Turkey Pulse

Erdogan makes major security changes as he starts new term

Article Summary
Turkey is redesigning its security structure to be compatible with the newly established executive presidency, but some questions have yet to be answered.

Since his June 24 election victory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has wasted no time transitioning from a parliamentary government to an executive presidency, making some drastic changes. The most important of these changes is probably the structural transformation of Turkey's security establishment.

The first major step came through a decree July 9 — the day he was sworn in for a new five-year term — that annulled legislation outlining the duties and authority of the chief of general staff. That position had come under scrutiny after the failed military uprising in July 2016. Under this decree, the Turkish general staff, which earlier was directed by the prime minister and then by the president after the coup attempt, now will operate under the Defense Ministry.

The prime minister's office will no longer exist.

In another major step, Erdogan abolished the Supreme Military Council that was established in 1972 to determine promotions and assignments of colonels and generals. From now on, the president will have the final word.

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He also did away with Turkey's National Security Council and National Security Secretariat, which were set up after the 1960 coup and have been severely criticized as instruments the military used to influence politicians. Their functions will be taken over by the Board of Security and Foreign Policy, one of nine consultative boards attached to the president. It's not yet known who will be on the board or who will lead it. Its relations with the presidency, Defense Ministry and military command are also not yet clear.

By eliminating informal military traditions that determined terms of duties and appointments for officers, henceforth the president will decide. The president Is no longer required to follow traditions and decide on promotions only in August, as was the case. The president will be able to work with any general he wants, for as long as he wants, and may even disregard retirement rules.

Also by decree, the defense minister now becomes the key security decision-maker. The Defense Ministry will be responsible for political, legal and social affairs of the military and its educational, financial and budgetary services. The ministry will also be handling military recruitment, procurement of weapons, equipment and all logistics needs. The ministry also will be in charge of the military and defense industries, shipyards, military health and veterinary services, and will deal with construction and infrastructure projects. Land forces, navy and air force commands will be attached to the defense minister.

The president, when there is a need, can deal directly with force commanders and issue orders to be implemented without further approval by any other office. The intention here is to avoid the security command-control weakness experienced during the attempted coup.

Another second development that seriously affects Turkey's security architecture is the appointment of former Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar as the new defense minister in the presidential system. Akar is expected to end the competition between the chief of staff and the Defense Ministry. Akar is known to have good relations with new Chief of Staff Gen. Yasar Guler and land forces commander Gen. Umit Dundar. Also, Akar still keeps his four-star general rank. Given Akar’s seven to 10 years of seniority over the current naval and air force commanders, many feel he won't have serious problems keeping the Turkish armed forces high command under control.

The nature of civilian-military relations in Turkey will be decided by the personal harmony between Erdogan and Akar. Contrary to rumors in August that Erdogan was set to retire Akar, their relations have blossomed over the past year, boosted by Akar’s popularity with the ruling Justice and Development Party power base because of the army's success in fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and during Turkey's military operation in Afrin, Syria.

From Akar's initial statements, it's not hard to guess that Turkey will maintain its hawkish attitude in the struggle with the PKK and in the military's regional force projections. As indicated by the title of the new Board of Security and Foreign Policy, Ankara considers both domains inseparable. We can expect Akar to be an active player in foreign policy.

But many people still have questions. Akar was known for his pro-West and pro-NATO views during his military service. Will he continue with the same philosophy, or will he move closer to the Eastern bloc — especially Russia?

Akar was badly disappointed by the dismissive reactions of NATO and the West after the 2016 uprising, but he nevertheless hasn't abandoned the West. We'll have to see if that continues or if he'll be influenced by the growing anti-Western, populist and nationalist sentiment in the country.

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Found in: military, defense ministry, coup, hulusi akar, recep tayyip erdogan

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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