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Turkish Military Faces Morale Crisis

The Turkish military needs reform to boost morale.
Turkish soldiers salute during a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of Victory Day at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara August 30, 2007. Turkey's military, stern upholders of secularism, failed to keep former Islamist Abdullah Gul from winning the presidency, but it is likely to try to make life difficult for him and the ruling AK Party. Almost no one expects a military coup, given the strong support for the Islamist-rooted AK Party in general elections in July,

On Thursday, June 6, a criminal court in Ankara approved an indictment filed by the Turkish prosecutor’s office under which 102 retired military officers — including former senior commanders — and a civilian will be tried over charges of staging what has come to be known as the post-modern coup of Feb. 28, 1997.

All the suspects, 76 of whom are in jail, face aggravated life imprisonment on charges of overthrowing an Islam-sensitive coalition government and preventing it from performing its duties. Former army chief Ismail Hakki Karadayi is named as the prime suspect in the coup. Together with the other Feb. 28 coup suspects, there are estimated to be around 450 active and retired officers, including three former army commanders as well as active senior generals and admirals, who are being tried on charges of either staging coups, toppling former governments or making plans to unseat the current government.

The fact that so many officers are facing trials over coup charges raises the issue of the state of the morale of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) at a time when Turkey has been facing serious security risks on its doorstep — for example, the civil war in Syria, which has already had a spillover effect on Turkey as demonstrated by the twin car-bomb attack that took place last month in Reyhanli township, killing more than 50 Turks.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) introduced several military reforms during its first term in office in 2003 and in 2004, curbing to a certain extent the military’s power in politics. But those reforms are half finished and have been replaced by symbolic steps taken by the military itself. Still, NATO member Turkey has fallen short of the full democratization of civil-military relations. The symbolic steps included the removal of a national security course given by military officers from the secondary school curriculum, as well as ending the practice of using conscripts for non-essential tasks such as serving as tea servers or hairdressers. In return for the military making these rather cosmetic changes, it is speculated that the government agreed not to touch, among other things, the business interests the military maintains through the Army Mutual Trust Fund (OYAK), which owns 28 affiliated companies and partnerships operating in several industries, including automotive, transportation, finance, agriculture, food and information technology.

In an attempt to overcome complaints from the military and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about a shortage of generals and admirals because many of them are in jail, TSK recently made amendments to its personnel law. The draft law reduces the period for promotions to a general’s position from four to three years, and from five to four years for colonels. This measure is expected to fill the current gap of generals, admirals and colonels, as many in those ranks are in jail. The draft personnel law is expected to be adopted by the parliament before the yearly August meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) that decides on the promotions and retirements of generals and admirals.

In August 2012, YAŞ retired 40 officers in detention as part of the ongoing coup plot trials.

Around 10% of active Turkish generals and 33% of active admirals, out of a total of 347 generals and admirals within the TSK, are in jail. TSK has around 700,000 military personnel, including the Gendarmerie General Command and the Coast Guard Command. Total conscripts are estimated to be around 453,440, comprising the backbone of the military.

The questions that should be posed at this point are whether the military has suffered a morale loss affecting its decision-making process and endangering the nation’s security because of the many retired and active officers facing coup plot trials, or whether it a state of low morale has existed since the 1950s when Turkey first introduced the multi-party system.

But the claim that TSK’s morale is low today because many of its members are in jail is misleading. This is because, since 1960, TSK has mostly busied itself with staging military coups and handling purges of its own ranks. In addition, it has a history of pre-empting military coups from within the armed forces since the first free and fair elections took place in 1950.

In 1960, 3,500 high-ranking officers, including 235 generals, were forced to retire for not supporting a coup.

TSK staged coups or issued memorandums that essentially imposed a change of government under the premise that Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk's secular principles were in danger.

In summary, between 1960 and 2007 the military staged three coups while issuing two memorandums.

The chronology of events since 1950 shows there was a seemingly endless series of events where the military either staged coups or faced purges and coup plans from within; these are the factors that should be cited as significantly lowering the morale of the TSK for decades.

Now is the first time in Turkey’s republican history that the alleged actors behind the coups d’etat are feeling the heat of the judicial process. 

It is, then, high time for the government and the parliament to start fresh military reforms to transform the TSK into an armed forces that will come under full democratic control. Only then will Turkey have an armed forces with high enough morale to fulfill its sole mission of defending the nation against external threats.

Lale Kemal (Sariibrahimoglu) is a columnist for the English-language daily Today's Zaman. She has also been the Turkey correspondent for the UK-based Jane's Defence Weekly since 1991.