OSW Commentary

Cadres decide everything – Turkey’s reform of its military

Cadres decide everything – Turkey’s reform of its military

Over the last two years, the Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetlerı – TSK) have been subject to transformations with no precedent in the history of Turkey as a republic. The process of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) subordinating the army to civilian government has accelerated following the failed coup that took place on 15 July 2016. The government has managed to take away the autonomy of the armed forces which, while retaining their enormous significance within the state apparatus, ceased to be the main element consolidating the old Kemalist elites. However, the unprecedented scale of the purges and the introduction of formal civilian control of the military are merely a prelude to a much more profound change intended to create a brand new military, one that would serve the authorities and be composed of a new type of personnel – individuals from outside the army’s traditional power base. This reflects the reshuffle of the elites that happened during AKP’s rule.

However, due to the fact that the TSK are a highly complex structure and the political situation both in Turkey itself and in its neighbourhood is tense, the military needs to retain its significance within the state system. Military actions are being carried out in northern Syria and in the south-eastern part of Turkey. In a situation of profound distrust between the political leadership and the military, the government is trying to impact the internal divisions within the TSK by favouring anti-Western, pro-Russian and nationalist groups. At the same time, it is consolidating the interior ministry’s structures, which could potentially defend it against another possible coup. It is also forming voluntary structures subordinated to it. This means that the process of the armed forces’ reconstruction and redefinition of their role in the system, alongside the ultimate creation of a new army, are markedly elevating the potential for internal conflicts and translating into a weakening of Turkey’s institutional ties with the West by gradually weakening its involvement in NATO. The planned purchase of S-400 systems from Russia, which the government intends to use to defend itself against its own army, is another manifestation of this trend.


TSK – the institutional core of the Turkish Republic

The significance of the armed forces for the political system of contemporary Turkey is determined by the central role they have unceasingly played in the Turkish state since the first half of the 19th century. The issue is multifaceted and cannot merely be reduced to the role of ‘the guardian of secularism’, the mantle which the TSK have traditionally assumed in the Republic. Due to its strong Kemalist identity, the military has traditionally gathered political, clerical and economic elites, as well as opinion-forming groups around it. In this way it has served as a keystone of the system as a whole, in which political hegemony (combined with an economic and cultural one) was held by elites stemming from the period of the late Ottoman Empire[1]. It was because of this traditional position that for most of Turkey’s history as a republic the TSK were not ancillary to the state – on the contrary, they took charge of the political class (Turkish: vesayet sistemi). Whenever it was considered necessary, the military toppled the government (coup d’états in 1960 and 1980 and forced resignations of entire governments in 1971 and 1997), and changed the legal order – for example, new constitutions were adopted in the wake of the coups in 1960 and 1980.

At present, the TSK remain a powerful institutional and bureaucratic machine – the combined land, air and naval forces have over 362 000 soldiers[2]. In addition, the military police is more than 150 000-strong and the reserve has almost 380 000 soldiers. Due to the large number of TSK troops and their social power base, composed mainly of families with military traditions going back generations that are closely linked to traditional lay republican elites, the military continues to hold an important position in the Turkish political system. This position endures mainly due to the army’s economic influence. The main institution through which the TSK are pursuing their interests in this field is the Armed Forces Retirement Fund (Ordu Yardımlaşma Kurumu – OYAK). This institution is independent of civilian leadership and in practice is a powerful conglomerate that is exempt from taxes and controls almost all key sectors of the economy[3].

Despite the fact that under AKP rule the position of the TSK is becoming ever weaker, the military maintains its traditional prestige, its symbolic value and its social and economic influence. It is also a palpable instrument in the state’s domestic and foreign policy. Since the mid-1980s, it has been involved in military action targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the south-eastern part of Turkey. This trend intensified when the war in Syria broke out. Turkish troops have been involved in military action under Operation Euphrates Shield (since August 2016) and Operation Olive Branch (since January 2018). Due to permanent threats to the Turkish state, both internal and external, in a situation of tensions between the government and the military leadership the position of the military as an institution of key importance for the Turkish state is maintained.


