The Turkish president has brutally cleansed ranks and is building a new army with some strange bedfellows.
- By Leela JacintoLeela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia.
A year after the July 15, 2016, coup attempt, Turkey’s military — the once mighty pillar of a secular, Muslim-majority state with the second-largest standing force in NATO — has lost its Kemalist oomph. The generals who survived the massive purges following that fateful night are so terrified of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s avenging wrath that they rolled their troops inside Syria — a prospect they once resisted — without a whimper. The massive purges that began shortly after the failed coup has seen hundreds of thousands of civil servants, judges, security officials, and employees of state-run institutions fired. Their positions are being rapidly filled, often by under- or unqualified replacements, via the Turkish patronage system of kadrolasma — literally, the building of loyalist cadres. The military is no exception. NATO’s top commander, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, raised the alarm back in December, when he warned of a “degradation” of the alliance’s command operations following the firing of “talented, capable” senior Turkish military officials.
The morning after the coup attempt, which left more than 200 dead, as Turks were still processing what happened that long, harrowing night, Erdogan knew exactly who was responsible for what he called a “gift from God.” The culprits, he proclaimed before investigations even began, were the Gulenists, the followers of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen — who once supported Erdogan but fell out with him when they started exposing corruption allegations within the Turkish president’s inner circle.
But a year later, Western intelligence officials and top Turkey analysts aren’t nearly so sure of Gulen’s complicity. Earlier this year, German spy chief Bruno Kahl revealed that Ankara has failed to convince the BND foreign intelligence agency that Gulen was behind the ill-planned and executed coup plot. “Turkey has tried to convince us of that at every level, but so far it has not succeeded,” Kahl told the German weekly Der Spiegel in March. When asked if the movement — whose official name is Hizmet, or “service” — was an Islamist extremist or a terrorist movement, Kahl replied: “The Gulen movement is a civilian association for religious and secular education.” A leaked report by Intcen, the EU’s joint intelligence service, concluded that Erdogan had planned a purge before July 2016 and an array of soldiers, fearing the upcoming mass firings, hastily launched a coup.
A 630-page draft report by Turkey’s parliamentary coup investigation commission released this May repeated the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrative but failed to provide conclusive proof. Meanwhile the main coup trial, begun under the media spotlight earlier this year, got bogged down by mind-numbing contrary testimonies until it was finally postponed to Oct. 30.
Transcripts of WhatsApp messages among the coup plotters that fateful night reveal that the putschist group in Istanbul called itself “Yurtta Sulh” in a reference to a well-known maxim by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that goes, “Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh” (peace at home, peace in the world). The choice suggests that there could have been a mix of disgruntled Gulenists, Kemalists, and ultranationalist soldiers among the plotters. As for the smoking gun — an order coming from Gulen’s Poconos headquarters — we haven’t seen that as yet.
What we do know for sure though is that the Turkish military today is not what it used to be. Turkey has lost some of its brightest and best generals. An estimated 400 Turkish military envoys to NATO were dismissed in the months after the botched coup, according to an October 2016 Reuters report. Inside Turkey, the military bloodletting is worse. Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan estimates that between March and September 2016, there was a 38 percent reduction in the number of generals and an 8 percent shrinkage in the officer cadres in the 350,000-strong Turkish Armed Forces.
Hundreds of sacked senior Turkish military officials posted at NATO centers across Europe and the United States before the botched coup are selling their cars and the family jewels as they try to rebuild uncertain lives after failing to follow command orders to return home — and disappear into Turkish jails.
An interview with an unnamed Turkish officer in the Brussels-based Vocal Europe magazine provides a profile of the type of military personnel the country has lost. “I went through officer training in Turkey and abroad.… I got my master’s degree in United States. Like many other purged officers, I am a staff officer, graduated from War College,” said the military official, who currently runs the Twitter account @PurgedNATO. “Personally, I do not know why I was sacked.… I have extensive education in US, I probably did not fit well in the new Eurasianist clique, dominating the Turkish Armed Forces.”
