Skip to main content

How Turkey is reforming its military

Turkey is undertaking revolutionary military reforms, but they can’t yet be characterized democratic.
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (C), flanked by Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (3rd L)  and the country's top generals, attends a wreath-laying ceremony in Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ahead of a High Military Council meeting in Ankara, Turkey, July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RTSK1HV

Empowered to issue decrees with the "power of law" authorized by the state of emergency declared after the July 15 coup attempt, the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) government is frantically busy with changes that will radically affect the structure of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the civilian-military relations of the country. Judging from the pace and scope of the changes, this can well be characterized as "revolutionary civilian transformation." The profound changes that have been introduced to the TSK with the decree issued July 31 include that from now on deputy prime ministers and the ministers of justice, interior and foreign affairs will participate in the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which decides on promotions of generals and other important issues in regard to the TSK. The role of civilians in the SMC used to be restricted to the prime minister and minister of defense.

Air, land and naval force commands that were attached to the Chief of General Staff will henceforth report to the minister of defense. The president and prime minister now have the authority to giving orders directly to commanders without going through the once all-powerful Chief of General Staff. Powers of the minister of defense have been expanded, and he can now select his ministry staff himself instead of having to make do with the staff appointed by the military.

All military high schools that had long histories and cherished traditions under the TSK command and control have been closed, and the military academies that used to train officers will be closed in two years to carry out the necessary reforms. A national defense university will be established within the Ministry of Defense to meet the officer requirements of the TSK.

All factories, industrial facilities and shipyards that used to be under TSK control will now be part of the Ministry of Defense. All military hospitals and the Gulhane Military Medical Academy in Ankara that educates military doctors have been turned over to the Ministry of Health.

The gendarmerie command and coast guard command that used to be controlled by the TSK for their personnel, training and procurements are now fully part of the Ministry of Interior.

What are the ramifications of these reforms? Elected civilian officials have learned one major lesson. On the night of July 15, strategic decision-making mechanisms of the Chief of General Staff were seized for 10 hours by officers affiliated with the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO). Around 11:30 p.m., a message sent from the office of the Chief of Staff declaring a nationwide martial law further complicated matters and caused serious incidents. Hence, elected politicians no longer want all powers to be in the hands of the Chief of General Staff. With a model that is described as “divide, rule, encourage competition and command” politicians want to diffuse the military power that used to be in the hands of soldiers. By placing the gendarmerie and coast guard commands in the hands of the minister of interior the intention is to set up a separate armed force under civilian control. But to attach the Chief of General Staff directly to the president as a symbolic coordinator without command powers needs a constitutional amendment — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not hide that he insists on this new arrangement.

According to officials close to the AKP, the Turkish military has lost its privileges and superiority over civilians since July 15. The coup attempt has revealed the weakness of the military and its inability to prevent infiltration by those connected to FETO.

Since it became obvious that the military could not develop its internal control mechanisms, it is now time to let the elected officials try their hands at the civilian control of the military.

Following the coup attempt, the elected officials enjoy unprecedented popular public support to put everything in order as they see fit.

But here we must dwell on a key issue: Although AKP circles treat the transition to civil authority and democratization as synonyms, they are not. This revolutionary transfer of power from the military to civilian elites is not yet a democratic process. The power that is transferred to the civilians has to be shared between the government, opposition parties, parliament and civil society, which also requires the governing body to be accountable and transparent. Turkey is not yet at that point.

There are three major risk areas that have to be kept in mind when promoting these reforms. First, there is currently no mechanism that could play the role of a mediator if problems arise between the presidency/government and the military. Parliamentary commissions to be set up could assume this function but at the moment the government is not willing to go in that direction nor does a capacity exist in the parliament that could provide advice in defense-security affairs.

Another potential risk is the possibility of the competition among different branch commands becoming a destructive element. It is highly likely that institutional conflicts that could arise out of that competition could severely undermine the combat effectiveness and productivity of the TSK. Beyond doubt, the concept of unity among branches will become a major point of debate.

Finally, the risk of militarizing civilian-military relations by excessive civilian control needs to be considered. For example, the increasing role of civilians in promotions and appointments of generals may lead to politicization and end the meritocracy that used to determine promotions and appointments in the TSK.

In a nutshell, on the night of July 15, the belief that in Turkey “the military is superior, more rational and more patriotic to those elected” has been severely crippled. Previously, the deeply rooted paradigm that counted on professionalism of the military in their relations with civilians offered ample autonomy and privileges to soldiers, without allowing civilians to intervene. Not anymore. With the new paradigm, elected officials and the public are trying to develop a mechanism of tight supervision of the military to erase the distinctions between the military and civilians.

Among those who favor democratic supervision of the military by civilians, there are those who insist that such a transformation must not affect the combat power and effectiveness of the TSK.

Of course the elected civilian rule has to be respected. We will see whether the TSK, the paramount actor of the security sector in Turkey, will emerge in a few years as a global success story similar to Turkish Airlines or end up yet another perennially mismanaged public corporation. One can only hope that the elected civilians are aware of the fact that it is very easy to raze old structures when it comes to institutional transformation of an army, but it is far more difficult to build something new.

More from Metin Gurcan

Recommended Articles