Organisational changes around TSK – the sine qua non of the construction of a New Turkey

The failed attempted coup of 15 July 2016 is the most important turning point in the process of institutional and social reconstruction of the Turkish state. This reconstruction process is revolutionary in its nature and has been ongoing since 2002[4]. The coup has been the most significant upheaval in Turkish politics since AKP took power. It has also shown that the military is indeed the source of power that is able to attempt toppling President Erdoğan[5]. The failed attempt at overthrowing his rule has become a catalyst of the process that has been ongoing for years and whose aim is to permanently subordinate the military to civilian government[6]. The state of emergency declared immediately after the coup enabled the president to issue decrees and made it possible to launch actions intended mainly to eliminate the immediate threat by expelling individuals linked to the Gülen movement from the military. Other actions included system-wide measures leading to the ultimate formal subordination of the TSK to civilian government.

Under the purges that followed the coup, 124 generals and admirals (30% of the command) were removed from the military, and more than 40 000 servicemen were expelled from the officers’ corps as a whole. More than 8 000 individuals were arrested, including both officers and soldiers, and civilian personnel[7]. These measures were mainly intended to immediately eliminate people linked to the Gülen movement or suspected of having such links[8].

However, actions of a fundamental nature covered all formal relationships between the government and TSK. The decrees issued by President Erdoğan in the autumn of 2016 and at the beginning of 2017 have formed the legal basis for these actions. All of the implemented changes have solidified the civilian government’s formal control of the TSK in that they eliminated the actual autonomy of the General Staff as an institution that centrally manages all the branches of armed forces. Several different centres of control have been established in its place.

Other organisational changes[9] affecting the relations between the civilian government and the military involved excluding the gendarmerie and the coast guard from the General Staff’s command. The ministry of the interior has assumed control of these two services. As a result of this move, more than 160 000 officers have been excluded from the General Staff’s chain of command. Command of land, air and naval forces has been transferred directly to the ministry of defence, and the role of the General Staff, which until recently controlled them, has been reduced to coordination of their actions.

The changes discussed above should be viewed as revolutionary. This is the first time since the establishment of a republican system of governance that the armed forces are so evidently subordinated to the government. Unprecedented purges – both in the command hierarchy and at lower echelons – raise questions regarding the TSK’s combat capacity. The two operations carried out in northern Syria were rather small-scale. Nevertheless, they have made it possible to achieve the planned goals, which shows that the Turkish military is capable of carrying out actions to implement ad hoc objectives.


Cadres decide everything

The changes affecting the control mechanisms discussed above, and more importantly the purges, have paved the way for launching the process of forming a new army, a structure of a different ideological nature, composed of individuals who were promoted under AKP rule. First, attempts at reshuffling the military personnel were made at the beginning of AKP’s time in office, which was facilitated by Turkey’s EU membership ambitions. The EU itself offered its support for these initiatives, viewing them as an important element in the state’s democratisation. It was only in 2016 that more comprehensive measures than a mere reshuffle of former personnel were launched. The present changes are intended to form a brand new military class. While this new class is still being formed, the government is playing a political game, favouring certain groups, provoking conflicts within the military and showing that loyal cooperation with the authorities guarantees survival.

The officer promotion system has been subordinated to civilian government. All promotions from the rank of lieutenant are approved by the minister of national defence (until recently the General Staff was responsible for this). Other major reforms included the dissolution of officer schools supervised by the General Staff and the creation of the state-run National Defence University in its place. The University is a civilian establishment, has a new curriculum and is supervised by the Ministry of Defence. Other measures included the dissolution of military courts, while military hospitals have been handed over to the ministry of health and several companies run by the military have been shut down.

The final stage of the process of formally subordinating the TSK to civilian government involved the creation of a new formula for the Supreme Military Council (Yüksek Askerî Şûra – YAŞ). This is the TSK’s key decision making body when it comes to personnel issues. In 2017, for the first time, representatives of the government outnumbered the other Council members – they included the prime minister and his five deputies, as well as the ministers of defence, justice, the interior and foreign affairs (10 members in total). The TSK are represented by the chief of the General Staff and the commanders of land, air and naval forces. This means that the TSK’s main decision making body for personnel affairs has been dominated by the government, whose role until recently was to merely approve any decisions taken by TSK as an autonomous entity. In the present format, the roles have been reversed – the General Staff and the commanders of specific forces act as advisors and formulate proposals, and the government takes final decisions.

