Erdoğan reforms Turkish military radically

Erdoğan reforms Turkish military radically

With a decree issued on the Official Gazette on July 15, President Tayyip Erdoğan has placed Turkey’s chief of General Staff under the Defense Ministry, in a move debated since Turkey entered the Western defense alliance NATO in 1952.

Besides being politically symbolic to issue it on the second anniversary of the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt, the decree is a major move to take Turkish military under civilian control.

The timing is important, too. After being re-elected to the new presidential government system, in which all executive power is concentrated in the president’s hands, while also having a significant say in parliament and the judiciary, Erdoğan has appointed Gen. Hulusi Akar, now former chief of General Staff, as defense minister. He had said on his way to the July 11-12 NATO Summit that this arrangement was on the agenda. Erdoğan issued the decree after his return from the NATO Summit in Brussels, where he went with his new defense minister and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, representing the military and diplomacy wings of a civilian power.

It seems Erdoğan has planned the transition to be as smooth as possible by naming Akar, Turkey’s top soldier, as the defense minister. Akar was captured by coup soldiers on the night of July 15, 2016, and played an important role in the aftermath by partaking in removing members of the illegal network of the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen from the military and demonstrating the military’s endurance despite the trauma of the coup attempt by conducting a major military operation into Syria only five weeks after the attempt.

The presidential decree also changes the structure of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), which is responsible for the promotions and retirements in the military. In the former system it used to be chaired by the prime minister, who used to be assisted by the defense minister (with very little operational power), and consisted of 15 four-star generals and admirals who had the final say — all being subject to the president’s approval. With the decree, the president or one of the deputy presidents is going to chair YAŞ (since the Prime Ministry is abolished), and the defense, justice, foreign, interior, treasury and finance, and education ministers, the chief of staff, land, naval and air force commanders will become members.

Only two weeks after the coup attempt, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) issued a decree on July 31, 2016 in the force of law using additional powers that came from the state of emergency declared on July 20, 2016 to put the military academy, military courts, and hospitals under civilian control and separating the chief of General Staff from force commanders by putting the latter under the Defense Ministry.

Now, with yesterday’s decree, the chief of General Staff and force commanders are all under the defense minister.

A military reform of this size was carried out 92 years ago in 1926 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, after the foundations of the republic were laid on the remnants of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. Atatürk had separated the military from politics by establishing a General Staff headquarters under the Defense Ministry, banning military officers from getting involved in politics.

There were two earlier reforms in the Turkish military before on the same scale. The first one was in the late 14th century under Orhan I who had founded the Janissaries (meaning “Yeniçeri,” the new soldier system, in Turkish). The second one was in 1826, carried out by Mahmud II who dissolved the Janissaries because they had become highly politicized and corrupted into a conscription-based Western-oriented army system.

The Turkish military, negatively influenced by the Cold War, became increasingly politicized once again. It overthrew elected governments three times, in 1960, 1971 and 1980. During the 1960 coup, the military detached itself from the Defense Ministry and assumed a sort of autonomy from governments. And the 1980 coup, coinciding with the U.S.-led move promoting Islam in the fight against the Soviets, further weakened civilian control and strengthened the interference of the military.

The picture changed with AK Parti coming to power in 2002 with its Islamic/conservative background and with the anti-establishment Ergenekon, Balyoz and military espionage court cases, in which Kemalist, secular and, presumably, conspiring members of the military, judiciary and academia were eliminated.

But it seems that paved the way for the rise of members of the illegal network of Gülen infiltrating the ranks of the military over the years. Gülen led the coup attempt in 2016.

It is not clear yet whether Erdoğan’s move — the fourth one that reformed the military after Orhan I, Mahmud II and Atatürk — will succeed to stop the military from being manipulated by politics. But his move to put the military under civilian control with no autonomy is surely a major step. It might not be a coincidence that Erdoğan has also shown the green light toward demands for paid military service. It may well be a major step for a more professional army, yet we have no solid indication of that.

One last point: Erdoğan has linked this move to harmonize with the EU criteria. That might be related with steps to be taken to rehabilitate Turkey’s almost frozen political relations with the EU, especially when considered together with the announcements to lift the state of emergency.

In any case, putting the chief of General Staff and force commanders under the defense minister is an important step that should not be ignored.

Murat Yetkin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,