In the early days of August every year, the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), a high-level group of politicians and generals who determine the appointment and promotion of officers in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), convenes. The outcome of the meeting is often debated in the media for days with a view to exploring the potential future implications of the decisions. This year’s YAŞ, convened amid wildfires sweeping across 30 provinces, didn’t make the headlines. Yet, the decisions made there carry significance that could prove decisive for Turkey’s political atmosphere in 2021 and 2022.
The element of Hulusi Akar
After a failed military coup in 2016 that is still shrouded in mystery, the generals lost what little influence they had over the country’s governance. Gen. Hulusi Akar, who was chief of general staff at the time of the abortive putsch, left the army in 2018 to become defense minister in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s cabinet. Although he took his retirement, Akar continues to enjoy a practical sway over the military as he is still referred to as a commander by the current chief of general staff, Gen. Yaşar Güler, and the lower-ranking officers.
For the last five years, Akar had the last say in YAŞ decisions, and each year he transforms the high command to work more compatibly with him. While this has rendered Akar an essential component of Erdoğan’s rule, it is not so simple to completely subordinate the TSK to Erdoğan.
Referred to in the past as the “serial pasha,” Akar’s term saw large-scale purges in the TSK. In the last five years, a total of 29,444 officers were removed from the ranks on account of their suspected links to the faith-based Gülen movement, which the Turkish government accuses of being the organizer of the 2016 attempted coup. Of these, 6,141 are currently imprisoned. In addition, 16,409 military school cadets were dismissed.
While Akar conducts the anti-Gülen purge in coordination with the police and the judiciary, he is personally engaged in trying to weaken his second most targeted group: officers with pro-Kemalist or pro-Eurasian (NATO-skeptical and pro-Russia) views who are often seen as a potential future challenge to Erdoğan’s regime. Last year’s YAŞ meeting lasted only 45 minutes and resulted in the decision to retire 624 colonels, twice the number in previous years. Most of those who were discharged were known as Kemalist officers. The relatively short duration of the meeting arguably meant that the list was prearranged by Akar and put before Erdoğan for his signature.
The actual purge was expected for the 2021 YAŞ. For months backstage rumors in Ankara had it that Akar was poised to eliminate large portions of the military staff in order to bring about a complete subordination of the TSK to himself personally and to Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Yet, the meeting did not produce such an outcome. Instead, it only resulted in a series of changes over which Akar and the Kemalist and pro-Eurasia staff probably had no disagreements.
Akar’s political power backer, Erdoğan, has lost an inordinate amount of power compared to last year. His poll numbers have gone below 35 percent, the economy is in shambles and the government is constantly shaken by new scandals. Neither Akar nor Erdoğan would dare to confront the Kemalist and pro-Eurasia military establishment in such a climate. While the decisions made at the meeting included the retirement of certain generals who were locked in tensions with Akar, officers within the targeted groups generally maintained their positions or enjoyed significant promotions.
Ümit Dündar, who during the 2016 coup attempt was temporarily appointed as chief of general staff when Akar was unreachable, is the most important among those sent into retirement. One of the prominent Kemalist and nationalist officers, Dündar was considered a potential future chief of general staff. Yet, his retirement is not extraordinary as he would be able to serve in that position for only one year due to age restrictions.
The second significant figure was Adm. Yankı Bağcıoğlu, who was seen as a future commander of the naval forces. He was sent into retirement at a relatively young age due to a personal conflict with Akar.
In the land forces, considered the center of the military, Kemalist and pro-Eurasia officers gained significant ground. Kemalist officer Levent Ergün was promoted to lieutenant general and Erdoğan Koçoğlu to brigadier general. Lt. Gen. Yavuz Türkgenci, one of the key actors of the night of the failed coup, maintained his position. While Musa Avsever, who has been promoted to command the land forces, has worked with Akar in the past, he is known for his views critical of Erdoğan’s rule.
Naval officers who were promoted such as Hasan Özyurt, Erdinç Altınel and Yalçın Payal, are all known to have Kemalist or pro-Eurasia inclinations.
An alliance to continue
Some of those who were promoted previously stood trial in the famous Sledgehammer case in which they were charged with forming a junta within the army. The case was seen as orchestrated by Gülen movement elements within the judiciary and the police, while the officers on trial claimed they were entrapped over their Kemalist convictions based on fabricated evidence.
After Erdoğan’s split with the movement in 2013, the officers on trial were reinstated to their positions in the army, and Erdoğan established a close alliance with the pro-Eurasia group, which worked in harmony throughout the widespread purge of the Gülen-affiliated people from all levels of the civilian and military bureaucracy.
Both Erdoğan and the cliques facing him are aware that the alliance is temporary. They are waiting for the right time to make their move to eliminate each other. The decisions that came out of the 2021 YAŞ meeting point to a postponement of the awaited confrontation, implying a continuation of the crackdown on the Gülen movement as well as pro-Kurdish political organizations.
A few hours after the announcement of the YAŞ decisions, Erdoğan visited Devlet Bahçeli, his ultranationalist political ally, at his home. The decisions arguably pleased Bahçeli. While Dündar, who was sent into retirement was very close to him, his replacement, Musa Aysever, is also someone Bahçeli can be satisfied with.
By Cevheri Güven