Regardless of all the institutional transformations discussed above, a widespread belief remains in Turkey that it is necessary to minimise the risk of a possible counter-strike by the military. This is why actions are being carried out to marginalise officers who graduated from Western universities and have experience in serving in NATO missions, and to promote groups that are neutral towards the government or support it. In 2017, 61 colonels were promoted to the rank of general, several officers who had been expelled from service during the Balyoz and Ergenekon show trials[10] were also promoted. This means that the government wants to cooperate with officers that it formerly fought in league with the Gülen movement.

Four basic ideological factions have formed within the TSK: conservative, nationalist, ‘Eurasian’ and ‘Atlantic’[11]. In practice, each faction, excluding the conservative one, has a reserved or neutral approach towards the project of a New Turkey. This is where the space for political maneouvres opens up to the government. In this situation, for instance, the nationalists can remain neutral in exchange for a certain minimum of economic privileges and prestige for the military being upheld. The government is playing also its game by favouring the ‘Eurasian’ faction and marginalising the ‘Atlantic’ faction. These actions have the most significant impact on the New Turkey’s geopolitical orientation. In short, this indicates a major enhancement in the status of the group centred around the Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi) led by Doğu Perinçek, once a Maoist. At present, he is Turkey’s best known promoter of Russia’s neo-Eurasianism ideology created by Aleksandr Dugin. This group is clearly very numerous within the TSK and supports the idea of breaking away from NATO and starting close collaboration with Russia. It supports the government’s attempts to make the New Turkey a nationalist country. This approach is facilitated by a narrative emphasising important events from Turkey’s national history and public feelings connected with them. The government has intentionally stoked these sentiments since mid-2015. In addition, this situation is creating new opportunities for Russian propaganda, which the Kremlin consistently uses[12]. It also leads to the marginalisation of officers who are graduates of Western military schools and have experience in serving in NATO missions[13]. A weakening of this type of military personnel or its open marginalisation are elements of a consistent loosening of Turkey’s ties with NATO. These ties are the most important institutional link between Turkey and the West.


Security measures and alternative structures

The final element of AKP’s reconstruction of Turkish armed forces involves the creation and consolidation of a military structure that could serve as an alternative to the TSK, counterbalance the influence the military has on the state and be able to offer security measures should another coup be organised. The consolidated structures are mainly based on forces that defended the government during the failed coup, both those supervised by the interior ministry and those composed of civilian volunteers. In this sense, the reconstruction of security structures is designed to reflect social changes that happened during AKP rule.

The introduction of serious institutional changes, the plans to train new personnel and the skilful management of internal divisions have not eliminated the government’s traditional distrust of the military. The distrust is so deep and the permanent sense of threat so strong that the AKP is not satisfied with creating a polycentric model of formal control and developing political cooperation with the TSK. It also intends to consolidate other structures to protect itself against another political earthquake. In this context, the key role is played by Special Police Units (Polis Özel Harekat – PÖH) that were strengthened during the state of emergency. They are composed of 45 000–50 000 well-trained and well-armed officers operating mainly in cities[14]. In non-urban areas, a similar role is played by relevant units of gendarmerie (Jandarma Özel Harekat - JÖH), which are supervised by the interior ministry, just like the police[15].

The most spectacular manifestation of the government’s permanent distrust of the military has been the close cooperation of President Erdoğan with a privately-owned company, SADAT. It is likely that this company trains civilian supporters of the government, thereby forming armed militias that could act if the government is threatened. In 2016, SADAT’s CEO, Gen. Adnan Tanrıverdı, was appointed the president’s chief security advisor. He was expelled from military service in 1997 for his Islamic views. On its website, his company presents itself as “Turkey’s first and only” private company to offer advice, training and provision of military supplies[16]. SADAT employs former TSK officers. The content of the company’s website suggests that it operates both in Turkey and in the Muslim world as a whole. The company’s rhetoric is full of anti-Western resentment and references to actions that are “intended to facilitate the consolidation of the military potential of Muslim states and to restore their due place among global superpowers”[17].

