Erdoğan giving extra powers to Turkish military

Erdoğan giving extra powers to Turkish military

Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s first pledge when he was elected as the new chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) on May 19 was to remove the “menace of terrorism from the country’s agenda.”

It seems that terrorists have other ideas, as could be horribly seen yesterday, June 6, in central Istanbul. A car bomb killed at least 11 (seven police officers and four civilian pedestrians) near the entrance of Istanbul University’s Faculty of Letters.

This is only the latest in a chain of bomb attacks in large Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, which have been carried out either by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or its shadow organizations, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is DAESH in Arabic initials.

Since the Turkish government opened its strategic İncirlik air base to U.S.-led military operations against ISIL in July 2015, with the PKK resuming its acts of terror after three years of dialogue with the AK Parti government at around the same time, the security forces have been engaged in a fierce anti-terror fight with both organizations. 

Because of the downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 by Turkish jets over Syria-Turkey border violations, Turkish jets cannot fly in the Russian-patrolled Syria air space. But Turkey’s long-range artillery has been hitting ISIL positions close to the 910 km-long border with Syria. 

The fight against the PKK escalated after the group attempted in October 2015 an armed uprising to impose autonomous administrations in towns (with predominantly Kurdish populations) near the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. In clashes since last October thousands of PKK militants have been killed, according to government reports, along with almost 1,000 security forces as well as civilians caught in the crossfire. More than 11,000 homes in total have also been destroyed, with the government vowing to rebuild entire ruined neighborhoods. 

The Turkish Armed Forces have played an important role in this anti-terror fight, together with the police and gendarmerie forces. In a number of examples, tanks and artillery shells have been used in town centers, as in the cases of Cizre, Şırnak and Nusaybin. 

Formerly, the laws allowed the military to be used in domestic security operations upon calls from either local governors or the government itself, with the initiative given to the military in the event of a direct or imminent threat. In 2013 the law was amended, with the justification of preventing future military interventions in politics. The military was authorized to protect the borders against foreign threats, while the gendarmerie forces were tied to the Interior Ministry, to be used in rural anti-terror operations. 

Those changes came at a time when many active or retired military officers were sentenced to heavy terms in prison on allegations of conspiring to overthrow (then prime minister, now president) Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Parti government. All charges in the case have now been dropped.

After the military was called on to suppress the PKK in the recent operations in urban areas, it obeyed the political orders. But the soldiers made it clear to the government (then under Ahmet Davutoğlu) that what they were doing was not 100 percent lawful. The soldiers did not want to carry the entire responsibility for security operations before the courts and so asked for legal adjustments to be made.

That was not possible under Davutoğlu, which made the soldiers a little more anxious. Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar reportedly raised the issue with new Prime Minister Yıldırım during the latter’s visit to the General Staff HQ on June 2. Yıldırım then consulted with Erdoğan, as such a delicate matter had to eventually be passed with the president’s approval. Following a cabinet meeting on June 6, the government decided to submit the changes to parliament.

The new legal adjustments reportedly not only bring extra powers, but also extra-legal protection to the Turkish military, especially regarding domestic security matters. One example is that government permission - which means political permission - will be needed for the trial of military officers in cases of suspected misconduct or crime. Another example is that in joint anti-terror operations with the police or intelligence services, the command will be under the military.

In a sense, because of the latest upsurge in Turkey’s anti-terror fight, the military has thus regained many of the powers and protections that it had previously lost under Erdoğan’s AK Parti rule.