Over the entire history of the Republic of Turkey, the country’s military has enjoyed significant privileges and been an integral part of the national political system. Most Russian and foreign analysts agree that the army has always been the guarantor of the Kemalist course and protector of the secular state.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Turkey launched a dramatic review of its political system and certain foreign policy priorities. The army has been losing its traditional political role, privileges and independence, and is in the process of being transformed into an effective foreign policy tool of the ruling party. Notably, against this backdrop, the government has come to view its goal of strengthening Turkey’s international position as enabled by further military modernization and buildup, and has employed both its own resources and assistance from its allies to do so. For example, the deployment of the U.S. Patriot antiaircraft complex has bolstered both the national air-defense system and country’s position in the Middle East. In this context, the prospects and future societal role of the Turkish army indisputably deserve close attention.
Transformation of the Army’s Political Role
The military came to power as soon as General Marshall Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the Republic of Turkey in 1923. For decades, the armed forces were the provider of both national security and executive of secular domestic and foreign policies. Prior to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently winning elections, no party with Islamic roots or working to strengthen Islam could have hoped to stay in power long. Whenever hints of a breach in secular principles emerged, the army acted directly or indirectly to oust the party in question or have it shut down. In 2002, the AKP won parliamentary elections with help of its balanced economic program, positioning itself not as Islamic but as a conservative democratic party on par with European Christian Democratic unions. Thanks to economic successes and the absence of a clear-cut Islamic orientation, the AKP also won the 2007 parliamentary elections.
Until 2008, when vigorous legal proceedings began against some opposition leaders and top brass, the army had remained a privileged regulator of domestic politics. This situation changed with the trial of the Ergenekon (Ancestral Home) organization, accompanied by mass arrests of former and active-duty officers, intellectuals and journalists allegedly involved in the antigovernment plot.
The trial is still ongoing, while a similar one, that of the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) plot, reached a verdict in favor of the government. At present, the February 28 trial is still underway, with the defendants’ chances appearing poor.
Legal proceedings against top military officers over the charges of organizing the coup have forced the army out of politics and propped up the AKP. With the opposition essentially helpless, the military had been the only major political actor that could oversee the domestic arena effectively, although indirectly.
The AKP has also been successful in eliminating its main rival by more discrete means, working stealthily since 2007 to amend the national constitution. Approved by a popular referendum in 2010, these changes have considerably limited the army’s ability to participate in the formation of domestic policy. Among other things, the role of military tribunals has been reduced, while the participants of the 1980 coup have been deprived of immunity from prosecution. The next legislative measure to drive the military out of politics will likely involve the revision of Article 35 of the Turkish Armed Forces’ Internal Manual that specifies the military’s key goal as the “preservation and protection of the Republic of Turkey”, which was declared by deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag in early October 2012. Over the years, the article had been used as a ground for military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
Another major legal victory for the AKP was the 2010 Political Document on National Security, or the Red Paper. Dubbed a secret constitution, it specifies the national security strategy, as well as key challenges and threats. Whereas in 2005 the document was compiled by the military and reflected their interests, in 2010 these responsibilities were transferred to civilian officials, in reality to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who predictably augmented the list of priorities to develop a security zone around the country.
In addition to legislative and judicial initiatives, the AKP seeks to reform the young soldier and officer training system in order to prevent future military interventions. Education in military schools is based on the Kemalist principles of a secular state, but in 2012 Education Minister Omer Dincher called for the democratization of the process and introduction of Islam principles into the curriculum. This policy aims to fully disconnect the military from politics and ensure the unhindered introduction of a new national ideology, i.e. moderate Islam.
In other words, in order to remove the army from political life, Ankara is exercising an integrated approach, so that the military finds it difficult to regain public trust and return into politics through a coup.
The Turkish Army on the International Arena
In the midst this weakening of its political position, Turkish armed forces are gaining in international recognition. Turkey is becoming more active in UN and NATO operations, demonstrating its capabilities and political ambitions. Turkey took part in UN peacemaking missions in Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Haiti, as well as in NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo. In fact, Turkey belongs to the world's 15 largest providers of police forces for peacekeeping and stabilization missions worldwide.
The Arab Spring has given Turkey a real opportunity to become the leader of the region. Destabilized, major regional powers like Egypt and Libya have become battlegrounds for domestic and external political forces. Iran is still besieged, with no regional allies except for Syria, and is restricted in its international maneuvers by economic sanctions. Through its support to oppositions in Arab countries, Turkey has swiftly grown into a regional hero. At the same time, Ankara has realized that should an armed conflict break out involving outside participation, the laurels would go to the winner, whereas Turkey would be left with nothing and be divested of regional influence.
Hence, the Turks have changed the course to demonstrate their military potential to the world, effectively stating the key role of their armed forces in building a new regional reality. The NATO base in Izmir has become the command center for the Libya operation and the launching pad for NATO aircraft to bomb the country.
With international attention riveted to Syria, Western statements on the presence of chemical weapons there imply a growing threat of foreign intervention. The situation is exacerbated by instability on the Turkish-Syrian border, caused by a Syrian shell killing several persons on the Turkish territory. Ankara responded by immediate mobilizing various armed forces at the frontier, as well as by bombing Damascus and its vicinity.
Notably, there have also been border skirmishes, possibly initiated by Syrian Kurds. Turkey has repeatedly appealed to the international community to establish a safety zone in the north of Syria that should be free of hostilities and used for placing Syrian refugees whom Turkey is now forced to receive in its territory. Hence, the Syrian shell provided the AKP with a good pretext to escalate the bilateral conflict, although the matter is far from simple.
