Turkish army’s transition continues with recent law draft system: Expert
BARÇIN YİNANÇ- İstanbul
The Turkish army is in a transition required by the changing circumstances, and the law approved on June 25 amending the military conscription system has come as a result of this necessity, said an expert.
Since the 1980s, there has been a desire to change the military conscription system, and the situation after the July 15 coup attempt made it possible to introduce major changes, which will also construct a new bond between the army and the society, according to Nihat Ali Özcan, from TEPAV.
What are, in your view, the main facets of the new military system?
This is the first time since 1927 that the law has been amended with such a scope. This is understandable and is not specific to Turkey. Many countries in the Western world have experienced similar journeys.
All males reaching the age of 20 have to do military service. This is not just a duty but also a right. But changes in the perception of security, population dynamics and the welfare, as well as the value, systems in the society forces you to amend the system for mandatory military service. For instance, at times when there has been a fast growth of the population, as you end up having more men at the age of military service than the army requires, governments developed different formulas like reducing service duration and employing the conscripts in public service like schools or hospitals.
What has been the main motivation for the recent amendment?
In 2017, Turkey’s last prime minister said there were 5 million men waiting to do their military service. Yet the army at that time together with the gendarmerie was around 270,000.
Following the July 15 coup attempt, major changes have taken place in the army.
The gendarmerie were totally separated from the armed forces, and it was announced that the gendarmerie wouldn’t recruit from those doing their compulsory military service. So that leaves you with only land, air and sea forces to recruit.
So was the main reason for the piling up of too many people?
I can count more than one reason. But that was one of the most important ones.
With the transition to a liberal economy in the 1980s, new employment opportunities arose. In addition, education periods had become longer.
By the 1990s, the Cold War had ended, but this time, Turkey started to face the (illegal Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK problem. That has led to the need to transition to an army consisting more of those who choose the military as a profession.
While there was an increasing willingness from the governments to increase the number of professional soldiers in the army, interestingly, this has not seen interest from the society.
So every Turkish male is born a soldier is urban legend?
The military draft is not just about giving military training; it is also about creating unity of values. Just as this has been the case in other countries, like France, for instance, the compulsory conscription serves certain functions during state-building. You create a common history, a common spirit.
But then, there are the realities of life. There are new opportunities. In the 1980s, there were only three law faculty in Turkey; now, there are around 100. It was understandable in the past to choose military schools for a career.
By the end of the 1990s, many countries started to downsize their armies as the Cold War ended and transitioned to professional armies. Similar debates started in Turkey, but due to the PKK problem, Turkey opted to start recruiting professionals for the lowest ranks.
But the piling up continued. According to the law, all males of age 20 have to go to the military, but then you have those with postgraduate degrees, those working abroad, etc. In order to deal with the problem, several formulas started to be implemented.
You started having a system where on one side, you have those who are doing their compulsory military service; on the other, you have a different practice for university graduates, another different one for those who went to work abroad, etc.
But this system has started to affect the feeling of justice, equality and the concept of discipline in the army. You ended up having different people with different status doing the same thing.
July 15 has also provided an alibi to initiate the changes.
How do you evaluate the recent changes in military service?
Compulsory military service is reduced to six months from the current 12. Paid exemption from compulsory service has become permanent. I believe what was foreseen in the paper did not produce the desired result in the implementation.
First of all, certain parts of the armed forces are designed according to the compulsory conscription. For instance, the protection of the borders. Those doing their compulsory military service were the main pillar doing this job on the borders where we have serious security issues like the PKK, or the refugees.
Overnight, half of the armed men took their bags and left the army. Yet the system was based on their presence. The system started to show some difficulties because the newcomers are coming for six months and they have to spend the first month on training, and there is no possibility to fill the void.
This is revealing a serious security gap.
In addition, there will be problems in certain services. In some places, the food is prepared and served by private companies, or the cleaning is done by private companies. But in other units, these services are done by soldiers; now, that half of them are gone…
So who is going to peel the potatoes?
Indeed, who is going to peel the potatoes, who is going to clean the toilets, the bathrooms? Currently, hygiene problems have appeared. And it is not wise to use the operational personnel for these services; otherwise, you might end up showing vulnerabilities in your operational capabilities.
In my view, the law was prepared without fully calculating the possible consequences in the implementation on the field, and the army is faced all of a sudden with new situations. We will see how it will oversee these problems in time.
The reality remains that Turkey needed to reform its conscription system. But it seems there are some unforeseen problems in the implementation.
What is your view about paid exemption becoming permanent?
There is a perception that you try to establish for the past 200 years, which is now affected by the last changes. And also, there is a difference between recruiting some as professionals and becoming a professional army. In other words, there is a difference between individual professionalism and a professional institution. The Turkish army is in a transition, but this is not a transition towards a professional army. It seems it transitions to a system where some serving in the army are becoming professional.
Who is Nihat Ali Özcan?
Nihat Ali Özcan is an associate professor at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara and a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).
He is a retired major from the Turkish Armed Forces and received his bachelor’s degree from the Military Academy of Ankara. After graduating from the Army Transportation School, he served in a number of different units of the land forces between 1979 and 1998. He also graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law.
Dr. Özcan’s master’s degree and PhD were completed at 9 Eylül University in Izmir. He was an academic visitor at the Changing Character of War (CCW) program of Oxford University’s History Faculty from October 2010 to May 2011.
He has extensive publications on the Turkish military, terrorism and counterinsurgency issues.