Erdogan’s generals: From military tutelage to a politicized military

Erdogan saw the coup as an opportunity not only to assert his personal control over the military but to try to reshape the officer corps in his own self-image

On Jul. 9, 2018, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed then-chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar as the country’s new defense minister. A decade ago, the inclusion of a serving high-ranking officer in the cabinet would have been regarded as an extension of the shadow that the military once cast over Turkish politics. Today, it is seen rather as a sign of the extent to which Erdogan has eroded Turkey’s institutions and transformed the once virtually autonomous Turkish General Staff (TGS) into an instrument of his personal power.

During the first years that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was in power, Erdogan proceeded cautiously, convinced that he risked being ousted by a military coup. It was only in 2007, after then-chief of staff Gen. Yasar Buyukanit failed to follow through on his threat to stage a military takeover if the AKP appointed Islamist politician Abdullah Gul to the presidency that Erdogan finally realized what most of the generals had known for years—that the era of military tutelage was over. Confident that he no longer needed to fear the TGS, Erdogan supported the barrage of court cases—including the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations—instigated by his erstwhile allies in the Gulen movement that particularly targeted hard-line secularist elements in the officer corps. The cases had a devasting impact on officer morale, partly because it was common knowledge in the military that the allegations were fabrications, but mainly because the high command made little effort to prevent the accused officers from being charged and imprisoned, or to alleviate the sufferings endured by their families.

Even when the system of military tutelage was at its height, the political influence wielded by the TGS had varied in both breadth and depth between policy areas. As the Gulenist-driven court cases continued, the extent of military influence began to contract and become increasingly confined to “hard security” areas, such as the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). By 2015, the TGS was no longer able to project influence into non-military areas and had even yielded to Erdogan in areas that it had once regarded as its natural prerogative, such as decisions on defense procurement. But, although the court cases had targeted individual members of the officer corps—including former Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug, who was imprisoned for two years during the Ergenekon investigations—Erdogan had made few attempts to interfere with the internal workings of the military as an institution. Even though it could no longer dictate to the civilian government, the military high command could still occasionally rebuff Erdogan when he tried to dictate to them—such as in June 2015 when the TGS refused to implement an order from Erdogan to launch a military incursion into Syria. This changed following the failed coup attempt of Jul. 15-16, 2016, as the last vestiges of the military’s ability to defy Erdogan dissolved.

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