Erdoğan is already playing politics ahead of the next Supreme Military Council meeting
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) started its journey with the dream of creating a democratic country where citizens would not have to know the name of the military’s chief of general staff.
Yet two decades later, Turkey remains a garrison-like country, where not only the top commander’s name, but also that of numerous other soldiers, continue to invade the public sphere.
Eyes have already turned to next August’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) meeting, where decisions on appointments, discharges, and retirements are made about generals, colonels, and admirals.
Chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the next SMC meeting will offer insights into the state of Turkey’s ruling coalition. Indeed, Erdoğan has already started to shape the battlefield with ‘long-range artillery fire’ as the SMC meeting approaches.
Last week, Turkey’s top appeals court overturned the acquittal of seven former high-ranking military figures, including the former commander of the first army Çetin Doğan, accused of an alleged 2003 coup plot, codenamed “Sledgehammer”, to remove Erdoğan’s government.
In 2014, a judge ruled the case was flawed, with some of the evidence dismissed for being fabricated. However, the Court of Cassation has now said this evidence should be re-examined, bringing into question the acquittal of another 230 defendants.
Erdoğan has been holding the Sledgehammer appeal like a sword of Damocles over the heads of the defendants. And the court’s decision can be seen as the plaster covering the state’s different factions beginning to crack.
"With this decision, the ruling party and its mini-partner are seeking to establish a ‘front of recovery’ and to tighten the ranks with their former allies,” Doğan said.
If he is right, we may see another large-scale purge of the armed forces at the next SMC meeting. But even if Erdoğan doesn’t go that far, he will likely try and narrow the range of options available to his rivals.
How, one may ask, is it possible for Erdoğan to still have rivals in the military?
The officers removed after the July 2016 failed coup were replaced by two main factions: Nationalist-Kemalists and pro-AKP religious figures deemed credible by Erdoğan’s regime.
By their very nature, the nationalists and Kemalists were distrusted by Erdoğan, who approved their appointments while weighing the balance of power available to him after surviving the coup attempt. In this respect, just like the Erdoğan regime itself, the military is a coalition of necessity.
Erdoğan knows the recent nationalist allegiance to his regime is only cosmetic and, with the help of former Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar, has been seeking to create a more monolithic army in his own image.
Akar's hand started to strengthen after he became defence minister in 2018, and he subsequently purged high-profile nationalists such as General Metin Temel, Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı and Lieutenant General Zekai Aksakallı.
These figures had pledged conjunctural allegiance to the Erdoğan regime while building their own independent power in the military. But their removal showed this balancing act would no longer be tolerated.
Akar has also attempted to weaken the nationalist and Kemalist wing in the military’s lower echelons. More than 600 colonels were forcibly retired following the 2020 SMC meeting. Almost all of these were Kemalists, according to Veryansin TV, a media outlet with close connections within the military.
However, in Turkey’s complex political climate, allowances must be made for not everything being what it seems on first reading. For example, there is unconfirmed speculation that Aksakallı, a former special forces commander, has since been put in charge of a paramilitary unit.
Were all 600 colonels actually forced to retire, or did some start receiving salaries from another institution to serve in more ‘grey’ areas of the state?
Whether it is the cancellation of elections, closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), or another cause of social unrest, Erdoğan may one day find himself in a position that requires the deployment of the military at home before he has time to secure its complete authority.
In these circumstances, Erdoğan may need a loyal paramilitary force for use against the people, or even the army itself. In January, new rules allowed for the transfer of military weapons and vehicles to the police and National Intelligence Agency (MİT) in event of “terrorism and social incidents”.
The future remains increasingly uncertain. But 20 years on, soldiers have far from left Turkish politics.