Streetwise Professor

June 3, 2013

Whither the Turkish Army?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 6:18 pm

Commenter Michael brought up an excellent question: what about the Turkish army?  From the beginnings of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the army was the final arbiter of Turkish politics, and viewed itself as the defender of the Kemalist secular state.   Erdogan and Gul recognized this, and after the AKP ascended to power they went after the military, primarily through judicial means.  It has largely neutered military opposition.  At present, something like 20 percent of Turkey’s flag officers are in jail on a variety of charges, from plotting coups to far more sordid crimes.

As a result, the military is back on its heels, and poses far less of a threat to Erdogan’s government.

But the protests might change everything, because it changes the game and the players’ beliefs.  No doubt the military is nursing its hurts, but heretofore has been unwilling to act because the government appeared popular and on the march.  The protests demonstrate that there is serious opposition to Erdogan, and protests can be self-feeding: as protests gain mass, others who disagree with the government learn that more people than they had believed also disagree, which makes them more likely to oppose the government publicly.

This also provides information to the military, telling the officers in particular that Erdogan is more vulnerable than they had believed.  This makes them more likely to become emboldened to challenge him.  Military opposition, even if scattered, can in turn embolden the civilian opposition.

The military can also use any excesses by Erdogan’s government to justify intervention, saying that they are acting on behalf of the people, protecting them from oppression.  They can wrap self-interested intervention in patriotic and populist justifications.

This is now a plausible scenario.  Though not the only one.  The opposition has a varied agenda, and inherently faces coordination problems that the government can exploit.

But the military can potentially determine the balance of power.  Whereas it was reluctant to act independently after Erdogan’s purge, its calculus is now likely to change, because it now knows that there is widespread public opposition to Erdogan: this increases its estimate of the odds that it can prevail if it challenges the government.  It can serve as a power broker, either by throwing its support to the opposition, or by threatening to do so, and negotiating with Erdogan to restore its dominant position in the Turkish state.

It surprises me that little of the commentary has considered the military’s role going forward: the coverage has focused on the turmoil in the streets.  (I plead guilty too-Michael’s comment snapped me out of it.)  This reflects a Romanticism that dominates popular perceptions of revolution.  But in revolutions, the military typically plays the decisive role.  This is likely to be true in Turkey too, especially given the military’s role in the Turkish Republic for the last 80 years. A new Kemal, or a Turkish Franco, is a very real possibility.

So keep an eye on the Turkish military.  Hopefully the media will figure out it should be watching it more closely too.

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  1. If the Turkish PM carries through on his desire to demolish the Ataturk Cultural Centre in Istanbul and replace it with an opera house, watch out!

    Comment by Andrew — June 3, 2013 @ 10:01 pm

  2. I think that it works both ways. I have a Turkish relative who used to believe that Erdogan’s actions would be tempered by the threat of military intervention. He now no longer believes that as firmly as he once did. According to him, this loss of a security blanket is emboldening many in Turkey who feel that they must protest or else they will lose everything to the Islamists. In some sense, they are in uncharted territory. They either stop Erdogan now or lose/leave.

    Comment by Highgamma — June 3, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

  3. If I am not mistaken, Turkish military has carried three coups in the second half of the 20th century. One thing they have learned has been that while they can take over the governance, then cannot govern. They definitely don’t have the appetite for and the aptitude for running the economy, and sooner or later the people turn against them.

    This doesn’t mean they would not venture into another coup. But if it happens I think it will be more motivated by the Kurdish threat or at least the perception of it.

    Comment by MJ — June 4, 2013 @ 4:28 am

  4. This author forgot too the more likely possibility rather than military coup – increasing the anti-Erdogan momentum through devastating strategic leaks. And the implications this could have for those in Washington who arrogantly believed that simply because they could intimidate nearly all eyewitnesses to Benghazi with complicit pols D and R plus a cowed or complicit press….that no foreign government would ever reveal the truth of what the CIA was up to there.

    Remember the last foreign diplomat to see Amb Stevens alive on 9/11/12 was Turkish – allegedly warning him that multiple foreign govs particularly the Iranians knew what was going on at the ‘consulate’ and how exposed it was. If there ARE powerful anti Erdogan people in the Turkish military and diplomatic corps they could try to add fuel to the fire by leaking the Turkish Pentagon Papers to anti Erdogan publications PROVING that Turkey funneled Libyan arms to the Al Nusra Front and other Syrian groups in 2011 that have public ally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. That might not seem like such a big deal to Washingtonians who can spin and shrug off nearly anything done in their name, but it will be a bug deal to Turks if the Gaddafi explosives can e shown ro have been used in the recent terrorist bombings in southern Turkey.

    At that point I’d hate to be Senator Graham as the ‘bipartisan’, agreed upon with the White House fairy tale that Amb Stevens was in Benghazi to collect rather than collect and smuggle weapons will start to collapse. And even Sen McCain will have trouble blaming the origins of the smoking Turkish cargo manifests and ship’s captain testimony on the governments that seek to discredit the Syria rebels, though he will no doubt try.

    Comment by DJH Listener — June 4, 2013 @ 7:32 am

  5. All that matters is Erdogan is being challenged, and he faces a crisis. The military, or facebook or some coalition of challengers can group together to topple him. He is cooked, and unlikely that he will depart in a democratic way.

    Comment by scott — June 5, 2013 @ 7:16 am

  6. By the way, wasn’t it Erdogan who said “Democracy is like a bus, you use it to get where you want to go, then you get off”? Or words to that effect anyway.

    Most Turks I know hate the man, then again they are from Ankara and Istanbul, and Kemalists.

    Comment by Andrew — June 6, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

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