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The Weakening of Turkey's Military

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
March 1, 2010

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The arrest of forty-nine currently serving and retired Turkish military officers for an alleged 2003 plot to overthrow the government is unprecedented and has raised fears about destabilization arising from a showdown between the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the military.

But none of this should come as a surprise. The current crisis underscores the changes long underway in Turkish politics. Since 2003, the ruling AKP has been whittling away at the military's vaunted autonomy. Yet the oft-cited power of the Turkish General Staff may be more apparent than real. That perception stems from the fact that the military has carried out four coups d'état (1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997) and countless less-dramatic interventions in Turkish politics. Rather than demonstrate the officers' power and influence, however, these interventions reflect the underlying weakness of Turkey's military establishment.

Asserting Civilian Control

Since the founding of the Turkish republic, the basic, if unwritten, rule of politics has been: Politicians and their followers must not elicit the ire of the General Staff lest they be pushed from office and banned (at least temporarily) from politics. As a result, successive Turkish governments have shied from challenging the military on issues such as personnel, the military budget, and weapons procurement, as well as areas beyond the officers' professional competence, including education, broadcasting, and the national economy. Indeed, the threat of military intervention has so conditioned Turkish civilian politicians that they have often campaigned in part on the implicit message that they could maintain good relations with the General Staff.

[N]one of this should come as a surprise. The current crisis underscores the changes long underway in Turkish politics.

In 2003, however, the AKP, riding a wave of unprecedented popular support for European Union-inspired reforms, began bringing the General Staff under civilian control. The AKP-dominated parliament granted itself oversight and control over the military's extra-budgetary funds, strengthened the civilian-controlled Ministry of National Defense--which is separate from and has no control over the General Staff--to identify priorities for defense expenditures, and removed military representatives from the Higher Education and Audio-Visual Boards. The officers on these boards were charged with ensuring that threats to the republic, notably Islamism and Kurdish separatism, did not creep into the educational system or national broadcasting.

The most important changes were made to the National Security Council (known more commonly by its Turkish acronym, MGK), which had been the primary channel through which the officers influenced Turkish politics. First, the number of officers on the council was reduced from five to one--the chief of staff. Second, the legislation required that a civilian hold the office of MGK secretary-general, a position previously reserved for a military officer who reported directly to the chief of staff. The council was also stripped of its executive authority and its budget placed under the prime minister's control.

Despite these dramatic changes, the military was forced to accept the council's downgraded status. Given the enormous public support (as high as 77 percent) for the EU reforms at the time, the officers could not oppose the changes to the MGK without risking the military's popularity among the Turkish public--something the officers hold dear.

Despite periodic reports of grumbling among the officer corps about the Justice and Development Party's alleged "reactionaryism," there were no confrontations between the military and the government until April 2007, when the military tried to prevent then foreign minister and deputy prime minister Abdullah Gul from becoming Turkey's president. Although the post is largely ceremonial, the Turkish president has the power to approve or veto legislation. The officers feared that a Gul presidency would bring down the last firewall against the establishment of an Islamic state.

Without naming Gul, the officers posted a message on the General Staff's website implicitly threatening intervention should the AKP-dominated parliament elect Gul to be Turkey's eleventh president. After a tense month of popular protests in Turkey's major cities, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called snap national elections. The Justice and Development Party won a landslide victory, capturing 47 percent of the vote, paving the way for Gul to be elevated to the Cankaya Palace in August. Once again, despite the military's clear threats, the officers proved that while they could raise the level of tension in the political arena, they were impotent to secure their desired outcome.

Although the arrest of the forty-nine officers is big news, the fact remains that the popular perception of an all-powerful Turkish military is largely incorrect.

The following March, the public prosecutor filed charges against the Justice and Development Party for being "a center of anti-secular activity." Although the military was not directly responsible for the charges, the General Staff's deep mistrust of AKP created an environment that made the charges possible. The Constitutional Court ultimately found the party guilty, but decided against shuttering the party and banning seventy of its members from politics. The decision, despite the verdict, was widely regarded as a victory for Justice and Development and a blow to the secular establishment, which the military leads.

A string of embarrassing incidents have further eroded the military's public standing and allowed the AKP to begin subordinating the officers to civilian authority.

These include the so-called Ergenekon investigation, which implicated several former senior officers and a number of serving junior officers in an effort to destabilize the country and provoke a coup. In addition, the Turkish daily Taraf published alleged documents demonstrating that the military was aware of planned Kurdistan Worker Party attacks on Turkish soldiers before they occurred, but chose to do nothing to undermine support for the AKP. And officers from the Special Forces command were recently accused of plotting the assassination of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. The latter incident resulted in civilian prosecutors searching Special Forces headquarters for evidence, an unprecedented development in Turkey.

The Inherent Weakness of Coups

Although the arrest of the forty-nine officers is big news, the fact remains that the popular perception of an all-powerful Turkish military is largely incorrect. The officers regard themselves as the keepers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's principles of secularism and republicanism. Yet, Kemalism--at least the officers' interpretation of Ataturk's ideas--demands a drab political conformity that never accommodated Kurds, pious Muslims, Armenians, the small Greek community, and, as Turkish society has become more modern and complex, those who want to live in a more democratic political system.

The fact that the officers have had to intervene four times in five decades demonstrates their inability to force the military's political will on society. To be sure, the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980, and the "blank" or "post-modern" coup of 1997 reflect the awesome firepower at the General Staff's disposal, but coercion is the least efficient means of political control. Indeed, in the aftermath of each intervention, the military sought to ensure that it would not have to intervene again by writing, rewriting, and amending Turkey's constitutions to safeguard the Kemalist political order, yet each time the reengineering of Turkey's political institutions failed to prevent challenges to the political system.

The U.S. Response

Although the Obama administration has identified Turkey as a strategic partner in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and South Asia, Washington must recognize that Turkey's internal political turmoil could undermine Ankara's capacity to be a useful ally in these critical areas. A military backlash in the form of a coup, or if the AKP uses the arrests to engage in a political witch hunt, will destabilize Turkish politics and markets for the foreseeable future. Washington must continue to emphasize the importance of the rule of law and the importance of Turkey's democratic transition to put both sides--the military and the government--on notice that the stakes in this situation for both Ankara and Washington are high.

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