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A Review of RAND’s 2020 Turkey Report from a Civil-Military Relations Perspective


Focusing on its assessments in the “Implications for Civil-Military Relations and Military Capabilities” chapter, this paper attempts to make a critical review of RAND Corporation’s 2020 Turkey report, titled “Turkey’s Nationalist Course: Implications for the U.S.-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the U.S. Army.” Sponsored by the U.S. Army, the report was a part of a project entitled “Turkey’s Volatile Dynamics” which aimed to analyze trends in Turkish internal, foreign, and defense policies. The two basic and controversial arguments of the report were that Hulusi Akar was a key interlocutor for the US and that mid-level officers were uneasy, and they might stage a coup. Reduced to these two arguments, the report had a broad and immediate repercussion in Turkey and several pro-government commentariats demonized the RAND as an institution and slammed the report itself, implying that it intended to trigger a pro-American military coup in the country. Given the fact that no coup has taken place since then and that Hulusi Akar has become a key interlocutor not only for the US and the West but also for Russia, this paper aims to review and challenge the basic arguments and the assessments of the report and to make a comparison between those and the real events that have come true since then in Turkey. This paper argues that Erdoğan’s achievement in consolidating his rule over the military stems from his success in co-opting Kemalist/Eurasianist networks within the military in exchange for their loyalty to his rule. Accordingly, this review will address the whys and hows of the regime’s co-optation process including the Janus-faced role played by Hulusi Akar and the similar role staged by Dogu Perincek.


In January 2020, the RAND Corporation, a US-based American think tank organization, released a comprehensive report on Turkey’s internal, foreign, and defense policies.[1] Sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, the report was a part of a project entitled “Turkey’s Volatile Dynamics: Implications for the U.S.-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the U.S. Army.” The purpose of the project was to analyze trends in Turkey and assess their implications for U.S. defense strategy and force planning. Overall, as its title implies, “Turkey’s Nationalist Course” highlighted the “deep public suspicion towards the United States and Europe.”

Throughout its nine chapters, the report addressed and elaborated on various Turkey-related topics including Deepening Authoritarianism and Instability, Turkey’s Relations with Iran and Iraq, Turkey and the Arab World, The Future of Israeli-Turkish Relations, The Russian-Turkish Bilateral Relationship, Turkey’s Relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey’s Relations with Europe, the European Union, and NATO.

However, Turkish media neglected those issues in the report and focused on one particular page (p.29) under the “Implications for Civil-Military Relations and Military Capabilities” chapter. The two arguments on that page sparked a massive public debate in the country especially because they suggested that a new military coup was imminent and that Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar was extremely close to the US. 

The first astonishing claim was that Mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership. This discontent might even lead to another coup attempt at some point.” (page 29, para.2). The second key argument was about Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. The report mentioned him as “a key interlocutor for the US” and foresaw that “Akar will continue to be the leading figure in Turkish defense affairs for some time.” Consequently, the interpretation of the report in Turkey was immediately reduced to these two arguments and it triggered an ample controversy in Turkey. Several pro-government columnists penned articles slamming RAND and implying that a coup being cooked in the US might be on its way.[2]

After two years of time, one of those key arguments has proven to be partially true and the other completely not. To be more specific, neither a Kemalist nor a pro-NATO coup was on the stage, whereas Mr. Hulusi Akar continued to be the leading figure in Turkish defense affairs, flirting both with the West and Russia. That being said, I will attempt to draw a broader picture of the civil-military relations in Turkey in the post-coup era and then, go back over these two suggestions and the subsequent discussions they sparked in Turkey. 

Turkey’s Civil-Military Relations According to the Report

In the first paragraph of the report’s “Implications for Civil-Military Relations and Military Capabilities” chapter, a general landscape of civil-military relations in Turkey from 2002 to 2020 is provided. However, there are several points that need to be elucidated and corrected in that part.

The report correctly asserts that because of mutual suspicions, Erdoğan’s relations with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were tense during the first five years of his tenure. The report continues that the AKP was able to build support among a broad political coalition to implement several reforms that brought civil-military relations more in line with democratic norms. The 2007 e-memorandum crisis gave Erdoğan a stronger hand in dealing with the military and led to a new modus vivendi with the TSK. The report also suggests that since 2010, the government has strengthened its authority over the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) substantially—for example, vetoing the appointment of officers detained in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases and imposing its own list of promotions and retirements. Following the resignation of the top military leadership, including the Chief of General Staff General Isik Kosaner, in July 2011, Erdoğan appointed a new, more compliant military leadership. Since then, according to the report, relations between the top commanders of the TSK and AKP leadership have improved substantially under a more compliant TSK leadership and following the success of the 2018 military campaign in Afrin, Syria.

Then, it is stated in the second paragraph that “the TSK ranks have been significantly reduced by post-coup purges” detailing that “eleven high ranking officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Gendarmerie, and Coast Guard were discharged in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup. Of 325 general and flag officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, 150 (46 percent) have either been cashiered or involuntarily retired.”

Followingly, the report mentions the structural changes imposed after the coup attempt, including first putting the Land Forces, Naval Forces, and Air Force commanders under the immediate control of the civilian minister of defense, secondly, the establishment of a National Defense University which should serve as “an umbrella body encompassing all educational institutions of the Turkish Army”, and lastly, making the structure of the YAŞ subject to greater civilian influence.

The report then accurately identifies the consequences of the purges and recent military reforms: “They appear to have adversely affected the TSK’s readiness, capability, and morale, as well as civil-military relations. Driven by political considerations, those reforms have clouded the chain of command, increased inter-service rivalry, and reduced the TSK’s tactical and strategic capacity.”

After explaining Gendarmerie, National Intelligence Organization, private companies, and Old and New Security Threats at Home, this chapter is concluded with the remarks that “Since 2016, Turkey’s security sector has experienced fragmentation, and purges and shuffles have further strengthened nonmilitary forces. Given an urgent need to fill thousands of vacant positions in this sector quickly and insufficient recruits from the AKP base, the government turned to secularist and ultranationalist forces”. Among them, according to the report, were “military officers convicted in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, as well as the Eurasianist and socialist Perincek Group.”

As I implied above, there are some gaps that need to be filled in this narrative. For instance, one must notice at this point that the generals and admirals cited in that second paragraph of the report are the ones that were in the “list of promotions and retirements” as cited in the first paragraph. To be clearer, it must be underlined that the Erdoğan government has strengthened its authority over the YAŞ substantially since 2010 by imposing its own list of promotions, but then, after six years, the very same cadres were purged. Why so?

There is another question to be clarified: The first sentence of the first paragraph asserts that there was a mutual suspicion between Erdoğan and the TSK in the first term in power (2002-2006) but this suspicion, according to the report, was rehabilitated after 2016 and “AKP leadership have improved substantially under a more compliant TSK leadership and following the success of the 2018 military campaign in Afrin, Syria.” The “hows” of this process remain unanswered in the report. 

Below, I will attempt to elucidate the whys and hows of this process. The two main questions I will attempt to investigate are as follows:

-Was RAND’s argument of an imminent coup baseless, and if not, why did it not occur? As part of this question, who were those “mid-level officers” and what is their genuine orientation?

-What is the exact role Mr. Hulusi Akar is playing in Turkey’s post-2016 civil-military relations outlook and what is his real capacity? Is he still a key and reliable interlocutor for the US and the Western allies? Are there any key figures in this re-design of the Turkish military apparatus, such as Dogu Perincek?

Back to the History: Anti-democratic networks within the State’s Security Apparatus

For decades, the existence of various shady networks in relations with the state security institutions has been acknowledged in Turkey. These networks are believed to have executed the state’s “dirty work,” such as targeting terrorist sympathizers with extra-judicial killings or colluding with organized crime.[3] Some others also suggest that, rather than being a clear-cut organization with a definitive leadership, this network can be defined as an amalgamation of “mentality” concerning what Kemalist Turkey should be.[4]

Those types of networks emerge in defective democracies that lack democratic civilian oversight, where the military and other security elements are either free from any control or are under undemocratic civilian control. Since the transition to democracy, Turkey has been accepted as a tutelary democracy.[5] There are several historical precedents that unquestionably confirm the presence of several cliques that have secretly attempted to dominate the Turkish state’s affairs. Gunter defines these networks as “made up of elements from the military, security and judicial establishments wedded to a fiercely nationalist- statist ideology and, if needed, are ready to block or even oust a government that does not share their vision.”[6] In other words, military and security elements that are determined to preserve the Kemalist vision of a Turkish nationalist and secular state are considered to be the key elements of these networks.

