“Will Turkey’s military turn East or West?” by Metin Gurcan


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, the chief of plans and principles (J5); Maj. Gen. Nevzat Tasdeler, the 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:

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.

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.

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 the 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:

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.

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.

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.

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 the 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 neonationalist 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.

Metin Gurcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq as a Turkish military adviser between 2002-2008. Resigned from the military, he is now  an Istanbul-based independent security analyst.



It seems to me that the die is cast in Turkey and that the secularists who held turkey for Kemalism have little chance of a return to the power they once had.  NATO needs to adapt to a new reality in which Turkey is more of an adversary than an ally.

The actual attitude of the Russians to this is unclear to me as yet.  pl

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26 Responses to “Will Turkey’s military turn East or West?” by Metin Gurcan

  1. mbrenner says:

    Knowing nothing of the subject, this is a thought about Turkey’s strategic position that doesn’t require any detailed knowledge. Simply put, as a logical matter it would seem that the importance of recent developments will register domestically rather than on Turkey’s external relations. The military has counted above all because of its prominent place and influence on national politics – not in regard to any major campaigns it might undertake beyond Turkey’s borders. At least since 1991.
    In respect to the Army’s fighting capabilities per se, it is the counter-insurgency effort against the Kurds that matters. Whether Erdogan decides to move more deeply and directly into Syria,any such action involves so few forces and is so limited a mission that drastic command changes are unlikely to have any bearing whatsoever on performance. The attitude of the sacked officers in regard to the wisdom of such actions is another (political) issue.

  2. Fred says:

    Mr. Brenner,
    “the importance of recent developments will register domestically rather than on Turkey’s external relations”
    I disagree. I believe the destruction of the secular backbone of the Turkish state is going to reverberate far and wide. The erstwhile Sultan is going to provide material support for far more than the ISIS branch of the unicorn army currently fighting in Syria. He will also use the blunt tool of “refugee” flows into Europe as a tool to manipulate political positions, especially on the West. He will also, knowingly or not, infiltrate ISIS jihadist into the refugee flow where they will wreak their usual carnage. There is also a very high probability that once the Islamist are done with the army they will commence with the rest of government of the state then move on to the civil society.
    “In respect to the Army’s fighting capabilities per se, it is the counter-insurgency effort against the Kurds that matters.”
    Operations in Syria are not going to be the only war Turkey may face. Active large scale intervention by the TSK may result in direct conflict with Russian Federation armed forces which, unlike Turkey’s, are in the country at the request of the recognized national government. Should that happen in the near future I doubt Mr. Putin is going to roll over like Obama. All the more reason to get America’s nuclear weapons out of Turkey.

  3. VietnamVet says:

    I think the article is correct in respect to the increasing conflict between globalism and nationalism. For example, next door the Globalists have subdued Greece, for now. But, Erdogan’s power comes from his Islamists supporters who took to the streets to save him. He can use the remaining Turkish military forces to support Sunni tribal needs, such as cutting out a safe zone for them in Syria. He will also desperately try to maintain Turkey’s borders. But, since his power comes from his tribal Sunni religious base; not secular nationalists, conflicts with the mountain Kurds and Shiite Alevis are inevitable.
    An axiom of the triumph of corporate globalism (The New World Order) over nationalism is that their pillaging of under-people always generates a fundamentalist religious tribal backlash. In the globalist’s world, if nations no longer have consent of the governed, they split into their tribal constituents. Brexit and Donald Trump’s nomination are the harbingers in the Atlantic Alliance.
    With Russia and China supporting the Syrian government; the Turkish incursion and American proxy forces fighting each other; the corporate military subset has gotten its wish; a world at war.

  4. FB Ali says:

    Col Lang,
    You are correct that Turkey is more of an adversary than an ally as far as NATO is concerned. Any doubts about that should have been removed by the US complaints this morning about Turkish military operations in Syria.
    As for Russia, I believe that Erdogan came to some kind of agreement with Vladimir Putin during his recent visit to Russia. As Michael Brenner implies above, the critical factor is Turkey’s internal situation. After the coup and the subsequent purge, Erdogan cannot afford to risk a serious downturn in Turkey’s economy. The key to that lies in Russia’s hands, and Putin must have used that leverage to ensure that Turkey did not cause problems for Russia and its ME ally, Iran.
    The fact that Erdogan has launched a military operation in Syria so soon after the tumult in Turkey proves that he is not worried about Turkey’s internal situation, including its economy. That could only be if he had some assurances from Russia on this score.

  5. JohnH says:

    Could it be that Erdogan is learning to play the great powers off against each other? It’s been some time since someone felt secure enough to try this.

