Media reported in Turkey late on July 29 that the Chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), General Işık Koşaner, and the military service chiefs under him at Land Forces, the Air Force and the Navy have all submitted their resignations.

This comes just ahead of meetings of Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) that convene in August each year to decide on senior military assignments and promotions. The resignations further the triumph of Prime Minister Erdogan’s authority over the military, but also pose a new and complicated set of challenges for his Justice and Development (AKP) led government going forward.

After the changes introduced in the first part of the last decade to civilianize the National Security Council, the annual convocations of the YAŞ became one of the leading barometers by which to judge not just the military pecking order, but also the state of civil-military relations in Turkey. In 2008, 2009 and especially 2010, a sense of confrontation became palpable. On one side was the issue of civilian control of the military – a principle that is both enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and the very mechanism of the YAŞ itself, which is headed by the prime minister. On the other side were the military’s prerogatives over its own internal affairs. The more senior the military appointment, the more obvious it has long been that elected leaders would ultimately call the shots – as Prime Minister Özal demonstrated when he rejected the military’s proposed candidate for the top job in the 1980s. But where the line should be drawn and the nature of the line itself have become big contentions over the past several years.

When selecting new Chiefs of the General Staff (CHODs) in 2006, 2008 and 2010, Prime Minister Erdogan deferred almost entirely to the military and its traditions of seniority. This happened despite widely rumored government misgivings about the individuals nominated for the post and despite the substantively dubious practice of three successive two-year CHOD appointments imposed by mandatory retirement age requirements. However, reports of meddling at the YAŞ by elected officials on lower level appointments have circulated increasingly widely in recent years. Until about 2008, a common issue was the passing over for promotion of individuals accused of insufficient attachment to the military’s strongly secular outlook and character – to which AKP leaders sometimes took exception.

YAŞ politics became more complicated after the detention of over one hundred retired and currently serving senior military officers accused of involvement in the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer plots to overthrow the government. In August 2010, promotions by the YAŞ – including of a new CHOD to replace retiring General İlker Başbuğ – were delayed for days by military-civilian confrontation. An officer proposed for a senior position was essentially blackballed by the government because of his alleged association with plotting to bring them down. With civilian and military members of the YAŞ in disagreement, the whole process, normally a carefully scripted three weeks of cascading appointments and promotions, seized up. The crisis was defused when the senior officer challenged by the government resigned from the military, paving the way for approval of another officer and compromise all around.

This proximate cause of this year’s crisis is reportedly again how to treat those accused of involvement or association of some kind with alleged coup planning. The ruling AKP, flush with an unprecedented third-term electoral victory and fifty percent of the vote in the June 12 parliamentary election, apparently decided to draw a line in the sand and reject all those in any way tainted. At least two other developments may also be relevant.

  • A prosecutor in Turkey’s far east moved recently to consider bringing a case again former CHOD General Yaşar Büyükanıt over a 2005 incident in which military/security forces allegedly carried out attacks on civilians that were designed to look like the work of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists. Büyükanıt subsequently defended one of those accused of involvement. The possibility of a former CHOD now being hauled into the dock may have been too much for General Koşaner and his cohort.
  • The recent appointment of a new defense minister and talk of codifying more clearly civilian and especially defense ministerial control over the military may also have stuck in the TGS craw. In Turkey, the defense ministry is in practice essentially a procurement agency with little real responsibility for military and defense matters that have remained the military’s sole purview under the direct command of the prime minister and president. A Western-style defense minister with line authority over the military would be a big change and not one that obviously expands the military’s prestige.

The fact that the military gave up and decided not to struggle over specifics with the government within the YAŞ, where it has a clear legal role and established prerogatives represents another victory by Erdogan over the military. For the time being, it confirms the prime minister’s authority to not just approve military personnel decisions, but more clearly to evaluate and challenge them if he chooses and to do so not just at the top, but well down the military command chain. Over time, this may ease the ongoing process of civilianizing Turkey’s government and instituting a stronger civilian chain of command atop the military. In the short term, the process will remain highly contentious, of course.

But Turkish government also now faces a crisis of an entirely different nature: all of a sudden, it has no military high command but for the head of the Jandarma, the police force that operates in rural areas. This is not a trivial matter. The Jandarma has the domestic lead on PKK terrorist violence at home, but Turkey is not uninterested in the PKK-related turmoil on the Iranian border with northern Iraq just south of Turkey. The Army remains deployed in the south to assist refugees from Syria and to deter unauthorized border crossings, including possibly hot pursuit by the Syrian military. The Navy is deployed with NATO in the Mediterranean to monitor the blockade of Libya. So Prime Minister Erdogan has to resolve this crisis with the military in a way that preserves his hard-won gains vis-à-vis the military while also ensuring that he gets capable officers to take the top commands and does so quickly lest any sense of ongoing crisis linger in ways that could affect his maneuvering room on the issues he wants to contest in the coming months, especially the matter of a new constitution. This may prove hard, and the crisis at the top of the Turkish national security structure may well persist for some time. Turkey will survive, and the military will remain in its barracks, but Ankara will be a hot, tense and contentious place in August – at a time when most Turks hoped to be focused on vacations abroad or Ramadan at home.

Ross Wilson is Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan.

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