Wednesday, May 22, 2024
HomeResearchCivil-Military Relations Before and After the 15 July Coup Attempt in Turkey:...

Civil-Military Relations Before and After the 15 July Coup Attempt in Turkey: Two Dimensions




This report attempts to evaluate the dimensions of transformation of civil-military relations in Turkey before and after the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. After presenting an overview of civil-military relations (CMR) prior to the coup, this report focuses on the two dimensions of CMR and attempts to analyse whether the pattern is democratic. It argues that despite civilian supremacy was established over the military by the AKP government and President Erdogan through massive efforts in structural, educational, and legislative domains, those efforts fall short of being overarching. It is equally important to note that it has not produced a democratic form of CMR and an irreversible transformation in the intellectual, cultural, and professional habits of thoughts of officer corps.

The 2000s

The Turkish civil-military relations (CMR) literature was overly optimistic in the early 2000s when AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) came into power. Depending on the significant legislative reforms controlling the military’s historical privileges, most analysts were safe to argue that the supremacy of the civilian authorities over the military was well established and that the Turkish military was moving forward “toward a liberal model.”[1]

However, many scholars also warned that whether civilian control is permanent or reversible is still a key question. They suggested that the political thoughts and the mindsets of the officer corps were key for a sustainable and enduring transformation in civil-military relations, adding that unless the recent changes are accompanied by a widespread intellectual conviction among soldiers based on the universal principles of democratic control of the military, they are at risk of being only illusory and temporary.

The 15 July failed coup attempt marked a true milestone in Turkey’s CMR history as its aftermath witnessed a massive and harsh transformation process over the military. In this report, I will first attempt to figure out the past stream in the decade before the coup, this study will venture to draw a sketch of the main pattern of the transformation process in Turkish CMR after July 15th, 2016.


Baron von Wangenheim, the German ambassador to Istanbul in 1913, reported to his ministry that “the power which the military holds will always be the strongest in Turkey.”[2] This observation really grasped the truth for the next 100 years.

The military always played a significant role in Turkish political affairs. This happened either by intervening in the political sphere in an explicit manner or by threatening to do so in an exquisite manner. On 27 May 1960, putschist young officers ousted Adnan Menderes’s Demokrat Parti (Democrat Party) government and organized the drafting of a new constitution. They hanged the prime minister and the two ministers thereafter. On 12 March 1971, the high command procured the resignation of Suleyman Demirel’s Adalet Partisi (Justice Party) government and established a state of emergency in the country for the next two years. On 12 September 1980, the armed forces took power in a hierarchic manner. On 28 February 1997, the military issued a memorandum that initiated the process of the resignation of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party).

In 1999, Turkey declared candidacy for full membership to the European Union (EU) and things began to change. The government began a reform process and amended the constitution in adopting the EU candidacy and the Copenhagen Criteria.[3] Some of these reforms aimed at limiting the political privileges of the armed forces and adjusting the balance of power in favor of civilians. During its first term in office (starting in 2002), the AKP successfully continued the reforms to reduce the power of the military and tied these reforms to the EU accession process. 

In this era, the powerful mandate given by the electorate to the AKP helped it cement its position vis-a-vis the armed forces. Behind this electoral power were both Erdogan’s charisma as well as his party’s success. This success had its source in the unity which the AKP established between dominant and subordinated classes and the hegemony in which the AKP managed to produce through that unity.[4] Contrarily, as the military’s political strength grew since the 1980 coup, its mode of involvement in politics had emerged as over-bureaucratized, eventually making it too “slow” a political actor to keep up with the AKP’s “agile” and pragmatic modus operandi.[5]

The CMR under the AKP’s second term in office was stamped more by investigations of alleged coup attempts.[6]The trials and investigations were important indicators of how far the military’s role could change in the near future.

The first inquisition implicating military officers took the start in 2007 after the security forces discovered small arms in a slum house in Istanbul, which then led to the allegation that a secret organization, named Ergenekon, which operated in collaboration with the security agents of the state, targeted to oust the AKP government. In the trials that started in 2008, suspected individuals, including retired and active military officers, have been charged with attempting to create turbulence in society and to “cook” conditions for a military coup. In 2010, another investigation implicating military officers began. According to the allegations, the 1st Army HQs located in Istanbul planned a coup plot, named Balyoz (Sledgehammer), in order to topple the AKP government in 2003. Similar to the accusations related to the Ergenekon case, implicated individuals were suspected of carrying out operations that would prepare conditions within the society for staging a coup.[7] Some claimed that the government was orchestrating one of the most dramatic humiliations of the military to take revenge on its Kemalist opponents with all these charges.[8]  In 2013, 275 of the accused, including the former chief of General Staff, General Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to life or long prison terms. 

