In Turkey, Trials May Shape Military's Future

4 MINS READApr 23, 2012 | 12:32 GMT
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and a Turkish honor guard in Ankara on April 18

Much has been said about Turkey's re-emergence as a regional power. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 and the diminished threat from Greece, its traditional regional rival, Turkey has markedly improved its security position and its armed forces capabilities. Indeed, significant upgrades in equipment and training have given Ankara some military flexibility in achieving its political objectives. However, there is little evidence that Turkey wants to use its newfound military power to back up its political rhetoric. 

Over the past year, several events have brought to light Turkey's military reticence. Ankara has not followed through on its repeated threats to militarily intervene in the Syrian uprising, and its naval posturing against Israel in the eastern Mediterranean Sea likewise has been without action. More important, Turkey has been unable to contain its Kurdish insurgency. But a less cursory examination shows that these struggles reflect political power struggles in Ankara rather than military ineptitude. If the military can survive this period of incertitude — seen most visibly by the arrests of hundreds of military officers — it may emerge stronger than it was before. 

The Turkish military is robust. With 14 diesel electric attack submarines and 17 frigates, the Turkish navy is the most powerful fleet in the Middle East and North Africa. The Turkish air force trains intensively with U.S. and NATO instructors on F-16 operations. In fact, it is now competent enough to train other air forces, such as those of Chile and the United Arab Emirates, in those same F-16 operations. Turkey also boasts NATO's second largest army, which is equipped with relatively modern battle tanks, self-propelled artillery and an increasingly capable army aviation force. Reinforcing all these capabilities is the Turkish defense industry. Despite some setbacks, this industry is developing and producing indigenous weapons systems, including corvettes and unmanned aerial vehicles.

But public perception in Turkey, shaped in part by the media, does not convey this military competency. Much of the criticism stems from the resilience of and casualties inflicted by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group, which has revealed some weaknesses within the army, including in intelligence gathering and dissemination and in the ability to conduct a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. (It should be noted that the most powerful military in the world, the U.S. military, also struggles against insurgencies.) A former chief of the general staff has even said that there is a lack of cooperation between army units and that many soldiers are unfamiliar with the terrain in which they are fighting. Such statements only reinforce the military's perceived helplessness against the PKK.

Court Cases

Failures against the PKK notwithstanding, the Turkish military is not the decrepit institution the public perceives it to be — a fact of which many leaders in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are well aware. Within the past decade the AKP has tried to deny the military its voice in politics and restrain martial intervention that has toppled civilian governments four times since 1960, bringing it under civilian rule through constitutional reform. Essentially, the AKP is trying to eliminate the military's autonomy and refashion it into an instrument through which it exercises political control.

This power struggle between the military and political elite came to the forefront in 2007, when charges were brought against alleged participants in a coup plot. As a result of the allegations, more than 300 officers, including 60 active-duty generals and admirals, have been detained, which has lowered the military's morale substantially.

In fact, there are signs of growing divisions within the military itself — some officers want to withdraw from the political arena entirely — and there is evidence that some of the arrested officers are being replaced on the basis of loyalty, not merit. For example, Gen. Necdet Ozel, formerly the head of the Turkish Gendarmerie, was promoted to acting chief of the general staff despite the fact that he had no experience serving in NATO structures. Should this trend persist, the cohesion and efficacy of the Turkish military likely will suffer.

It is possible that an even more capable military will emerge if it survives this period of massive arrests. There is already a positive sign of improvement in that emphasis is being placed on the development of non-commissioned officers. Gradual civilian oversight may push the military to become more accountable and avoid distractions from non-security issues. For now, the military will be unable to avoid being distracted by the political drama that has sent a number of its former leaders to prison. 

The Turkish military is at a crossroads, and the ongoing legal battle will determine whether the military becomes stronger or weaker moving forward. Whatever the outcome, the complexion of the military will have been formed by politics rather than by incompetence.

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