In connection with Erdoğan’s close links to SADAT, a major controversy was sparked by reports suggesting that the company allegedly organises training camps for the civilian population. This information was communicated at the beginning of 2018 by Meral Akşener, former interior minister, currently chairwoman of the opposition Good Party (İyi Parti - İP). According to her, training events were organised in Konya and Tokat provinces, where armed civilians could be spotted in the streets. The revelations from Ms Akşener coincided with President Erdoğan’s state of emergency decree no. 696, which states that civilians who took part in fighting during the 2016 coup will not be brought to justice[18]. Critics of this legislation claim that in practice it gives immunity to armed groups of civilians, who use violence under the pretext of counteracting terrorism. SADAT’s spokesperson immediately denied the reports regarding the camps and said that the company offers training and advisory services outside Turkey, in “friendly and allied” countries[19]. The reports on the alleged training events, the controversial presidential decree and the videos revealed showing how people in civilian clothes, wearing bulletproof vests and holding machine guns, disarm soldiers who took part in the attempted coup[20], are a credible confirmation of the thesis that security structures parallel to the military really exist[21].

The most recent manifestation of President Erdoğan’s distrust of the TSK is the fact that in Turkey it is no secret that the controversial plans to purchase S-400 air defence systems from Russia are determined not so much by the intention to use them in combat against troops of other NATO states, as by the plan to retain them as weapons against the Turkish Air Force. The air defence installations are to be deployed in the Akıncı military base near Ankara. Individuals involved in the attempted coup included, in particular, representatives of the air force, and this is why the location of the S-400 systems is both intended to have a symbolic significance and to serve the purpose of defending the president against the Turkish military. Systems that are compatible with the equipment used by NATO could not be used for this purpose[22].


Conclusions and prospects

The consistent and multi-layered reconstruction of the state apparatus as a whole, which the AKP has been carrying out since it took power, accelerated in pace and went on to encompass the TSK in the aftermath of the failed coup. However, a serious redefinition of the role of the military in Turkey does not mean that its significance has been markedly reduced. The essential change that is happening during AKP’s rule, and whose gradual implementation accelerated after 2016, is the subordination of the armed forces to the policy pursued by the government. The TSK are pursuing the state’s foreign policy goals by carrying out military operations abroad. Formerly, the armed forces’ far-reaching autonomy seriously hampered this type of activity, and in domestic politics it forced the authorities to negotiate. This element of Turkish politics is now disappearing in connection with the present changes. It is highly likely that, depending on state policy needs and the goals set by the government, similar operations will be carried out in the future as well. This is intended to show that regardless of the purges the TSK are capable of carrying out military action, maintaining their prestige and actively cooperating with the civilian government by pursuing its goals. However, the limited scale of the present operations prevents a comprehensive assessment of the Turkish army’s combat capability.

One important change that is now taking place is that while new personnel are being trained and their ideological views are changing, old personnel are subject to interference by the government. In this context, the most important link between the government and specific centres within the TSK is the strong anti-Western resentment and orientation towards actions that are divergent from the policy of other NATO states (the USA’s support for the Kurds in Syria and Turkish operations targeting them). In the short term, this cooperation will have a significant impact on the development of tensions between Turkey and NATO. This lack of cohesion will likely grow as the traditionally strong position of pro-Russian groups within the TSK will be maintained.

For the government, the introduction of a permanent civilian control of the army, the prospect of a system-wide personnel reshuffle and cooperation with the most anti-Western groups within the TSK are no guarantee of a comprehensive protection against another coup. In Turkey, the relationship between civilian government and the military is still characterised by enormous mutual distrust. Internal friction within the Turkish state not only results in Turkey’s institutional ties with the West being challenged but also impacts the process of consolidation of law enforcement agencies and the state’s militarisation.


