Analysis: Will Turkey’s military turn East or West after the coup?

Analysis: Will Turkey's military turn East or West after the coup?

As the number of dismissals from Turkey’s military ranks grows after the failed coup last month, we can try to get a clearer picture of who and what will be left when the purge ends.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Aug. 18 that a total of 3,725 ranking officers from the army, navy and air force commands, the gendarmerie and coast guard have been discharged from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The castoffs were strongly suspected of being affiliated with the Gulen movement, or of neglecting their duty at the time of the coup.

Most affected by these summary dismissals were the commanding elites of generals and admirals. Of 325 generals in army, navy and air force, 149 of them (45.8%) were discharged. Among them were two four-star generals, nine lieutenant generals, 30 major generals and vice admirals, and 126 brigadier generals and rear admirals.

A list of expelled generals shows most were officers who gave priority to Atlantic ties and held strong pro-NATO stances. As Turkey has been an important member of the Western security bloc and a strong member of the NATO army, there is no doubt that these dismissals will have major effects on TSK’s strategic identity and organizational culture.

Among the discharged TSK generals and colonels were some very important names. There are strong suspicions that two leaders of the coup attempt were Maj. Gen. Mehmet Disli, who was chief of the strategic transformation office at the chief of staff headquarters, and Brig. Gen. Mehmet Partigoc. Also among the expelled were Lt. Gen. Salih Ulusoy, chief of plans and principles (J5); Maj. Gen. Nevzat Tasdeler, commander of Staff College; Maj. Gen. Salih Sevil, posted as Turkey’s representative at NATO; and Maj. Gen. Serhat Habiboglu, responsible for force development at the headquarters. All of them held key posts in the TSK transformation process.

Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, since his assignment in August 2015, has been dealing with about 170 TSK transformation projects that seek to ensure an integrated TSK and to reduce its size while increasing its effectiveness. Akar must be enduring some tough days because of these expulsions and the political and public pressures he is under.

The coup attempt has agonizingly politicized the TSK’s institutional transformation. It has become almost impossible to comment on the TSK without taking an ideological position. Treating the subject from an overridingly ideological angle makes it impossible to make an objective, apolitical and worthwhile technical analysis.

The questions we now face are simple. How can such a politicized TSK cope with fundamental change? Will the TSK revert to its previous status quo or become something else?

To answer these questions, we have to classify TSK generals in relation to institutional transformation:

  1. Parasites — These are the generals who believe that because of their past service they already paid their dues and it is now time to take it easy and let the system take care of them. For this indolent, lazy officer type, transformation means uncertainty, therefore more risk-taking and more work. They don’t like it. They would prefer to follow the proven path of their predecessors.
  2. Pragmatists — They believe in give and take with the TSK but put their own careers first. Pragmatists closely follow all changes and trends in the institution and seek the most advantageous. They are the most vulnerable to politicization. They choose between change and the status quo by assessing the risks for themselves by keeping track of their superiors’ views. The majority of pragmatists prefer to maintain the status quo by avoiding risks.
  3. Reformists — Those who are unhappy with the current TSK situation and who want to transform it. Transformation proponents resent the status quo. They incessantly criticize the TSK’s prevailing culture, organizational structure and work methods. They see the TSK as lagging behind modern armies. There are actually two subcategories of reformist officers in the TSK.
  • Original reformists, whose dream is to return TSK to its roots in the early republic: active secularism, statism and nationalism. For these officers, the TSK has deviated from this ideal and the deviation must be corrected as soon as possible. As some would say nowadays, they seek to restore the factory settings.
  • Progressive reformists, who approach issues not so much based on values, but advocate that the TSK should follow societal and civilian-military relations in Turkey and the global arena and act accordingly.

It is also possible to classify TSK generals according to their political choice of right or left and their reading of global trends as nationalist and globalists:

  1. Conservatives (Right-Nationalists) — In general, they don’t speak foreign languages, haven’t had training or duty in foreign countries, and don’t try to understand changes in the global scene. They are generally pro-status quo and reactive. You will find many pragmatists and some parasites in this category.
  2. Neo-Nationalists (Left-Nationalists) — These who think of pre-independence times as dark ages also have poor foreign language abilities and little, if any, service abroad. They question every development outside Turkey with suspicion, and their reactive-nationalist attitudes generally override their leftist ideology.
  3. Atlanticists (Right-Globalists) — These generals speak foreign languages, had good educations and have served abroad. Their goal is to achieve the professionalism level of NATO. For this category, NATO and its value system and the structure of the US military and its work methods are ideal. They see the TSK as an important element of the Western security system led by the United States. They believe that for Turkey to reinforce its standing in the international arena, it has to find its place among modern Western armies.
  4. Euroasianists (Left-Globalists) — Just like Atlanticists, they speak foreign languages, had proper educations and served abroad, but they are not as aligned in world affairs and are anti-American. They think Turkey must be more independent and turn toward the East, which in their opinion is the irreversible current trend. They also oppose NATO.

From the TSK expulsions list we see most were Atlanticists and conservative officers. We also now detect that those who pretended to be Atlanticists in key units working on institutional transformation were actually Gulenists.

At the moment, the TSK is caught in the middle while crossing the stream of organizational transformation. Will it cross to the other side and continue with transformation or go back and restore the status quo ante?

TSK Atlanticists have lost considerable power because of Gulenist influences and mass expulsions. Will President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now has more say in military affairs, become pro-transformation and opt for Euroasianist and neo-nationalist models that advocate a return to origins, to being more independent and Euroasianist externally, or will he focus on pragmatists and parasites to structure a new power balance in the TSK under strict civilian control? In other words, will the civilian-political authority call on Euroasianist reformists to lead the TSK’s transformation to defend the country against external threats? Or will the idea be to institute a power balance among the pragmatists, parasites and reformists in the TSK?

To learn the answers to these questions, we have to know whether Akar, the current chief, will remain in his post. If he departs, it would be a serious blow to Atlanticists. We seem to be heading in that direction. On the other hand, Erdogan appointed retired Brig. Gen. Adnan Tanriverdi of the Sadat A.S. private military company as his chief adviser on defense-security affairs. Tanriverdi is a key name in conservative traditions, and the appointment could well be an effort to balance the increasing power of Euroasianists in the TSK.