As Cizre argues, the Ergenekon episode was about who genuinely makes fundamental rules in Turkish politics and with what force, coalitions, legitimacy, and agenda.[9] Although some critics accused Erdogan 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. It represented an opportunity for the country to finally eradicate what is referred to as the deep state. 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.[10]

However, when his alliance with the Gulen movement collapsed in December 2013 and the relations turned sour. Feeling more vulnerable, Erdogan took a pragmatist u-turn and coopted his erstwhile foes, the Eurasianists/Ultra-nationalists, most of whom happened to be convicted defenders of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases.[11] Ultimately, Ergenekon case fizzled out, the defendants were released and became his supporters. The High Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 2016. Thus, instead of being a major step towards the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, Ergenekon and Balyoz cases became springboard towards the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.

Consequently, the uncovering of alleged plots changed decisively the civil-military balance in favor of the former. Moreover, the coup allegations made questionable for the government the earlier belief that the entire military cadre endorsed the rule of the AKP and the reforms it made. Hence, from the perspective of the AKP, future amendments had to depend on annihilating the interventionist factions in the armed forces completely. For this purpose, the government made massive legal changes, limiting not only the autonomy of the military but also breaking the Kemalist hegemony within the social sphere. 


The making of the 15 July 2016 coup featured several oddness. On the night of the subject coup attempt, all the state agencies, including President Erdogan, all became aware of the plot just at the same time as the ordinary Turkish citizens -only after it got underway. Erdogan even stated explicitly that he became aware of the coup attempt via his brother-in-law[12] and not by his security and intelligence bureaucracy. This indicates an enormous intelligence failure. Unable to reach the Chief of General Staff or the Chief of MIT (National Intelligence Agency), political leaders were saved from death or arrest thanks purely to the awkwardness of the coup plotters.[13] In like oddness, the perpetrators failed to close down the broadcast media, the Internet, and social media so that Erdogan was able to get a message out to his supporters using FaceTime. During the demonstrations in Gezi Park events in 2013,[14] being confronted with a secular-oriented opposition, Erdogan had once alluded that he could request his followers/voters to mount rallies on the streets to overcome the demonstrations but would refrain from doing so at least for now. This time, on the night of the coup attempt, Erdogan called millions of his supporters for martyrdom, to take the streets and stand before the combat tanks.[15] Moreover, he encouraged the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a state agency, to ask its clergy to call the people from loudspeakers of mosques to join the marches against the coup attempt. Turkey had experienced two explicit coup events in 1960 and 80 but this was new in the sense that neither a popular resistance had occurred against the coups, nor the religious leaders had urged a mobilization with religious references before. 

Correspondingly, a key feature of the coup attempt emerges as the lack of reliable information: Years after, neither the events that unfolded on the night of the putsch nor the identity of the plotters and their affiliations have been clarified precisely and convincingly. Thereupon, several conspiracy theories emerged. On July 19, a Financial Times tweet indicated that one-third of Turks surveyed believed that Erdogan was behind the coup.[16] The coup plotters were so inept that many considered the coup as a hoax, whereas it is difficult to imagine a hoax of such enormity. Another possibility is that Erdogan was either tipped off by some members of the coup or by the intelligence service of a foreign government. Hence, instead of preventing the coup, Erdogan allowed events to progress just as far enough as claims of a coup were credible but not so far as to present any real risk.  In support of this rumor, several observers question whether the chief of MIT, Hakan Fidan, failed or, as some have suggested, helped to dodge the coup by coercing the plotters to stage their move prematurely. The opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), labelled it as a coup that is “Foreseen, Un-prevented and Controlled” in its official oppositional commentary to a Parliamentary Report.[17] The commission that has prepared this parliamentary report, set up with the mandate of elucidating properly what happened on that night, was not able to question the most important figures of that night, Chief of General Staff and the Chief of MIT. 

Figure 2: A Turkish soldier in Syria gesturing Rabiah sign (a gesture used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters in Egypt) and “Grey Wolf” sign used by MHP supporters in Turkey.

Be that as it may, it was the government who uniformly promoted one mere theory that they were the Gulenist officers that hatched the plot with the backing of the CIA. On the very night of 15 July, Erdogan pointed a finger of blame at a group of mid-ranking military officers allegedly loyal to Gulen’s movement. In the absence of free media, the AKP’s accusations has blocked any effort to reveal the true agendas behind the coup attempt. Moreover, Erdogan has transformed any manifestation of opposition or suspicion against this narrative into a matter of national security.[18]

Consequently, the retrospective construction of an authoritative narrative of 15 July enabled the government to implement specific institutional changes in the cultural, military, and political domains.[19] These domains were treated in such a revanchist manner that targeted not only to eradicate “the virus” that supposedly caused a botched coup attempt but also to shatter all potential opposition and critical thinking arising from liberal, left-wing and democratic flanks. Maybe, that is the reason why Erdogan declared that the failed coup was “a gift from God.”[20] As of January 2018, it was declared by the government that the number of purges within the state cadres reached 140.000[21] including thousands of employees from the agencies that are irrelevant to coup planning, such as Turkish Airlines, the State Theatre of Istanbul, the Tobacco Regulation Agency, the Directorate of Statistics, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Family and several municipalities. Adding the human rights abuses, the utter scale of Turkey’s political hurricane becomes clearer. Amnesty International (AI) reported it had credible evidence that post-coup detainees, including generals, were being beaten, tortured, and raped/sodomized. The police were keeping detainees in stressful positions for up to two days at a time, beating them and denying them food, water, and medical treatment. The detainees were being held arbitrarily, denied access to lawyers and family, and not properly informed of the charges against them. AI termed these reports “extremely alarming, especially given the scale of detentions.”[22]

Figure 3: Many Turkish soldiers faced systematic tortures during and after the coup (Source: Anadolu Agency)


Turkey was kept under a perpetual state of emergency from 20th July 2016, just five days after the coup attempt, until 18 July 2018. While initially this state was declared for a single 90-day period, the government has faced no difficulty so far in extending this period. The high power derived from the state of emergency yielded dozens of decrees concerning the reform of the military as well as other domains. 

