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Gauging the Strength of the Turkish Military

Since its founding, the modern Turkish republic has changed dramatically.

Deep Dive

|May 10, 2018

Summary

Turkey’s location between Europe and Asia presents many security challenges. To Turkey’s north and west are the Black and Mediterranean seas, two large bodies of water that require a navy to defend. Across these seas lay two historical rivals, Russia and Greece, as well as the rest of Eastern Europe, where the Ottomans fought for control against the Habsburgs. To its east lies Iran, another major Ottoman adversary. And to its south is Syria, where a civil war has raged for the past seven years and shows no signs of ending.

But Turkey also has many internal security concerns. The country has dealt with Kurdish resistance in one form or another throughout its history, and after a military coup in 1980, that resistance turned into organized, armed opposition seeking independence for Kurdish-dominated territories in the southeast. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been fighting a bloody conflict in the country ever since – a conflict that has left 40,000 people dead. Turkey still considers Kurdish secessionism – which the government often refers to as “terrorism” – a major threat today. This is one of the main reasons it intervened in Syria, which has a large Kurdish population of its own. The farther Turkey gets pulled into Syria and Iraq to fight the PKK, the closer it gets to Iran’s borders and the greater the risk of a direct confrontation between Turkey and Iran (or at least Iran’s proxies).

On paper, Turkey appears to have a substantial military: It has the second-largest military in NATO after the U.S. – over 1.2 million soldiers, including active service, paramilitary and reserve forces. But troop numbers alone do not indicate a military’s true nature. Turkey’s military has played a unique role in Turkish politics and security since the country became a secular republic, undergoing major changes in the past two decades, particularly following the 2016 coup attempt.

We expect Turkey to become a major regional power in the coming years, and the strength of its military will largely determine the degree to which the country will be able to project power in the Middle East and beyond. The following Deep Dive will assess the state of Turkey’s military by focusing on developments in the country’s civil-military structure and changes made after the failed coup in 2016.

Civil-Military Relations

Modern Turkey was born from the ashes of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a Turkish army general and the founder of modern Turkey, knew that big changes needed if the country was to survive such a defeat. The Ottoman Empire, founded in 1299, was a multiethnic empire stretching from the Caspian Sea to North Africa and Central Europe. But as time went on, it couldn’t keep pace with the level of industrial development in Europe. At the outbreak of World War I, Britain had 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of railway and Germany had 38,000 miles, but the Ottomans had only roughly 3,800 miles, making the movement of troops and supplies extremely difficult. The Ottomans began losing territory as revolutions erupted in their European holdings and as new nations were born. By the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had lost almost all of its territory, including in the Balkans (although it retained modern-day Syria and Iraq). Turkey’s fear of Kurdish secession stems in part from the historical memory of the revolutions that tore the empire apart.


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The Ottomans thus lost much of their strategic depth, and what territory remained was partitioned after the war by France and Britain into the states of the modern Middle East. Ataturk saw the havoc that had been wreaked on the empire and knew that whatever territory the new republic retained could only be held together if Turkey were transformed into a modern, secular nation-state, much like those of Western Europe, where people’s primary identities are tied to their citizenship and their land. Ataturk believed that Turkey would then no longer face the threats stemming from all the various ethnicities and national identities that essentially brought down the Ottomans. Islam would continue to play a key role in Turkish society, but it would be a feature of individuals’ private lives rather than a defining characteristic of the government. Turkey would be, first and foremost, for the Turkish people.

Secularism was a new and critical part of the Turkish republic, a change that also required a shift in the role of the military, which became the ultimate defender of Ataturk’s secular vision for Turkey. On several occasions in the 20th century the military intervened to depose leaders who were deemed a threat to the country’s secular ideals. Since the founding of the republic, therefore, the military has had a unique relationship with the state, defending it against external threats (as all militaries do) but also preventing the government from abandoning its secular roots and turning toward Islamism.

The end of the Cold War was a turning point for civil-military relations in Turkey. The civilian government gradually increased its control over the military and ramped up development of an indigenous defense industry. Ankara had begun to develop a defense industry following its 1974 invasion of Cyprus, after which the U.S. placed an arms embargo on Turkey. But during the Cold War, Ankara was a critical NATO partner and therefore could rely on the alliance for military support. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, U.S. interests in the Middle East waned, and Turkey found itself surrounded by an increasingly unstable Middle East. Turkey was still a U.S. ally, but it needed to fend for itself.

