There are five main reasons to be worried about the future of Turkey’s military, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fatally undermined with his ambition, ideology, transformative agenda, and paranoia.
First, the aftermath of last year’s abortive coup attempt has decimated the ranks of the military. Whether the coup was sponsored by followers of Erdogan friend-turned-foe Fethullah Gülen, was an inside job precipitated by Erdogan himself, or was the brainchild of other interests and ideological strains upset with the direction Erdogan is taking Turkey, one thing is clear: the extent of the subsequent purge is massive and corrosive to Turkey’s military morale and readiness. Turkey now has two F-16s for every pilot not in prison, and perhaps one-in-four flag officers are in prison.
Second, Erdogan has squandered decades of hard-won experience in counter-terrorism and technical fields by firing any officer who does not subscribe to his increasingly extremist vision. Turkey has no shortage of enemies and has always faced myriad threats. Usually, the security forces have shut down terrorist plots before they could succeed. Today, however, terrorists smuggle bombs into Istanbul and Ankara as easily as in Sivas or Van, and insurgents can strike in northwestern Turkey almost as easily as 1,100 miles away in southeastern Turkey.
Today, however, terrorists smuggle bombs into Istanbul and Ankara as easily as in Sivas or Van.
Third is the factional battle taking place within the Turkish Armed Forces. While former Maoist-turned politician and businessmen Dogu Perincek has had very little electoral success and arguably little influence in the civilian sphere, he has created a significant power base for himself in the Turkish military, where many senior officers embrace his brand of militant nationalism and pan-Turkism, infused with a conspiratorial view of both the United States and NATO. If the coup was an inside job, Perincek may very well have been in on it. By blaming the Gülenists on one hand and both the United States and NATO on the other, Perincek saw the opportunity to deal a fatal blow to all of those he opposes so virulently. Erdogan’s religiosity chafes at Perincek’s vision, however. They are not natural allies. Erdogan’s hiring of Adnan Tanriverdi — a brigadier-general forcibly retired because of Islamist links in 1997 — to be his military adviser, may presage an effort to purge Perincek’s followers. This shouldn’t surprise: After all, Erdogan worked with and used Gülen’s network while it was convenient before turning on them. Why shouldn’t he do the same thing with Perincek’s followers if he believes they are no longer of use? Perincek is already weakened by Russia’s willingness to accommodate Erdogan’s Islamism in exchange for his anti-Americanism. Tanriverdi has moved to bring members of SADAT, a private paramilitary group staffed largely with Islamists, into the Turkish military to supplant both Perincek’s followers and traditional secularists. SADAT may very well be the vanguard of a new Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps geared for Turkey.
Fourth is the Kurdish insurgency. Erdogan may label the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorists, but he legitimized them with his outreach to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Turks and Kurds can argue about who broke the ceasefire but it is clear that the Turkish military has been unable to put down the insurgency which promises to drain the Turkish military and resources for years if not decades to come. If Turkey were truly to enter Syria in any significant numbers, they may find themselves embroiled in a conflict from which they cannot easily extract themselves.
If Turkey were truly to enter Syria in any significant numbers, they may find themselves embroiled in a conflict from which they cannot easily extract themselves.
Finally, Erdogan seems ready to turn the Turkish military in on itself. Earlier this month, Turkish General Staff personal director LTG Selcuk Bayraktaroglu sent an order to attaches worldwide demanding that they send information about former military officers who resigned and refused recall notices for fear of torture or political vendetta. Specifically, Turkish military officers are to provide information about (1) working situations; (2) asylum processes; (3) relations with other NATO officials, local authorities, and other people; (4) their use of military housing; and (5) relations with the media. None of the Turkish military representatives or attaché officers working in NATO offices have authority to spy, however. It will be hard for any NATO country including the United States to partner with Turkish attaches and officers given the overt spying which the Turkish General Staff now encourages. That the military order comes against the backdrop of Turkish espionage scandals in Europe involving Turkish religious figures underscores the credibility of the threat.
Too often, both the Pentagon and NATO seek to calibrate their policy to the way things were rather than how they are now. That would be a mistake. Erdogan has broken the Turkish army. Rather than rely on it paper strength, it’s time to recognize the Turkish military that appears in ledger books and its actual capabilities are now two very different things.