One of the greatest purges was in the Ministry of National Education, where almost 25,000 officials were purged. The licenses of 21,000 teachers in the private sector were also canceled. 626 educational institutions, mostly private, were shut down. In addition, a travel ban was placed on academics, preventing them from leaving the country. In July 2016, Turkish authorities shut down 1,043 private schools, 1,229 charities and foundations, 19 trade unions, 15 universities, and 35 medical institutions in his first emergency decree under the newly adopted emergency legislation.  Academics have reported the pre-2016 coup’s changes in academic leadership, and sharp growing pressure after the 2013 Gezi Park protests and 2016 coup. Dean and academic management have pressured professors and students to align with conservative values and teachings. Activities, associations, and student clubs have been closed under similar pressure. Conservative students are empowered to denounce non-conservative activities. Academic grants and tenures are reported to be filtered according to political affiliations and connections. Teachers have reported a forced change in political, academic, and critical culture, with firing and exclusion of traditional academic profiles, with worries about the long-term effect of such change and academic purge on the expertise and tone of both Turkey’s research and governmental statures, culture, and policies. While private universities are technically allowed to hire purged academics, many reports private universities have been scared to hire them, increasing the economic exclusion. 

About four thousand scholars and human rights experts who had earlier petitioned for the end of military operations in southeast Turkey, Afrin, and Syria have faced systematic punitive consequences via public agencies, including interrogations, judicial prosecutions, firing from jobs, arrests, trials and condemnations for “terrorist propaganda”.The signatories have been subject to routine judicial hearings with usual 15 months suspended jail sentence, with no acquittal reported and about 30 actual imprisonments.

Making the government massively empowered in the wake of the coup plot,[23] the reforms that were implemented within the military domain following 15 July was the government’s largest effort against the coup. 

Those reforms can be delineated into two main categories: The first is the reforms that affected the military’s “hardware”, which refers to the solid aspects, and the second is the “software” of the armed forces, which refers to the ideological outlook and the affiliation of the military. 

Reforms on “Hardware” of the Military

The government implemented the transformation of the “hardware” through several sub-categories including the personnel cadres, the military education system, the military’s historical privileged domain, and the military-government relationship. 

Personnel Cadres

The lessons learned from the Ergenekon-Balyoz trials had already taught the government that the safest way to install a powerful control over the military was to create a totally loyal top brass. Accordingly, the government has assumed, with a decree-law, all powers of appointment with the Ministry of Defense, in place of the General Staff, to have the authority to form military cadres. Only fourteen days after the coup, it was declared that 149 (of all 358) active-duty generals and admirals had been expelled, while some also were jailed. Among them were two generals, nine lieutenant generals, 30 major generals and vice admirals, and 126 brigadier generals and rear admirals.[24] The emergent of subject purge lists in such a short time further nourished the suspicion that those lists were already produced well before the coup. Moreover, it was not only the quantity but also the content; among the expelled generals/admirals and officers were some significant figures. Four major chairs at General Staff HQs filled by 3-star generals; the Head of Personnel (J1), the Head of Intelligence (J2), The Head of Operations (J3), and the Head of Plans and Principles (J5) were purged and jailed. Lt. Gen. Salih Ulusoy, the head of J5 at General Staff HQs, was in charge of relations with NATO, EU, strategic foresight and relations with other militaries of the world. Maj. Gen. Mehmet Disli, the chief of the Strategic Transformation Office at the General Staff HQs, was responsible for supervising of all active transformation projects. [25] The list of purged officers further indicated that most were officers who attach importance to Euro-Atlantic ties and hold a significant pro-NATO attitude. As of January 2018, the number of purges in the military reached to 8,570 in total including 150 generals/admirals and 4,630 officers from army, air force and navy. Their positions were rapidly filled, often by under- or unqualified replacements, via the Turkish patronage system of kadrolasma -literally, the establishing of loyalist cadres instead of merit.[26]

At this point, a question may arise as to whether the AKP did have his loyalist cadres ready in hand to fully or partially fill those positions. The answer is no, at least for the top brass and officers’ level. Because for long in its history had the Turkish military paid utmost importance to keep its senior cadres clear from any type of affiliations other than Kemalism. Thus, the religious/conservative socio-cultural stratum that supported the AKP and its associates had been kept out of the Turkish military academies which would lead them to high military careers. What was the remedy then? 

