Erdogan restructures the army to bring it closer to him
In what appears to be a critical move to intervene in the DNA of the Turkish military, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved closer to full-scale control over the military bureaucracy, which he had seen as the most formidable threat to his power.
“Restructuring,” as it was hailed by the pro-government media, took place at a Supreme Military Council during its regular in early-August meeting. The significance it carried had to do with the July 2016 coup attempt — a patchy and disarrayed mutiny that brought vast institutional damage — as it occurred while large numbers of officers facing trial on charges of high crimes.
One theory about the failed coup that is gaining ground is that Erdogan used it as a pretext to round up officers he saw as a threat to his power. Immediately after the uprising, Erdogan sacked 149 generals and admirals and other high-ranking officers placed in NATO offices abroad. A total of 167 generals, as well as thousands of mid-rank army staff, remain in pre-trial detention.
This has led to assessments that NATO’s second largest force has lost much of its combat capabilities and its contacts with the forces of Turkey’s allies is at a minimum.
Erdogan’s warming up to Russia led to profound mistrust of Ankara within NATO, including the United States, making intelligence exchange and military coordination extremely sensitive issues.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Military Council meeting signified a continuity in what Erdogan has as an objective to one-man rule. Heads rolled at highest levels, confirming predictions that a cleansing of dissenting elements would take place.
Before the gathering, Erdogan engaged his close circle — Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli and General Hulusi Akar — for more than six hours during which they reportedly carefully drew a map of appointments and dismissals.
That he kept Akar at the lead of the army was a slight surprise. There had been speculation that Akar was unsure whether to support the putschists during the coup.
All three force commanders were let go. The commander of the navy had reportedly disappeared for nine hours during the uprising. The leader of the air force was at a wedding. The commander of land forces, though he had been in liaison with Akar, apparently negotiating with rebel officers to terminate the mutiny, was sent to retirement despite speculation he would stay.
Among the newcomers, one particularly stands out. General Yaşar Guler, former commander of the gendarmerie who was moved to lead the land forces. He is known for his fierce opposition to Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric based in the United States and accused of masterminding the coup, and his political loyalty to Erdogan.
Guler is a staunch defender of Turkish military intervention into Syria and anti-Democratic Union Party (PYD) policies that keep Turkey out of sync with the US Defence Department. While commanding the gendarmerie, Guler gained the full confidence of Suleyman Soylu, the hard-line minister of interior known for a severe anti-Kurd crackdown in Turkey.
Two other changes are noteworthy, which lead to the conclusion that the army’s backbone will stiffen further in favour of Erdogan’s visibly anti-Western policies. Because of the vacuum at the top echelons, an unusually high number of colonels were promoted to general. A few of the 61 new appointees were among those who had been in prison because of coup-related military trials. Almost all the colonels who had served as brigadier commanders in anti-terror operations in mainly Kurdish south-eastern provinces of Turkey are now wearing stars on their shoulders.
Erdogan has inserted his will more decisively on the military structures. How the restructuring will play out in Turkey’s relations with NATO and its stand vis-à-vis Syria remain open.