Currently, Turkey is cooperating within NATO to further its own interests, i.e. as long as Ankara and Washington are interested in toppling Bashar Assad, they should act together. At that, Turkey, the U.S.A. and NATO all do not see benefits from a Libya-style full-scale operation that would submerge the alliance in a wave of sharp criticism. Uncertainty on the border appears more useful, since Turkey has had every opportunity to demonstrate its military power and attract NATO's attention. The bloc profits from this because the U.S.A. lacks sufficient capacity and will to fight in Syria, thereby interfering in this domestic political conflict. The Turkish presence in the region and participation in the Syrian conflict should help NATO to use somebody else to pull their chestnuts out of fire. In February 2012, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that NATO was establishing peace and security in the Middle East, and Turkey would entirely support the initiative. In other words, Ankara is acting as NATO's ally and proxy, which also suits Turkish interests.
For the time being, further aggression against Syria is being held back by Russia and China. Alongside Ankara, Moscow is also willing to build up its influence in the region, although through diplomatic efforts without the use military force. Russia denounced Turkey's decision to host the Patriots on the Syrian border, which NATO plans to deploy in 2013. Moscow has repeatedly called upon Ankara to launch a direct dialog with Damascus, but Turkey is refraining from restoring relations with Bashar Assad and is openly supporting the Syrian opposition. President Putin's visit to Turkey in early December 2012 was aimed at advancing a common vision of the Syrian problem but the parties failed to agree on a key aspect, i.e. stabilization in Syria. Since their stances are derived from principles, no consensus seems in the offing if the status quo holds.
In this case, the Turkish army is acting purely as an unofficial but effective tool of foreign policy. Turkey is definitely shedding its peaceful image and switching over to the use of force following the example of the U.S.A., its closest ally.
The Modernization of Turkish Forces
The Syrian scenario may turn out to be a test of loyalty for Turkey, a chance to prove that cooperation with the U.S.A. and NATO is its absolute priority, even against its own foreign policy interests, as well as an opportunity to display its fighting capabilities and possession of a modern army.
As of 2012, the Turkish armed forces numbered about 700,000, the second largest NATO army after the U.S.A. and the sixth largest in the world. At the same time, the military lacks up-to-date weapons.
Many weapons have been purchased in the U.S.A. and Israel, with some of the systems foreign-made to the last stitch. However, Ankara would not like to have its forces rearmed and upgraded only through imports, its top priority being the development of a national defense sector. In 2012, the Turkish Defense Ministry's Defense Industry Department presented a plan for sector development until 2016, which would place the country in the world's top ten by this time.
Turkey is working hard on the mass production of its UAV Anka in 2013. İn November 2012, Turkey pleged to to deliver ten such UAVs to Egypt. Serial production of the T-129 attack helicopter will also start in 2013.
In December 2012, China launched the Turkish satellite Gokturk-2 to transmit images from all over the globe, while in late October 2012, Ankara presented its new rocket system Cirit, one of the world's best laser-guided projectiles, at a weapons show in Washington.
On November 15, 2012, Otokar, a Koc holding company, displayed the first battle tank fully developed and built in Turkey. The tank is equipped with CBN protection and a precision sight, which is highly effective even against moving targets.
The program for army modernization also includes the development of the Mehmetcik-2 assault rifle, while in July 2012, Turkey launched a 2,500-km-range ballistic missile program. Other projects include battle corvettes, submarines, aircraft carrier and jet fighter.
However, NATO's role in upgrading the Turkish army is still significant. American F-16s comprise the backbone of the Turkish air force and were used in Syria and Northern Iraq in 2012. U.S.-made Sikorsky helicopters provide air support in operations against Kurds in the east of the country, and NATO's Patriot air defense systems are to be deployed on the Syrian border.
Turkey is definitely seeking to modernize its forces through the development of a national defense sector. Numerous successful weapons projects offer up a bright future, and within several decades, Turkey is likely to compete with West in certain weapon sectors. At present, the country still must purchase foreign armaments and weapons, primarily artillery that is vital to reinforcing national defense systems.
In conclusion, we note that the transformation of the Turkish army's domestic and foreign role is in full swing, and soon it will be fully deprived of its internal functions. On the other hand, the importance of Turkey's forces for international peacemaking and combat operations, including those beyond the region, will continue to grow. Robust military modernization will also move ahead through the development of a national defense sector and assistance from NATO.
Russia and the countries of the Middle East are especially concerned about the AKP's growing international ambitions. Following the Arab Spring, Foreign Minister Davutoglu's previously constructive and innovative zero-problems policy has drastically changed from creativity to aggression, the key novelty lying in Turkey's conversion from an aspirant to regional leadership into a leading regional power. Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly said that Turkey "will lead the big wave of change in the Middle East" and "Turkey would be the "owner" of the new Middle East".
Now Turkey's task is to secure and legitimize its regional stance. Therefore, cooperation with NATO on Syria is an imperative. In case of a military intervention, the Turkish army should lead the operation and become the rightful owner of Syria and the Middle East.
Despite differences on Syria, Ankara's relations with Moscow are gaining ground. Of course, they could be easily overshadowed by Turkey's further alignment with NATO and by its predominantly destabilizing policies. To this end, Russia’s mission seems to lie in engaging Turkey in order to prevent the use of force in the Syrian settlement.