As O’Donnel and Schmitter argue, intra-military splits might occur during a transition in a certain country, especially when there are political elites with which the military factions can explicitly or implicitly negotiate.[27] When the government found itself unable to fill those posts with his direct supporters, it seems to have made a shrewd bargain with once-Kemalist military cadres who had been jailed for years throughout the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases. Thus, several officers who were acquitted[28] from the Ergenekon-Balyoz trials, many of whom known mostly to have anti-NATO, Euroasianist and/or ultra-nationalist leaning, were furbished, promoted, and appointed to critical posts at the units and the top HQs in August 2016.

The “engineering” on the personnel cadres to establish a most-loyalist brass continued in 2017 as well. With the decisions fostered on the August 2017 meeting of the YAS (Supreme Military Council) and with follow-up emergency-decrees, their positions are further consolidated. General Arif Cetin, for instance, the current Chief Commander of Gendarmerie, was promoted to lieutenant general in 2016 after the coup and, only after one year, contrary to the Turkish Armed Forces Personnel Act which normally requires at least a 3-year of the compulsory awaiting period, was promoted full general by a decree-law in 2017. Another example is that, for the very first time in Turkish naval history, a vice admiral, instead of an existing 4-star admiral was appointed as the Commander of the Naval Forces in 2017 by another decree-law, stirring controversy. The Fleet Corps Commander Admiral Veysel Kosele who was expected to be promoted as the new naval forces commander chose to resign from his post afterward. Rumors were telling that the government had considered Admiral Kosele not effective and loyal enough as he should be in fight against the anti-government cadres in his HQs.

Reforms ending the military’s privileged domains

These reforms first struck the military hospitals and then targeted its economy. The government followed through on its rough decision to totally disassemble the military hospital network of nearly a thousand military doctors in uniform and more than four thousands of military nurses. The name of the 100-year-old Gulhane Military Hospital in Istanbul was symbolically turned to “Sultan Abdulhamid Hospital.” Furthermore, authority over the naval shipyards, military factories, and industrial complexes in the hands of the Turkish military were transferred to Ministry of Defence.

Reforms in the military-government relationship were first seen with the symbolic change in the location of YAS meetings. In place of convening at its traditional location, at the HQs of the General Staff, the 2016 summer meeting was held at Cankaya Mansion, the then-residence of the Prime Minister. More importantly, the formation of the council was changed to include a greater number of civilian representatives, deputy prime ministers, and the ministers of foreign, justice, and interior affairs, while dismissing a number of generals, resulting a majority in favour of civilians. By a decree-law, the Gendarmerie Command and the Coast Guard Command, which was under General Staff’s hierarchy, came under the control of the Interior Ministry. The land forces, the navy, and the air force commanders have been brought under the direct control of the MoD, thus leaving the Chief of General Staff with no direct command authority over any of the single service commands and making it only a symbolic chair.

Reforms in Military Education

As the modern Turkish military historically had long a secular tradition and viewed itself as the guardian of the Kemalist democratic Republic, the military schools played a crucial role in that regard. As this was the case, the government paid enormous care to the transformation of military education after the coup and shifted the entire system. It was only 16 days after the failed coup when the government issued in a very rapid fashion a decree-law which shut downall the military schools in Turkey: War Academies, War Colleges, Military High Schools, and non-commissioned officers’ college were all closed. With the same decree-law, all of the existent cadets, numbering nearly 16,000, have been expelled from the military.[29] In March 2017, seven months after its shut down, War Colleges was re-opened with a limited and somehow symbolic number of cadets. Military High Schools, on the other hand, were shut down permanently and are still closed.[30]

         Figure 4: Cadets of Army War College in 2019 

In the previous structure, the military schools were subordinate to their related Force Commanders and General Staff (GS) HQs. In the new system, a brand-new joint body, called National Defense University (NDU), was created to command and administrate all the military schools/academies in one hand. In October 2016, the government appointed a famous, known to be a conservative history professor, Erhan Afyoncu, who was also a columnist in pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah, as the rector of the NDU. The civilian rector, holding a military rank equivalent to a three-star general, has the ultimate authority over all of the military educational institutions in the Armed Forces. The curriculum and all other administrative and academic issues would be determined, not by Force Commanders or General Staff HQs as was the case before, but by NDU and Ministry of Defense (MoD). Consequently, the military top commanders are left with no piece of authority within the fences of War Colleges.

Likewise, the chain-of-command structure within the War Colleges is decisively changed, degrading those in uniforms. Traditionally and historically, to be appointed as the Commander of War College meant to be one of the most brilliant career fortunes for the officers. Many Chief of General Staff including Hulusi Akar, Hilmi Ozkok and Yasar Buyukanit had once sat on that chair. While donating excessive power to the civilian Rector and to the Dean, the new arrangement has curbed the authority of the military Commander of the War College leaving him with only administrative and logistic duties. As a result, while the government increased the influence of MoD over the military education system excessively, it decreased the role of General Staff HQs, Force Commanders, and other military bodies in commanding and administrating the military schools/academies to almost zero level.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a speech at the commencement and flag handover ceremony of the National Defence University Army War College in 2021 and said that “The students, who started their education at the first grade of the National Defence University when it was first opened, have today graduated. When we implemented this reform, some spread disinformation and claimed that we severed the veins of the Turkish military. However, today we see that we now have a much stronger, much more capable, and much better-equipped military education system, let alone severing the veins of the Turkish military.”[31]

Figure 5: Erdogan and Akar visit an army patrol on Syrian border with some celebrities in November 2018

The Reforms Affecting the “Software” of the Military

The abovementioned changes posed a massive impact on the hardware of the Turkish military. Yet, maybe more important were the tacit changes brought on its “software”. In comparison with its traditional ideological outlook, the new era after the coup is marked with two main differences: A decline in the secular-Kemalist pattern, and the debilitating of the pro-West and pro-NATO vein.

