Michael Rubin: Erdogan Makes a Bid for the Military

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Turkey's President Erdogan arrives for the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland, on July 9. Michael Rubin writes that whoever wins the battle for control of Turkey's military, NATO and hopes of a Western-oriented Turkey will lose. Kacper Pempel/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Much of the reason why so many diplomats and analysts got the trajectory of Turkey so wrong for so long is that they focused on the cosmetic over the substantive.

They focused upon the debate about headscarves in schools and universities, but ignored changes to the makeup of the executive board of the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund, even though it was the latter which allowed Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan to target his opponents’ financial holdings and business interests.

Many analysts—whether out of laziness or ideological antipathy toward those raising alarms—also dismissed concerns that Erdogan had a transformative religious agenda.

Related: Michael Rubin: Will Erdogan bring assassinations here?

A decade ago, Daniel Fried, at the time an assistant secretary of state, insisted that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was simply “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party.” He—or the State Department he was representing—simply did not want to believe Erdogan’s agenda was to unravel the republic Atatürk established and replace it with an Islamic Republic.

Regulations and appointments matter. Personnel is policy, and even minor tweaks of rules can amplify into something far greater. It is in this context that Erdogan’s appointments last week suggest the likelihood of violence is increasing.

Erdogan has already transformed Turkey into an Islamic republic in all but name. Now he appears intent on building his own Turkish equivalent of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, loyal to him and the ideology of his slow motion revolution.

Consider Article 18, published here, in the Official Gazette, which allows the Turkish military to rehire retired military personnel for regular service or as recruiters. This allows Erdogan to bring back thousands of officers fired in the late 1990s because of their ties to the Islamists.

Further, they can return without penalty since Erdogan passed a law three years ago granting retirement rights to those purged at the level they would have enjoyed had they not been fired.

A month ago, I wrote about the strange case of Gen. (ret.) Adnan Tanriverdi, the head of SADAT, a paramilitary group and Special Forces training group, whom Erdogan appointed to be his military counsel.

Tanriverdi was purged in the wake of the soft 1997 coup because of his Islamist ties, and he appears to have been bent on revenge for the past two decades. SADAT has thousands of retired military officers and Islamists working for them, and they could soon find themselves officially in the ranks of the NATO’s second largest military by manpower.

That’s bad for democracy and bad for NATO—eyewitnesses suggest SADAT was behind many of the murders on the evening of the failed July 15 coup that Erdogan subsequently blamed on followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen.

But it also foreshadows coming violence in Turkey. Erdogan makes alliances of convenience before turning on former allies when they are no longer needed. He has embraced and then discarded the likes of Abdullah Gül, Ahmet Davutoglu, Kurdish leaders and Gülen.

It will happen to Devlet Bahçeli, the chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party, although he may be blind to his fate and, regardless, is more a pawn than a competitor.

The battle that looms largest now is the coming showdown between Erdogan and Dogu Perincek, a former Maoist turned ultranationalist who has backed Erdogan only so far as the Turkish president takes on their mutual enemies: Kurds, Gülenists and liberals.

By infiltrating hundreds of his followers into the military, Perincek has ensconced himself as its behind-the-scenes power broker.

Erdogan’s efforts to flood the military with SADAT veterans is meant to shift the power within the institution. It’s a game of chess for military primacy within Turkey. That Article 18 in the Official Gazette’s orders also allows the retired soldiers to serve as recruiters is significant because it means SADAT will now be enlisting and hiring soldiers and military students.

This is already causing grumbling within the current ranks of the military. Perincek’s people have no choice but to resist or concede defeat. Resistance means violence or, perhaps, another coup attempt.

Only two things are certain: First, the Turkish army will become dominated in the coming months by either SADAT or Perincek, but not by both. The former will benefit Erdogan, while the latter will likely mean the Turkish leader’s demise.

The second certainty is that whoever wins, NATO and hopes of a Western-oriented Turkey will lose.

Erdogan has killed democracy, the free press and the independence of the judiciary. Now it is Turkey’s military’s turn for ruin.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

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