The neo-Ottoman Military Band

The neo-Ottoman Military Band

In a speech at the weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan justified his Syria campaign with these words: “If they [Western coalition forces] can come from thousands of kilometers away and enter [occupy] Iraq... we just cannot sit tied and watch Syria, with which we have a 910-kilometer border.”

Will he send the mighty Turkish army all the way to Damascus? Does he think NATO’s second biggest army can fight and defeat the Syrian, Iranian and Russian armies at the same time? World War III? Or is this another example indicating that “Turkey’s bark is worse than its bite?” I would bet on the latter.

I am not going to list here a rich menu of snags most of Turkey’s military modernization programs face, for I have no intention to once again anger the powerful Turkish weapons-makers lobby. But suffice it to say that: 1- A conflict with Syria will naturally require modern battle tanks, 2- Turkey’s prideful national tank prototype, the Altay, is still several years away from production/delivery and 3- Turkey’s present tank inventory is certainly superior to Syria’s but could fall short of operational requirements in a larger-than-expected-scale proxy war. As for Syrian air defenses vs. Turkish stealth and fire power, just recall what happened in June.

The Turkish command structure is probably equally fragile. Last year, the government set out to hire 50,000 professional soldiers to support the army’s asymmetrical war with the PKK. Special combat units would be formed, generous salaries would be granted and, this time, the PKK would be finished off.

Eventually, less than 1,500 applicants have turned up and Ankara is now negotiating with the terrorist entity which only half a year ago it thought it would fight and finish off.

Higher ranks in the military and among the top brass do not look in better shape and morale. According to Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz, a total of 5,067 officers and 12,274 non-commissioned officers quit service between 2008 and 2012. In the same period, 7,766 special combat units (known as “specialist sergeants”) did not extend their job contracts.

At the top end of the spectrum, the profession of soldiery is no less dangerous than the anti-terror fight. There are more than 250 officers in jail for various coup charges, and there is no guarantee that this number will not increase. For the insiders who quietly talk of command weaknesses and low morale, it was not surprising that a Turkish reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syria, a matter of national pride half a year ago that today seems to have been left to simmer; or that poor intelligence assessment caused the deaths of 33 Kurdish smugglers who, more than a year ago, were mistakenly identified as terrorists.

Facts in this part of the world, sadly, do not always take the most pleasant shapes and revive anyone’s longing for the glory days of the Ottoman Military Band. It is ironic that the anti-missile systems built by “Christian” nations will soon become operational in Turkish territory, along with units of soldiers from “Christian” countries – the United States, Germany, Holland, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. And all that equipment and troop mobility is to protect “Muslim” Turkey from possible aggression by “Muslim” Syria.

But never mind, the Ottoman military history, too, was full of ironies. Take, for instance, the Ottoman Military Band, the Mehteran, considered by many Turks even today as a stirring example of military heroism and a reminder of a glorious past. Oddly, its “Turkish” name was Persian (“mahtar”). But at least there is consistency here: A Persian name for the Turkish military centuries ago, and American weapon systems in Turkey against Muslim neighbors today.