Civil-military relations in new Turkey
The first Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) under the new executive presidential system will take place today. Held each year before August, YAŞ meetings are important in terms of shaping the top echelons and future cadres of the military.
The planned YAŞ meeting in 2016 is believed to have triggered the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. Government officials say Gülenists learned that there will be a major purge against them in the YAŞ, and in a survival strategy decided to stage the coup before the meeting. In the end, the purge that they were subjected to in the post-failed coup has been in a metaphorical sense much more deadly for their network.
The coup attempt during which brothers in arms had to point a gun to each other as well as its aftermath which entailed a very painful process where everyone has been and continues to be suspected of being a coup plotter has become the worse trauma the army suffered during the history of the republic.
Only a few days after the coup attempt, the Turkish army started its cross border operation in Syria called Euphrates Shield. Conducted against the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) the operation has also probably served to consolidate self-confidence in the army as well as to give messages to Turkey’s foreign foes.
It also served probably to divert attention from the steps taken in Ankara to reshape civil-military relations (CMR) as the government used the opportunity to curb the power of the army.
With a state of emergency decree the army was subjected to a series of changes in a number of fields, including its services commands, education and health institutions and the YAŞ.
Done hastily and triggering a lot of criticism, these changes were done while Turkey still had a parliamentary system.
With the official transition to the presidential system, CMR are and will be subjected to a new wave of changes. In fact the first change came when the general staff was brought under the authority of the defense minister. (Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar was appointed as the defense minister.) Another change included the presence of the treasury and finance minister as well as education minister in the YAŞ.
Enjoying support from the public, the army remained untouchable for decades. A decision to bring the general staff under the authority of the defense ministry carried a huge symbolic importance in terms of civilian oversight of the military. But while this decision brings about on paper civilian control over the military, it is the democratic nature of this control that probably casts doubt to the future of a healthy CMR.
This move by itself is obviously not enough. What is also needed is a change of mentality both among the civilians and military.
It might therefore be a wise decision to include the education minister in YAŞ. The minister faces the daunting challenge of improving the education system which has been ringing alarm bells. Will he have a say over the education in military institutions? What kind of changes will he be able to make on the curriculum?
Two years have been left behind after the failed coup, and while CMR will take new shape under the new presidential system, it is unfortunate that we have not seen a healthy debate with all the shareholders on the issue.