[1] The so-called “White Turks”, i.e. Ottoman elites that took part in the creation of the Republic and as secular Kemalist elites held a dominant position in it until the first two terms of AKP. Alternatively, they are referred to as society’s ‘centre’ and their roots can be traced to residents of the Balkans and the Caucasus who were servants in the Ottoman state. They have cultural, economic and social capital and dominate society’s ‘periphery’, mainly the religious peasant population of Anatolia. Şerif Mardin, Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?, “Daedalus”, Vol. 102, No. 1, Post-Traditional Societies (Winter, 1973), p. 169-190 and: Jenny White, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2014, p. 46-48.

[2] The most recent information on the number of TSK’s troops of all types was announced in February 2017. See TSK’nın Şubat 2017 Personel Mevcutları, MSI Dergisi, 1 February 2017; http://www.milscint.com/tr/tsknin-subat-2017-personel-mevcutlari/

[3] In 2009, OYAK had a stake in 60 companies and fully controlled 29 companies. The total value of OYAK’s assets was 28.3 billion Turkish liras (around US$ 18.8 billion). Its operates in sectors such as construction, finance, metallurgy, automotive production (it cooperates with Renault), IT and banking (outside Turkey). Ismet Akça, Military-Economic Structure in Turkey: Present situation, Problems and Solutions, TESEV Publications, July 2010, p. 10. Following the purges carried out as a result of the failed coup organised in July 2016, OYAK’s business dealings remained practically unchanged. Moreover, in the autumn of 2017 the fund’s executives announced their plan to return to the Turkish banking sector and continue its construction investments. See Kerim Karakaya, Ercan Ersoy, Vernon Wessels, Turkey's Oyak Group Seeking Opportunity to Return to Banking, “Bloomberg”, 2 October 2017; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-02/turkey-s-oyak-evaluating-opportunities-in-banking-sector-ceo

[4] M. Chudziak, The coup as a founding myth. The ideological pillars of the New Turkey, OSW Point of View, 13 October 2017; https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/point-view/2017-10-13/coup-a-founding-myth-ideological-pillars-new-turkey

[5] The events that took place on 15 July 2016 are mainly presented as a joint victory of the Turkish nation, its leader and the loyal portion of the military that did not support the plotters. Leaving aside the doubts as to the actual perpetrators from the Gülen movement, this version of the events lifts the blame from the military as such. Ibidem, p. 23-25. For more on Gülen’s supporters within the TSK see Dexter Filkins, Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup, ”New Yorker”, 17 October 2016; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/turkeys-thirty-year-coup

[6] This process has been ongoing since the beginning of AKP’s second term. See Jakub Wódka, Relacje cywilno-wojskowe. Aspekty instytucjonalne, [in:] Idem (ed.), „Nowa” Turcja. Aspekty polityczne, gospodarcze i społeczne, ISP PAN, Warsaw 2015, p. 111-135.

[7] In April 2018, the minister of defence announced that another round of purges was being prepared, intended to cover around 3000 individuals identified as secret supporters of the Gülen movement. TSK içindeki 3 bin kripto ihraç edilecek, “Milliyet”, 19 April 2018.

[8] Taking account of the controversy regarding the purges’ reach, it should be noted that Kemalist military circles supported the purges immediately. One example of this is a statement from former chief of staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who said that the TSK had long required a purge to remove Gülen’s supporters from its ranks, and the coup itself was not masterminded by the military. Başbuğ’a göre 15 Temmuz ‘askeri darbe’ değil: MİT bize sekiz yıl bilgi vermedi, “Diken”, 1 August 2016; http://www.diken.com.tr/basbuga-gore-15-temmuz-askeri-darbe-degil-mit-bize-sekiz-yil-bilgi-vermedi/

[9] See M. Gürcan, Never Again! But How? State and the Military in Turkey after July 15, Istanbul Policy Center, April 2017, p. 11, http://ipc.sabanciuniv.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Never-Again_Metin-Gurcan.pdf

