General Erdogan’s First War

Turkey’s Islamist president is the first civilian with control over his country’s military – and you can tell by the results.

Turkish tanks pass front of a giant poster of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 30,2014 in Istanbul. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish tanks pass front of a giant poster of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 30,2014 in Istanbul. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Ismail Hakki Karadayi never sat behind the defense minister. Neither did Huseyin Kivrikoglu. Nor did any Turkish military chief of staff who came before them. It was always a seeming oddity that military officers from other member countries sat behind their civilian leadership at NATO ministerial meetings — except for the Turkish ones; they sat next to their ministers. But anything else would have been a breach in protocol. Turkey’s organizational chart was clear: The minister of national defense had no authority over the military command, and while both were formally subordinate to the civilian prime minister, the men in uniform didn’t always act that way.

This pattern of civil-military relations in Turkey is now changing. The enervation and defenestration of the armed forces under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the past 15 years mean that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the first Turkish head of state to be truly vested with the powers outlined in Articles 104 and 117 of the Turkish Constitution. Those provisions make Erdogan the commander in chief (on behalf of the Grand National Assembly) and allow him to “decide on the use of the Turkish Armed Forces,” NATO’s second-largest military. And he has availed himself of those powers liberally, having ordered Turkish planes, tanks, and troops into battle in Syria twice over the last 18 months.

What sort of commander in chief has Erdogan revealed himself to be? Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which began on Jan. 20, demonstrates that Erdogan the military commander is largely similar to Erdogan the politician — there are strains of both the risk taker and the pragmatist in his Syrian foray. But one thing has remained consistent about the president’s military leadership: the self-reinforcing and unrestrained nationalist zeal of his rhetoric, in his descriptions of both the military’s goals and its progress. There is also an unmistakable emphasis on Islamist themes when Erdogan has addressed his supporters about the most recent incursion into Syria.

Whatever the outcome on the battlefield, Erdogan has already established an unprecedented military role for a Turkish civilian.

The powers of commander in chief that are in Erdogan’s hands are powers that previous presidents have held. The relevant articles of the constitution have not changed since the document was adopted in 1982. Still, Erdogan is unique in the ways in the ways he has given life to these formal powers. The only precedent lies in the politics of the years after the 1980 coup and the charismatic presidency of Turgut Ozal. Like Erdogan a generation later, Ozal was determined to establish his authority in part by challenging the prerogatives of the officer corps. In 1987, he named Gen. Necip Torumtay as the new chief of the General Staff over the objections of the commanders who had long been accustomed to making this decision on their own. Then, two-and-a-half years later, Ozal — by that time the country’s first civilian president — forced a showdown with the General Staff over his insistence that Turkey support the U.S.-led Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Torumtay resigned in protest. Then nothing happened. There were no threats from the officers, no memo directing Ozal to alter Turkish policy, and no coup.

But Ozal’s independence from the military was conditional and contextual, and the more typical pattern of civilian passivity returned after his death in 1993. Before Turkey’s first Islamist-led government was forced from office in June 1997, the General Staff established strategic ties with Israel — announcing their existence at a think tank in Washington — to the great discomfort of then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and undertook military operations in Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) without bothering to tell him. The officers ordered up another operation in Iraq after a shaky right-left coalition took over after Erbakan was chased from the prime ministry. The new prime minister, Mesut Yilmaz, was also left in the dark.

When the AKP came to power in November 2002, it began altering the relationship between Turkey’s elected civilian leaders and the officer corps. The previous government had already done some tinkering in this area by changing the composition of Turkey’s National Security Council, a primary channel through which the military influenced policy and politics, to favor civilians. The effect was negligible, however, given the military’s control of the bureaucratic apparatus of the body. The AKP’s efforts began relatively smoothly due to broad public support for European Union-related reforms that required, in part, the military’s relationship with elected civilian leaders be brought into line with European norms. Erdogan and the then-chief of staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, seemed to have struck a gentlemen’s agreement not to heat up the political arena unnecessarily over the changes.

Things only got ugly in 2007 after the military tried to prevent the AKP’s Gul from becoming president of the republic. Paranoid that Turkey’s traditional elite would never let him govern, Erdogan and the AKP collaborated with followers of Fethullah Gulen to decapitate the armed forces through spectacular show trials based on fabricated evidence. The cowing of the military continued with waves of purges of suspected Gulenist officers — the Turkish government now accuses the U.S.-based cleric of leading a terrorist organization that was behind the failed July 2016 putsch — and other disloyal members of the military. This has left the military in no position to challenge Erdogan today. Although it is not a good idea to declare the era of coups in Turkey to be over — if only because that is what many analysts believed in the years before the attempted military takeover in 2016 — Erdogan’s long tenure seems to have altered past patterns of Turkey’s civil-military relations.

