Analysis - Security Studies

Changes in Turkey

Restructuring Military Institutions after the Failed Coup

Wednesday، August 03، 2016
Changes in Turkey

Ever since the failed military coup, that rocked Turkey last month, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been focusing all his political and constitutional powers to tighten the grip over the military, which is considered the country’s oldest and most prestigious institution since the formation of the republic in 1923.

The restructuring of military institutions is closely related to political process in any country. Restructuring is proposed as a part of political reforms, democratic transitions, and as a way to face national and regional security challenges. Nonetheless, in Turkey currently, the restructuring process is taking the form of revenge. Local and international concerns have been expressed that these measures could lead to a change in the Turkish army’s doctrine. It will further impact its regional and global role, especially considering Turkey’s NATO membership and its geopolitical importance.

Widespread and fundamental changes

The ongoing arrest campaign has so far led to the detention of almost half the army’s commanders, and around 10,000 soldiers, officers and security forces personnel. Turkish leaders have also taken a series of widespread measures that will have a significant impact on the military in the coming stages. Indeed, a new chapter will be opened with a new role and function for the army. The military will experience a new relationship with political powers, specifically the president who will have the final say in its affairs. The most prominent changes and decisions of which, are the following:

1.  The air force, the navy, and the army will be placed under the command of the Ministry of Interior instead of the General Staff.

2. The Supreme Military Council (the Military Shura Council) will be expanded to include deputies of the ministers of Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs. It will be headed by the Prime Minister, and will convene within the cabinet opposing the General Staff.

3. Military colleges, academies, and institutes will be shut down, and a National Defence University will be formed to train the armed forces instead. The president will appoint its chairman. 

4. A decree was passed allowing the President and ministers the right to obtain direct information on the loyalty of army leadership. It also gives them the right to issue orders and have them executed without requiring further approvals.

5. All army commanders are accountable directly to the Minister of National Defence rather than to the chief of General Staff.

6. Erdogan has announced that he plans to place the National Intelligence Organisation, and the General Staff under direct command of the President.

7. A new security apparatus, under the direct supervision of the president, is to be formed and tasked with pursuing and penalising those who oppose the government’s policies within various institutions, especially supporters of cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan believes that Gülen’s  supporters have infiltrated state’s institutions and have remained in disguise, while preparing a secret plan for the next stage.

8. All medical military institutions such as academies, hospitals, and medical institutions will be affiliated to the Ministry of Health, rather than the army’s command.

Changes during a state of emergency

It is evident that these major changes are being introduced as part of a comprehensive plan that goes beyond outlining a new relationship between military and political institutions. It affects the army’s doctrine and its security organisation, especially during these unusual times.

1. The changes are being introduced during a three-month state of emergency. These are not normal conditions, where any legal reform is normally  legislated and ratified by the parliament.

2. These measures are being issued based on orders from Erdogan himself as per the state of emergency laws. They are not going through the Parliament nor are they being approved by the Constitutional Court, whose decision is necessary to add legitimacy to any decree or resolution.

3. They come at a post failed coup stage, and in the midst of fears of a repeated attempt.

4. Parliamentary opposition groups seem to be excluded from the equation, despite having registered comments and criticism regarding these changes. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken none of these into consideration, even as the military’s new role could potentially undermine its reputation.

5. While seeking to restructure military institutions, the Turkish government has rejected all foreign criticism, mainly from the United States. Many US military leaders have expressed their concerns that such measures will negatively impact the military relations and cooperation between both countries, not to mention on the ongoing battle against ISIS.

Obviously the reshuffling is happening without further delay, despite internal and external disapproval of Erdogan’s efforts to place military and security agencies under his direct authority, and the legal concerns regarding the legitimacy of making such decisions, during a state of emergency rather than through Parliament-issued reforms. Erdogan seems to be in a race against time to reorganise Turkey’s political system and shift all the aforementioned institutions from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system.

Strange entrenched fears

The Turkish army has a prolong history of protecting the republic’s secular principles. This role is stipulated by the constitution through articles that grant the military constitutional immunity based on the old concept stating that, “the army protects the constitution and the constitution protects the army.” There is no doubt that the current changes will not only affect this rule but also the army’s doctrine and role. In this context, the following issues merit a closer look:

1.  Nearly 10,000 soldiers and officers have been arrested and a similar number of military, and security members have been dismissed. The obvious question to ask is who will replace them? The answer lies in the fact that the current campaign aims at getting rid of Erdogan’s opposition within the military. The replacements will come from within the AKP camp, imposing a frightful image considering that new AKP supporters have an evident religious ideology that relies on the political Islam, adopted by the party. Such ideologies had been forbidden within the Turkish Armed Forces, and may risk changing the army’s secular identity to one of fundamentalism. These fears are especially heightened with the references made by many AKP officials to “Mohammed’s Army”, the name given to the Turkish armed forces during the Ottoman era.

2. The Turkish Armed Forces are considered to be the second biggest force in NATO, after the US army.  Ankara joined the alliance as early as 1952, and adopted its charter and mission. It has since participated in many foreign conflicts and missions. In addition, Washington has established several military bases in Turkey, the most important of which is the Incirlik Air Base, where the US stores strategic weapons including nuclear warheads.

As Erdogan acts quickly to restructure the military, American concerns have been made clear in the statements of the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and General Joseph Votel, the Commander of US Central Command, who indicated that Erdogan’s measures can affect the nature of the strong relationship between the two countries’ military institutions. They confirmed at the Aspen Security Forum, in Colorado, that the purging campaign has included many Turkish officers who had dealt with the United States.

3. It is clear that the US and Europe’s concerns are increasing. Erdogan’s Turkey is gradually distancing itself from the West starting with the Parliament’s refusal to allow Western forces to invade Iraq in 2003, through Turkish territories, followed by a series of measures taken by Erdogan concerning several regional issues. The most dangerous of these changes, from an American point of view, can be summed-up in one existential point: whether Turkey’s current policies will lead to an unprecedented appeasement of relations with Russia and Iran, leading to the formation of an alliance. The three countries share economic interests in the energy sector, in addition to, security and political interests in handling the Syrian crisis and the rise of Kurdish power in the region. Turkey has now become convinced that it is no longer possible to stop Kurdish efforts to establish an independent state by relying on the US, as an ally. On the contrary, it realises that such a purpose requires close collaboration with Russia and Iran.

The results of Erdogan’s scheduled visit to Russia, on 9 September, 2016 will remain to be seen. The US and Europe will look at the Turkish-Russian rapprochement with distrust, and will consider its consequences on Ankara’s position in international relations, and its stance regarding crises in the Middle East, mainly Syria.

No matter the outcome, Turkey is now opening a new chapter that will change the structure of the country’s political system, and will shape it according to Erdogan’s vision. Such transformations will completely shed the legacy of Ataturk’s republic, and brings to light an executive presidency that gives him absolute power. This vision also seeks more distance from the West and closer ties with Russia, Iran and maybe Syria at a later stage. Will the West, which considers Ankara to play a vital role in its strategy, allow Erdogan’s plans to materialise?

Keywords: TurkeySecurity StudiesCoupErdoganGulen Movement