During the late summer of 2011, I was part of a small group of journalists participating in an extended interview broadcast live in Ankara with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister.
During a break, I approached Erdogan to pose a question I knew he would leave unanswered. “You have always been of the view that the top brass was undermining your elected government,” I said. “Now, after nine years in power, how much of that resistance, you think, is left within the army?”
With a hoarse voice, careful that nobody else was listening, he answered: “About more than 50% is still there…”
Now, nearly nine years later, everybody knows that President Erdogan has shown a solid determination of subordinating each and every state institution in a regime model based on ultra-centralism.
It is known by now, too, that the botched coup in 2016 and the state of emergency that followed was truly a “God’s gift,” as Erdogan expressed it, to carry out a massive purge within the army.
The partial military uprising on July 15, 2016, in which a Gulenist segment of officers had a significant role, created a perfect pretext to trim and tame the structure, which, from time to time, has kept Erdogan sleepless at nights.
Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar said those dismissed from the army since the attempted coup number 17,500, more than 2,000 of whom were mid- and high-ranking officers. Some are serving time in jail.
Witnessed and reported daily were continuous group arrests of officers and soldiers for three years, apparently to maintain great fear and suspicion within the army for another coup attempt.
“The atmosphere has changed within the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) since the failed coup,” a Western diplomat familiar with the Turkish military told Ahval News. “Officers can’t discuss topics openly and relative trust within the TSK has gone away. Generals, in particular, feel they are just the prey of the political class.”
The reshuffle in the army in August, unique and bold in many ways, left little doubt as to how far Erdogan has advanced in his objective. He is downsizing the army and, while continuing to purge, leaves the impression that those dismissed are not necessarily linked with the Gulen movement but have been marked as opponents in general to his decisions and partisan policies.
The recent resignations of five generals were perhaps not unexpected. They were the result of growing discontent among the officers. When asking for their early retirement, none chose to be blunt but it is clear there are wider gaps between the top brass and Erdogan on two major contentious issues.
One is, as expressed in articles and statements by retired senior generals such as Ahmet Yavuz, that the tradition of respecting rank and merit is gone, replaced by sheer loyalty to the presidency.
The second is as sensitive as the first: Officers are unhappy that their views on Syria, especially on the Turkish presence in Idlib, are fully disrespected or ignored by Erdogan’s team. This is a delicate stand if one remembers that in the background to the botched coup in 2016 there lied a deep, decisive rift among top staff generals on Syria and Kurdish policies.
Some argue that the restructuring of the Turkish Army was long overdue, that the need for an efficient combat force was very strong.
A new military service law has the prospect of professionalism and the reduction of service time of conscripted soldiers from 12 to 6 months would be a welcome move. However, at the same time, the radical reduction of generals and admirals raises the suspicion that Erdogan’s resolve on pure loyalty has found a free ground.
Erdogan decided not to promote some three-star staff generals to four stars and it was interpreted as a typical carrot-or-stick approach. As a result, discontent is growing and is likely to continue to increase.
“AKP (Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party) by its religion-based steps has turned all the state institutions into a mirror of its own,” wrote retired General Ahmet Yavuz for the secularist daily Cumhuriyet. “Merit has been replaced by loyalty. The state has now been blocked by the (presidential) administrative system… New decisions on minimising the number of soldiers, it is now trying to create the armed forces in his own image… There will be no winners. Nobody should rejoice!”
If I asked the same question today, I wonder what Erdogan’s response would be: 10%? More? One point is clear: It will be Akar, the former top general now defence minister, who is tasked with the restructuring — and purging — of the army. His role and choices and whether he dare stand up to Erdogan may soon come to be decisive.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018.
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