Turkey's general staff has resigned in anger, leaving the civilian government as the apparent winners. But, with a military prone to coups, is trouble still lurking?
Read any newspaper, magazine, or journal article about Turkey over the last few decades, and the odds are that the Turkish military establishment was described as "staunchly secular," "powerful," "autonomous," "dominant," or all of these things. At times, it seemed that observers were in awe of the Turkish commanders, armed as they seemed to be with an uncompromising ideology and a will to act to ensure the security of Turkey’s republican and, importantly, secular political order. The ideals, cohesion, and strength of the armed forces stood in stark contrast with the weakness and corruption — especially during the 1990s — of Turkey’s civilian political leaders.
The military’s reputation (some of it deserved, but also clearly exaggerated) is a function of the fact that between 1960 and 1997, the officers got rid of four governments that the general staff did not like. That’s what makes the Friday, July 29, resignation of the military’s most senior officers, including its chief of staff, all the more surprising. In Turkey, it is usually the military that pressures the government and forces the politicians to resign, not the other way around.
In a statement, the military’s just-resigned chief of staff, Gen. Isik Kosaner, explained that the officers believed they could no longer "protect their personnel" from criminal investigations and as a result could no longer carry on their duties effectively. Within hours of the resignations of Kosaner, land forces commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu, navy chief Adm. Esref Ugur Yigit, and their air force colleague Gen. Hasan Aksay, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a new chief of staff, the former Gendarmerie commander, Gen. Necdet Ozel.
Erdogan’s demonstration of strength and control only reinforced initial assumptions that the officers’ move reflected the manifest political weakness of the Turkish armed forces and the ascendancy of civilian power. After all, the resignations did not destabilize the country, the financial markets remained steady, and there was no outpouring of public support for Kosaner and his colleagues. Turkey did not miss a beat. The only possible conclusion analysts can draw from this episode: Erdogan has won. The prime minister, buoyed by a recent election that saw his Justice and Development Party (AKP) win an unprecedented 49.95 percent of the vote, has finally mastered civil-military relations, paving the way for a potentially more democratic future.
At the same time, however, the emerging narrative about the resignations and what it means seems a little too neat. To be sure, the days when the Turkish military could oust a government by memorandum are long over, but the collective resignations of the country’s senior brass raise a number of important questions about the quality of Turkish democracy and the future of civil-military relations.
In institutionalized democracies, where the military is subordinate to civilian politicians through regulation and tradition, senior commanders do not just bolt because they do not like something. They process their grievances through consultation with their civilian political masters. If that does not work, they salute the politicians and carry on with their duties. Not so in Turkey, where — through four coups, numerous other more subtle interventions, and institutional mechanisms — the military cowed civilian politicians into either accepting its dictates or risking punishment.
Of course, an argument can be made that Kosaner’s resignation and Erdogan’s refusal to allow the military to intimidate him may very well hasten the process of military subordination. Yet for all that Erdogan and his colleagues have done clipping the wings of the once-powerful National Security Council — the body the military used to pressure civilian leaders — by bringing officers accused of certain crimes before the civilian courts and gaining control of parts of the military budget, the officers still remain beyond the bounds of complete civilian control. After all, the Turkish national security state is 85 years old; it will take more than the resignations of the top brass to rip out its deep roots.
It is that stress on the military as an organization that may yet unravel Erdogan’s apparent mastery of the officer corps. There is little doubt that there are more than a few officers (currently serving and retired) who have plotted against the government. Even if Erdogan has used that enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery known as the Ergenekon investigation to unfairly target political opponents, as some allege, there was evidence when the initial plot was discovered that elements of the military were set on undermining Erdogan.
The AKP’s firm grip on the government and thus its ability to affect the trajectory of Turkish politics for decades through well-placed supporters in the bureaucracy is anathema to the military. This was precisely the reason that Erdogan’s onetime mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, who led Turkey’s first experiment with Islamist-led government, was pushed from office in 1997’s "postmodern" coup. Even if there was reason to suspect the armed forces of plotting against him, Erdogan was clearly using Ergenekon to hammer and humiliate the Turkish general staff into submission.
Erdogan was already able to find a new chief of staff in Ozel, and the current meeting of the Supreme Military Council will fill the vacancies atop Turkey’s individual services, reinforcing the notion that he is firmly in control. That does not mean, however, that the problem of civil-military relations in Turkey has been resolved. There is little reason to believe that the AKP years have produced a sea change in the military’s worldview that will allow it to comfortably submit to AKP or any other civilian rule.
Critics will point out that an organization as large and complex as the Turkish armed forces is not monolithic and that it stands to reason that there are AKP sympathizers within the ranks. True enough, but the Turkish military has always been a unique specimen among militaries. Its traditions are more Prussian than American, and its officers are often socialized in the ways and beliefs of the armed forces from a very young age. This produces a set of beliefs about their identity, their role in politics, and the supreme importance of Kemalism to Turkey’s internal cohesion that has likely not changed even as Turkish politics have become freer and society grown more complex. At the very least, this opens the possibility that the officers — not despite, but rather because of the beating they have taken in the last few years — will still try to remain beyond the complete control of Turkish civilians.
There is very little about Erdogan that is nuanced. He is the ultimate street politician, intent on remaking a system that was manifestly undemocratic and discriminated, in particular, against the pious Turks around him. The primary address for these problems was the military. As a result, the prime minister viewed the military with great suspicion and, in turn, never cultivated a second tier of officers who could be his allies in smoothing the military’s transition from autonomy to subordination. The predictable result is more mistrust between the government and the commanders, sowing potential divisions in the ranks, which is bad for the military and bad for civil-military relations.
In one way, a divided military is good for Erdogan: It makes the officer corps more susceptible to manipulation and further weakens its ability to meddle in politics. It also, however, raises the prospect that some officers will take matters into their own hands as they see their professional prerogatives and everything they stand for mercilessly whittled away.
The odds are, though, that last week’s resignations were the dying gasp of the Turkish general staff’s autonomy. Yet just as Friday’s events surprised everyone, there may be more surprises in store from the officers. The military is much diminished, but Turkey’s civilians have not won this battle yet. For instance, despite the fact that there is a civilian minister of national defense, Turkish officers do not answer to him. Changes to the military’s internal service codes, which enjoin the commanders to intervene in the political system if they perceive a threat to it, have been under discussion, but have yet to be implemented. Nor have the curricula of the military academies and staff colleges been changed to emphasize the supremacy of civilian leadership.
Erdogan is nothing if not shrewd. He will likely take the opportunity now to complete his efforts to bring the military to heel. If he does not, the prime minister’s grand experiment in rewiring Turkey and transforming it permanently into a more democratic, more modern, and more pluralist country remains in jeopardy.