Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the national army has enjoyed a special status in the state as the protector of the homeland and the guardian of the republic’s values.
All that has changed since the events that were set in motion on the eve of 15 July.
That date marks the beginning of a new chapter in the status of the institution and its value in political life in Turkey.
Mohamed Abdel-Kader, editor-in-chief of the journal Turkish Affairs, published byAl-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said that the status of the Turkish army was rooted in that institution’s reputation as the founder of the modern republic.
That status was embodied in many ways, most notably in the supra-constitutional articles that enshrine this status and that cannot be amended, whether by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) or any other body in Turkey.
As the repercussions of the attempted coup began to unfold against the Turkish security establishment (armed forces, intelligence agencies, domestic security agencies) in the train of draconian measures that followed, it is clear that that establishment will undergo a structural upheaval of unprecedented scope.
A large segment of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has been ideologised.
But the internal conflict no longer centres around the conventional military-civilian or even religious-secular divides, but rather around an Islamist-Islamist divide.
In the Turkish edition of Islamism, this is between two major blocs that have most infiltrated the security establishment.
“According to the most commonly cited estimates, there are around a million individuals belonging to the [Gülenist] movement, which reveals a bloc of a similar size to the AKP,” said Abdel-Kader.
Many observers believe that this situation in itself is the most telling manifestation of the changes that have been taking place in the security establishment over the past four decades.
The purges that Erdogan and his government set into motion following the aborted coup encompassed, among other targets, about a third of the military leadership hierarchy.
The government also introduced measures to restructure the military establishment which, some predict, will prove severely counterproductive.
General Mohamed Qashqoush of the Nasser Higher Military Academy believes that this period will last about a decade.
“It will take a long time to overcome, firstly, those insults [to the Turkish Armed Forces] that were visible in many scenes of the coup attempt and, secondly, those unprecedented measures in the history of the military establishment,” he said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Moreover, this will not only affect the relationship between the military establishment and government authorities. Its impact will extend to all other security organs in the state that are superseding the Turkish army and acquiring powers at its expense.”
Referring to the 1986 riots of Egyptian conscripts in the Egyptian Central Security Forces (CSF), Qashqoush related: “When the CSF events erupted and the police were unable to bring the situation under control, the army acted immediately. I recall that in a meeting with the minister of defense at the time, Field Marshal Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, he gave us strict orders to respect the police and not to insult them.”
Qashqoush’s implication was that no considerations of this sort were in operation during the attempted coup in Turkey, which occasioned behaviour and scenes that humiliated and degraded the Turkish army.
Abdel-Kader counters that the history of military coups in Turkey offers another perspective on what is happening today in that country.
“If that coup had succeeded then [its leaders] would have been doing what the AKP is carrying out now, namely sweeping changes in many circles and sectors of Turkish government institutions,” he said.
He added that in the 1980 coup, 500 people were sentenced to death and 50 of these sentences were carried out.
It is no easy task to overhaul an organisation the size of the Turkish army. Most likely, therefore, restructuring measures, themselves, will trigger subsidiary levels of conflict, especially given that the criteria in operation for dismissals, transfers or promotions have less to do with institutional reform than they do with considerations of personal and ideological loyalties.
But other considerations come into play as well. Prime among these are the TSK’s foreign obligations in the framework of NATO as well as in the context of regional tasks or operations.
It is noteworthy that the battle to liberate Mosul from Daesh (the Islamic State group) is about to begin just as Erdogan’s Turkey is cleaning house and as the weight of Incirlik airbase in Adana had to be shifted southwards to the Qayarah base south ofMosul.
This may be a manifestation of a gradual reduction in international reliance on the Turkish army.
Is the TSK deteriorating? What will happen if Turkey falls apart? Such questions are being urgently deliberated in European security circles in the course of their attempts to evaluate precisely what is happening in Turkey at present.
If the so-called Turkish model is in decline, European and other international powers have to assess potential repercussions and take appropriate precautions.
General Mohamed Ibrahim, an Israeli affairs expert in the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, believes that the Turkish military establishment will recuperate and regain its efficacy.
“There is still a need for the role of the Turkish military within NATO and, accordingly, there are international parties, foremost among which are the US, that still need that establishment and realise the potential dangers of its fragmentation, not just for Turkey but for the whole of Europe,” he said.
He noted that European nations are well aware of this, even as Erdogan is coming under fire from them for the mounting human rights abuses in Turkey.
The empowerment of the AKP in politics altered the course of the power of the Turkish military. As the AKP spring began to blossom in 2003, a chilly autumn set in for the military establishment.
While both sides of this equation, the AKP and the military, have cast themselves as defenders of the republic and democracy, the historic evidence demonstrates that they have harmed the very ideals they claimed to defend.
That damage is the cause of the haze that envelopes Turkey at present. There is a dangerous lack of equilibrium between the military and political entities, both of which enjoy broad bases of support.
On the first side there is hierarchical fluidity and weakness, while on the other side there is intensely centralised power within the AKP hierarchy. This lack of equilibrium and its repercussions on democracy in Turkey will violently shake the foundations of the Turkish model.
International military experts still rank the Turkish army as one of the strongest in the world — the eighth strongest according to the latest ranking of Global Firepower — in spite of developments in the course of 13 years of AKP rule.
What has suffered attrition during this period are civilian-military relations and the relations between the army and the other security institutions in the country (the police and intelligence agencies).
As a result, as the army receded from the political arena, the ground it ceded has been occupied by the other security institutions and the intelligence agencies above all.
The most likely scenario for the immediate future is that a process of bringing the army to submission will take place beneath the heading of restructuring.
The ready-to-hand purge lists and the systematic way in which the purges are being carried out suggest that preparations for this process had been put in place a while ago. This is not the first restructuring of its kind.
A similar purge that took place in 2011 supports this contention.
The aim is clearly to transfer the military command and control process from the army establishment to government authorities, rendering the former subordinate to the latter rather than a political rival.
This said, some observers predict that this scenario may not last. They argue that the failure of the last coup attempt does not necessarily mean it was the last of Turkish coups.
In fact, they say, the draconian measures that Erdogan has unleashed may eventually precipitate another coup that will be more powerful than what happened in July.
The advance of the police and intelligence agencies
The purge list for the Turkish national intelligence agency (MIT) is by far the shortest of all. This has little to do with institutional reform needs.
Rather, the powers of the leadership of that agency have gradually expanded during the last decade at least.
It is evident that the regime in Ankara has a project that involves MIT, especially given the close relationship between Erdogan and Turkey’s spy chief, Hakan Fidan.
Most likely, new areas of authority will be added to MIT’s jurisdiction, strengthening the presence of the intelligence agency in the political scene in Ankara.
It may also be tasked with a major portion of the restructuring process in the security establishment, not just at the level of interrogations but also at the level of planning and implementation.
In the opinion of General Qashqoush, however, that plan will not be effective and the military establishment will not allow the current situation to persist.
The security establishment versus the military establishment
The declining role of the military in Turkish politics is the result of numerous domestic and external factors and the restructuring of the army is likely to propel towards the weakening and fragmentation of the military establishment.
At the same time, the security agencies will undergo another restructuring process.
But in this case, it will be one aimed at building and consolidating a network in the framework of an intelligence umbrella whose chief function will be to protect the ruling authorities/regime, as opposed to the state. The army will have a role to play, but the intelligence and police agencies will prevail.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.