Turkey Pulse

Critical meeting will determine fate of Turkish forces post-coup

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Article Summary
Recognizing the urgent need for military changes following the coup attempt, Turkey's leaders have moved up the date of their Supreme Military Council meeting to this week.

The Turkish government has detained so many military personnel since the July 15 coup attempt that it has moved up a Supreme Military Council (SMC) meeting to determine what to do next and what reforms are needed in the Turkish military (TSK).

The massive number of detained military personnel continues to rise. According to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, as of the evening of July 23, 8,838 military personnel had been detained. Of those, 163 are generals and admirals — about 40% of the TSK total in those ranks. Another 2,339 are officers, 6% of the TSK total. Of those who were brought before a judge, 123 generals and admirals and 1,009 officers were arrested and sent to prison.

The incredibly high number of generals removed from duty makes the upcoming council meeting — where promotions, appointments and retirements of generals are decided — extremely important this year. As I pointed out in a July 19 column, one of the key reasons for the coup attempt was the fear of the coup plotters that the council was planning to discharge most of them from the TSK. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the so-called Fethullah Terror Organization (FETO), which he said had penetrated the TSK and hastily decided to stage a coup when it heard of the coming purge.

This week, meeting planners decided to move the SMC meeting up to July 28 instead of the originally scheduled Aug. 1-4, and to change the venue. Traditionally the SMC meets at the headquarters of the chief of general staff; this year it will be meeting at Cankaya Palace. Many see this location change as evidence of Erdogan’s continuing lack of confidence in the TSK. Also, files for personnel actions, which used to be prepared by the chief of military staff's personnel department, this year are being prepared by the ground forces' personnel department and the national intelligence service, MIT, as the key officers responsible for this work — primarily the head of personnel of the chief of staff headquarters — are in custody.

The most important SMC agenda item this year will be to decide what follow-up actions to take because of the coup attempt and what reforms to make in the TSK. The first question the SMC will tackle will be to determine who was involved in the coup attempt. Depending on their findings, more officers may be purged.

This is where the confusion begins. The first thing to note is that there is no common, basic ideology uniting the coup participants. There are diverse motivations: Various small cliques have personal interests and divergent aims for the TSK. So far the main groups that have been discerned are:

  1. Pro-FETO: I think those in this group were the best-prepared and most-powerful.

  2. Anti-Erdogan and anti-government: Looking at the list of detainees, it's not hard to identify people who resent both.

  3. Secularists and Kemalists.

  4. Self-interest pragmatists who are after their own promotions and key appointments.

  5. Those who were compelled to join the coup by the military culture of absolute obedience to commanders' orders.

  6. Those forced to join through the use of blackmail and threats.

The engine pulling all these motivations is the pro-FETO group. Continuing the train analogy, it is possible to classify the TSK as:

  1. Those who were on the train from the beginning and stayed on as it left the station.

  2. Those who boarded one of the relevant cars when they heard the train was about to leave.

  3. Those who got off the train at the last moment when they heard it was about to leave. This group no doubt played a key role in the failure of the coup attempt.

  4. Those who felt the train was about to move and, instead of getting on it, wanted to prevent it from moving.

  5. Those who felt the train was about to leave but preferred to miss it.

  6. Those who had no idea of the train’s existence.

Two of the groups probably make up 70% of the total number of TSK officer corps: those with the ranks of major and above who were on the coup train that night, but who jumped off at the last minute when they heard the train was leaving, and generals who got on board at the last moment. Now the Turkish judiciary is trying to classify those TSK personnel involved, and civilian rule will decide what to do with them. Judging from Erdogan's statements, it is not hard to guess that the government will be pitiless when deciding on purges.

So what are the questions this critical SMC meeting will clarify?

  1. Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and his deputy Gen. Yasar Guler, who was slated as the next of commander of the gendarmerie, were both taken hostage by the coup plotters. Will they continue in their posts? One can detect from Erdogan’s remarks his discomfort with these key commanders' inability to prevent the coup attempt. In the meantime, there are increasing calls in the media for Akar to resign. From Erdogan's attitude, analysts expect that instead of abruptly removing Akar and the chief of national intelligence, Hakan Fidan, from their posts, he will keep them there for a while and then ask them to resign.

  2. The fates of three commanders will be clear after the meeting: Gen. Salih Zeki Colak (ground forces) and Gen. Abidin Unal (air force), who both had been taken hostage during the coup, and navy Adm. Bulent Bostanoglu, who took refuge with the police.

  3. The gendarmerie commander, Gen. Galip Mendi, currently ailing from heart disease, will definitely be leaving. A major decision that could come from the meeting would be to attach the gendarmerie as a general directorate fully subservient to the Ministry of Interior, to be administered by a civilian bureaucrat.

  4. Two members of the TSK upper echelons shone July 15: Gen. Umit Dundar, commander of the Istanbul-based first army, who informed the public that the coup was not the work of the TSK chain of command, and the special forces commander, Maj. Gen. Sezai Aksakalli. If Erdogan appoints Dundar, who influenced the outcome of the coup attempt, directly as the new chief of general staff, it will mean that the president favors a speedy TSK reform. But if he keeps Akar in his post and appoints Dundar ground forces commander, that will mean he prefers a paced, deliberate reform process.

  5. Another star in the TSK is Lt. Gen. Metin Temel, who commands forces battling the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. An important development will be the determination of Temel's next post. He is now acting leader of the second amy, whose commander, Adem Huduti, has been arrested. 

In sum, the critical SMC meeting at which Erdogan will determine the next command echelons of the TSK will offer concrete clues as to the scope and pace of TSK purges and the TSK’s institutional transformation. Government leaders must watch out for the danger of turmoil in the TSK if the purges are too massive and made too quickly. Although such disturbances many not devolve into a major uprising like the one of July 15, they could instigate skirmishes here and there. This could negatively affect the crime-deterrence effect of the TSK, which is already battling the PKK and Islamic State and is conducting major border security operations. Erdogan reportedly wants to ensure there will be no threat of another TSK coup by attaching it to the presidency instead of to the prime minister as it is now, by changing the military education and training systems and by ensuring structural reforms in promotions and appointments.

Some would say the TSK today is like a bird in Erdogan’s hands: Hold it too tight and it will die of suffocation, but hold it too loose and it will fly away.

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Found in: turkish civilian-military relations, turkish armed forces, recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, mit, hakan fidan, gulen movement, coup

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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