The Turkish CMR is shaped by the historical experience of the Ottoman Empire, the War of Independence (1919-1923), the Cold War, and an enormous modernization and westernization project which was ultimately entrusted to the military itself. In a dominant proportion of the literature on the issue, the military was considered the protector of a political system that is unable to handle crisis situations and as the guardian of Kemalist principles, particularly of secularism and Westernization.[32] When one recalls Collier and Levitsky’s term[33] “democracy with adjectives,” Turkey would be considered as a “protected democracy.”[34] While it was never truly a predatory army that sought long-term power, it was hardly convinced that the level of democracy achieved in Turkey was safe enough to become completely subordinate to them.[35] Thus, the de facto and de jure roles the military has played find their roots in a Kemalist ideology, which defines the military’s role as guardian. In the Republican period, the military’s guardianship role was reinforced as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic and a former soldier, ultimately relied upon the army for his revolutionary reforms. The Republican state was based on Ataturk’s principles, and the belief that the army is the chief guardian of these principles was implanted in the hearts and minds of officer corps from the first day cadets entered military schools and continued throughout their military careers.[36]

Figure 6: Hulusi Akar shakes hand with Islamic clerk Cubbeli Ahmet Hodga 

However, following the massive transformation brought after the coup, the Turkish military, the once-mighty pillar of the secular state, seems to have lost its Kemalist oomph.[37] Its historically nuanced stance toward religious affairs is abandoned and substituted by a rough show of religiosity. In that regard, for example, in the 2017 summer, a few days prior to YAS meeting, chief of general staff and the commanders of the single services showed off in the Millet Mosque of the Presidential Palace, for the morning pray, which is traditionally uncommon and odd.[38] There were news that the chief of general staff, Akar, donated 3 million Turkish liras (750,000 USD) for the construction of a mosque in his hometown. There exist several more examples in the same fashion. Many officers began to use religious jargon in convergence with the AKP leadership. For instance, the expression that “Allah yar ve yardımcınız olsun” (literally, “Allah be your comrade and help!”), which is often used by Erdogan in his speeches, gradually pervaded within the military circles. The power of this small watchword symbolically weighed over its length. By the same token, soldiers, who once were against the wearing of religious headscarves even in the universities, did not demonstrate any resistance or even an oral protest when the government allowed in October 2017, for the very first time in Turkish military’s history, to wear it with the military uniform in the barracks. Those examples appear as the symbols of the Turkish military’s exchanging its “the guardian of Kemalist state” self-portrait with only being satisfied with the accomplishments (not the setting) of national military duties directed by the government.

Having recognized the fact that the nature and the character of civil-military relations are closely related to the military mentality in terms of political socialization or organizational culture,[39]  Erdogan paid great attention to the new style of indoctrination within the military schools. In his speech at a ceremony of the Army War College in 2017 August following its re-opening, he stated that “We will not allow any ideology, faction or mentality to take control of our academies. I believe that we have established an all-national and all-local structure here.  We will never again let anyone attribute our military academies a mission other than training officers.”[40] There are claims that a certain kind of nepotism is functioning in the selections for those schools in order to promote the presence of the social classes that has a pro-AKP leaning. Several social media users claimed that cadet candidates were asked some questions in a way to reveal their political affiliation toward Erdogan and the government, such as “which one do you think is more a heroic epic, Gallipoli War or the 15th July?” Such intensive care given to military academies indicates that the government is seeking not only a quick treatment but a long-term change in the software of the Turkish military.

The anti-West vein should be considered in correlation with the pro-Russian attitudes. It was only a month after the botched coup when Turkey launched its first cross-border military operation into Syria. The top military brass who survived the enormous purges following the coup was so boggled by the government’s retaliating wrath that they were in no position to resist the politicians’ desire in Syria. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) operation was enabled by close intelligence sharing with Russia.[41] Nearly one year after the OES, in January 2018, Turkey has launched its second cross-border operation into Syria, Operation Olive Branch, targeted at Afrin, after a green light given by Russia. In social sciences, certain events may produce unintended results. 