“Eurasianist clique” is not a familiar term outside Turkish military circles, but it’s not a new one. An April 2003 cable, released by WikiLeaks, from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara describes the Eurasianists as a group of officers within the Turkish military “who, without understanding the Russia-dominated nature of the ‘Eurasia’ concept, have long sought an alternative to the U.S. and are considering closer relations with Russia.” The cable went on to detail how a rival group dubbed the “Atlanticists” — who believe Turkey’s strategic interests lie in its U.S. and NATO ties — was losing influence within the Turkish General Staff.
The Russian lovefest
More than a decade after that cable was dispatched, the Eurasianists among Turkey’s military-civil elites are gaining ground, and the foreign-policy implications stretch from Syria to the EU to the United States and, of course, to Russia. With the post-July 2016 purge of Erdogan opponents, including Gulenists and senior Atlanticists in the Turkish military ranks, Ankara and Moscow have managed a diplomatic rapprochement of breathtaking proportions. Through the winter of 2015-2016, Russia-Turkey relations were in a dangerous chill after a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft near the Turkey-Syria border. Then the coup attempt suddenly sparked an Ankara-Moscow summer of love. Four days after the botched putsch, the two Turkish Air Force pilots who had downed the Russian Su-24 were arrested for — get this — their Gulenist links. Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek — a sort of Turkish Donald Trump who can be unwittingly funny if he wasn’t so sinister — blamed the two hapless pilots for destroying Turkey-Russia bilateral relations. “I say this, as Melih Gokcek, these rascals caused the rift between Russia and us,” the Ankara mayor told CNN Turk. “Why? Because they wanted to isolate us in world politics. Yesterday, I had a guest from Russia, an advisor for Putin. He agrees with me.”
Turkey and Russia are agreeing on a number of issues, mostly notably on a military strategy inside Syria, which is quite an accomplishment since the two parties were the most formidable members of their respective camps opposing each other on the Syrian battlefield. A month after the botched coup, Turkey launched its first cross-border operation into Syria. The head of the Turkish Armed Forces, Gen. Hulusi Akar — considered an Erdogan loyalist — survived the post-coup purge; having retained his post, he was in no position to resist the Turkish president’s military game plan in Syria. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield was launched in a bid to block Kurdish territorial gains. Ankara is largely focused on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which it has long been at war. Russia, with its eye on the big geostrategic pie — namely a country on NATO’s southeastern flank tilting toward Moscow — has decided that the Kurds, as always, can fry. Turkey’s Syria operations were enabled by close intelligence sharing with Russia, according to a blog posted on Purged NATO Officer, a website run by @PurgedNATO. That coordination, aided by the Eurasianists, proved critical in the fall of Aleppo. In the Turkish press, for instance, the swashbuckling hero of Operation Euphrates Shield, is Turkish special forces commander Zekai Aksakalli, a Eurasianist who was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general on July 28, 2016, after playing a major role in preventing the putsch.
The new Turkey-Russia lovefest is also translating into megabucks arms deals. This year, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik revealed that Ankara was in the “final stage” of a deal to buy an S-400 air defense missile shield from Russia. Before the botched coup, Moscow was not on the shortlist of bid contenders, which included the U.S. Patriot system, a French-Italian consortium bid, and a Chinese HQ-9 deal. Beijing ultimately clinched a provisional deal, which was then scrapped in favor of the Russian defense shield.
And so, while Trump was sucking the international media oxygen with his NATO is “obsolete” declarations, Turkey was quietly making a deal for a system that cannot be integrated with NATO missile defense architecture. Russia could soon have access to invaluable information about NATO’s critical capabilities — not to mention Russia’s reach into a country straddling Europe and Asia, with access to the Caucasus, Black and Mediterranean seas, and a gateway to the Middle East.
The deep state
When it comes to the rise of Eurasianists and the Machiavellian nature of Turkish power shuffles, nothing beats the figure of Dogu Perincek, the leader of the far-left Patriotic Party, a tiny, ultranationalist party that punches above its weight in the Turkish security services. The term “Perincek group” comes up so frequently in Turkish policy chattering circles, accompanied with such heavy doses of political intrigue, that it’s hard to separate the myth from the man. For starters, here are the facts: Perincek is a 75-year-old lawyer by training who’s probably best known outside Turkey as the Armenian genocide denier who won a free-speech appeal at the European Court of Human Rights. One of the lawyers on the Armenian side was Amal Clooney, which helped earn the case its 15 seconds of fame in the international media.