The contemporary form of these networks within the Turkish state had its origins in NATO’s attempts during the early years of the Cold War to create clandestine “stay-behind” forces in member states. Those forces were formed within Özel Harp Dairesi (Special Warfare Unit or ÖHD). The ÖHD was formally founded in 1952 and attached to the Turkish General Staff. It was originally called the Seferberlik Tetkik Kurulu (Mobilization Inspection Board or STK), to give the impression that it was related to a wartime civil defense. The STK was renamed the Özel Harp Dairesi in the mid-1960s. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its name was changed this time to the Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı (Special Forces Command) and the focus of its training shifted from covert warfare to counter-insurgency operations. Even if its precise extent is unknown to society, the involvement of the ÖHD networks in the factional violence of the 1970s between left- and right-wing organizations indicated what was to remain as the defining characteristics of deep state activity over the following decade: a decentralized local campaign guided by a cabal of senior figures, where individuals and small groups were able to operate autonomously against the targets which were simply regarded as the enemies of the Turkish state, within a culture of immunity and impunity.[7]

Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006) was the first politician to make these networks public. Prime Minister Ecevit became aware of a clandestine institution in 1974 when he was approached by the Chief of General Staff to approve a fund allocation from the prime minister’s discretionary budget for the ÖHD due to the fact that the U.S. had recently stopped funding it as a response to Turkey’s military intervention in Cyprus.[8] Ecevit writes in his memoirs that when his attempt to audit ÖHD failed,[9] he inquired about the nature of this organization he had never heard about. He was told by the Chief of General Staff that there is “no need for him to look too closely at the situation.” He was given the information that there were a certain number of volunteer patriots whose names are kept secret and are engaged for life in this special department.”[10]

The existence of illicit networks became more evident by a scandal that erupted following a 1996 car crash in Susurluk township. In the accident, Abdullah Çatlı, a wanted killer and drug trafficker on Interpol’s Red List, and Hüseyin Kocadağ, a former deputy head of the Istanbul Police Department, died. In the same car, Sedat Bucak, the leader of a Kurdish tribe the members of which were recruited as village guards (korucu, in Turkish)[11] by the state, and was also a deputy in the parliament, was wounded. A fake passport, official diplomatic credentials, weapon permits, drugs, weapons, and money were found in the car. Solid official evidence on Susurluk traced state-mafia connections, activities of JİTEM (Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terorle Mücadele, or Intelligence and Counter-terrorism Branch of Gendarmerie) and Özel Harekat (Special Operations Department of the National Police).[12] By this “accident”, the Turkish public was confronted with clear evidence that security agencies had secretly enrolled gangsters and fanatics to execute assassinations of suspected Kurdish nationalists and militants at home and abroad.

In 1997, during a television talk show on the political implications of the Susurluk accident, Erol Mutercimler, a former naval officer and a shady conspiracy analyst,[13] claimed that former general Memduh Unluturk told him that he was once a member of a covert organization called Ergenekon which had actively cooperated with right-wing militants in the factional fighting of the 1970s. Mutercimler alleged that Ergenekon was made up of a wide network consisting not only of military officers but also of members of the police, the judiciary, academia, and rightist political formations.

Ten years later, in 2007, an investigation about Ergenekon started with the allegation that it intended to oust the AKP government. In the trials that started in 2008, suspected individuals, including many retired and active-duty generals and senior military officers, were charged with attempting to trigger turbulence in society in order to prepare the right conditions for a military coup. 2010 brought further arrests of several other officers as a result of another related Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. According to the allegations, the 1st Army Headquarters in Istanbul headed by general Cetin Dogan worked out a coup plan in order to topple the AKP government in 2003.[14]

According to the official Ergenekon indictment,[15] “Ergenekon network” is at the intersection of three historical processes: The first is the role of the military in Turkish politics and its direct or indirect interventions in the political spectrum backdating to the revolution in 1908,[16] and the military’s self-assigned role as the ultimate guardian of “secular” Turkish democracy after the foundation of the republic in 1923. In this regard, it follows that as part of its self-undertaken duty of being on the lookout for unsecular movements, by the mid-1990s, many OHD officers had begun to shift their attention towards their perceived threat against the Kemalist state posed by Turkey’s increasingly powerful and politically savvy Islamist movement. Secondly, Ergenekon is rooted in the tradition of creating illicit networks, the oldest being the Fedayi (Bodyguard) groups of 1905 that were later organized under Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa (Special Organization)[17] in 1914. Finally, according to the indictment, this network should be studied from the perspective of NATO: since Turkey’s membership in NATO in 1952 and the establishment of the Turkish branch of NATO’s “secret armies,” clandestine networks operating within the state and security apparatus were engaged in paramilitary combat in case of a communist invasion.

As Cizre argues, the Ergenekon episode was about who genuinely makes fundamental rules in Turkish politics and with what force, coalitions, legitimacy, and agenda.[18] Although some critics accused Erdoğan of simply trying to take revenge on its Kemalist opponents with the charges against Ergenekon, Turkish society, in general, was convinced that the Ergenekon trials represented a powerful blow against the elements of the original deep state. For particularly Kurdish nationalists, pro-AKP voters, and liberal-democratic and democratic-left sectors of the population, the Ergenekon investigation meant the “cleansing of the century”, just like the Italian Mani Pulite.

The anti-Erdoğan make-up of the Turkish military certainly provided the most compelling windows of opportunity that helped Erdoğan execute his plan of unbridled control over the military’s personnel as the strongest instrument of civilian control: the “Ergenekon” and later “Sledgehammer’” court cases were opened in 2007 against a network of military officers and their civilian accomplices, charged with planning a series of coups against AK Party governments beginning in 2003. Revelations in the trials of the involvement of state bureaucrats, including former force commanders, a former chief of staff, ten percent of the generals of the army, right-wing intellectuals, and journalists demonstrated that the secular establishment believed from day one that the AK Party was a hostile agent of Islamism.

However, although not reaching the level of executive control of the judiciary at present, the lack of judicial independence allowed political considerations to infiltrate into the trials. All in all, the Ergenekon trials gave impetus to more uncertainty and instability rather than paving the way to the resolution of the issue of the military’s tutelage over politics and society.[19] Even after the military bureaucracy lost its power due to Erdoğan’s EU-related reforms to some extent, after the 2010 referendum, a complete lack of trust between the two sides proved not to be a temporary glitch. Erdoğan’s counterstrategy spurred by his increasing insecurity vis a vis a hostile military bureaucracy has played a huge role in the birth of his idea of the ‘executive presidency,’ ‘custom-made’ to allow Erdoğan to turn his new office into a vehicle of massive executive aggrandizement.[20]

However, when his alliance with Gulenists collapsed in December 2013 and the relations turned sour, feeling more vulnerable, Erdoğan ultimately took a pragmatist U-turn and coopted his erstwhile foes, the Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists/Kemalists, most of whom happened to be convicted defenders of the Ergenekon case.[21] Eventually, the Ergenekon case fizzled out, and the defendants were released and became his supporters. Thus, instead of being a major step toward the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, these investigations became a springboard toward the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.

Another clandestine network called “Encumen-i Danis”, or Privy Council, sharing a name with a short-lived Ottoman science and culture council of the nineteenth century, has come to public attention in 1995 when Prime Minister Tansu Çiller leaked to the press a letter sent to her by the Privy Council. The letter contained harsh warnings to the Çiller government: “For a long time, we have observed declarations, actions, and behaviors which aim to destroy our constitutional democratic and secular order and to replace it with an Islamic Sharia rule. We urge you to take severe legal, administrative, and judicial measures against them.”[22] Encumen-i Danis recruited top-level military and political figures. According to the head of the Susurluk Parliamentary Investigation Commission, Encümen-i Danis had close ties with the Batı Çalışma Grubu (West Working Group)[23], which was another clandestine formation within the Turkish military, allegedly set up in 1997 by general Çevik Bir, aiming to classify politicians, military personnel, journalists and other key figures according to ethnic background, religious affiliation, and political leanings, and to monitor those regarded as a potential threat to secularism in Turkey.