Thus, the government’s appetite for accomplishing cross-border military victories has injected new variables into the transformation process of CMR. These two military operations helped to debug the damaged popular image of the military. Furthermore, it has provided the military high command with a carte blanche to deal with its internal affairs, and a good hand against the politicians, causing another disruption in the CMR. The new Turkey-Russia partnership is also translating into massive arms deals. Turkish Defense Minister stated in April 2017 that Ankara was in the “final stage” of a deal to buy an S-400 air defense missile shield from Russia.[42] (Before the botched coup, Moscow was not on the shortlist of bid contenders). A significant political figure that needs to be factored into any analysis of anti-West vein in the post-coup era is Dogu Perincek. He is the leader of the far-left Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi) a tiny, ultranationalist party that punches above its weight in the Turkish security services. Following the botched coup, Erdogan is believed to have enveloped Perincek, once an enemy, in a brotherly embrace.[43] “With the religious conservatives, we have formed a common patriotic front,” Perincek told the Turkish press.[44] In October 2017, he talked on a Turkish television broadcast saying that they knew of the coup before it has undergone, with the help of a Russian citizen, neo-Eurasianist politician, Alexander Dugin. Perincek added that Erdogan came to the same frontline as them on Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Eurasia matters, and admitted that the positions in the army, air force, navy, and gendarmerie emptied by the purges are filled by his comrades.[45]

It can be asserted that the main reason for the insertion of ultra-nationalists into the Erdogan regime’s equation was Perincek’s close connections with the deep state cadres. By coopting Perincek, Erdogan was able to hit two birds with one stone: While he was able to enjoy the benefits of Perinçek’s support in his war against Gulenists, he was also able to control especially the Perincek-affiliated 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 mentioned 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.[46] During these years, Perinçek 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.[47] Ahmet S. Yayla, a counterterrorism police sergeant, who penned a comprehensive report on the strange relations of Perinçek 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.[48]

Interpretations and Implications: What is Ahead?

While analyzing the military in a given country, some scholars fail to analyze it independently from the political, ideological, and cultural context in which it is nested. The CMR does not occur in a vacuum. Thus, in order to get a sense of the nature of the transformation of the Turkish CMR, one has to figure out first the overriding features of today’s Turkey’s politics.

There are many reasons to consider the political atmosphere in today’s Turkey as displaying many similarities with Weber’s concept of “Sultanism.”[49] Following Weber, Linz and Stepan put the features of Sultanism as; the state is assumed to be closely bound up with the fate of the leader; the private and public domains are fused; loyalty to the leader is based not upon tradition or ideology, but a mixture of fear and rewards; the ruler acts with unchecked discretion, the norms of bureaucratic behavior are subverted by arbitrary decisions of the ruler; the security forces are central to the ability of the regime to survive. Although the forms of authority in a sultanic regime are identical to those in patrimonialism and neopatrimonialism, sultanism is distinguished from them by the extreme nature of personal loyalty to the ruler. These differences are further developed by Chehabi and Linz in their examination of sultanic regimes. In their analysis, sultanic regimes appear distinctive in the capacity of the ruler to free him/herself from dependence on traditional patron-client networks.[50] “Delegative democracy” in O’Donnell’s term could be another useful conceptualization for understanding today’s Turkey. Lying between representative democracy and authoritarianism, the exclusiveness of delegative democracy lies in its features, including a strong centralized rule, a cult figure embodying the nation and clientelist practices, individual leadership with unchecked powers, and an absence of horizontal accountability.[51]

The new era in Turkey after 15 July displays patterns of deliberative democracy as well, characterized by strong personalized and centralized rule and unchecked powers legitimized through a crisis-driven narrative and clientelism.[52]In his book “The New Sultan” Cagaptay considers Erdogan as a flawed figure who began to eliminate all checks on his power; the military, the press, and the judiciary were well suborned.[53]  Moreover, human rights abuses expand and involve many elite Turkish groups -the judiciary, journalists, academics, and the military. People are terrorized with the fear that they or their families might be the objects of charges.[54]

For decades, democracy in Turkey failed to establish a tradition of political supremacy over the military in spite of the country’s pro-western attachment and lengthy NATO membership.[55] The reforms affecting Turkey’s military after 15 July have been so extensive in both scope and scale that it can be called “revolutionary civilianization.”[56] Yet, while all forms of democratic control over the military are civilian in principle, not all forms of civilian control happen to be necessarily democratic. Today, a kind of civilian supremacy over the military appears as maintained, however, within a pattern that brings it closer to serve as the military apparatus of a political party.

Few could deny that those massive changes failed to yield a positive effect on democratic consolidation and democratization. For democratic consolidation, all compelling actors and, in countries where the armed forces historically had proved to have tutelary functions, the military should behaviourally, attitudinally, and intellectually endorse and appreciate the democracy. As long as a group of actors with the potential power to disrupt the political system does not consider democracy as the best regime for the country, then democracy is not consolidated yet.[57]  When the institutional identity of the armed forces is diluted due to corruption and/or organizational stagnation, the military might become vulnerable to countermeasures from civilian agents.[58] Moving quickly and unpredictably, the government has undergone a radical deconstruction of the military’s institutional bases in a politicized and ideological manner[59] without any parliamentary oversight, through a decision-making frenzy involving unilateral executive orders and decrees that bypass the slow decision-making process in institutionalized democracies, and produced a harsh transfer of power from the military institution to the fervent political elites.

