The Turkish Army: Twice a loser

The Turkish Army: Twice a loser

The famous and proudly militaristic Turkish proverb, “Every Turk is born a soldier,” now perhaps should go with a suffix line, “But some plot coups and kill.” If one casualty after July 15 is the coup-plotters, the other is the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), in all its institutional posture. 

The loss of purged officers, at over 8,500 but accounting for only 1.5 percent of the military, looks minor. But the loss of generals and admirals makes 44 percent of the entire command structure, which is not minor. Organizational weaknesses and operational vulnerabilities will be inevitable, especially at a time when the military must fight a multitude of asymmetrical wars inside and outside Turkey. 

The story of the Turkish Army’s decline is both ironic and bitter. First, the Gülenists, with the help of (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan governments – for which Erdoğan today said, “We were seriously mistaken about” – put hundreds of mostly high-ranking officers in jail on fabricated charges of plotting a coup. Then they replaced the purged “coup-plotters” with their own crypto loyalists, still with pats on the shoulder from every big gun in the government. Erdoğan et al are now confident that the secular, potentially coup-minded, generals have all been eliminated and replaced by “good Muslims.” But that was not the happy ending. 

 In the final act of this largely surreal Turkish opera buffa we saw tanks on the roads, tanks closing the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul, F-16 fighter jets flying low over the skies of the capital, F-16s bombing the police special operations headquarters, rival fighters bombing the apron of a military air base, F-16s bombing the Gendarmerie headquarters, F-16s bombing the parliament building, rival F-16s bombing the tanks encircling the presidential palace, troops closing Istanbul’s main airport that hosts 60 million passengers a year, soldiers raiding the studios of the state broadcaster, police firing at soldiers and soldiers firing at the police, soldiers firing at soldiers, army helicopters firing at the presidential palace and the headquarters of the intelligence office, soldiers inviting the head of the police anti-terror squad for a “meeting” only to shoot him in the head, top brass, including the chief of the military general staff, air force commander, land forces commander and gendarmerie commander, being taken hostage by their own aide-de-camps, then people taking to the streets by the thousands to resist the coup d’etat, taking over tanks, getting killed, soldiers opening fire at the civilians and finally the victorious pro-democracy people lynching coup-staging soldiers.

The curtain closes as the military command loses nearly half of its top brass, critical air bases, military schools and war academies, military shipyards, factories and maintenance facilities transferred to civilian authority and an unnerving suspicion: Have we done enough to cleanse the barracks? 

Instead, our army would always be formidable. We would build our aircraft carriers, fighter jets, helicopters and missile systems. Our locally-built warships would sail all around the world on missions to help and support the world’s oppressed Muslims. Without being a deterrent military force we could not become a major world power. We would become a deterrent military power and a major world power. Thus we would militarily and politically challenge Russia, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Iran –not to mention the tiny Cyprus - all combined, if necessary. And, when the time is ripe, we would challenge the “infidel” West. 

There is something wrong about the huge discrepancy between the set goals and where the country has finally ended up. Erdoğan and his ideologues wanted to Ottomanize Turkey in the word’s religious and glorious meaning. They may have failed in that. But they successfully Ottomanized Turkey in military decline, which ignited, among other factors, the fall of the empire.