Encümen-i Danis’ second public appearance was in 2008 during the Ergenekon trials. Responding to the suspicions that the group functioned as the supreme body of Ergenekon, the former Chief of General Staff general Ismail Hakkı Karadayi, a member of the group, explained that they conducted bi-weekly meetings, discussed several national issues, wrote down their findings, and delivered them to the President and the Prime Minister “only to record our thoughts, humbly to serve our country.” It is noteworthy that some high-level Ergenekon defendants were members of Encümen-i Daniş; namely, the secretary of the National Security Council, general Tuncer Kılınç, and former Gendarmerie Commander general Şener Eruygur. Reisoğlu, another member, said that the group had 25 members and half of the group consisted of retired generals.” He also noted that “it is the group’s decision not to leak the contents of the meeting. We are forbidden even to tell our families about the agenda. The claims that we are the Ergenekon’s supreme board are complete nonsense. We don’t know what Ergenekon is.”[24] The president of the council, and former speaker of the parliament, Necmettin Karaduman, however, said the opposite in an interview on CNN Türk: “The deep state exists and will always exist. No one should ever think that Encümen-i Daniş is directing the state. What do you mean by deep state? The deep state exists everywhere in the world. It exists today, it will be there tomorrow. It is aimed at protecting us and our state.”[25]  

Furthermore, to understand the nature of political struggles in Turkey, one needs to understand the meaning, function, and structure of the religious communities (cemaat, in Turkish). In the context of Turkish history, communities are an amalgamation of human groupings built on religious affiliations and loyalties. Even though they are basically religious groups, some religious communities hold several features of clandestine networks. 

A variety of Islamist organizations and fraternal networks increased their visibility and political significance since the AKP assumed power. Long-established Sufi orders, such as the Naqshbandi and Suleymanci lodges possessed influence over Turkey’s political system. It is believed that Naqshbandi followers make up an excessive number of prominent positions in the state.[26] After the July 2016 attempted coup, those religious sects have again crept into the state machinery to replace the vacuum left by purges. I will attempt to explore in more detail in a separate section below how and why and which religious groups are being co-opted by Erdoğan as a counterbalancing force against his other allies, the Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists.

Erdoğan’s Coup-proofing Strategy: Co-optation of Nationalists and Eurasianists

A new wave of scholarship on authoritarianism focuses on the strategies that leaders resort to stay in power.[27]These studies emphasize two main strategies, namely repression, and co-optation.[28] Co-optation is defined as a form of cooperation, in which the incumbent gives insider status or political benefits to a regime outsider in exchange for its loyalty.[29] Leaders who mostly depend on co-optation strategies are expected to deploy relatively lower levels of violent repression.[30] By co-opting a previously independent network or agent, or their leadership, the leader eradicates challengers, shapes his public image through credible social leaders, and sustains control without employing repressive methods.

In some cases, in order to overcome the threats emerging from within the society, autocrats attempt to co-opt or, in the language of O’Donnell, “encapsulate” the potential opposition.[31] Based on the fact that the primary threat to autocratic rulers generally comes from within the regime coalition, Gerschewski defines co-optation as the capacity to tie strategically-relevant actors to the regime elite.[32] Co-optation usually involves neo-patrimonial arrangements between the ruling elite and the co-opted groups and aims at preventing the emergence of strong opposition. It needs to be exerted so that the co-opted actor is “persuaded not to exercise his power to obstruct” and instead to use the resources to comply with the ruling elite’s demands.[33] It ensures both the intra-elite cohesion and the steering capacity of the political elite. The capacity of the political elite to maintain the balance between competing actors and avoid a situation in which one actor becomes too strong by simultaneously linking all relevant actors to the regime is vital for the stability of autocracies.[34] Co-optation can also be considered as the “bribing” of potential opposition groups as part of a divide-and-rule” strategy. By providing selective rewards and punishments, the divide-and-rule strategy exploits the fragility of social cooperation. Thus, when faced with the threat of being ousted, the ruler destroys the coalition against him by bribing the pivotal groups.[35]

In his interesting study on Russian dissenting graffiti artists, Lerner evidences their co-optation by the Putin regime during the 2012 and 2018 Presidential elections.[36] In consolidating his power during this time, Putin co-opted some graffiti artists and cracked down on those unwilling to cooperate. This way, he replaced disloyal and anonymous groups of anti-regime graffiti artists with Kremlin-controlled ones. Consequently, what was once critical and satirical, then became politically shaped, pro-Kremlin, and state-sponsored.

The case of the graffiti artists in Russia was almost the same as what happened to the clandestine networks in Turkey in the post-July 15 era: They were “bribed” by Erdoğan and then, who were once dissenters and antagonists, became pro-Erdoğan and state-sponsored. 

Turning back to 10 years ago, when the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases were applauded by most of society, it was Erdoğan who was outspoken in declaring himself the prosecutor of these cases. When, however, Gulenists as the ten-year-old coalition partners of Erdoğan hit Erdoğan with corruption files in December 2013,[37] Erdoğan’s response was to criminalize Gülenists claiming that these investigation files were a judiciary coup by his former allies and that the Ergenekon case was indeed a hoax full of fabricated evidence planned by a greater clandestine organization headed by Gülen.[38]

The resulting split between the Gülen movement and the AKP has been particularly traumatic for the ruling party and its leader as it caused the breakup of the coalition made between them since 2002.[39] Feeling left alone and vulnerable under the threat of an upcoming prosecution against himself and his family, Erdoğan quickly realized the only way to survive was to receive the backing of Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists in Turkey. These groups happened to be extremely powerful inside the Turkish military and judiciary.[40] While the two sides had an antagonistic relationship with each other and had different outlooks regarding national identity, social cohesion, and political unity,[41] further events proved them to be antagonist brothers.[42]

One major issue framing Erdoğan’s single-minded concern as military reform was the lack of intellectual depth on the part of Erdoğan’s political thought due to his not having some knowledge about the nature of democratic control. But another fundamental problem was Erdoğan’s strong desire to free the new government from the past by bringing closure to Turkey’s troubled history of coups. From this perspective, introducing a system of pro-Erdoğan appointments and promotions aimed at creating a loyal officer corps was the most effective barrier to the prevention of a successful coup d’etat. Put differently, the consistently applied method of personnel ‘control’ rather than ‘democratic civilian control’ was what Erdoğan’s regime basically understood as military reform. Translated into real politics, the pivotal military policy of Erdoğan amounted to ousting the secular establishment’s elements that were “foes” of the government and replacing them with Erdoğan supporting cadres who happened to be Gulenists officers before the leader had a consequential fallout with the movement on 17-25 December 2013.[43] This plan was Erdoğan’s coup-proofing strategy.

Perincek’s Janus-faced Political Career as an Easy Target for Cooptation

“They imprisoned us here in Silivri, that is, in Ergenekon. They did this because they wanted to divide Turkey. And now we are released, and we are exiting from Ergenekon. From now on, we will crash down all the religious communities, all the religious sects. We are like a sword out of its sheath. We are ready for the missions. Yes, we are ready for the missions. I declare hereby that we’ll break down their regime. We will destroy the regime of Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gul, and Fethullah Gulen, all at once!”[44]

The above quotation is taken from the fierce press statement of Dogu Perincek immediately after his release from Silivri Prison in 2014. As the quote amply shows, not only were the targets, objectives, and methods of Perincek’s ideology -or for that matter, it is questionable whether he had an ideology- have always been murky and quick-shifting, but the character of his political vehicle has also remained a big question: is it merely a political party, or a forum for clandestine networks or an informal bureau of other actors/platforms, foreign powers, and security institutions?

Perincek was arrested in March 2008 during the Ergenekon trials due to his role in an illegal cell structure formed within the Turkish Air Force called “Headquarters Cell” (Karargah Evleri) along with twenty military officers. Although he was given a life sentence, he was released after six years in 2014 when the Supreme Court, which was now under the control of the Erdoğan regime, ruled mistrial due to inconclusive evidence about his charges. In fact, this was not his first prison conviction of Perincek.  During his entire career, he received several other prison sentences starting in 1973.[45]

One year after Perincek’s last release from prison in 2014, his so-called leftist Labor Party convened its Extraordinary Congress in 2015 under the allusive theme of “Union for the National Government” and, interestingly, changed the party’s name to the Patriotic (Vatan) Party. Perincek’s newborn Vatan Partisi describes itself as a “vanguard party” aiming at bringing together socialists, revolutionaries, Turkish nationalists, and Kemalists. It has a strange ideology which it calls Eurasianism (Avrasyacılık), which is actually developed by Putin’s advisor Alexander Dugin, as the “fourth political theory; beyond left and right but against the center, to replace and counter the liberal globalist theory and to end Western hegemony, and capitalism”.[46] It aims to create an alternative to Western Civilization under the banner of Russia. The core idea of Eurasianism is that “liberalism” (by which is meant the entire Western consensus) represents an attack on the previous hierarchical organization of the world.

