The world is evolving from a unipolar world order dominated by a single power to a multipolar political system in which more than one power fights for dominance. In the current struggle of great powers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes he can maintain his political power by allying himself with Russia, China and Iran. After his bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Aug. 5, Erdoğan told reporters that Putin had invited him to a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting to be held in Uzbekistan Sept. 16-18, 2022. How does Erdoğan explain that as the president of a NATO member country, he can attend an SCO meeting, which brings together authoritarian regimes? What is the connection between Erdoğan’s close cooperation with authoritarian regimes and regulations that led to Erdoğan’s dominance over the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016?
The TSK has played an important role in Turkey’s political history. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatürk, and his closest friends were generals. Until July 15, 2016, the Turkish General Staff, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was one of the two most essential institutions determining the course of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey’s relations with NATO and the US were conducted through the TSK. The continuity of relations with NATO and the US has been maintained thanks to the institutional structure of the TSK. The promotion and appointment of generals and admirals were made through the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ). Prior to July 15, 2016 the YAŞ comprised the prime minister, the minister of defense, the chief of general staff, force commanders, the commander general of the gendarmerie and the other four-star generals and admirals of the TSK. Since decisions in the YAŞ were taken by majority vote, the military bureaucracy was more decisive than political will in the promotion and appointment of generals and admirals. The military bureaucracy usually decided on promotions and appointments according to the TSK’s corporate culture, the candidates’ professional careers and their abilities.
The coup attempt that took place on July 15, 2016 changed the structure of the YAŞ as it changed many things in Turkey. With the exception of the chief of general staff and force commanders, the other four-star generals and admirals were excluded from YAŞ membership. The vice president, minister of finance and treasury, minister of foreign affairs, minister of justice, minister of the interior and minister of education were appointed as new members. With this arrangement, the power in the promotion and appointment of admirals and generals passed from the military bureaucracy to Erdoğan’s government.
After a 2017 referendum, Turkey switched from a parliamentary system to a presidential system of governance. Thanks to the presidential system, Erdoğan has completely taken over the executive power. The former chief of general staff, Hulusi Akar, was appointed defense minister. The force commands and General Staff were placed under the Defense Ministry. Taking advantage of both Akar’s military identity and the structural change he had made in the YAŞ, Erdoğan was careful in his appointment and promotion of generals and admirals to select only those who side with him no matter what happens, disregarding their professional competence or career status. For example, for an admiral to be the commander of the fleet, he had to first serve as commander of a frigate, fast patrol boat or submarine, then preferably serve as an officer at NATO headquarters, act as a commodore and fleet commander and head a department in the headquarters of the navy or general staff.
However, in the promotions and appointments of recent years, it was not these criteria that were decisive, but rather the ability to work in line with Erdoğan’s government and to fulfill the mandates given without questioning them. This situation has damaged the institutional structure of the TSK. The General Staff has become dysfunctional and can no longer speak out on issues that affect Turkey’s security. The priorities of Erdoğan’s government have been decisive in determining which weapons systems to procure, rather than the operational needs, mission requirements and operational concepts determined by the General Staff or the TSK commands. For example, had the TSK maintained its normal function, the S-400 air defense system procured from Russia in 2017 that resulted in US sanctions on Turkey wouldn’t have been purchased from Russia.
The Turkish Armed Forces cannot actively use the S-400 because Turkey’s radar and link systems comply with NATO standards. Anyone who has served in the TSK for a long time knows this: NATO has been an essential actor in the modernization of the TSK and in the transfer of information and technology for developing the national defense industry. For this reason, until July 15, 2016 the Turkish Armed Forces did its best to maintain relations with NATO and the US and to prevent Turkey from sliding toward the side of authoritarian regimes. However, Erdoğan and Akar changed the structure of the TSK, but it didn’t work well and destroyed the military’s institutional structure and corporate culture. A Ministry of Defense decree dated Aug. 10, 2022 paved the way for the expulsion of admirals and generals from the TSK for disciplinary infractions, a bizarre excuse for such high-ranking officers. It transferred power from the YAŞ to the Defense Ministry and allowed Erdoğan, through Akar, to expel the generals and admirals he wanted from the Turkish Armed Forces. With this, Erdoğan and Akar drove the final nail into the coffin of the TSK.
There are no longer any obstacles preventing Erdoğan from becoming more authoritarian and cooperating more closely with authoritarian regimes. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Erdoğan’s government has established close political and economic relations with Russia and participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting, despite the NATO 2022 strategic concept that openly threatens Russia. No longer does the TSK keep Turkey on the axis of NATO and the US.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.