The politicisation of Turkey’s armed forces continues

A meeting of Turkey’s Supreme Military Council last week continued the politicisation of the armed forces as part of a strategy to create an army comprised of Erdoğan loyalists through expulsions, promotions, retirements and trials.

Turkish pro-government media outlets have badly misreported decisions announced last week after a meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), the committee that decides the promotions and retirements of top generals.

Some media outlets said the YAŞ, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had purged generals and admirals once accused by prosecutors belonging to the Gülen movement of attempting to organise a secular coup in plots known as Balyoz and Ergenekon. Erdoğan accuses the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally, of orchestrating a failed coup on July 15, 2016.

The trials of the military officers accused of involvement in the Balyoz and Ergenekon plots collapsed after a split emerged between Erdoğan and the Gülenists in 2013 and almost all of the hundreds of accused were later acquitted due to the ruling party’s expedient peace with Balyoz-Ergenekon elements after the 2016 coup attempt.

Other media outlets denied the YAŞ had retired the officers in question, but said the committee had either kept them in position or promoted them.

The Gülenists, now branded the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), used to be close allies of the ruling party. They deny carrying out the coup, but testimonies suggest the putschists were a combination of both traditional Kemalists, who had carried out a number of previous coups on the pretext of defending Turkey’s secular republic, and Gülenists.

What is being disseminated by media outlets close to Balyoz officers, retired or active, is contradictory and confusing. In this fog of war, it is harder than ever to distinguish between correct information and false reports, to make proper sense of the latest promotions and retirements.

It is hardly likely, for instance, that Erdoğan would retire Balyoz officers at a time when he needs to sustain his alignment with the group, as well as with far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), more than ever.

Erdoğan suffered a major defeat in the rerun of Istanbul mayoral elections in June that indicated the beginning of his decline after 16 years in power. In addition, there is a pending split within his Justice and Development Party. These developments have put Erdoğan’s political and electoral future in danger. The coalition he has made with conservative right-wing forces and the Balyoz-Ergenekon group provides some degree of hope for future electoral wins.

It should be noted that officers tried in the Balyoz and Ergenekon cases collaborate on some issues with a political group headed by Doğu Perinçek, whose Patriotic Party is believed by many to have strong ties with an alleged deep state that has sought to clandestinely influence Turkey’s politics.

Perinçek’s clique is opposed to NATO and the United States and supports a strongly secular state.

It is well known that in filling the huge vacuum created by the purges after the failed coup, the officers linked to the Balyoz and Ergenekon cases and Perinçek’s left-wing nationalist followers known as Ulusalcilar, have been favoured, along with pro-Erdoğan officers. That means that there is now a strong faction of anti-NATO, anti-United States, pro-Russian tendencies in the army.

Purging and Replacing

Professor Ümit Cizre, a leading expert on civil-military relations, said Erdoğan government’s military policy since the 2016 failed coup was “not just based on undermining the ideological-cultural roots of secular, anti- religious indoctrination of the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces), but also aims at de-institutionalising every single possible source, centre and trace from which military power stems from, be it Gülenist, secularist/Westernist, or simply democratic officers.”

To achieve that, a number of strategies have been deployed since 2016. One is the purges of the armed forces, through a drastic series of expulsions, detentions, arrests and trials of military personnel for alleged links to the Gülen movement.

A parallel measure is the policy of partisan appointments on the basis of loyalty rather than merit. More than 30,000 military personnel have been expelled from the armed forces and hundreds have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms while more have been kept in pre-trial detention for extended periods.

To fill the gaps, 51,326 personnel have been recruited to the military, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told parliament in December.

"Thanks to the measures taken after the July 15 betrayal, with its increasing discipline, motivation, deterrence and movement ability, the Turkish Armed Forces are our biggest guarantee against these asymmetric threats,” Erdoğan wrote in the visitors’ book during a visit to the mausoleum of the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk before the YAŞ meeting.

The strength of the military that Erdoğan refers to is extremely doubtful. On the contrary, looking at the excessive numbers purged from the ranks, the dubious recruitment process and the methods used to restructure the army, the effect is to undermine its integrity and raise questions about its professionalism, ideology and morale.

As there is no accurate way to gauge who is for and who is against Erdoğan, the risks include not just misjudging loyalties, but facilitating the outcome that military policy is geared to avoid – another coup. Although Erdoğan may feel the politically meddlesome military has been brought under absolute civilian control, it is far from clear whether this has been achieved.

It is also conceivable that the daily arrests of personnel with alleged ties to the Gülenists have undermined the esprit de corps beyond easy repair. The public perception of the military has also received a fatal blow.