In the early 2000s, the civilian government started to take more control of the military and the National Security Council, which is responsible for national security policy. The government also gained oversight of the military’s budget and equipment. One of the primary reasons the military was willing to hand over more power to the government was that membership in the European Union was seen as a critical part of the country’s modernization, but one that required certain political reforms, including establishing a civilian-controlled military. As time went on, the government – especially under the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – gained more powers. It also tried to appease religious elements of Turkish society by allowing Islam to play a greater role in public life. Ironically, in trying to preserve secularism in the country, the military actually endangered it by ceding power to the government.

Judicial reforms made in 2006 and 2010 also made it possible for members of the military to be tried in civilian courts. By 2007, Erdogan, then the prime minister, had dismissed senior military officers who he thought may stand in the government’s way. This culminated in a purge of military officials accused of planning a coup in 2003 in what was called the Sledgehammer plot. According to a paper published by Insight Turkey, a journal on Middle Eastern affairs, half of Turkey’s admirals and 10 percent of its generals had been dismissed by 2012. While many of the cases were thrown out of court, Erdogan was still able to damage the historically sterling reputation of the military. At the same time, morale in the military tanked. Factions that resented Erdogan for the purge began to form.

Fallout From Another Failed Coup

In July 2016, another coup was attempted, this time by camps within the military that feared Erdogan was leading the country too far from its secular roots. It failed, but not before leaving 250 people dead, including civilians who took to the streets to oppose the putsch. While many see the failed coup as a turning point in civil-military relations, by 2016, the power and independence of the military’s top brass had already been substantially eroded. That a coup was attempted in the first place was a sign that the chief of general staff and other top commanders did not have full control over their subordinates. A paper written by researcher Lars Haugom for the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies suggested that the generals and colonels who were involved were “acting outside of the chain of command” rather than following orders from the military’s senior leadership.

A massive purge of the military and civilian bureaucracy followed. In total, 150,000 people were fired from public sector jobs and 50,000 were arrested. Figures for dismissals within the armed forces vary. In September 2016, Haugom estimated that 7,500 military personnel had been discharged, 4,200 of whom were officers. In January 2018, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that 8,000 officers had been removed in total, and Minister of National Defense Nurettin Canikli said in April that 3,000 more people suspected of being part of the Gulen movement, which the government accused of planning the coup attempt, will be dismissed. But TurkeyPurge.com, a site that tracks dismissals related to the putsch, claims that the number is much higher. According to the site, nearly 25,000 military members were dismissed as of April – a 5 percent decline in Turkey’s armed forces, which total 512,600, excluding reserves but including the gendarmerie.

According to an article in Istanbul-based journal Turkish Policy Quarterly, the total number of officers declined by 8 percent between March and September 2016. The Council of Europe had reported that the Turkish military decreased by a third by October 2016, but this massive decline was largely due to the transfer of command over the gendarmerie – which was believed to have participated in the coup and consists of approximately 152,000 individuals – as well as the 4,000-strong coast guard from the army to the Interior Ministry.

The purge targeted senior officers, who have been replaced by lower-ranking officers. Of those dismissed by late 2016, 150 were generals or admirals. Thus, a number of brigades are now being commanded by former colonels rather than experienced generals, and many of these replacements have been recommended by the AKP based on loyalty to the party rather than merit. Whether these new commanders have the experience to effectively lead their units remains to be seen.

Another potential problem is the shortage in pilots in the air force, which lost approximately 265 of its 400 pilots following the coup attempt, resulting in a decrease in the pilot-to-plane ratio from two to 0.8. Pilots are particularly difficult to replace given the time it takes to train them.

Erdogan used the failed coup as an opportunity to restructure the chain of command of the Turkish military and assign greater powers to the presidency. The chief of general staff is now directly appointed by the president, and commanders of the navy, army and air force answer to the Ministry of National Defense, which previously had no authority over the military. The president can now issue orders directly to commanders of all three military branches without having to go through the chief of general staff. This greatly diminishes the power of the chief of general staff, who will now help coordinate rather than lead the military.

The Problem With Conscription

Complicating these reforms is that the military primarily composed of conscripts – a key reason it has the second-largest military force in NATO. At age 20, all men are required to serve in the military for 12 months, and all men up to age 41 may be called upon to serve in emergency situations. (Some exceptions are made for those pursuing degrees, and university graduates can elect to serve either as a reserve officer for 12 months or a private for six months.)

Since the founding of the republic, the draft has been an essential part of Turkey’s national security doctrine and its strategy to protect the republic from internal and external threats. It also helped Turkey maintain the containment line against the Soviets during the Cold War. But the short service period for conscripts limits the amount of experience they can accrue and, therefore, their effectiveness in offensive operations that require more skill and coordination than defensive operations, which are focused simply on holding territory. If Turkey is to secure its external security interests in the years to come, offensive operations will be necessary.

