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How Erdogan Weakened the Military

The Turkish President managed to deplete armed forces from their political prerogatives, weakening their Kemalist component and saving himself from the coup

Soldiers of the Turkish army

In 1826, Sultan Maḥmūd II decided to institute a modern and Western-style armed forces; in fact the Janissaries, from élite Sublime Porte troops, became a self-referential, unruly caste, arrogating itself political powers. When the revolt of the Janissaries broke out, the Grand Vizier let them assemble, only to kill more than thirty thousand of them. Even the Bektāshī Order, which had permeated the corps of the Janissaries, was abolished. This event was recalled by the official Ottoman historiographer as the “Auspicious Incident,” as it led to an affirmation of the sultan’s powers.



Nearly two centuries later, history appears to repeat itself. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having foiled the conspiracy of the so-called “Peace Committee,” by dint of purges, arrests and forced resignations has free hands so that he can purge the judiciary and the government, as well as transform the police and armed forces into an obedient tool; all while accusing the arch enemy Gülenist brotherhood of plotting the failed coup.



Actually, “the domestication” of the security forces and armed forces by the President had already been going on for some time. When the AKP, Erdoğan’s Islamist party, won the elections in 2002, only five years had passed since the last military coup, targeting Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist party, Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), took place. Once he became prime minister, Erdoğan was very skilled at politically isolating the military. In fact, shifting the focus of Turkish public discourse from the Islamic issue to that of democracy, he managed to win the support of heterogeneous forces, including the secularists, the liberals and the Kurds. The ceasefire declared by the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in 1999, further led to the downsizing of the military. Naturally, the armed forces, traditional protectors of the Kemalist secularism of the state, were largely opposed. The confrontation opened in 2007, when the military publically criticized the government’s proposal to nominate then minister of Foreign Affairs and supporter of Islamism, Abdullah Gül, as President. Aided by the support of the European Union, Gül was later elected.



The integration process in the European Union has modified the balance of power between political and military power. In fact, among the basic entrance requirements was the subordination of military power to civic power. As a result, the government had no difficulty in changing the legislative and constitutional framework. The military’s jurisdiction over civilians has been reduced, but most importantly, the National Security Council’s autonomy was reduced and the EMYASA protocol, which allowed the military to conduct operations against internal security threats without the prior consent of the civil authorities, was abolished. While in 2011, in protest, there were mass resignations among military leadership, between 2012 and 2013 the convictions for alleged military conspiracies Balyoz (Operation Sledgehammer) and Energekon sent hundreds of high-ranking officials to jail. With the modification of the law on the domestic service of the Armed Forces, the military was prohibited from any political activity.



Sealing Erdoğan’s victory was, in 2013, the amendment of article 35 of the internal regulations of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The initial text cited: “The duty of the armed forces is that of protecting and safeguarding the Turkish homeland and the Turkish Republic, as determined in the Constitution.” It was a de facto legal incentive that justified “corrective” coups and, therefore, the text was amended removing any reference to the Republic and the Constitution, and referring only to external threats. Furthermore, on that occasion, the General Command of the Gendarmerie was taken from the TSK, and placed under the control of the minister of Interior, close to the AKP. In the meantime, armed and security forces were gradually infiltrated by men loyal to the prime minister: for example, last year Hulusi Akar was appointed Chief of the General Staff. He is a man loyal to the government and he was taken hostage by the coup’s leaders. Another government loyalist is Hakan Fidan, who as a Sergeant managed to become the head of the secret service.



In fact, the gap between the prime minister and TSK seems to have already narrowed in 2013, when the former first blamed his political opponents, the Gülenists, for the repression of the military, and then freed more than 200 jailed members of the military. Nevertheless, in 2015, what drove reconciliation was the reigniting of the war with the PKK and the tensions connected to Russian involvement in Syria: the national security interests enhanced the role of the TSK, while Erdoğan’s neo-ottoman shift met the ideals of the military and earned the support of nationalists. In fact, last July, the renewed fighting with the Kurds of PKK aligned the President and the military: the rekindling of the crisis, on the one hand, allowed Erdoğan to return to the ballot box with a weakened pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and on the other hand, the military imposed upon the government with their uncompromising boundary regarding the PKK and caution for Syria.



In other words, the President and the TSK found common interests in the fight against Kurds, and Erdoğan took advantage of, and favored, this rapprochement politically; for example, he enacted a law that guarantees immunity for the forces leading “anti-terrorism” operations, and took the power to combat terrorism away from provincial governors, handing it over to the army.



In fourteen years of power, Erdoğan managed to deprive the TSK of their political prerogatives, weakening the Kemalist element, permeating the leadership with members loyal to him, in addition to co-opting and emphasizing the nationalist role.


In any case however, it must be highlighted that what caused the coup to fail was a profound change in relations between the armed forces and civil society, which has come about in the last thirty years. In fact, despite the TSK still enjoying entrenched popularity, independent decision-making and a strong influence on the economy, nearly all Turkish political forces, mindful of the coup of 1980, strongly opposed to abdicate in favor of a military government.

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