  6. different clue says:

    If Erdogan is able to get armed conflict going between Turkish and Russian forces in Syria, would Erdogan then demand that all NATO join Turkey in fighting against Russia? Is that something the NATO thinker-leaders should be thinking about right now?
    And would Trump get a campaign boost if he flatly declared in his campaign real soon now that if Turkey creates armed conflict between itself and Russia in Turkey, that a President Trump will NOT feel compelled by ANY NATO provision to offer Turkey any aid whatsoever? (That would be an experiment I would like to see performed . . . though of course the Trump advisers would quite rightly only advise Trump to do things they know would advance the Trump campaign).

  7. FB Ali says:

    Erdogan is trying to bluff his way past both great powers. It appears that he obtained the consent of both of them to attacking Jarablus and taking it from the IS. However, I doubt very much whether he told them that he wasn’t going to stop there but was going on to Manbij (at least!). That is why both the US and Russia are upset (the former quite vocally).
    The real limits on Erdogan’s actions are what leverage each of the two powers can wield against Turkey. It seems to me that, in this respect, Russia is in a much stronger position than the US (or the EU, for that matter). Turkey’s economy (now and in the future) is heavily dependent on Russia. Conversely, the US needs Turkey more than the other way around.

  8. Ishmael Zechariah says:

    General Ali,
    In addition to the economy, which is indeed a wreck, the “terrorism” card is also a valid one external and internal powers can play in this game. tayyip is not as strong as he fancied himself to be.
    Ishmael Zechariah

  9. eakens says:

    Turkey drops support of Qater pipeline plan, gets on board with Iran and Russia plan. Syria saved. Kurds and their Israeli supporters get checked. Israelis and Wahhabis left holding the bag.

  10. Fionn Mc Cool says:

    A further obvious limit on Erdogan’s actions is Russia acquiescence. Russia could make things very difficult for Erdo and the Turkish Armed Forces simply by supporting and running guns to the Kurds, especially anti tank weapons and man-pads. Doing so would be a low cost option for Russia.He simply cannot afford to alienate Moscow and Putin.

  11. kooshy says:

    May be, for various poltical reasons in one way or another major world powers time and again use, and have used the Kurds to pursue their own political interests in the NW of the ME region, for as long as I remember Kurds were played by either side of the world political divide, Soviets, Americans, various Europeans, Israelis, Iran, Saddam, Turks, you name it, anybody with his head in the ME hole has made them Kurds promise and never stood to it. In reality they are easy to be taken advantage of that is because they are so fool and desperate for independence and separation which is not going to happen and if it did would make them even weaker. Nevertheless, regardless of what the major powers think and plan to do with or for them, there are other group of people who IMO have a bigger say in this, that is the major regional powers who “Nationally” and “Traditionally” are against empowering the Kurds, these countries (Iran,Turkey,Syria,Iraq) have bigger say and bigger tools than the major powers to prevent empowering the Kurds further than what they allow.

  12. different clue says:

    FB Ali,
    This is why I compared Erdogan to kind of a Hitler-figure many months ago . . . strictly for this propensity to take these “re-occupy the Rhineland” type of gambles.
    Also, a year or more ago Kunuri wrote us all that Erdogan might be thought of as a Brooklyn-type low-level Mob Bosslet- tuff guy. Is someone who really knows how wannabe Dons and Godfathers think at an advantage in understanding and predicting Erdogan’s actions?

  13. sillybill says:

    “would Erdogan then demand that all NATO join Turkey in fighting against Russia?”
    I think that was settled after the Russian fighter was shot down.

  14. Freudenschade says:

    I have read in some places that upwards of 9000 officers have been expelled from the Turkish military. It’s not quite the same as the disbanding of the Iraqi army, but could this not be destabilizing and fuel a muscular insurgency?

  15. turcopolier says:

    I would think that if some foreign power wished to take advantage of the opportunity it would be there. I wonder if they have thrown out career enlisted people as well. pl

  16. Amir says:

    It depends on how the are “thrown out”. During the coup, the Turkish foreign minister was “on phone with Tehran’s rep more than any other person” according to himself. If they are practicing what they learnt, the chance of an insurgency is zero. It seems that they know how to mobilize the “popular forces”, looking at the blockade of Incirlik. Soon you will (or you might already have) Basij militia in Turkey and probably a parallel army.