There is no doubt that the government seeks to shift the civil-military balance in its favor. It is normal, of course, for a democratically elected government to establish the principle of civilian supremacy. But there is little to suggest that this should be inspired by a certain sense of democratic motivations. Through various institutional amendments driven with a revanchist manner, the government weakened the Turkish military’s power not only in politics but also in its mere internal military affairs after 15 July.

It should be recalled that despite their rigid hierarchies, militaries are neither unitary, undivided organs as they are often assumed to be, nor do these internal differentiations remain constantly subsumed beneath civilian authority.[60] The form and the context within which the Turkish CMR occurs are more than thorny today. There is a general tendency to approach the outflanking of the military from the political realm in terms of democratization and to consider the failed coup as to mark –another- end of military tutelage in Turkey, while hardly paying attention to the probable power struggles as well as covert negotiations between the military and its political competitors. 

Whether these reforms produced an endorsement within the officer corps and top brass to a certain extent or yielded a potential counter-revanchism within certain factions is unclear. The turmoil in the aftermath of 15 July, on the military’s side, depicts an extensive reversal for its esprit de corps, self-esteem, unity, hierarchy, professional capabilities and social prestige of the armed forces. The AKP rule was able to catch the Turkish military off-guard and effectively pacify it through massive precautions and measures taken so far since the coup plot. Yet, there are still covert and endemic tensions between and among the apparatus of the state and the forces of the military. The question of whether Turkey will be capable of managing these tensions in the future or will stand –given the appropriate set of conditions- vulnerable to factions of her armed forces remains ambiguous.

[1] Metin Heper, “Civil-Military Relations in Turkey: Toward a Liberal Model?” Turkish Studies 12, no. 2 (June 2011): 241–252.

[2] Quoted by Mehmet Naim Turfan, Rise of the Young Turks: Politics, the Military and Ottoman Collapse. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000): 398.

[3] See: Metin Heper, “The European Union, the Turkish Military and Democracy,” South European Society and Politics 10, No. 1, (April 2005): 33–44.

[4] Ismet Akça, Ahmet Bekmen and Baris¸ Alp Özden (eds). Turkey Reframed: Constituting Neoliberal Hegemony. (London: Pluto Press, 2014). 

[5] For an analysis of rise and fall of Turkish military in that sense, see: Pelin Telseren Kadercan and Burak Kadercan, “The Turkish Military as a Political Actor: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 23, No. 3, (Fall 2016): 84-99.

[6] For an overview of the investigations, see Ersel Aydınlı, “Ergenekon, New Pacts, and the Decline of the Turkish ‘Inner State’,” Turkish Studies 12, No. 2 (June 2011): 227–239. 

[7] For a satisfactory analysis on those cases, see, Yaprak Gursoy, “Turkish Public Opinion on the Coup Allegations: Implications for Democratization.” Political Science Quarterly 130, no. 1 (2015): 103-132.

[8] Chaitram Singh and John Hickman. “Soldiers As Saviors of the State: The Cases of Turkey And Pakistan Contrasted.” Journal of Third World Studies 30, no. 1 (2013): 39-54.

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

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

[11] Michael M. Gunter, “Erdoğan and the Decline of Turkey.” Middle East Policy 23, no.4 (Winter 2016): 123-135, at 125-126.

[12] “Erdoğan says he learned of coup attempt from his brother-in-law,” Hurriyet Daily News, 21 July 2016.

[13] Umit Cizre, “Turkey in a Tailspin: The Foiled Coup Attempt of July 15 – The Future, AKP and power.”, 10 August 2016,  accessed on 11 February 2018.

[14] For an analysis of Gezi Park events, see: Efe Can Gurcan and Efe Peker, “Turkey’s Gezi Park Demonstrations of 2013: A Marxian Analysis of the Political Moment,” Socialism and Democracy 28, No.1, (2014): 70-89.

[15] FaceTime intervew with Hande Fırat, CNN Turk, 16 July 2016.

[16] David L. Phillips, 

An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship, (New York: Routledge, 2017), 169.

[17]  accessed on 10 February 2018.

[18] See, for instance, Erdogan’s speech, “President Erdoğan marks July 15 as nation’s turning point,” Hurriyet Daily News, 13 July 2017.

[19] Ates Ali Altinordu, “A Midsummer Night’s Coup: Performance and Power in Turkey’s July 15 Coup Attempt”, Qualitative Sociology  40, No.2, (2017): 139-164, at 140.

[20] Cited in “After the Coup, the Counter-coup,” The Economist, July 23, 2016, 14.

[21] “107,174 state personnel dismissed since July 15 coup attempt, Deputy PM says,” Daily Sabah, 31 January 2018.

[22] Amnesty International, “Turkey: Independent Monitors Must Be Allowed to Access Detainees amid Torture Allegations,” July 24, 2016.

[23] For an analysis of a similar empowerement made during and after the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, see: Mehmet Bardakci, “Coup Plots and the Transformation of Civil–Military Relations in Turkey under AKP Rule,” Turkish Studies 14, no.3 (2013): 411–428.