Accordingly, Vatan Partisi is strongly pro-Russia and pro-China and anti-American and anti-Western. Eurasianism has been presented by Perincek and his affiliated generals as an alternative to NATO. A 2003 cable by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara released by WikiLeaks defined the “Eurasianist clique” as “a group of soldiers in the military who, without understanding the Russian overshadowing nature of the concept, have long sought an alternative to the U.S.”[47] It is important to note that their ultra-nationalism which is termed ulusalcılık follows the legacy of “Turkish socialism” which has always been closely linked with hardened nationalist ideas linked with strict Kemalist thought. That is why Turkish socialists are referred to as leftist Kemalists.[48] The defining principle of those organizations which preaches extreme pragmatism within the neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) or Eurasianist networks finds expression in their nationalist motto “if it is the motherland that is at stake, all else are mere details” (mevzu bahis vatansa gerisi teferruattır), a phrase the Turkish nationalists attribute to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and in so doing justify using whatever means they deem necessary to “save the motherland.”[49]

Following Erdoğan’s declaration of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases as hoaxes, all Ergenekon convicts, including Mr. Perincek, were released in 2014. From then on, ultra-nationalists started aligning with Erdoğan. Six months before the July 15 coup attempt, Perincek announced that they established “a common patriotic position” (he used “mevzi” in Turkish, referring to a military battle emplacement) with the religious conservatives. Perincek announced to pro-Erdoğan Yeni Akit daily that he is united with Erdoğan in his fight against the Gulenists and the USA, and that history had placed him on the same front as Erdoğan. As an erstwhile Maoist, he claimed that he never changed his position or ideology and that, on the contrary, Erdoğan and AKP joined the Patriotic Party’s position. As a result, Perincek’s ultra-nationalists, who had named themselves as “Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers” during 2007’s famous Republic Protests[50], or Cumhuriyet Mitingleri, became “Tayyip Erdoğan’s soldiers” in less than a decade.

The Road to Co-optation: Perincek’s Intimate Connections with Military Bureaucracy 

The real reason ultra-nationalists aligned with Erdoğan was quite apparent. They reasoned that the Gulenists had thrown them into prison and attempted to take over the control of the deep state. At a stage when Gulenists were now criminalized and removed from the state, ultra-nationalists intended to recapture it. But what was the logic for Erdoğan for co-opting and cooperating with a foe that attacked his administration by saying “We will destroy the regime of Tayyip Erdoğan”?

It can be asserted that the main reason for the insertion of ultra-nationalists into the Erdoğan regime’s equation was Perincek’s close connections with the deep state cadres. By co-opting Perincek, Erdoğan was able to hit two birds with one stone: While he was able to enjoy the benefits of Perincek’s support in his war against Gulenists, he was also able to control especially the Perincek-affiliated military officers in the military who have sufficient capacity to intimidate his regime, without employing repressive methods that may cause a backlash.

Perincek had considerable ideological support within the Turkish military for long. In the 1960s and 1970s’ Turkey, the armed forces and the radical leftist movement provided two very different dynamics. The majority of radical leftists in this era, referred to above as leftist Kemalists, believed in the revolutionary vanguard potential of the armed forces in ousting the existing regime and replacing it with a quasi-socialist one.[51] During these years, Perincek recruited many military cadets to his ideological line and he was always welcomed by high-level military officers. Many of those military students went on to become high-ranking generals.[52] Ahmet S. Yayla, a counterterrorism police sergeant, who penned a comprehensive report on the strange relations of Perincek with the military, states that during a police investigation against PKK in 1998, in Perincek’s trial documents and the court-martial prosecutor’s indictments, there were hundreds of suspects who were Turkish military academy students or officers, mostly on active duty as colonels.[53]

His former socialist friends from the Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Turkey (Türkiye İhtilalci İşçi Köylü Partisi, or TİİKP) also made some denunciatory claims about Perincek which go beyond personal biases to unpack his ideology and outlook toward life. One of them is Cengiz Çandar, a well-known veteran journalist, who states that the then President of the Police Intelligence Department in 2004 told him that Doğu Perincek was a contracted staff of JİTEM.[54] Another ideological comrade of his, journalist Şahin Alpay, explains that they did not confide in Doğu Perincek as they found him unreliable. He expresses strong suspicions that it was Perincek who betrayed a well-known devout Maoist party member Ibrahim Kaypakkaya to the police.[55] Another old comrade’s observations are also interesting in pointing out the discrepancy between his implicit and explicit agendas and his double life: “He always wanted to be the ‘ultra’ of something. He once wrote articles about Kemalism as ‘the most outdated ideology’ and characterized Ataturk himself as ‘a burden on society’. However, now I see that he has become an ultra-Kemalist. His Aydınlık daily is the most militant organ of neo-fascism in Turkey. He helps grow a cancerous tumor that is prone to continuous metastasis.”[56]

Indeed, one of the tolls he paid as a result of his double-life/agendas is that Perincek’s alliances have always metastasized. For instance, in the 1990s, Perincek was close to the Kurdish nationalists and PKK. He even visited Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of PKK, two times in 1989 and 1991 in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. But currently, he has been stoking fears of Kurdish separatism in public to keep the support of leftist nationalists and Kemalists for himself. Perincek and his co-ideologues behind him have always had friendly connections with elements of the state, but he presents himself as an outright enemy of the state to the public. 

Perincek takes pride in publicly announcing that several high-level retired ultra-secularist Turkish generals and officers are associated with his party. In August 2017, he stated: “(…) within our Vatan Party, we have generals like Saldıray Berk, several other generals and admirals from army, air force and navy, and also from gendarmerie; and we always meet with them and talk. Just recently, I mean, a few hours ago, I had a talk with some gendarmerie officers, and a few days ago I had a talk with some generals, I mean, retired generals. I always get information from all of them, all of them are very republican and progressive officers.”[57] In March 2014, 114 retired Turkish military officers, including 15 generals and 81 colonels, under the leadership of lieutenant general Ismail Hakki Pekin, former head of Intelligence at the Turkish General Staff (J2) joined Perincek’s Workers Party in a ceremony. It is still a mystery, or depending on the perspective one adopts maybe not, how and why hundreds of high-level position holders and “patriotic” Turkish generals can ally themselves with a former Maoist/Marxist who blatantly supported and led quasi-leftist terrorist organizations and the PKK, against which the Turkish military fought for years. One obvious answer would be that these 114 high-rank officers are seeking political careers in Perincek’s party. However, Perincek’s political parties’ national vote count has never been over 0.2%, which clearly means none of those generals would ever stand a chance of being elected from the marginal Vatan Party which they joined with fanfare. It might well be that by cozying up to Perincek, these generals who have lost their social and political importance by retirement find a free space beyond government control to work on their political designs (along with the Eurasian ideology) by joining a party masked with a veneer of legality. 

Regardless of his constantly shifting thinking and domestic alliances, one consistent characteristic of Perincek is his connections with Russia and China, dating back to the Cold War. He had relationships with the Chinese Communist Party since the early 1970s. His relationship with Russia in recent years is aided by the controversial Russian “thinker” Alexander Dugin, who is believed to be close to the Kremlin. Perincek established significant links with Dugin starting in the 2000s. His former Workers’ Party even organized an international Eurasian Conference in 1996. In 2003, Perincek was elected to the supreme council of the International Eurasian Movement founded by Dugin in Moscow. In 2004, Dugin visited Turkey to deliver a keynote speech at a Eurasian Symposium. This event was attended by many top-level political and military figures including retired general Tuncer Kılınç, the former secretary-general of Turkey’s formidable National Security Council. Interestingly enough, Dugin was in Turkey during the night of failed coup on July 15. In fact, a few hours before the unfolding of the events on that night, he had a meeting with Ankara’s mayor Melih Gökçek in which he allegedly informed the mayor that Russian authorities detected some kind of mobility in the Turkish military.[58]

With all his tentacles spreading through the shadowy corridors of the deep state, Doğu Perincek was confident enough to assert in an interview in 2019 that “from 2014 onwards, it is not Erdoğan who governs Turkey, but it is Turkey who governs Erdoğan. By ‘Turkey’, I mean the military, the police, the businessmen, the workers, and the Vatan Partisi.”[59]

Dynamics of Co-opting: Purge-and-Fill

In the post-July 15 era, political loyalty to Erdoğan became a top priority in the recruitment policy of the Turkish bureaucracy. This was most visible in the promotion of some officers many of whom were convicted in the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer cases. Their verdicts were regarded as a symbol that proved their lack of affiliation with the Gulenists. In the re-design of the bureaucracy, the AKP government has relied on several divergent groups: loyalists of Erdoğan from the party’s youth branch; nationalists who are ideologically closer to the far-right Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP); and members of several Islamic communities and pragmatists with no clear ideological or political identity. More significantly, a number of ultra-nationalists and Eurasianists associated with Perincek’s Vatan Partisi have been finding their way back to the state’s security apparatus. 

