Erdoğan’s army

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Cevheri Güven

After Turkey’s switch to a presidential system of governance, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a major reorganization of the country’s security structure by creating alternatives to the national police and the military.

Erdoğan’s most significant actions towards that end have been the revival of neighborhood watchmen, the institution of presidential access to all CCTV surveillance in Turkey and the setting up of a new intelligence department within the presidential office.

According to political scientist Savaş Genç, Erdoğan’s recourse to alternative security networks can be better understood in light of the public debate about whether he would be willing to relinquish power in the event of an electoral defeat.

Armed forces in the streets

Erdoğan’s first step in bypassing the police was the restoration of neighborhood watchmen (bekçi in Turkish), a network of night patrolmen in brown uniforms that dates back to the Ottoman era. Their role has long been debated as the institution was seen as a mechanism of state repression.

Over the first decade of the 2000s, when Turkey’s democratic record partially improved amid European Union accession reforms, no new watchmen were recruited and the network was abolished in 2008.

The watchmen remained off the table until 2016, when Turkey went through a coup attempt on July 15, a radical turning point for the country. The Turkish government had moved to restore the watchmen a few months prior to the abortive putsch. Within three years, the institution had recruited as many as 21,000 watchmen. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that in 2020 the number stood at 29,000 and that the government aims to reach 30,000.

Although at first the government’s plans to equip the watchmen with weapons was halted amid strong negative reactions from the opposition, legislation that was ultimately passed in June 2020 authorized them to use firearms as well as to stop “suspected individuals” on the street and carry out pat downs.

An armed force directly tied to the central government

Another armed unit established by presidential decree is the Backup Alert Force Directorate within the Security Directorate General (EGM). What distinguishes this unit from others is that it does not report to local governments. For the time being, the network has 600 members in the capital and 500 in İstanbul who are recruited by means of a special aptitude test.

A legal statute concerning the unit published on the Official Gazette in August 2020 involved some striking information. According to the statute, the unit answers directly to the “center,” which the Turkish opposition interpreted as Erdoğan’s presidential office.

Garo Paylan, a deputy from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), released a statement on August 22 in which he drew a comparison between the new force and the Schutzstaffel (SS), a paramilitary organization of Nazi Germany:

“Erdoğan’s one-man regime wants to establish an armed unit that closely resembles the Nazi-era SS, and for a while we have been observing his steps to that end. We believe the newly established unit will operate under the direct order of the [presidential] palace. This is extremely dangerous.”

İbrahim Kaboğlu, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a professor of constitutional law, said the unit constitutes an unconstitutional parallel to the national police.

The Backup Alert Force gave its first show of strength during the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque when it assumed security for the ceremony. Its members were seen wearing black uniforms, instead of the police’s navy blue.

The force is tasked with two main objectives: providing a security perimeter for the president during domestic visits and intervening in public disturbances. Whenever the unit is involved in an incident, it will have jurisdiction over the local police, who will have to turn over control of the perimeter. In addition to standard police training, its personnel also receive training to use heavy weaponry.

All CCTV footage tied to the presidency

Another step was the linking of Turkey’s security cameras to the presidential palace. The MOBESE system enjoys a vast network of CCTV cameras spanning all the cities and towns across the country. The city of İstanbul alone is monitored with some 21,000 cameras. It is possible to see multiple cameras in each street in predominantly Kurdish cities such as Diyarbakır and Hakkari.

Interior Minister Soylu in a statement on Sept. 17 announced the establishment of a new center under the name of “Security and Emergencies Coordination Center,” planned to become operational within a few months. Soylu said the system would allow transfer to the presidency of all CCTV surveillance footage from throughout the country. The opposition has described it as a “Big Brother” move, in reference to a fictional symbol in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

An intelligence agency catering exclusively to the presidency

President Erdoğan, who has already rendered the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) untouchable through consecutive legislative amendments, tied the agency directly to his presidential office following the failed coup of July 2016. Erdoğan also raised the MİT chief’s legal status from “undersecretary” to “president” and made the Police Intelligence Bureau a separate entity independent from institutional audit.

The latest move came with the granting of new authorities to the Presidential Communications Directorate. A presidential decree stipulated the establishment within the directorate of a “Strategic Communications and Crisis Management Department,” tasked with “countering anti-Turkey manipulation, disinformation and perception management activities conducted in and outside Turkey.”

The department will be authorized to request information from and assign duties to all state institutions. It will also be able to mobilize institutions against persons or entities that it finds to be engaged in anti-Turkey activities.

Savaş Genç: Erdoğan’s security policies worrying

Political scientist Savaş Genç said he feels uneasy about Erdoğan’s new security policies:

“There is a question that occupies the minds of almost all political scientists and journalists closely following Turkey. Would Erdoğan leave with elections? Would he cling to power by alleging that the opposition stole the elections or declare fabricated results and point weapons at protesting crowds like [Belarus’ Alexander] Lukashenko, whom he congratulated [for his disputed election victory]?”

“Erdoğan and his team have tried this in local elections in İstanbul. They did not like the outcome, so they had the election cancelled,” Genç went on to say, referring to the 2019 local elections after which Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed fraud and challenged its defeat in İstanbul, only to lose by an even larger margin in a repeat election.

“Maybe because they were unprepared or because they saw winning İstanbul as a piece of cake, they could not go any further. They had the election cancelled, but they suffered a bigger defeat. But if Erdoğan has plans to reject election results, he would not waste that option on İstanbul. The palace will definitely make a move to defend its power.”

“I have always feared politicians who have no other option than to be re-elected or to remain in power. I worry that a leader who rushes to congratulate Lukashenko has in himself similar tendencies,” Genç said.

Police officers equipped with heavy weapons

One of Erdoğan’s remarkable moves was the changes he introduced to the special operations department within the police. Being specifically designed for special operations, its staff used to be limited to 9,000 members. Erdoğan raised this limit to 25,000 and authorized them to acquire heavy weaponry.

For years, military commanders who deeply influenced Turkey’s politics argued that this police unit was created by politicians as an alternative to the armed forces and blocked their acquisition of heavy weapons. However, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) lost all its remaining political authority after the July 2016 abortive coup, and Erdoğan proceeded to strengthen the unit’s legal status as well as expand its size and capabilities.

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