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Even through all his bluster, Erdogan's fear is obvious

Despite massive purges since the attempted coup a year ago, Turkey's president and those around him are still afraid of their own military.
A soldier accused of attempting to assassinate Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on the night of the failed July 15, 2016 coup is carried by gendarmes to the courthouse in Mugla, Turkey July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kenan Gurbuz - RTX3BFT0

Turkey is commemorating the first anniversary of the July 15 failed coup — the official Martyrs and Democracy Day. The list of state-sponsored celebrations is quite impressive, with nonstop TV shows rewriting that night. A webpage titled “July 15 activities” presents a documentary, songs about the attempt, the names of those killed, and the images of monuments built in Ankara and Istanbul for the victims. It also displays posters designed to capture the key moments of the coup attempt. Since July 11, these images have decorated cities throughout Turkey. Most of them are quite problematic, however.

There is an uproar on social media under the hashtag #IndirinOAfisleri (Take down those posters), which quickly became a trending topic. Social media commentators and columnists were disappointed, furious and perplexed; the most prevalent complaint was the display of Turkish soldiers as traitors and losers positioned against civilians and the Turkish flag. Those who object see the campaign as the government's psychological attack on the military and believe it benefits the country's enemies. Many commentators expressed surprise that there was not an image of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is said to have orchestrated the coup attempt.

Ultranationalist politicians Umit Ozdag and Meral Aksener expressed their disapproval of the posters and asked for them to be corrected promptly.

Within a few hours, it became clear that these images were not only offensive to the Turkish Armed Forces, but they were also plagiarized — in particular, one image caused commotion because it was plagiarized from an award-winning image by American photographer David Turnley taken during the 1991 Gulf War.

In the midst of the public's anger, several old photos and videos resurfaced online of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Justice and Development Party (AKP) elites with Gulen. So far, it's unclear who was responsible for these images. People jokingly debated on social media whether it is Gulen followers or foreign enemies.

The images of defeated and meek soldiers underline two intertwined issues that are becoming increasingly problematic. First, a year after the botched coup, the domestic and international public remains unclear about what really happened. The coup's political culprits can't be clarified without the AKP’s cooperation.

Second, why does the government have such an uneasy relationship with the military? The images posted on social media revealed the pent-up frustration the Turkish public has with the AKP government and compelled a public discussion. For example, one Twitter user posted photos of distressed soldiers and wrote, “You cannot pen a grand legacy by getting poor conscripts killed in Syria or through Sadat.” (Sadat is the name of an international defense consultancy company whose owner, Adnan Tanriverdi, is one of Erdogan’s senior advisers.)

Even long before the coup attempt, Ankara bureaucrats would joke, “We have to keep the military busy so it won't have time to cause trouble."

AKP elites haven't hidden their suspicion of the armed forces. They have persistently expressed dislike of national holidays celebrated with military parades, which used to be opportunities for the armed forces to show their strength. Through the years, AKP leaders have found perplexing excuses not to attend national celebrations, and they sometimes ban military parades altogether. Instead, government offices, schools and the public have been encouraged to celebrate newly discovered Islamic holidays and AKP-approved events.

A few recent cases that didn't escape the press indicate that AKP officials, including Erdogan, may indeed be more worried about the armed forces than ever before. For example, in May, just before Erdogan’s arrival in the city of Tekirdag, a soldier assigned to salute the president was removed from the military guard. He was accused of being a member of the Gulen movement.

In June, images of officers with empty holsters saluting Erdogan appeared in the media. And it's not just Erdogan who may not like security personnel with guns. On July 11, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was photographed saluting special operations police who had blank firing adaptors attached to their automatic rifles. Although unverified, there have long been rumors that Erdogan, AKP bureaucrats, lawmakers and even pro-AKP journalists wear bulletproof vests. So what is the cause of their hyperbolic fear of the military?

A professor of Ottoman history who works at a government university and spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Trying to revitalize the Ottoman Empire’s glory, Erdogan has definitely woken up the sultan’s nightmare of the Janissaries. For centuries, the sounds of their cauldrons’ banging sent chills down the spines of the palace elite. So the tradition of a military shadow on politics is part of the culture here. Despite multiple coups, armed forces are revered because they are considered just and necessary for modern Turkey."

However, he said, "in the last decade, starting with the damaging plots, such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz [cases] against high-ranking military officials, the reputation of the army has been tarnished. There are also concerns that Erdogan is raising his own private army [referred to as Sadat in the daily lexicon]. Still, for Erdogan’s and other officials’ security details to collect weapons from honor guards required by protocol is unheard of.”

Given Erdogan’s show of strength July 15, and given that the military’s reputation and power are at their lowest point in the last decade, why are government elites still scared of their own soldiers?

Limited data on the past 15 years of the armed forces show a dismal picture. For example, between 2005 and 2015, more soldiers committed suicide than died in combat. That said, the number of security personnel lost in combat or terror attacks has also risen significantly since 2015. Government purges have hit the security forces the hardest, and the latest recruits haven't been trained properly, leading to undeniable incompetence in their service at all levels. To top this off, thousands of conscripts suffered from food poisoning in May and June, and it is doubtful that the allegations of corruption involving the Defense Ministry and catering firms will ever be investigated diligently.

A colonel who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan will go down in Turkish political history as a politician with the least tolerance toward criticism and satire. We knew he had a fragile ego. We now see the fear of death is quite potent for him, and it is contagious. For now, fear compels obedience. Once the threshold for fear is surpassed, the result is disobedience. Once you have overt disobedience, further domestic pressure becomes inevitable and the cycle for disaster starts. What if people no longer fear the system?”

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