But the prerequisite for this policy was to cleanse the existing undesirable elements from the bureaucratic strata through purges. Purges, in fact, were part of the post-coup suppression, which was ‘legalized’ with Erdoğan’s declaration of a state of emergency. Since 2016, the scale of the purges executed after the coup reached unprecedented levels including approximately 50% of all admirals and generals in the military, about 20,000 officers, 4000 judges and prosecutors, more than 20,000 police officers, more than 7000 academics, around 28,000 teachers, and more than 160,000 public servants in total.[60] It must be noted that these purges were not only a tool of repression against dissenter groups including Gulenists, but they also functioned as a reward for the co-opted factions.

In tailoring the said purge lists, the regime needed a system of intelligence and information support simply about “who is who,” so as to decide whom to dismiss and whom to keep.  Vatan Partisi and its intelligence network provided the needed feedback in this regard. A closer look at the names of the party members shows clearly the intelligence-intensive nature of the party. Former intelligence heads of the Turkish General Staff HQs, the navy, and also of the gendarmerie (general İsmail Hakkı Pekin, admiral Soner Polat and general Levent Ersöz, respectively) are the members of the party. Retired colonel Hasan Atilla Uğur Aydın from Special Forces command, who conducted the interrogation of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, is another member. The intelligence capacity of the Perincek’s political party provided indispensable data for Erdoğan to be able to purge the dissenting cadres from the state apparatus before restructuring it. Two months after the coup, Perincek safely stated that “his colleagues in the party” checked and compared the new appointment lists of the military’s high posts with the list that they have, and that they are glad to find out that “they match around 90% to100%.”[61]

However, it is important to note that Erdoğan’s co-opting of the Eurasianist network was not an irrevocable and unconditional occurrence as he is a savvy politician not to leave himself defenseless against the new recruits. Having successfully purged tens of thousands of people based on the rosters mainly drafted by his ultra-nationalist ally and filled the vacuum with Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists, Erdoğan became well aware that he was exposed to potential threats against his executive power and position which may come from the new insiders who were, after all, his former foes turned friends. To avoid any potential threats coming from them, from 2018 onwards, Erdoğan started to implement a smaller, yet selective purge campaign to sustain repression with the help of Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, this time on Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists. In this regard, the demotion of the powerful commander of the 2nd Army and of Operation Euphrates Shield, general Metin Temel in December 2018 by Erdoğan (and possibly also by the initiative of Hulusi Akar) was an alarm bell for ultra-nationalists. What followed was the dismissal of several generals/admirals in the 2018 and 2019 Supreme Military Council meetings. Interestingly, almost all these dismissed high-ranking soldiers had been convicted and given sentences in Ergenekon or Sledgehammer cases. Among them was, for example, one-star general Nerim Bitlislioglu who was known for drafting the General Staff’s expert report for the post-2016 coup trials. Interestingly, Perincek-owned publishing house, Kaynak Yayınlari, published his report as a book and named it “Today’s Ideological Line of Turkish Armed Forces”.[62] Bitlislioglu was promoted to brigadier general in 2016, in the aftermath of the coup. A retired colonel Mustafa Önsel who is a loyal Perincek follower said on pro-Perincek Oda Tv after these dismissals that he personally knew all these generals and that none of them would betray the Republican values”.[63] By dismissing those patriotic generals, Önsel demanded to know who was now being made a target of FETÖ and to whom President Erdoğan was “blowing a kiss?[64] Erdoğan’s demotion of the powerful rear admiral Cihat Yaycı in May 2020, who was known to be one of the champions of anti-Gülenist purges and fiercely supported by the pro-Perincek network, boosted the anxiety in Eurasianist circles. 

However, this kind of repression of these cadres is also a risky strategy as it may cause a reaction. Referring to the connections between co-optation, repression, and coup risks in autocracies, Bove and Rivera argue that when the agents within the co-opted groups perceive that repression is unfair and unpredictable, they are more likely to consider their safety at risk and withdraw their bases of support, increasing the risk, for instances of coups.[65] It was partly for touching on this raw nerve that the RAND report which suggested that “mid-level officers are reported to be extremely frustrated with the military leadership and concerned about being removed in the continuing post-coup purges” was reported widely in Turkey. To put it more simply, RAND Report’s claim that “mid-level officers can stage a coup” is exactly related to and a consequence of the fear of co-opted Eurasianist cadres.

“Credible” Religious Sects as a Counterbalance against Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists

In fact, from the very beginning, Erdoğan hedged his bets and recruited religious cadres as a balancing force against the Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists. He not only promoted reliable senior pro-AKP officers to critical posts but also filled the lower echelons of the security apparatus with his religious loyalists by manipulating the recruitment procedures. Many claimed that the void left by the anti-Gulenist purges was filled with substitute religious cults.[66]

It is important to note that the Kurdoglu order, a sub-group of the Nurcu movement, reportedly became a significant power clique within the military. Erdoğan himself introduced this group stating that the Gulenists had tried to purge the members of this sect from the military, adding that he did not let this happen.[67] It is rumored that along with ultra-nationalists, the Kurdoglu group was effective in preparing the anti-Gulenist purge lists within the armed forces.[68]

In a broader sense, one group dominates the recruits: the Menzil. This is a sub-group of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which is the largest and most influential order in Turkey.[69] The influence of the Menzil group is felt “strongly” in the appointments within the police. According to a source who witnessed job interviews at the time, most police candidates were granted positions after displaying loyalty to a certain religious group.[70] Suleyman Soylu, the Interior Minister, who has made his name by his aggressive far-right nationalist views and use of brutal policing methods, denied the allegations, saying “If you show me one [member of the Menzil sect inside the police force] I will resign”.[71] Oda Tv media found it noteworthy that the Ministry of Health used “GVS” capitals on the license plates of their ministerial vehicles; and that GVS is the abbreviation of the religious term “Gavs”, which refers to the Menzil leader.[72] Upon the allegations, Saki Erol, one of the leaders of the Menzil sect, replied: “Former Energy Minister Taner Yıldız and former Health Minister Recep Akdag grew up in our hands. They were with us every week. We are strong everywhere in Turkey. I don’t know in detail, but we have our men everywhere within the state.”[73] Erol also said “now it is written everywhere that we have been staffing (kadrolaşmak, in Turkish) in some ministries. But, does kadrolaşmak mean to have some of our companions in the state positions?”[74]

Along with Menzil, several other religious groups are listed as competing for power within the state apparatus: Milli Damarcılar, Közcüler, Okuyucular, Yazıcılar, Milli Görüşçüler, Hak Yolcular, Kırkıncı Hocacılar.[75] According to an interview with several former, self-proclaimed Kemalist police chiefs that were forcibly sent into retirement by the government last year, the vacuum within the police was filled by the members of other religious cults and fraternity networks including some spin-offs from the Nurcular, Yazıcılar and Közcüler. The police chiefs claimed that “only the name of the given community (Gülenists, he meant) has changed, nothing else.”[76]

As these groups exist in an interplay with one another even sometimes in the same institution, there is every reason to think that there are power struggles among them. A struggle of authority is already reported between the “Közcüler” group, allegedly a splinter group from the Gülen movement, which is led by Kemalettin Özdemir, known as “the imam of Security Institutions,” and part of the “reader” and “writer” groups from the Nurcu movement.[77]

Erdoğan’s right hand in undertaking this recruitment policy was his security advisor, Adnan Tanrıverdi, a former general who had been forced into retirement in 1996 because of his Islamist affiliations. Tanrıverdi became known in recent years as the director of a private security firm, SADAT International Defense Consulting.[78] He is said to oversee a shadowy paramilitary group close to Erdoğan. In January 2018, İyi Party leader Meral Akşener claimed that civilians are given military training by SADAT in camps in central Anatolian provinces.[79] However, Tanrıverdi was forced to resign his post in January 2020,[80] which was regarded by many commentators as a triumph of ultra-nationalists.

