Turkish military: Back to normal amid wars?

Turkish military: Back to normal amid wars?

General Hulusi Akar, the Commander of the Turkish Land Forces was appointed as the new Chief of General Staff (CGS) by President Tayyip Erdoğan following the three-day Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meetings held Aug. 3-5 and chaired by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

There is no surprise in this appointment since the outgoing General Necdet Özel had been preparing Akar and also recommending him to the government to succeed him for some time. It was Özel who picked him as deputy CGS in 2011 and then suggested him as the new leader of the land forces in 2013. Özel believed that Akar was the commander who both lead the Turkish military as a capable commander and also handled the transition period of started relations between the political authority and military, which has experienced a lot of problems so far: three military coups, numerous interventions in politics that shook Turkish democracy and recently three massive court cases that shook the army.

Actually Özel assumed his CGS post under extraordinary circumstances when his predecessor, Işık Koşaner, together with land, naval and air force commanders of the time had resigned in July 2011, days before the YAŞ meeting in protest of massive arrests in the military as part of three probes: the Ergenekon, Balyoz and the Military Espionage cases where ranking officers were accused of conspiring against “then” Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government.

Adopting an unusually low profile for a top soldier, Özel tried to put the military together, despite a loss of officers (at one point there were no admirals left on duty to fill emptied posts) and also tried to convinced Erdoğan, with patience, that the Turkish army was obedient to the civilian, elected political authority, “almost” like any other NATO army. The peak was the arrest of former CGS İlker Başbuğ in January 2012, on charges of leading a terrorist organization to overthrow the government. Partly because it coincided with an attempt to interrogate National Intelligence Organisation (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan by the same group of prosecutors, Erdoğan started to see his close ally, Fethullah Gülen, a U.S. based Islamist ideologue, with an effective network in the judiciary, security and education bureaucracy and the media as the real threat to his political presence.

Now the roles are changed. Gülenists, called the “parallel organization within state,” are considered public enemies and all charges in those controversial court cases were either dropped or the accused were acquitted.

Yet, many officers have lost their jobs and positions during the purge. Veysel Kösele, who had been arrested as part of those trials, was among the lucky enough to get a promotion to the rank of admiral; he is also the strongest candidate for the next commander of the naval forces. But Bilgin Balanlı, for example, who was arrested just before his promotion to the Air Forces commander in 2011, or Kudret Özarslan and İsmail Hakkı, who were both considered future land forces commanders or even CGS, have lost their careers.

Anyway, Turkish military has seen worse, drawing costly lessons on relations between the military and political authority, and, thanks to the efforts of Özel, and managed to survive the transition period. Akar is the type of NATO general that Özel and now Erdoğan and Davutoğlu believe can lead the army in defense of the country, while handling these relations carefully. Serving numerous NATO posts before, Akar has been awarded the Pentagon’s Legion of Merit medal in January 2015 for his “outstanding contributions to NATO.”

Akar assumes this post at a time when the Turkish and U.S. governments have agreed to carry out joint operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria (and possibly Iraq) by using Turkish bases and facilities, while the military has been carrying out massive raids against the bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, in retaliation of their acts of terror against military and police officers after a silence of three years.

Akar’s appointment represents a continuum within the Turkish military tradition, an update of foreign policies and security needs. It also represents “back to normal,” in the sense that the military should stay away from politics in democracies.