There are also costs associated with high turnover and continuous training to get new recruits up to speed. The first several months of a recruit’s service are dedicated to training. Training such a high number of new recruits also requires holding back a number of career military personnel who could be serving in operations.


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In time, Turkey will need to look beyond its borders to ensure its own security. The Kurdish threat has been buoyed by the power vacuum left in Syria, where Syrian Kurds have been able to take control over a large territory and where PKK fighters from Turkey have found refuge. The turmoil in Syria has also allowed Iran to gain a foothold there, and, combined with the ongoing threat from violent extremists, this will force Turkey to become more involved in the region than it has been in the past. Further military reform – such as establishing a volunteer force or longer service times for conscripts – may be necessary to develop an experienced, effective fighting force that can handle operations farther from home.

Turkey in Syria

A month after the failed coup, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria. By many accounts, the intervention was laden with problems. It reportedly took longer than expected to capture the city of al-Bab, and it outright failed to secure other territory. The problems were partly due to U.S. support for Kurds in the northern city of Manbij. Still, Turkey ultimately accomplished one of its core objectives: to drive a wedge between the positions of the Peoples’ Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, in and around Manbij and Afrin. While the operation was officially focused on fighting the Islamic State, it was really meant to prevent unification of the two Kurdish-held cities. The mission also made it clear that Erdogan was in control of the armed forces. Before the failed coup, some senior commanders cautioned against larger operations abroad, instead advocating limited cross-border operations and a focus on internal security. The invasion was also no doubt intended to both boost military morale and show that, despite the purges, Turkey had a capable fighting force.


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In early 2018, Turkey launched another invasion in northern Syria, this time in Afrin, called Operation Olive Branch. Air power played a key role in the operation, in contrast to Turkey’s previous incursions into Syria when air power was used in a limited capacity. Early on, a substantial air bombardment was launched, striking 108 targets using 72 aircraft – or 25 percent of Turkey’s warplanes – according to the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an Istanbul-based think tank. Despite the massive decline in the number of pilots following the military purges, Turkey was able to carry out two relatively successful, coordinated invasions using its air force. Although the forces with which it was engaged did not have air capabilities, these operations allowed the Turkish air force to gain combat experience.


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Turkey’s interventions in Syria are the country’s first major cross-border operations since its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. (It has engaged the PKK in northern Iraq, but not on the scale of its Syria operations.) The sacking of thousands of officers after the coup attempt, many of whom were high ranking, undoubtedly affected the military’s capabilities, but the two Syria operations indicate that Turkey still has substantial fighting power. That Afrin was conquered in two months, while Operation Euphrates Shield took seven months, shows that Turkey has continued to solidify its military capabilities after the purges and that the military was able to implement changes that made the second operation more effective than the first.

That said, these operations were relatively limited and the territory that was targeted small. Both of the campaigns were waged against far weaker forces that were ill-equipped and outnumbered. In addition, Turkey’s Syria operations heavily depended on the Free Syrian Army, which incurred the majority of the casualties in the offensives. That Turkey was able to defeat the YPG – a large but limited militia with an estimated 8,000-10,000 fighters – in Afrin in two months doesn’t mean it could defeat a military that has naval, land and air capabilities in a full-fledged war. If Turkey were to engage in a direct confrontation with, say, Iran in Syria, that would be a much more rigorous test.


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Furthermore, Turkey’s conscription-based military constrains its ability to conduct long-term, large-scale offensive operation. Given that Turkey’s air force was particularly hard hit in the purges, we expect Turkey will seek opportunities to train its pilots in live-combat situations that pose minimal risk to its homeland as it did in Syria earlier this year.

However, the failed coup did settle the question of who’s really in control in Turkey: the civilian government or the military. The military can no longer be seen as an autonomous authority and protector of the secular republic – it is now firmly under control of the civilian government. With the threat of military coups substantially minimized, Turkish leaders are now free to support an increased role for Islam in Turkish society, which will help Turkey make the case that it should be seen as a leader among Muslim-majority countries. The government also has more freedom to shape Turkey’s defense policies and priorities.

Despite the military’s current deficiencies, many of which are temporary, the restructuring of Turkey’s civil-military relations represents a critical step in its rise as a regional power. Turkey can now look beyond its borders without one hand tied behind its back. Staring back at it is a region in chaos and two historical adversaries at its doorstep.