The AKP government’s association with the religious communities is apparently due to the party’s relative lack of its own professional cohorts to fill in bureaucratic posts. In the past, this weakness was covered up by Gulenist professionals. It may be correct to claim that cults like Menzil provided the AKP with readily available and ostensibly loyal cadres to restore the damaged state apparatus. However, any comparison that treats the Menzil or other religious sects as the “new Gulenists” must be approached cautiously for the fact that the membership of any of those groups is a lot looser than that of the Gulenists, which weakened the formers’ organizational capacity.[81]

More importantly, it must not be forgotten that religious groups such as Menzil or Kurdoğlu seek their own interests above everything else. While they currently take sides with Erdoğan, their loyalty is prone to shifts. Another fact is that although each religious community suppresses distinctions within the community to preserve unity, it also highlights simple differences from others to differentiate its own discrete identity. It follows that communalism has always nurtured a politics of dislike between religious communities.[82] Besides its current benefits, Erdoğan’s strategy of relying on religious sects could pose risks to Erdoğan and his government in the future.[83] Although they share similar social bases and a common alliance against not only the secular-Kemalist state but also the Gulenists, once potential sources of opposition to them are removed, they may decide that too many chefs spoil the meal and turn on each other starting hostilities that terminate their alliance.

Another Janus-face: Hulusi Akar Playing a Double Game 

In October 2021, Steven A. Cook wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that Hulusi Akar could become the strongest candidate for the presidency if Erdoğan had to leave the presidency due to health problems, and there was such an expectation in the corridors of the US State Department.[84] Cook believed that Akar played a key role in reshaping the armed forces after July 2016, which put the military in a position to play a political role in support of Akar. Cook believes Akar has “joined forces with a fiercely nationalist, anti-Western group of officers” and that “they have colluded to punish officers who… spent significant time in Europe and/or the United States” for “alleged links to the controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen.” Finally, Cook cites Akar’s role as “directly responsible for Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Mediterranean during the summer of 2020, pitting Ankara against its own NATO allies Greece and France” as evidence of Akar’s anti-Western stance. It follows that Akar would not follow a pro-US policy if he became President, that he was still in cooperation with the nationalist/Eurasianist and anti-Western wing of the army, and that he came from a similar background ideologically to Erdoğan. He also suggested that Hulusi Akar should be approached cautiously.

The answer to this article of Cook came from Halil Karaveli in the same magazine.[85] Karaveli argues that Cook’s views on Akar are not accurate and that if Akar becomes president, he will repair Turkey-US relations. He claimed he was not anti-American. Karaveli was also of the opinion that Akar was not in line with the nationalist/Eurasianist soldiers in the army, and although he had temporarily cooperated with them to make the necessary purge in the army for a few years following 2016, he had been liquidating this anti-Western clique recently.

According to Karaveli, Akar has complained that the US behaves in an unsuitable manner for an ally, but he has not turned against the US. He has only demanded that Washington stop funding and arming the Kurdish militia in Syria, which is affiliated with the outlawed PKK, which has been fighting Turkey since 1984. Cook incorrectly asserts that Akar “comes from a similar ideological venue as Erdoğan.” Akar, according to him, is not an Islamist; he is a conservative nationalist, who has historically dominated the Turkish military and state establishment. This group has always been staunchly pro-American.

As can be followed in the above arguments, it is remarkable that the two authors’ perspectives on what he is and what kind of policies he might pursue in the future are so diametrically opposed. Is this contrast due to viewer misinterpretation, or is it due to the extreme diversity of Akar’s current and past positions?

Akar, who started his professional life with the military coup of September 12, received “brilliant” appointments after he became a staff officer. According to his biography on the Joint Chiefs of Staff website, he was sent to the US Armed Forces Staff College in 1987. He worked as a lecturer at the Army War College, where staff officers were trained, and as an intelligence officer at the NATO headquarters in Naples. He worked at the private office of General İsmail Hakkı Karadayı both when he was the Commander of the Land Forces and while he was the Chief of the General Staff. He became the commander of the Turkish national unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After he became a brigadier general, he was assigned to the NATO headquarters in Naples after holding the command of a brigade in Eastern Turkey. He became the Commander of the Military Academy in 2002 when the AKP came to power. Immediately after this task, in 2005, contrary to the custom, he became the commander of an educational institution, the Military Academy. During this time, he completed his Ph.D. education at Boğaziçi University. After serving as Logistics Commander of Land Forces, he became the commander of the 3rd Corps (also NATO HRF corps) in Istanbul during the years when the Gülenists and AKP’s partnership was at its strongest. During this duty, Hasdal’s military prison was subordinate to him as the garrison commander, and his fellow soldiers imprisoned in the Sledgehammer case were kept there.

The significant leaps in Akar’s career are remarkable. While he was the 3rd Corps Commander, he became the 2nd Chief of the General Staff, thanks to the arrest of Lieutenant General Korkut Özarslan in the Sledgehammer Case. General Akar became the Land Forces Commander without ever taking command of an army, contrary to the customary practices in the TAF. While he was the Commander of the Land Forces, Lieutenant General İsmail Hakkı Pekin and Lieutenant General Korkut Özarslan were in front of Akar in the promotion list. Akar might not even be in third place. However, Pekin was arrested in the Ergenekon case and Özarslan in the Sledgehammer case, clearing Akar’s path.

The most striking detail at the Supreme Military Council in August 2013 was the retirement of Gendarmerie General Commander General Bekir Kalyoncu. Had he not been retired, he would have been the greatest candidate for the Chief of General Staff after General Necdet Özel. With his retirement and the inclusion of General Yalçın Ataman in the February 28 trial, Akar’s path was cleared again. That’s how fortune smiled on Akar’s face!

After the 15 July coup attempt, Chief of General Staff Akar cooperated with various retired and active-duty soldiers in the reorganization of the TAF cadres, confirming Karaveli’s claim. However, some names misinterpreted this ad hoc cooperation as Akar’s weakness and tried to create an independent and autonomous halo around them. Akar, who turned his attention to these names, has removed these names from the system with a selective purge strategy in each of the Supreme Military Council meetings since 2018. Among them, for example, were Brigadier General Nerim Bitlislioğlu and lieutenant general Zekai Aksakallı, the commander of the Special Forces at the time of the 15 July coup attempt. Interestingly, a court expert report regarding the coup attempt was penned by Bitlislioglu, and this report was published by Perincek’s Kaynak Publishing house under the title “Today’s Ideological Line of the Turkish Army”. General Ismail Metin Temel, who got the support of Erdoğan and AKP supporters after his “dismantling his epaulets” debate with Presidency candidate Muharrem İnce and started to display attitudes that could be described as a “boycott” against Akar on various occasions, first was taken to a passive duty by Akar, and was retired afterward. A similar story was experienced by the navy chief of staff and rear admiral Cihat Yaycı, one of the theorists of the Blue Homeland concept; Akar forced Yaycı to resign in 2020.

Thus, Akar reached 2021 by neutralizing all possible accumulations of power within the TAF, slowly, carefully, and most importantly, “only as necessary”.

Akar finally managed to retire the most important name left behind, the Land Forces Commander Ümit Dündar, in 2021, despite the support of MHP/Bahçeli behind him. With the retirement of Dündar and the replacement of him with General Musa Avsever, Akar was choosing the possible chief of staff of the future. Avsever was a well-chosen name because Akar would be able to work with him with a unity of understanding and attitude framed by absolute obedience, just as he had with General Yaşar Güler, and just as he had established with Erdoğan.

During the same years, Akar consolidated his communication with both the AKP base and the Islamist line in the army through various symbols. For example, he testified that he “performed ablution and prayed two rak’ahs before he was detained” on the night of the coup. As another example, he visited Islamist writer Nuri Pakdil and pro-government Akit writer Mehtap Yılmaz in the hospital. He visited the grave of Salih Mirzabeyoğlu, the ideologue and alleged leader of the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (İBDA-C). There was news that Akar donated 3 million Turkish liras to a mosque built in his name in Kayseri, his hometown. Even though this news came under criticism from the secular segment, it helped the relations with Islamist and pro-AKP circles to bolster. So much so that before a YAŞ meeting, when he went to the Millet Mosque in the Kulliye in his uniforms for the morning prayer, along with other generals and admirals. It is possible to think that the perception created by these symbolic events and news has a large share in the favor of the AKP supporters as well as the MHP supporters towards Akar, as much as the military activities in Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan.

Concluding Remarks 

With all that being said and turning back to RAND’s report, why the report is given the title “Turkey’s Nationalist Course” remains unanswered, even though this title grasps the truth.  What motivations drifted Erdoğan and his government from a conservative-religious path to a nationalist course is not well explained in the report. A possible answer to this question is his forced reliance on nationalist and Eurasianist cadres within the state apparatus.