The invasion of Syria highlights precisely how. Erdogan has now ordered the Turkish Armed Forces — whose commanders have previously emphasized caution and quick, limited cross-border operations — deployed across the southern border twice. It is important to remember that the complexities of the Syrian fight are the reason that for years Erdogan encouraged and cajoled U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to intervene so the Turkish leader would not have to commit his own forces to this dangerous conflict. Unable to convince the United States, Erdogan finally took the risk himself when just five weeks after the failed coup in July 2016 he ordered his still-reeling armed forces to undertake Operation Euphrates Shield. It turned out to be a lame blitz that was badly organized, poorly commanded, and took seven months to complete. Anywhere from 35 to 70 Turkish soldiers died in the effort to take al-Bab and other towns from fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The political costs of this operation were reduced by the fact that pro-AKP interests have captured much of Turkey’s media landscape. It was also launched in the fraught aftermath of the July coup when Erdogan was drawing support across Turkey’s political spectrum.

Erdogan seems to have approached the most recent venture — with its awkward code name, “Olive Branch” — a bit differently, which is understandable given the higher stakes involved. From the perspective of Turkey’s national security establishment, the invasion is a war of necessity to prevent the possible emergence of a terrorist state on its borders. Still, Erdogan has taken the dramatic step of ordering the military into battle against forces that are allied with the United States and at least implicitly has threatened American personnel in vowing to sweep into the town of Manbij and farther east to the Iraqi border. This area is where U.S. special forces operate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the PKK that makes up the bulk of the U.S. Defense Department’s ground forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

Needless to say, previous Turkish commanders in chief would likely not have challenged the United States in this way. Then again, given Washington’s relationship with the YPG and the outrage it has produced in Turkey, threatening a breach with the United States is good politics that helps shore up Erdogan’s popular support, which before Operation Olive Branch was softer than it was after the 2016 failed coup.

Thus far, the military seems to have learned its lesson from Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkish shelling and airstrikes are supporting the Free Syrian Army — which is doing Turkey’s bidding — against the YPG in the district of Afrin. This has kept Turkish casualties low. It is unclear if Erdogan was involved in any military planning beside approving the plan and giving the orders to begin hostilities. During the first week of fighting, he was photographed in what looked like an operations center wearing a camouflage jacket, pointer in hand, and peering intently at documents and maps of the battlefield. This seems like a standard photo op (not terribly different from obligatory photos of American presidents at the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea) rather than an indication that Erdogan is actually managing the battle. For a micromanager of some renown, Erdogan, it seems, has uncharacteristically left the details to the General Staff.

That is a smart move militarily, but just as important will be that the commander in chief insists on getting timely and accurate information from the battlefield. Given Erdogan’s erratic management style, no one can be sure that is the case. It may not matter that much in the early days of fighting given the fear, nationalist zeal, and anger (mostly at the United States) that have mobilized the Turkish population.

Yet what if more Turkish soldiers are killed; what if the YPG puts up stiffer-than-expected resistance; what if the United States does not fold on its Kurdish allies; what if Syrian regime forces in tandem with Hezbollah fighters continue to take shots at Turkish forces in Idlib and that confrontation expands; and what if Syria becomes a quagmire for the Turkish Armed Forces? There are a lot of ways incursions into neighboring countries that seem neat and clean on a map can corrode a military operation and undermine even the most politically deft leader — despair over the death of his wife and the quagmire that the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee became sent Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin into seclusion for the rest of his life. Erdogan presumably understands all of these risks, but the very political dynamics he has created to whip up support for Operation Olive Branch might make it hard for him to break it off.

So far, however, Erdogan seems to be doing well in his new role. He has set the goals of the operation and focused on managing domestic politics, ensuring Turkey’s geopolitical interests, and doing what he does like few others by mobilizing support for Operation Olive Branch at home while leaving the fight to the commanders. But, regardless of what anyone thinks about the justness of Ankara’s cause in Syria, civilian control of the armed forces in Turkey is now a reality. That is something quite new. The very real danger given Erdogan’s authoritarian worldview and approach to politics is that he transforms the military into an instrument of his transformative vision for Turkey. The only other commander in chief who has ever done that was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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