Turkey Taming Omnipotent Military

The Writer | Credit: IDSA - Photo: 2011

Turkey Taming Omnipotent Military

By Rumel Dahiya* 
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) – In an unprecedented move, top four military commanders in Turkey stepped down from their posts on 29 July 2011. Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner, Land Forces Commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoğlu, Naval Forces Commander Adm. Eşref Uğur Yiğit and Air Forces Commander Gen. Hasan Aksay asked to be retired with immediate effect.

What surprised many observers was the timing of the resignations and the calm handling of the situation by Turkey’s political leadership. The generals were relieved without fuss and their action did not invite any public outrage. The incident, on the contrary, was welcomed by Turks as a major step towards the normalisation of the Turkish state. This is a landmark development in Turkey’s history and a precursor to a democratic reset of civil-military relations.

The resignations came on the eve of a scheduled meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ). The YAŞ, composed of the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and all 14 serving four star generals, traditionally meets for the first three working days of August every year to take decisions on promotions, appointments, extensions and dismissals from service of all officers above the rank of colonel and equivalent in the Turkish armed forces.

The proceedings of the deliberations are forwarded to the president for his signature. All the changes in appointments are then implemented by 31 August. Before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdoğan came to power in 2002, it was rare that any recommendation of the YAŞ was amended or rejected by the government. In the last couple of years, however, the government has taken greater control over the process and the prime minister has denied promotions to some officers recommended by the generals.

Some of the officers denied promotions in the last three years are those whose names have figured in the ever widening probe concerning alleged coup plots – Ergenoken (‘Deep State’, a military-political front devoted to the defence of secularism) and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) – involving about 250 serving and retired military officers besides other nationalists and ultra-secularists in the media, academia, business and politics.

Recently, some more senior serving three and four star generals have been indicted for involvement in plots to overthrow the AKP-led government by fomenting unrest and causing chaos which would have justified intervention by the military to remove the ruling party from power. AKP is suspected by many secularists in the military and outside of abandoning secularism and trying to Islamise the state.


Tensions between the political and military leadership in Turkey have been building up since 2002 when the service chiefs refused to attend the swearing in ceremony of the new Parliament. These have grown in recent years after the arrest of hundreds of high-ranking officers in the ongoing Sledgehammer and Ergenoken coup-plot cases.

The Turkish military had been uneasy and defensive ever since these allegations started surfacing in 2003 and investigations gathered pace in 2007.Since then the three ex-service chiefs, two serving four star generals and a score of other senior officers have been named and some are under arrest.

This is the first case of its kind in modern Turkey where military personnel are being tried in civil courts. The Turkish media has also been active in unearthing the ties of the Deep State to certain terrorist groups and has been highlighting numerous cases of human rights violations in the process of fighting terrorist groups, particularly the PKK fighting for Kurdish rights.

Some reports suggest that the Turkish military had knowledge of the coup plots and that Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, during his term as Chief of General Staff, had squashed some attempts. The military – which continues to see itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular constitution – has seen its powers curtailed gradually as part of the EU harmonisation process. It had been uneasy but was unable to prevent the police arresting its senior serving and retired officers under judicial orders. It had always suspected ulterior motives behind the investigations. Gen Koşaner’s farewell message made it clear wherein he said that “The goal of the investigations is to give the impression that the military is an illegal organisation.”

The trigger for the resignations seems to have been the issue of an arrest warrant against seven general officers including Gen. Hüseyin Nusret Taşdeler, the commander of the Aegean Army, who also served as Erdoğan’s military advisor in 2007-2008, and General Staff adviser on legal affairs Hıfzı Çubuklu.

Besides, the military also wanted some of its senior officers under custody, but not yet charged, to be considered for promotion during the forthcoming YAŞ meeting. Gen. Koşaner has said that “despite there being no definitive judicial ruling against them, 14 jailed generals and admirals and 58 colonels have been punished in advance and lost their right to be assessed at this year’s Supreme Military Council.” The Prime Minister refused to interfere in the judicial process and made it clear that the arrested officers will not be considered for promotion, pending indictment.

The commanders of the Navy and Air Force were in any case going to retire by the end of August on completion of their terms and their replacements were to be selected in the meeting. Gen. Koşaner (CGS) had another two years left in office. Gendarmerie Forces Commander Necdet Özel did not join the other force commanders and was immediately appointed Land Forces Commander. He is likely to be rewarded and promoted as the new Chief of General Staff by the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), scheduled to meet from 1 to 3 August 2011.

In the face of the government’s refusal to heed their request, the generals had three options: to stage a coup which would have been acceptable neither to the people nor to the international community; to swallow their pride and do nothing, which would have made them unpopular within the military, or; to resign, which they did.


It would be relevant to examine the changes that have reduced the military’s salience and altered the dynamics of civil-military relations in Turkey.

Firstly, internal stability and economic progress during the last nine years of AKP rule has created conditions in which the people no longer look at the military as the saviour of the state.

Secondly, the AKP, having won three successive elections with a clear majority and having successfully faced off the military in 2007 over the election of Abdullah Gul as President, has grown in confidence. It now feels emboldened to challenge the established power of the generals on the back of overwhelming public support. The EU membership drive, although not likely to succeed any time soon, has provided a justification for the supremacy of civil control over the military.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is personally hugely popular not only in Turkey but also in neighbouring countries due to his enlightened foreign policy.

Fourthly, the rise of a new middle class led by small and medium sized businesses and educated youth has empowered a large number of people who no longer look at Turkey as a security state. An independent and assertive media has also helped in this regard. People are no longer afraid of criticizing the military when it is due.

Fifthly, Turkey no longer faces any military threat. Even the internal security threat has diminished, thereby reducing the salience of the military. Lastly, the hard variety of secularism is no more appealing to the masses when Muslims are perceived as oppressed in the world.

It appears likely that in the short term the resignation of the service chiefs will enable Erdoğan to consolidate control over a once-omnipotent military. There will be a steady decline in the military’s influence and it will become more professional. It will also cause wide spread anger at the officer level, though the lack of a unifying leadership is likely to prevent a coup being staged.

Undoubtedly, Gen. Necdet Özel will not be liked by Turkish military officers. Some will see him as a traitor to the cause for having sold his soul to the Islamists and betrayed his fellow officers. However, a majority of the officers are likely to consider individual career aspirations and the public’s expectations of them ahead of group loyalty.

As such, the officer corps will be sullen but is likely to stay out of any plot against the government. The military is unlikely to receive any support from opposition parties. CHP, the main opposition party and considered closest to the military ideologically, is not in the best of health and is unlikely to take up an unpopular cause at this stage. In any case, all political parties will be happy to see the military confined to its constitutional role.

It would be interesting to see the fallout of these developments in Turkey in some other countries like Indonesia, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan. People in the Islamic world see in Turkey a model of democracy, moderate Islam and economic progress.

*Brig (Retd) Rumel Dahiya is Advisor (Net Assessment & Defence Studies) at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. A complete version of this article is available at: http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IncreasingNormalisationoftheTurkishState_rdahiya_010811 (IDN-InDepthNews/04.08.2011)

2011 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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