and President Erdoğan are taking concrete steps to put this plan into action and build a 21st century military.

The first step was the introduction of a military service law that became effective in June, reducing compulsory military service for privates from 12 to six months. This marks a step towards the creation of a professional armed forces as it will increase overall combat readiness thanks to more career-level expertise as opposed to cadets with a short-term orientation to military life. 

This move was followed by reducing the number of full generals and rear admirals from 15 to 7, since a smaller force would of course need fewer commanders. 

First they lost their guardianship role; now they are losing their jobs.

It’s no surprise Turkish generals are unhappy.