[24] Metin Gurcan and Megan Gisclon, “What is The Turkish Military’s Strategic Identity After July 15?”, IPC–Mercator Policy Brief, September 29, 2016, 2.

[25] Gurcan and Gisclon, “What is The Turkish Military’s Strategic Identity After July 15?” 3.

[26] In December 2016, NATO’s commander in Brussels, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, warned of a “degradation” of the alliance’s operations following the expelling of “talented, capable” senior Turkish military officials. (“NATO Commander Says 150 Turkish Officers Have Left Post-coup,” Defense News, 7 December 2016.)

[27] Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1986): 37-47.

[28] “236 Acquitted in Balyoz Coup Case,” Hurriyet Daily News, 31 March 2015.

[29] “Over 22,000 from Army, Military Schools Expelled: Minister,” Hurriyet Daily News, 18 March 2017. 

[30] In November 2016, a group of retired generals and officers, who generally endorses the government’s ongoing precautions against the coup, initiated a social pressure platform that calls for the reopenning of their commemorative schools (Kuleli, Maltepe and Isiklar). “Askeri Liselerin Açılması İçin Nöbete Başladılar,” [They Are On Duty for the Re-Opening of Military High Schools], Aydınlık, 13 November 2016.

[31] “We now have a much stronger military education system”

[32] Gilles Dorronsoro and Benjamin Gourisse. “The Turkish Army in Politics: Institutional Autonomy, the Formation of Social Coalitions, and the Production of Crises.” Revue Française De Science Politique (English Edition) 65, no. 4 (2015): 67-88, at 67

[33] David Collier and Steven Levitsky, “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research”, World Politics 49, (April 1997): 430-51.

[34] Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey. (London: Routledge, 1993), 17.

[35] Ersel Aydinli, “A Paradigmatic Shift for the Turkish Generals and an End to the Coup Era in Turkey”, Middle East Journal 63, no. 4, (2009): 581-595

[36] Tanel Demirel, “The Turkish Military’s Decision to Intervene: 12 September 1980.” Armed Forces & Society 29, No. 2, (Winter 2003): 253-280,  at 255.

[37] Leela Jacinto, “Turkey’s Post-Coup Purge and Erdogan’s Private Army.” Foreign Policy, 13 July 2017.

[38] “Akar ve Kuvvet Komutanları Camide,” [Akar and Force Commanders are at Mosque], Haber 7, 28 July 2017.

[39] Ümit Cizre, “Disentangling the Threads of Civil Military Relations in Turkey: Promises and Perils,” Mediterranean Quarterly 22, no. 2 (2011): 57 – 76.

[40] See, Presidental official web page: accessed on 13 February 2018.


[42] “Turkey at Final Stage with Russia over S-400 Missile System -Defence minister,” Reuters, 21 April 2017.

[43] Jacinto, “Turkey’s Post-Coup Purge.” 

[44] Mustafa Akyol, “The AKP’s Strange Bedfellows,” Al Monitor, 25 January 2016.

[45] Ibrahim Sozen, “Dogru Siyaset,” Cem Tv, 12 October 2017.

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

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

[48] Ahmet S. Yayla, “The Strange Case of Perincek, Erdogan and the Russia Triangle”, September 13, 2019, The Investigative Journal,  

[49] Max Weber. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. ed. R. Guenther and C. Wittich. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978): 231-232

[50] Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996): 51-54, 70-71. 

[51] Guillermo O’Donnell. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5, no.1 (1994): 55-69

[52] For an analysis of Turkey’s resemblance with delegative democracy typology before the 15th July, see: Hakkı Tas. “Turkey: From Tutelary To Delegative Democracy.” Third World Quarterly 36, no. 4 (2015): 776–791.

[53] Soner Cagaptay, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.” (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

[54] Michael M. Gunter, “Erdoğan and the Decline of Turkey.” Middle East Policy 23, no.4 (Winter 2016): 123-135, at 131.

[55] Gerassimos Karabelias, “A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Civil-Military Relations in Albania, Greece, and Turkey During The Post-WWII Period.” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 31, no.1 (Summer 2003): 57-70

[56] Metin Gürcan and Megan Gisclon, “Turkey’s Security Sector After July 15: Democratizing Security Or Securitizing The State?” Turkish Policy Quarterly 15, no.4 (Winter 2017): 67-85.

[57] For definitions of democratic consolidation, see: Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 26-34.

[58] Kadercan and Kadercan, “The Turkish Military as a Political Actor,” 89.

[59] Gürcan and Gisclon, “Turkey’s Security Sector.” 

[60] Tim Jacoby, “A Historical Perspective on the July 2016 Coup Attempt in Turkey”, Insight Turkey 18, No.3, (2016): 119-138, at 137.


You Might Also Like

Latest Posts

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...

Osman Kavala case: Justice in present-day Turkey

This case is the last straw that broke the camel's back. The court's decision to sentence philanthropist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment is the final...

Is the Key to Russia’s Victory Hidden in Ensuring Air Superiority in Ukrainian Airspace? 

A Brief History of the Tensions in Ukraine and Russia In 1994, Ukraine agreed to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state,...