A force that once ousted civilian leaders now shapes President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moves in Syria and against Kurdish insurgents at home
By DION NISSENBAUM
ISTANBUL—After 13 years of being methodically marginalised during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure atop Turkish politics, the army is regaining its clout as the president sidelines his political rivals.
Turkey’s military, which has forced four civilian governments from power since 1960, is re-emerging as a pivotal actor alongside Mr. Erdogan, who has long viewed the army as a potentially dangerous adversary.
Mr. Erdogan’s moves to sideline political opponents—he forced out his handpicked prime minister this month amid a power struggle—has cleared the way for Turkey’s generals to play a greater role in shaping Mr. Erdogan’s attempts to extend his global influence.
Turkish generals are tempering Mr. Erdogan’s push to send troops into Syria, managing a controversial military campaign against Kurdish insurgents, and protecting Turkey’s relations with Western allies who view the president with suspicion. By steering clear of politics, they re-emerged as a central player in national security decisions.
“The Turkish military is the only agent that wants to put on the brakes and create checks-and-balances against Erdogan,” said Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military officer who now works as an Istanbul-based security analyst.
It is in Syria where the military is most clearly acting as a check on the president. When Mr. Erdogan last year debated sending Turkish forces into Syria to set up a safe zone for those fleeing the fighting, military leaders expressed strong reservations, former Turkish officials and allies of Mr. Erdogan said. That, they said, helped put the idea on hold.
The debate returned last week when Mr. Erdogan threatened to send Turkish troops into Syria to end weeks of Islamic State rocket attacks on a Turkish border town.
Sending large numbers of combat troops into Syria is still a hard sell for the military, allies of Mr. Erdogan and U.S. officials said. If Turkey were to act without the support of the U.S. and its other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the military fears its soldiers could be bombed by Russian jets and would face international condemnation.
“This is a very realistic headquarters. They know what Turkey’s armed forces are capable of. They’re not adventurous,” said Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst with the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank.
The Turkish military and Mr. Erdogan’s press office both declined to discuss their relationship.
The restoration of the Turkish army’s influence has resurrected concerns all the way up to the presidential palace that generals might try to topple Mr. Erdogan, a polarizing figure whose extensive crackdown on domestic dissent has triggered alarm in Western capitals, according to people familiar with the matter.
As commander-in-chief, Mr. Erdogan oversees National Security Council meetings, appoints the head of the military, decides how to use the second-largest standing army in NATO, and is a pivotal player in shaping Turkey’s military decisions.
Speculation about a military coup reached a fever pitch in late March, when Turkish media reports suggested the Obama administration was trying to topple Mr. Erdogan. The rumors led to a terse exchange at the State Department, where a Turkish reporter asked spokesman John Kirby whether the U.S. was working to bring down Mr. Erdogan.
“Are we trying to overthrow the government of Turkey? Is that your question?” Mr. Kirby said. “It is such a ridiculous claim and charge that I am not going to dignify it with an answer.”
Mr. Kirby’s response did little to damp speculation. Allies of Mr. Erdogan privately wondered if the U.S. had a covert plan to topple the president, according to the people familiar with the matter.
Two days later, while Mr. Erdogan was in Washington, the Turkish military released an unusual statement rejecting “baseless” speculation about a coup.
“There can be no talk about any illegal action that is outside the command structure, or which compromises it,” the military said.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
Turkey’s military has forced out four civilian governments since 1960 and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sidelined political rivals in recent years. Some political clashes have acquired names over the years
1960: The military seized power after an Islamist-leaning government declared martial law. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed for treason
Coup By Memorandum,’ 1971: Amid protests and economic stagnation, Turkey’s top general issued a memorandum demanding changes that forced a center-right prime minister to resign. The military installed a caretaker government.
1980: In a period of political instability, Gen. Kenan Evren announced a coup on national television, and ruled as president for nine years.
‘Post-Modern Coup,’ 1997: After the establishment of an Islamist-leaning government, the military demanded changes to protect secular values. Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan ceded power
‘E-Coup,’ 2007: Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party sought to elevate a co-founder of the Islamist-leaning party to the presidency. The military issued a statement—later dubbed the E-Coup—threatening to intervene if Turkey’s secular character was altered.
2010: Turkish police arrested hundreds of current and former military officials accused of plotting to overthrow Mr. Erdogan’s government. Hundreds were sent to jail, but the cases eventually crumbled
‘Palace Coup,’ 2016: After losing a power struggle with Mr. Erdogan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu decided to step aside. Critics of Mr. Erdogan called it a “palace coup” that would let the president consolidate power.
Many saw the statement as a clear sign that Turkey’s generals were trying to avoid being cast as a new generation of coup plotters—accusations that have sent hundreds of army officers to jail under Mr. Erdogan’s rule.
“They are trying to keep themselves away from military involvement in day-to-day Turkish politics,” said Mr. Kasapoglu, the defense analyst.
That wasn’t the case when Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won a decisive parliamentary victory in 2002. His ascent delivered a blow to the secular and military elite that had dominated the predominantly Muslim country.
In 2007, the military threatened to intervene in a political dispute over appointing AKP co-founder Abdullah Gul to be president. A year later, Turkish investigators said they had uncovered a five-year-old coup plot led by soldiers, academics and politicians. Hundreds were arrested and sent to jail. Two years later, authorities said they had broken up another plot, this one led by current and former military officers. Hundreds of defendants were sentenced to long prison terms.
While critics denounced the cases as show-trials, the sentences effectively neutralized the Turkish military. “Turkey is no longer a country where whomever gets up early in the morning can deliver a coup d’état,” Mr. Erdogan proclaimed in 2012.
Last month, a Turkish appeals court threw out the convictions of 275 people, including top generals, who had been accused in the 2008 case.
As the next generation of Turkish military officers has moved to rebuild, it has established strong ties with the U.S. and NATO, which are working closely with Turkey in the fight against Islamic State.
“The military-military relationship is traditionally the strongest the U.S. government has with Turkey,” said one U.S. official. “Now perhaps more than ever.”
The Turkish military is playing an increasingly vital role fighting Islamic State. Mr. Erdogan and Turkey’s generals agreed last year to allow the U.S. and its allies to carry out airstrikes against the extremist group out of Incirlik Air Base, not far from the Syrian border. Turkey has sent thousands of troops to the border, where they are trying to shut down routes Islamic State is using to send terrorists to European capitals.
U.S. military and diplomatic officials credit Turkey’s top general, Hulusi Akar, with boosting the military’s influence. Mr. Akar, chief of the general staff, speaks English and served in various NATO posts where he established close ties with his military counterparts.
Mr. Akar, who took the post in August, also has a strong relationship with Mr. Erdogan, and served this past weekend as an official witness when a defense-industry scion married one of the president’s daughters.
After announcing his decision to step aside following the power struggle with Mr. Erdogan, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Mr. Akar at Turkey’s military headquarters.
“One of the main reasons that Turkey looks to the future with confidence in a democratic system, despite lots of regions in crisis around it, is the Turkish General Staff,” Mr. Davutoglu said. “Whether it is the issue of terrorism within our borders or instabilities emerging out of Syria and Iraq, Turkish Armed Forces represented our country’s power and might.”