Inside Turkey, Perincek is a familiar figure who detests the Kurds and the Gulenists in equal measure; the sentiment is roundly reciprocated. A dyed-in-the-wool communist who refers to his extreme-left cohorts as “scientific socialists” and the Islamists as “reactionaries,” Perincek views his enemies as “puppets of the Crusader West” — a theme he elaborated on in his book Hacli Irtica, or “Crusader Reactionaryism.” His ultranationalist, secular, hard-line followers are disproportionately represented in the security services, which was, and continues to be, an asset during Turkey’s periodic assaults on the Kurds.
During the early Erdogan years, when the reactionary puppet of the Crusader West was opening up to the Kurds and jump-starting a peace process with the PKK, the Perincek group was viewed as a spent force, a vestige of Turkey’s hard-line secular past. The Perincek goose was further cooked during the Ergenekon trials, when Erdogan made allies with the Gulenists to purge the military of the old secularists allegedly cooking up a coup against the AKP government. But then the Gulenists made the fatal error of digging into corruption allegations against Erdogan’s inner circle, including the president’s family. With the launch of an intra-Islamist green-on-green war between the AKP and the Gulenists, Perincek was suddenly released from jail — where he had been serving a life sentence for an alleged coup plot against the Islamist AKP government — and was back in business.
Following the botched July 2016 coup, with the Turkish military purged of its qualified Gulenists and pro-West Atlanticists, Erdogan, the ultimate pragmatist, enveloped Perincek in a brotherly embrace. “With the religious conservatives, we have formed a common patriotic front,” Perincek told the Turkish press this year.
For now, the social scientists and the reactionaries have kissed and jumped into bed together, but it’s a marriage made in hell, and Erdogan knows it.
Erdogan’s private army
Enter the febrile talk of Erdogan’s private praetorian guard. One of the many reports that have emerged from that long, harrowing coup night was that members of a private security group were out on the streets of Istanbul fighting the putschists on the Bosphorus Bridge. Video clips of the scene shot around dawn showed burly men in T-shirts and bulletproof vests wielding semi-automatic rifles, firing into the air, and jostling aside jubilant Erdogan supporters, many of them trying to kick the putschists lying prone on the ground. The word on Turkish social media was that they were members of SADAT, which bills itself as “the first and the only company in Turkey, that internationally provides consultancy and military training services.” Founded in February 2012 by Adnan Tanriverdi, a former general who was dismissed for his Islamist leanings, SADAT’s mission, rather ungrammatically detailed on its English-language website, is to establish a “Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World.”
The bid to help Islamic countries build an Islamic world made sound business sense during the Arab Spring, and SADAT’s operations inside Syria promptly caught the attention of Turkish opposition parliamentarians. In September 2012, a secular opposition MP submitted a list of questions to parliament about SADAT’s alleged training and equipping of rebel fighters inside Syria and Turkey. The government responded with a terse denial, and the questions were subsequently expunged from the record, according to Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. Shortly after the coup, Tanriverdi was appointed as a top advisor to Erdogan, leading opposition columnists to question if Erdogan is trying to mobilize a paramilitary army.
If that’s the case, SADAT’s shock troops of Islamist fighters could well be on a collision path with Perincek’s scientific socialist fighters once they lose patience with the reactionaries in their midst.
The one thing binding these disparate groups ascending in the Turkish military is a common anti-American platform. The Eurasianists and pro-Russia Perincek group have long viewed the capitalist West as the enemy. The SADAT crowd and the pro-AKP kadrolasma beneficiaries are eager fans of Erdogan’s anti-Western rhetoric in their vision to help the Islamic world. But there could well be a falling out between the two camps within the Turkish military, which will take all of Erdogan’s considerable political acumen to manage. Meanwhile, NATO’s only Muslim-majority member is shunning the West to expand its influence in the East. A year after a botched coup that changed modern Turkey’s history, the old postwar order is at stake.
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images