The AK Party government’s reaction to the failed July 15th coup attempt has been swift. Within a month, the government declared martial law for a three-month period, issued four decrees with the force of law, closed down all military high schools, dismissed all cadets in military schools and academies, and established a ‘National Defense University’ to replace them. Other changes gave the Presidency more power over the Turkish General Staff, while the army, air, and naval commands were removed from the General Staff’s mandate. They will instead be put under the purview of the National Defense Ministry in both peacetime and war. The Chief of General Staff no longer has to have previously commanded a full branch of the military (air, navy, or land); any four-star general or admiral can now be appointed to the position. The Gendarmerie Command and Coast Guard have now come fully under the authority of the Interior Ministry. Proposed changes also promise a strengthened and civilianized Defense Ministry along the lines of the Pentagon. The National Defense Ministry now have civilian undersecretaries, who are decorated with military ranks for the first time.
Some observers, however, have called into question the ‘unity’ and ‘fighting capability’ of the Turkish military after the coup attempt, asking if it can still be an effective partner in the coalition fighting ISIL as well as other hostile forces at home and abroad. This paper will employ a historical perspective not only to address these claims but also make more informed recommendations on the military reforms currently on the AK Party government’s agenda. This study first reveals that since Atatürk’s death the Turkish military has almost always been a ‘fractured’ military, which means that the government has an historic opportunity now to tackle the debilitating divide. The government’s intention of restructuring the national defense establishment will mark the second time this has been done since the American Military Aid Mission to Turkey shaped its modern form seventy years ago in 1949.
A particular objective of the proposed military reform is to coup-proof the political system. For this purpose, the government should work on two dimensions every successful coup attempt has to be built upon: disposition and ability. Apparently, the government needs to take such measures that the military should ideally not be disposed to intervene in politics in the first place, but even if and when the military is, it should not find the opportunity to carry out one successfully. In the planning stages, the government must pay attention to the counter-narrative being developed in opposition to these reforms by certain retired generals and politicians. The logical implication of this budding counter-claim that “the July 15th coup attempt cannot be attributed to the military” is that it is unfair for the government to reform and restructure the military.
To reduce the risks on the road ahead, the government should broaden the coalition behind these military reforms and guard their delicate non-partisan status. It should engage the armed forces to convince them that the proposed reforms will strengthen the armed forces militarily (the chain of command will not be damaged; the military might and effectiveness of the military will be augmented; these reforms are needed; merit will be the determining principle in appointments and promotions). All parties concerned should be aware that the need for reform had previously been discussed in military circles as well. Although the content and method of reform remains contentious among generals, who probably would have preferred to keep reform a strictly military affair with little or no involvement of civilians, there is nonetheless a consensus that the military needs reform to fight enemies better in the 21st century.
As the dominant narrative as to why the coup occurred is being challenged in an attempt to question the content of the military reform begun by the government, it is important to know that the idea that military promotions and appointments were strictly based on ‘merit’ and not loyalty in the past is a myth. Turkish military history has been awash with officers who left the military with the bitter feeling that they were not treated on merit by their own peers and fellow military officials. However, these personal complaints did not turn into common grievances against those at the upper echelons of the military largely because it was the military—still a legal and legitimate authority in officers’ eyes—and not politicians who sealed their fate. This means that military officers are more likely to accept ‘unfair’ military assignments, delays in promotions or forced retirement by the military itself than by ‘elected civilians’.
The government should not have blind faith in the power of new reforms such as making the General Staff responsible to the Defense Ministry or any other civilian body. Indeed, at the time of the 1960 coup, the General Staff was under the authority of Defense Ministry. This did nothing to stop those behind the coup. Over time, the coup plotters had found ways to circumvent obstacles created by the Defense Ministry’s control over the General Staff.
The precedent of the May 27, 1960 coup, which occurred despite a democratic hierarchical relationship between the Defense Ministry and the General Staff shows that if these inter-institutional relationships are left as a simple technical and legal change without substance, this may not prevent coups in the future. In other words, if the hierarchical relationship between force commands and the Defense Ministry as well as the General Staff and Presidency (if that occurs) are formatted as vertical relationships based on subjective trust and ties, this may not hinder various types of military intervention and insubordination either.
A preventative measure against future coup plots will be the relocation of the General Staff Headquarters as well as garrisons and barracks from major cities such as Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. This is another important but also a belated step. Officials concerned about this move should be reminded that when there was an internal attempt to restructure the Military Academy in the first half of the 1960s, Behruz Çinici, the architect of Middle East Technical University, was invited to give his advice. The top item on his list was that ‘the Military Academy must relocate out of town in order to satisfy your future needs.”
These military reforms must be part of a new ‘White Paper’ providing updated answers to the following questions: what kind of threats is Turkey facing in its neighborhood at the moment? How powerful are these threats and what sort of weapons, tactics and strategies do they have at their disposal? Can these threats be prioritized and categorized? How are threats evolving around the globe in general? What does that mean for Turkey? And what sort of military force does Turkey need to counter these threats?
Ulvi Saran, the Former Undersecretary of Public Order and Security, has mentioned in an op-ed that establishing paramilitary groups as a counterforce to the military may also help prevent coups d’état. Indeed, this is a coup-proofing tactic many Middle Eastern and authoritarian regimes such as Russia have practiced. However, there are two reasons that strongly count against this move: First, in places where there is a national army that has a strong institutional consciousness and ethos, parallel military structures responsible to the president are detested by militaries. National armies hate rival military institutions. Secondly, at a time where there is a fixation in certain circles about alleged shift to authoritarianism in Turkey, such a move may exacerbate this perception about Turkey.
The final word of caution pertains to the fragility of the road ahead. If we remember the fact that coup attempts feed off of instability, chaos, and disorder, a traumatized, imbalanced and politicized military in the wake of a coup attempt may find it very difficult to stay out of politics in the case of Gezi-like disorder. Those concerned about bringing the military under civilian control must keep in mind that many former military generals—who retired either under normal circumstances or due to the Balyoz and Ergenekon investigations—are very proud of the Gezi protests and the “youth activism” they saw there.