NATO needs to look in mirror on coup attempt, says Turkish Defense minister
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It is time for NATO to sit down and evaluate its mistakes in its response to the July coup attempt in Turkey that left a deep trauma in society that has not been properly appreciated outside the country, according to Defense Minister Fikri Işık.
“If our allies continue to keep Turkey at an arm’s length, that will increase the anger of the people and that will not be good for either Turkey or NATO,” he said, while noting that Ankara would still remain committed to NATO.
How do you respond to the criticism that the state of emergency decree (669) that will restructure civil-military relations (CMR) was prepared without any consultation with the relevant stakeholders, including the opposition?
We want the decree to be debated in parliament. We are open to criticism, but I do not agree that these changes were made in two days. There have been several studies on CMR. There was already accumulated information on what Turkey has to do.
Will you be open to any changes when it comes to parliament?
The recent coup has shown that there is a structural problem. You can’t solve this by long discussions and efforts to find a consensus. The government has taken an initiative. We will debate it in parliament and take into consideration the views of the representatives of civil society. But there is a fundamental framework there, and this is not specific to Turkey. We have formulated amendments most of the time by taking examples from Western democracies that have experienced coups in the past. The chief of staff will focus on its primary mission while support services will be handled by the Defense Ministry. We will proceed with that philosophy.
An increasing number of civilians at the YAŞ [Supreme Military Council] does not automatically mean democratic control over the military. It might bring the army under the tutelage of a political party or politicize the military.
The government is elected by the will of the people and it is accountable to the people. In addition, there is the media. The fact that the weight of the civilian will is increasing does not mean that the defense minister will appoint his chosen man as a general and the foreign minister will promote his man as an admiral.
The promotions will be based on performance criteria. The government will determine these criteria so that promotions are conducted according to merit.
What kind of a democratic check mechanism is foreseen apart from the ballot box? How about the involvement of the parliament for instance?
Democracy is not limited to the ballot box. But the government is also accountable to justice if what it does is not compatible with the law. Why do we have to assume that whatever a government will do is wrong? I reject this approach. If the government makes a mistake, it pays the cost and sometimes even before four years.
Can you elaborate on what you have described as the fundamental philosophy of the new changes?
Most of what defense ministries do in Western democracies have been performed by [Turkey’s] chief of staff. Not only does this go against democratic practices, it prevents the chief of staff from focusing on its main mission.
We will restructure the Defense Ministry; there will be more civilians involved.
How will you solve the issue of human resources? Can you find enough national security professionals?
We have no problem with that. Every civilian we will employ doesn’t have to be a security expert. The Defense Ministry is involved in logistics, construction and real estate. We will appoint a civil undersecretary. Of the five deputy undersecretaries, two will be from the military. We have also determined which departments will have to be headed by the military. The ministry’s personnel will be composed of 50 or 60 percent civilians, the rest military.
There has also been criticism about the fact that commanders will respond to the minister instead of the chief of General Staff.
In Decree No. 669, we are defining the fundamental functions of the chief of staff, which are intelligence, operations, organization, training and combat. In these fields, commanders will respond to the chief of staff; the Defense Ministry will not be between the two. So there is no disruption of the unity of command. For instance, when there is an operation in the southeast, it’s not as if the chief of General Staff will ask me and then I will give the instructions. The defense minister’s authorization will be required for instance when there will be a need to move a unit from one place to another. In the case of logistics, for instance, the commanders will respond to the Defense Ministry.
It’s like a governor; he responds to the Interior Ministry but represents all ministers.
[We have been using] the strict Prussian model, which even the Germans have abandoned. If there is too much concentration in one person, then it becomes difficult to check it.
The unity of command is paramount on key military issues like combat but not on support services like logistics.
So we will take away all the unnecessary work from the chief of General Staff which will enable it to focus on its fundamental task. The unity of command will become much more effective.
Are you getting any feedback from the army on these changes?
There is a clear conviction among the military that the unity of command will not be disrupted. There are some other hesitations; we are talking about them. But there is no problem as far as the main structure is concerned.
Don’t you think all these purge within the military and these changes presents the risk of giving the image of a vulnerable army?
What we are doing is not making the army vulnerable. On the contrary, we are doing this so that a vulnerable army recovers in a speedy way. These amendments are being made in order to render the army stronger.