Between 2002 and 2013, Erdoğan cooperated with Gülenist cadres in his struggle against anti-democratic forces and in taming a military that has always perceived itself as the guardian of secularism. Between 2013 and 2016, the tension between Gülenists and Erdoğan reached a crescendo as Erdoğan accused Gulen of using his influence within state institutions to try to unseat him in a coup plot in 2016. As their feud deepened, the Ergenekon defendants were released in 2014, with the government suggesting they too may have been unfairly treated as the victims of a Gulenist plot. The aftermath of the failed coup attempt of 2016 left him increasingly reliant on a diverse array of competing factions and networks. Erdoğan’s choice was to mobilize a hybrid strategy towards those networks consisting of repression and co-optation. While employing a repression strategy on his erstwhile partners who now became his enemies, Erdoğan applied a co-optation strategy on his former enemies that now became his partners. 

However, as Erdoğan seeks out new allies, he creates new enemies and leaves behind an increasingly fragmented political landscape. He has not only polarized the people of Turkey but has also poisoned the country’s political environment which may take several generations to rehabilitate. While ultra-nationalists and secularists are supporting Erdoğan’s policies by and large, this unofficial alliance is a patchwork that shares illiberal, anti-Kurdish, anti-Western, and anti-intellectual tendencies that are reflected in Erdoğan’s discourse and policies. Erdoğan still struggles in managing bureaucracy, the military, and other elements of the establishment. Co-optation strategies on pivotal clandestine networks may have strengthened Erdoğan’s control of the state and especially of the military for the moment, but this also left him more vulnerable than ever before. His enlistment of such erstwhile adversaries increases not only the potential for competition between clandestine sects and factions but also the suspicion that a shift in Erdoğan’s approach towards these groups looms on the horizon.

Another issue that the report fails to embrace is the role of the military in shaping Erdoğan’s authoritarian power. As Cizre suggests, it is true that the political class managed to have a greater voice in appointments and promotions of the military bureaucracy in terms of establishing some degree of democratic civilian control in the last decade. But that is not to say that the reforms in the military or even in the security sector were perfect: on the contrary, they failed to address the cultural and structural conditions that produced military tutelage over politics and to genuinely engage with broadening civilian knowledge and participation in defense and security matters. According to Cizre, it is proper to assert that Turkey’s military reforms undercut or self-canceled themselves and “remained reluctant, tenuous and partial, continuing to feed on and strengthen the dysfunctions of the existing system.”[86] They were basically designed to establish total “allegiance” to the political authority, not subordination, or working together/coordination.[87]

It can be asserted that Erdoğan’s achievement in consolidating his rule over the military stemmed from his success in co-opting Kemalist/Eurasianist networks within the military in exchange for their loyalty to his rule. This co-optation process depended basically on the Janus-faced role played by Hulusi Akar and Dogu Perincek, and, on the top of both, orchestrated and balanced by Erdoğan.



[1] Stephen Flanagan et al. Turkey’s Nationalist Course: Implications for the U.S.-Turkish Strategic Partnership and the U.S. Army. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020.

[2] See: Levent Ozen, “After Two Years: The RAND’s Turkey Report Revisited”, Maple Institute, April 4, 2022.

[3] Gareth H. Jenkins, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (July 2009), 2

[4] Michael M. Gunter, “Turkey, Kemalism, and the “Deep State”, D. Romano et al. (eds.), Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East, 2014

[5] Söyler,The Turkish Deep State”, 321

[6] Michael M. Gunter, “Turkey, Kemalism, and the “Deep State”, in Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East, D. Romano et al. (eds.) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

[7] Jenkins, “Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”, 18

[8] During the 1970s, ÖHD was run by General Kemal Yamak. In his memoirs, Yamak states that the United States set aside annually around one million US dollars’ worth of support, partly munitions, partly cash. Kemal Yamak, Gölgede Kalan İzler ve Gölgeleşen Bizler [Tracks in Shadow and Us the Shaded] (Istanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2009).

[9] Bülent Ecevit, Karşı Anılar [Counter Memoirs] (Ankara: DSP Yayınları, 1991).  

[10] Lucy Komisar, “Turkey’s Terrorists: A CIA Legacy Lives On,” The Progressive (April 1997): 24–27

[11] Village guards (korucu, in Turkish) are paramilitaries recruited mostly from ethnic Kurds, but also from ethnic Circassians and Turks. They were established by the Turkish state in the mid-1980s to act as a local militia in towns and villages, protecting against attacks of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

[12] Söyler, “The Turkish Deep State”, 311-312. For the Susurluk report of the Prime Ministry Inspection Committee, see Kutlu Savaş, Susurluk Raporu, Basbakanlık Teftiş Kurulu Başkanlığı, January 10, 1997.

[13] Erol Mütercimler, Komplo Teorileri [Conspiracy Theories] (Istanbul:Alfa, 2004).

[14] For an analysis of those cases, see Yaprak Gursoy, “Turkish Public Opinion on the Coup Allegations: Implications for Democratization,” Political Science Quarterly 130, no. 1 (2015): 103 – 32.

[15] For full text of the indictment, see: Ergenekon Indictment,

[16] The 1908 Revolution was in essence to overthrow of the Sultan’s autocratic power by the military, and the substitution of parliamentary government under their control. Hanioğlu, Preparation for a Revolution.

[17] Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa was founded by Enver Pasha (1881-1922) as a secret paramilitary organization under the control of the CUP’s inner circle and attached to the Ministry of War. It was a key actor in Armenian Massacre of 1915-1916.

[18] Umit Cizre and Joshua Walker “Conceiving the New Turkey After Ergenekon,” The International Spectator 45, no.1 (2010), 93

[19] Jenkins, “Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”.

[20] Cizre, “The Supreme Ruler of Turkey,” 10

[21] Oksan Bayulgen, Ekim Arbatli, and Sercan Canbolat, “Elite Survival Strategies and Authoritarian Reversal in Turkey,” Polity 50, no: 3 (2018): 333-365

[22] “Encümen-i Daniş’in 28 Şubat mektubu” [“Encümen-i Danis’s Letter on February 28], T24, 24 January 2009. 

[23] “Encümen-i Daniş, BÇG’nin Devamı,” [“Encümen-i Danis is a continuation of BÇG], T24, 21 January 2009. 

[24] “Encümen-i Daniş Üyeleri Konuşmaz” [“Members of Encümen-i Danis Can’t Talk”], T24, 21 January 2009. 

[25] “Encümen-i Daniş’te ‘Derin’ Çatlak” [“Deep Split in Encümen-i Danis”], Hürriyet, 23 January 2009. 

[26] Ahmet Çınar, “Tarikatlar ve dinselleşme: AKP ile birlikte gelen Nakşibendi iktidarı!” [“Sects and religiousization: the Nakşibendi government that came with the AKP], Sol, 8 March 2016.

[27] Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, “Leader Survival, Revolutions, and the Nature of Government Finance,” American Journal of Political Science 54, no.4 (2010):936–950; Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski. Cooperation, Cooptation, and Rebellion under Dictatorships,” Economics & Politics 18, no.1 (2006):1–26.

[28] Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski, “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats,” Comparative Political Studies 40, no.11 (2007):1279–1301. 

[29] Alexis Lerner, “The Co-Optation of Dissent in Hybrid States: Post-Soviet Graffiti in Moscow,” Comparative Political Studies (November 2019). 

[30] Vincenzo Bove and Mauricio Rivera, “Elite Co-optation, Repression, and Coups in Autocracies,” International Interactions 41, no.3 (2015): 453-479

[31] Guernillo O’Donnell, Modernization and bureaucratic authoritarianism: Studies in South American politics (Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, 1973), 23.

[32] Johannes Gerschewski, “The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-optation in Autocratic Regimes,” Democratization 20, no.1 (2013): 13-38, p.22

[33] Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, Without a Map. Political Tactics and Economic Reform in Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 8-9

[34] Gerschewski, “The Three Pillars of Stability”, 23

[35] Daron Acemoglu et al., “Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule,” NBER Working Paper No. 10136, (2003). 

[36] Lerner, “The Co-Optation of Dissent in Hybrid States”.

