Turkey Pulse

Shakeup expected for Turkish military leadership

Article Summary
Major changes are expected at the August meetings of Turkey's High Military Council, and the positions adopted by the new military command will affect Turkish policies, including the course of current military operations.

The first week of August is of critical importance for the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The High Military Council (HMC) that will decide the high-level new appointments and promotions in the TSK will meet in Ankara on Aug. 3-5 under Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. This session is considered pivotal for Turkey, which has been in political turmoil since the June 7 general elections and has now plunged into a two-front struggle against the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdistan Workers Party, making security the overriding consideration in the country.

Although the annual August meetings of the HMC are always followed with some interest, this year's attention is phenomenal, as the positions to be adopted by the new command will also affect the political wrangling in Ankara. This influence may also explain reports that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructed Davutoglu, “We will go to the HMC as the [Justice and Development Party] AKP government.”

One educated guess is that Erdogan has delayed the haggling over a new government to give the AKP the chance to dominate the HMC and shape the TSK command as a single ruling party and not as a coalition government. Erdogan has experience in managing the HMC meetings and getting his demands adopted. His influence will be greater now as president of the republic.

Why is the HMC this year so special and critical? It's simple: Current Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel, who was appointed in 2011, is retiring. Unless something extraordinary happens, his successor will be the current commander of the land forces, Gen. Hulusi Akar.

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Another exceptional feature this year is the moving up of the handover ceremonies, which are usually held on Aug. 27-28, to Aug. 15-17. The Ankara rumor mill has two explanations for this change: The first is to prevent a command vacuum while Turkey is involved in its two military confrontations by allowing the new chief of staff to take over with his team. The second is the personal wish of the outgoing Ozel not to wait until the last day. Some pundits say Ozel wishes to leave soon because he is tired and has health problems. Others say this is the way Ozel has been preparing his successor, Akar, to take over. While it is true that Ozel has been having health issues, given his dedication to his mandate and his respect for the principles of legality and democracy, health considerations are unlikely to be paramount in his decision.

Since April, Ozel has already handed over many key functions to Akar. Ozel has often said that Akar has been the top commander in his mind and heart. It is possible to interpret this unusual advocacy by Ozel as a move to prevent a possible "road accident" from Erdogan.

Why should Ozel fear such a thing? It is possible he is concerned by comments in the pro-Erdogan media that the incoming Akar has not been paying sufficient attention to combating the Fethullah Gulen movement, which has penetrated the TSK ranks.

There are rumors in Ankara corridors that Erdogan gave up thinking about blocking Akar's appointment precisely because of Ozel's position.

Ozel was unexpectedly appointed in 2011, when then-Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner and top commanders of the army, navy and air force collectively resigned in protest of the government’s lack of reaction to mass legal proceedings in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases brought against hundreds of TSK personnel, many with high ranks. 

Ozel was criticized in certain quarters for not reacting forcefully enough to the imprisonment of the accused TSK personnel. Pro-government quarters criticized him for avoiding mass discharges of Gulenists said to have penetrated the TSK. But his determination to discourage the politicians from a military adventure in Syria impressed the nation, and he was consistently praised for his loyalty and compassion for the TSK personnel.

Akar's TSK term

Akar has a reputation for analytical thinking, tolerance of divergent views, awareness of world events and extensive NATO experience. He is known for being keen on the Western security alliance and transatlantic relations. During this 2011-13 tenure as the deputy chief of general staff, Akar worked on many radical reforms in the TSK. But he is also known for tough management of his command and a hawkish attitude toward cross-border smuggling, anti-terror operations and border security.

Important issues on the HMC agenda

From his earlier performance in the land forces, it is not hard to guess that Akar will focus his four-year term on restructuring the TSK. He is expected to brief the politicians attending the HMC on projects that he will be working on, primarily redefining the relations between the army and the government, between the chief of general staff, Ministry of National Defense and the Prime Ministry as well as between commanders of the army, navy and air force. Many reforms are expected to be of revolutionary nature.

Another curiously awaited HMC decision will be command appointments to key military units in the tense east and southeast. The military is said to have prepared a roster of generals with extensive combat and anti-terror experience for these command positions. Commanders of several key commando and motorized infantry brigades are due for promotions and will have to be replaced. The positions of some successful current commanders are expected to be extended.

The HMC will review the files of 179 generals and admirals and about 300 colonels who are due for promotions.

Combating Gulenists

It is likely that Davutoglu will come to the HMC meeting with long lists and thick files on this most contentious subject. The TSK command prefers legally cautious, individual investigations of personnel when combating the Gulenists. Erdogan and the AKP government prefer mass purges. To dilute the pressure from Erdogan and the AKP, the command may give the green light for limited discharges from the gendarmerie command in return for Erdogan's staying away from the army, navy and air force.

Appointments and promotions of acquitted officers

This HMC will definitely take up the promotions of colonels and generals acquitted in Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup plot cases. About 50 colonels who have been released from prison are in line for promotions to brigadier general. The HMC will try to devise ways to compensate for their losses.

Combating IS

In combating terror, Akar is expected to be more hawkish than Ozel, and that just may make him the kind of chief of staff Erdogan wants. Akar pays a great deal of attention to combating IS. Given his close ties with the United States and NATO, the TSK will focus more on combating IS.

Finally, for those looking to decipher what these handovers will mean, the best indicators will be the speeches by Ozel and Akar in the handover ceremony. An analysis of their content may well provide clues into how the TSK command echelons perceive the current issues.

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Found in: turkish politics, turkish policy on syria, turkish military, turkish army, recep tayyip erdogan, military operation, ahmet davutoglu

Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser from 2002 to 2008. After resigning from the military, he became an Istanbul-based independent security analyst. Gurcan obtained his PhD in 2016 with a dissertation on changes in the Turkish military over the preceding decade. He has published extensively in Turkish and foreign academic journals, and his book “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan: Understanding Counterinsurgency in Tribalized, Rural, Muslim Environments” was published in August 2016. On Twitter: @Metin4020

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