[10] In these two trials respectively 254 and 325 officers and businessmen were expelled or sentenced to many years in prison. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that they were show trials and the body of evidence was fabricated by members of the Gülen movement who were employees of the judiciary. In August 2017, eight navy officers, previously expelled from service in the Balyoz trial, were promoted. See Kumpas mağdurları da terfi etti, “Cumhuriyet”, 4 August 2017; http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/795914/Kumpas_magdurlari_da_terfi_etti.html. In 2016, six officers with similar history were promoted. See Balyoz davalarında beraat eden subaylar terfi etti, “Sabah”, 29 July 2016, https://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2016/07/29/balyoz-davalarinda-beraat-eden-subaylar-terfi-etti

[11]The conservative faction supports the government and has a sentimental attachment to Turkey’s Ottoman past; the nationalists are mainly representatives of old Kemalist and anti-Western groups; the ‘Eurasians’ stem from nationalist and pro-Russian left-wing parties, and the supporters of the ‘Atlantic’ option are officers who graduated from Western universities and support the view that Turkey should maintain and strengthen its relationships with NATO. See more: Metin Gürcan, 15 Temmuz sonrası TSK ve dönüşüm, „T24.com.tr”, 14 August 2016, http://t24.com.tr/yazarlar/metin-gurcan/15-temmuz-sonrasi-tsk-ve-donusum,15246

[12] Cf an interview with Aleksandr Dugin for the pro-government ”Habertürk” newspaper in which he comments on the failed coup referring to it as an initiative inspired not so much by the Gülen movement as by Washington, thereby clearly stoking anti-American views that are widespread in Turkey, the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, as well as anti-liberal and anti-Western resentments. Prof. Aleksandr Dugin'den Türkiye'ye uyarı: ABD yüklenecek B planı yapın, “Habertürk”, 6 November 2017; http://www.haberturk.com/prof-aleksandr-dugin-den-turkiye-ye-uyari-1701639

[13] L. Jacinto, Turkey’s Post-Coup Purge and Erdogan’s Private Army, “Foreign Policy”, 13 July 2017; http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/13/turkeys-post-coup-purge-and-erdogans-private-army-sadat-perincek-gulen/

[14] Similar units existed in the 1990s. During the rule of the Welfare Party, the predecessor of AKP, after the forced resignation of the entire government in 1997 the military caused their disarmament. At present, the fact that they are stationed in cities is directly seen as a form of the government’s protection against a possible confrontation with the military. Ceng Sangic, Erdoğan and His Allies: A Populist Legitimacy, “Turkeycope”, vol. 2. No. 3, February 2018, Moshe Dayan Center; https://dayan.org/content/erdo%C4%9F-and-his-allies-populist-legitimacy

[15] Gendarmerie, which was subordinated to the General Staff for decades, remains a problematic structure. In practice, its operations and training are of military nature. See M. Gürcan, M. Gisclon, Turkey’s Security Sector after July 15: Democratizing Security or Securitizing the State?, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Winter 2017, p. 76-77.

[17] Ibidem.

[18] Akşener, SADAT’ı işaret etti: Tokat ve Konya’da silahlı eğitim kampları bulunduğunu duyuyoruz, „Gazete Karınca”, 2 January 2018; http://gazetekarinca.com/2018/01/aksener-sadati-isaret-etti-tokat-ve-konyada-silahli-egitim-kamplari-bulundugunu-duyuyoruz/

[19] Meral Akşener'in "Tokat ve Konya'da silahlı eğitim kampları kuruldu" iddiasına ilişkin SADAT'tan açıklama, “T24.com.tr”, 5 January 2018; http://t24.com.tr/haber/meral-aksenerin-tokat-ve-konyada-silahli-egitim-kamplari-kuruldu-iddiasina-iliskin-sadattan-aciklama,528553

[21] L. Jacinto, op. cit.

[22] Howard Eisenstadt, Uneasy Rests the Crown: Erdoğan and ‘Revolutionary Security’ In Turkey, POMED, 20 December 2018; http://pomed.org/pomed-snapshot-uneasy-rests-the-crown-erdogan-and-revolutionary-security-in-turkey/