But won’t the transition period strike a blow to the army’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)?
Not at all. The number of generals in the Turkish army was way too high. The fact that half of them are gone won’t create any operational vulnerability. In addition, from now on, we will focus on increasing the combat forces. When the Defense Ministry assumes some of the unnecessary tasks undertaken by the chief of staff, then the chief of staff will have more of his officers to serve in the combat forces. We will, therefore, have enough officers for combat. There were 20 generals in the Defense Ministry prior to July 15. Why would a general do logistics work instead of combat, or intelligence?
Can you say that you have totally eliminated the threat of the Gülenists?
We can’t say that. The main spine has collapsed. There could be some crypto Gülenists that might have remain behind. All our work is to ensure that we don’t come across such separate structures within the army. And we are also changing the defense concept that gave priority to responding to internal threats until now. Currently, we are working on a concept that will focus on external threats and asymmetric war.
Does the third corps in Istanbul, which is a NATO joint task force, have the capacity to perform its duties?
Of course. There is no operational vulnerability. Turkey will continue its commitments to NATO.
Where are we in terms of air defense systems?
Our NATO allies are very [selfish] in terms of sharing technology. Turkey needs to develop these systems. We can’t accept the approach of “I will only sell it to you.”
If our NATO allies will remain [selfish] on sharing technology, Turkey will find another way. Our priority is NATO allies, but if not, we could just say, well then, let’s do it without air defense.
Are the alternatives Russia or China?
Defense industry cooperation is vital for Turkey. No one has the right to criticize Turkey. Proposing a price twice as much as that of Russia and then telling us “we would be offended if you cooperate with Russia” is not the right approach.
It is not so much about being offended but rather an interoperability problem; isn’t that why Turkey canceled the deal with China?
Our priority is our allies, but that cannot prevent us from cooperating with Russia or China when necessary. If our allies’ approach remains to keep Turkey at arm’s length, that will force us to develop our own capacity with other types of cooperation. We can’t shut the door to on NATO countries like Russia or China.
But will Turkey remain part of the F-35 project?
Of course. We have not given up on any of our commitments. Turkey is a very reliable ally. But the stance of our allies on the night of the July 15 [coup attempt] has created a huge disappointment among the Turkish nation, and this is turning into an anger. That’s the difficulty we have as the government.
Would Turkey drag its feet on the fight against ISIL if the U.S. avoids extraditing Fetthullah Gülen?
Asking this question is a great injustice to Turkey. ISIL is a bigger threat to Turkey than it is to the U.S. Turkey will not give up on fighting ISIL under any circumstances.
The İncirlik Air Base was also involved in the failed coup. Do you have any input from what happened that night at the base that would suggest U.S. interference?
We are strategic partners, and these are not issues we would discuss unless we have clear-cut information and have set a policy. What we are saying is that NATO has to engage in some self-criticism about its stance on the night of July 15. There is huge anger among Turks and that needs to be taken into account by our allies. The people’s will is a priority for us politicians. If our allies continue to keep Turkey at an arm’s length, that will increase the anger of the people and that will not be good for either Turkey or NATO.
Turkey was not able to fly over the Syria border after the downing of the Russian plane last November. Will that change now following the normalization with Russia?
The presidents of the two countries have decided to pursue a close working relationship to solve the problem in Syria. Technical work has started. So there will be reciprocal trust. Work will be done by the technical team in order to prevent a new accident and prevent a crisis of confidence, and that work will be put into practice.
Following the downing of the plane, Turkey acted cautiously in order to avoid escalating the tension.
Everything is getting back to normal; Turkey and Russia will work together both in terms of military activity and in terms of finding a lasting solution. Now that the tension is no longer there, we will find it easier to move together with Russian and the coalition.
Who is Fikri Işık?
Fikri Işık was born in the northern province of Gümüşhane’s Babacan village in September 1965.
Işık graduated from the Department of Mathematics Education at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), later teaching math and English in private schools.
He also worked as manager in the food sector, before entering politics, becoming the founding member of the Kocaeli Provincial Administrative Body of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001.
He was elected as a member of parliament for Kocaeli in the 23rd and 24th legislative terms and was a deputy chairman of the AKP Central Organization between 2007 and 2013.
He served as science, industry and technology minister during the 61st, 62nd, 63rd and 64th governments.
Işık was appointed defense minister in the 65th government.