  17. Ulenspiegel says:

    FB Ali wrote: “It seems to me that, in this respect, Russia is in a much stronger position than the US (or the EU, for that matter). Turkey’s economy (now and in the future) is heavily dependent on Russia.”
    The EU is by far the largest market for Turkish exports (2015), Russia is not in the top 6 countries.
    E.g.: http://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/216105/umfrage/wichtigste-exportlaender-fuer-die-tuerkei/
    For imports, Russia is the third largest market after China and Germany (2016), the main Russian export product is NG.
    Turkey runs a brutally negative trade balance and depends on money from wetsern countries.

  18. LondonBob says:

    Indeed. I get the impression it could all be over quite quickly now, the Daraya surrender looks like it could precipitate a wave of surrenders/reconciliations.

  19. LeaNder says:

    The latest crisis between Turkey and NATO is over Turkish Vice Adm. Mustafa Zeki Ugurlu, who was posted to NATO’s Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Va. Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Ugurlu on charges that he is affiliated with the Gulenist movement’s infiltration of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).

  20. Freudenschade says:

    US media seems to have pretty sloppy reporting on this subject. This article (http://malisnews.com/en/turquie-149-generaux-amiraux-expulses-de-larmee-45-journaux-fermes-2/) counts 149 Generals, 1099 other officers and 436 NCO’s.
    There have been previous and subsequent purges, apparently, so the 9000 approximate figure may be correct.

  21. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yup. And it has been that way for 2 centuries, at least.

  22. The Beaver says:

    To all:
    from Elijah Magnier
    Ankara committed itself to hunting down “ISIS” along the Syrian border with Turkey, and to preventing the Kurds from establishing themselves along the borders. Russia has accepted a Turkish incursion into Syrian territory due to the Kurds’ declared hostility to the government in Damascus when YPG forces attacked and expelled the Syrian army from al-Hasakah city to the suburbs, with US backing, – a clear intention to initiate the partition of Syria. Russia stands against a Kurdish state ruled by the US in the new Kremlin Mediterranean base, Syria. The Kurds had been enjoying the support of Damascus for the five years of war, and believe that the rebellion was not in vain, rather part of a plan to divide Syria.

  23. FB Ali says:

    That is true. But Erdogan knows that the EU is not going to cut Turkey off, in spite of his transgressions. The Russians, on the other hand, have already shown that they can and will do that if he acts funny with them.

  24. Kunuri says:

    “Soon you will (or you might already have) Basij militia in Turkey and probably a parallel army.”
    Such Basij militia and parallel army already exists, its the Police forces and the Jandarma.
    Jandarma has always been a paramilitary force responsible for security in rural areas where the police forces did not have jurisdiction. It has its own intelligence arma, as well as well trained and equipped Special Forces, however, until 15 July coup it has been part of the Armed forces. By decree, as of late, they are now directly subordinated to the Ministry of Interior, and by implication, to Erdogan. There is your parallel Army.
    Police has always been Erdogan’s heavy stick, more so now that they are authorized to maintain in their arsenal heavy weapons and armor. Since police is out on the streets any given time, and ideologically subservient to the Ministry of Interior, there is your Basij. If there is a new morality code in Turkey in the near future, police will enforce it. Mass popular descent and demonstrations now, as was during Gezi, is impossible. If there is a civil war in Turkey, we now know at least what the composition of one of the armed sides will be.

  25. Kunuri says:

    Most of the expelled officers were placed within the ranks through stolen text scores, nepotism, and patronage of Gulenists with AKP acquiescence, replacing or preventing the secular, more competent ones, mostly Kemalists. They were dead weight anyway, either through lack of love of service, or numbing religious ideology. It is important to note that Turkish Armed forces have a very deep bench, anyway, it needed younger, more energetic and digitally literal officer corps anyway. This is not unlike the huge purges after the debacle of the Balkan war of 1912, Turkish Army was rebuilt with Prussian help around a very young and western looking officer corps. Mustafa Kemal was one of its beneficiaries. The change paid off during the next ten years of incessant war.

  26. Kunuri says:

    Albayim, career enlisted military seems to be generally untouched through the purge of high ranking officers. Gulenists had, after all, limited resources and their priority was to infiltrate the top positions first. Unlike you, perhaps they underestimated the need and necessity of NCOs to run any military operation. Indeed, one of the turning points of the coup attempt was when rebel officers attempted to overwhelm and take into custody a loyalist general, his sergeant shot and killed one of the many coup plotters who were there. The sergeant was immediately slain by the coup plotters, but it shook them to lose their top general, and it faltered from then on. During the hot hours of the coup, it was mostly Colonels and Generals mobilizing unsuspecting enlisted conscripts.
    During the daily tallies of arrested and fired high ranking officers, I rarely come across NCO ranks, to note.

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