[37] On 17 December 2013, the Istanbul Police detained 47 people, including the sons of three AKP ministers: Barış Güler (the son of the minister of interior), Kaan Çağlayan (the son of the minister of economy) and Oğuz Bayraktar (the son of the minister of environment and urban development). Also detained were Mustafa Demir, the mayor of the Fatih district of Istanbul; high-ranking officials of the Housing Development Administration (TOKI); Süleyman Aslan, the general director of the state-owned Halk Bank; and Iranian businessman Rezza Zarraf. In addition, Egemen Bağış, the minister of EU affairs, was suspected of bribery in association with Reza Zarrab and Babak Zanjani, both wealthy Iranian businessmen. In fact, this was one of the the most extensively investigated corruption case in Turkish history.

[38] Misztal et al., “Deep State of Crisis”.

[39] Karabekir Akkoyunlu and Kerem Öktem, “Existential Insecurity and the Making of a Weak Authoritarian Regime in Turkey”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no.4 (2016): 505-527.

[40] Ahmet S. Yayla, “The Strange Case of Perincek, Erdoğan and the Russia Triangle”, September 13, 2019, The Investigative Journal,ğan-and-the-russia-triangle/Yayla.

[41] Umit Cizre-Sakallıoglu, “Kemalism, Hyper-nationalism and Islam in Turkey”, History of European Ideas 18, no.2 (1994), 255.

[42] Sungur Savran, “Burjuva Sosyalizminin Düşman Kardeşleri: Liberal Sol ve Ulusal Sol”, Devrimci Marksizm, no.2, November 2006

[43] Umit Cizre, “The Supreme Ruler of Turkey: Erdoğan,” November 1, 2021,ğan?r=7vhvt&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&s=r

[44] “Doğu Perinçek cezaevinden çıktı” [“Doğu Perincek is released from Prison”], Hurriyet, 11 March 2014.

[45] As a suspect in the trials of the “Land Forces Revolutionary Officers Organization” (Kara Kuvvetleri Devrimci Subaylar Örgütü) and “Twilight Officers Group” (Şafak Subaylar grubu), he was charged with “infiltrating into the military” and arrested and tried with forty-two military officers in 1973. Perincek received a twenty-year prison sentence in 1974 due to his involvement in “establishing and leading terrorist organizations.” However, he was released after three months following a general amnesty. He was then sentenced to eight years after the September 1980 Turkish coup d’état for “terrorist activities,” and released from prison in 1985. Perincek was again arrested on April 1990, and was released after three months, followed by his arrest in September 1998 due to his involvement with and assistance to the PKK and stayed in prison until July 1999. Yayla, “Strange Case of Perinçek”.

[46] Alexander Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory. Translated by Mark Sleboda; Michael Millerman. Arktos Media. p. 213.

[47] Yayla, “The Strange Case of Perincek, Erdoğan and the Russia Triangle”.

[48] Sungur Savran, Türkiye’de Sınıf Mücadeleleri [Class Struggles in Turkey] (İstanbul: Yordam, 2010), 29

[49] Serdar Kaya, “The Rise and Decline of the Turkish Deep State: The Ergenekon Case,” Insight Turkey, January, (2009): 99-113

[50] The Republic Protests were a series of mass rallies that took place in several cities in Turkey in 2007 in support of a strict principle of the state secularism and against the rising Islamization under AKP rule. 

[51] Özgür Mutlu Ulus, The Army and the Radical Left in Turkey: Military Coups, Socialist Revolution and Kemalism(London: I.B.Tauris, 2010).

[52] Nafees Mahmud, “How an Ultra-secularist gained clout in Turkey’s Islamist government” Al Monitor, 30 January 2020.

[53] Yayla, “The Strange Case of Perincek”

[54] Erkam Tufan Aytav, Aydınlık’tan Kaçanlar: Aydınlarn Gözü ile Maocu Aydınlık Hareketi [Escape from Aydınlık: Maoist Aydınlık Movement in the eyes of Intellectuals] (İstanbul: Ufuk Kitapları, 2013), 62.

[55] Aytav, Aydınlık’tan Kaçanlar, 76

[56] Aytav, Aydınlık’tan Kaçanlar, 111

[57] “Teke Tek” [“One on One”], Haberturk Tv, 26 August 2017. 

[58] Emre Erşen, “The Return of Eurasianism in Turkey: Relations with Russia and beyond,” in Emre Erşen and Seçkin Köstem (eds), Turkey’s Pivot to Russia (Routledge: London and New York, 2019).

[59] “Doğu Perinçek: 2014 yılından beri Tayyip Erdoğan Türkiye’yi yönetmiyor” [“It is not Erdoğan who governs Turkey since 2014”], Independent Türkçe, 23 September 2019.

[60] “Report on the impact of the state of emergency on human rights in Turkey,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, March 2018.

[61] “Dogru Siyaset”, Cem Tv, 12 October 2016.

[62] Türk Ordusunun Bugünkü İdeolojik Çizgisi [Today’s Ideological Line of the Turkish Armed Forces] (İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları, 2018).

[63] “Mustafa Önsel’den YAŞ kararlarına tepki” [“Reaction to YAS Decisions from Mustafa Onsel”]Yeniçağ, 2 December 2019. 

[64] Mustafa Önsel, “FETÖ’nün hedefine koyulan isimleri emekli ederek kimlere ‘öpücük’ gönderiyorsunuz” [To whom are you blowing a kiss by retiring the names put on the target of FETÖ], Oda Tv, 1 August 2019.

[65] Bove and Rivera, “Elite Co-optation, Repression, and Coups in Autocracies”, 458

[66] Tolga Sardan, “Emniyet’te Menzilci var mı?” [“Is there menzilci in the Police?”], T24, 22 November 2019.

[67] “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan resmen ilan etti! Her yerde vuracağız” [President Erdoğan officially declared: We’ll hit everywhere”], Milliyet, 2 February 2020.

[68] Tolga Şardan, “TSK’da cemaatler savaşı” [“Community Struggles in TAF”], T24, 28 February 2020.

[69] M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan, “The Kurdish Question and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party” Middle East Policy 13, no.1, (March 2006): 102-119.

[70] Barış Pehlivan and Barış Terkoğlu, Metastaz (İstanbul: Kırmızı Kedi Yayınları, 2018).

[71] “Süleyman Soylu’dan Menzil yapılanmasına yanıt”, [“Respond from Suleyman Soylu to Menzil Organization”], Cumhuriyet, 20 November 2019.

[72] “Menzilci Ögütlenme Türkiye’nin Gündeminde” [“Menzil order is on Turkey’s Agenda”], Oda TV, 29 October 2019.

[73] Saygı Öztürk, Menzil: Bir Tarikatın İki Yüzü [The Menzil: Two Faces of a Cult] (İstanbul: Dogan Kitap, 2019), 9

[74] Öztürk, Menzil, 16

[75] Mehmet Yılmaz, “Tarikatların Cirit Attığı Bakanlık”, [“The Ministry in which the Cults Run Wild”], Hurriyet, 22 December 2015.

[76] Mehmet Serbes, “FETO’cülerden boşalan yeri diğer tarikatlar alıyor” [“Other Cults fill the vacuum left by Gülenists”], Sözcü, 26 August 2016. 

[77] Mehmet Yılmaz, “The Wars of Brotherhood in the Security Department”, Hurriyet Daily News, 2 September 2016.

[78] See the company website of SADAT at:

[79] “İYİ Party leader Akşener claims civilians receiving weapons training in camps in Turkey” Hurriyet Daily News, 2 January 2018.

[80]“Close advisor to Erdoğan, who said ‘Mahdi will come’ resigns”, Duvar English, 9 January 2020. 

[81] Ruşen Çakır, “Fethullahçıların Yerini Menzil mi Aldı?” [Did the Menzil replace the Gülenists?”]

[82] Yavuz, “A Framework for Understanding the Intra-Islamist Conflict”, 13

[83] Killian Kogan, “Erdoğan’s Purges Have Replaced One Islamic Sect with Another” Foreign Policy, 25 January 2020.

[84] Steven A. Cook, “Erdoğan Might Be Too Sick to Keep Leading Turkey,” Foreign Policy, October 1, 2021.

[85] Halil Karaveli, “Erdoğan’s Heir Apparent Isn’t a Problem” Foreign Policy, October 5, 2021.

[86] Umit Cizre, “Introduction: The Politics of Redressing Grievances-the AK Party and Its Leader,” in Umit Cizre, ed., The Turkish AK Party and Its Leader, Criticism, Opposition and Dissent, Routledge, 2016, p.4.

[87] Umit Cizre, “The Supreme Ruler of Turkey: Erdoğan,” November 1, 2021,ğan?r=7vhvt&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&s=r




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