Terra Incognita: Humbling Turkey’s military

Countries that rely too much on institutions to ensure their values will be let down.

On the July 20, 1974, a young platoon commander in the Turkish Commando Brigade named Isık Kosaner found himself at sea off the coast of Cyprus. He was about to participate in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, an event that came about due to Turkey’s desire to aid Muslim Cypriots in ongoing violence against their Greek neighbors.
On or around July 20, Kosaner and his comrades stepped off of an American-made landing craft and, escorted by Patton tanks, made his way over the Pentedaktylos mountains leading his men in battle. Along the way, they encountered villages, abandoned by their Greek residents. In total, some 165,000 Greeks would become homeless as a result of the Turkish invasion.
Kosaner eventually rose through the ranks of his country’s armed forces, studying at the NATO Defense College and in the UK. After serving briefly as head of the Turkish Gendarmerie and army, he became chief of the general staff in the fall of 2010. It was not a position he held very long. On Friday, July 29, slightly more than 37 years after he had waded ashore at Cyprus, Kosaner resigned his post, apparently in protest of what he saw as government meddling and purging of the military.
The 65-year-old general not only resigned, but took almost the entire military hierarchy of Turkey with him. Standing in solidarity with Kosaner were Land Forces Commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu, Naval Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit and Air Forces Commander Gen.
Hasan Aksay. These four men have a great deal in common. Kosaner, Ceylanoglu and Yigit were all born in 1945, and Aksay was born just two years later. Two of the men (Kosaner and Aksay) came from the same city, Izmir, in eastern Turkey.
Being of the generation of 1945, the men lived through all of Turkey’s four military coups, the first of which took place in 1960 when the men were in their teens. One must understand, therefore, the perception these men had of their institution. It is widely known that the Turkish military has often acted as the power behind the political throne, forcefully ensuring that Ataturk’s brand of Turkish national secularism remains the state’s guiding principal.
BEHLUL OZKAN, a lecturer at Marmara University in Istanbul claimed in Al Jazeera that “for the first time in Turkish history, top military commanders decided to quit their positions rather than seizing power and deposing the elected government.” Ostensibly the commanders are outraged that around 10 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been arrested and a total of some 200-250 military officers have been jailed. This seeming purge of the armed forces is not as large as Stalin’s famous purge of the Soviet Army (contrary to popular belief, most of those “purged” by Stalin were not shot, and many returned to the army), but it represents the decimation of the army’s command structure.
Kosaner framed his resignation in light of his loyalty to the institution he no doubt adores: “It has become impossible for me to continue in this high office, because I am unable to fulfill my responsibility to protect the rights of my personnel as the chief of general staff.”
THERE IS a lot of celebratory blathering in numerous circles regarding the humbling of Turkey’s military. Democracy-loving Westerners see in the resignation a triumph for civil society and democratic institutions. Steven Cook at the Council of Foreign Relations noted that “besides this one act, the military doesn’t really have that much left in the tank.” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that “Turkey’s moment of reckoning, delayed since 2002, seems to have arrived.”
Turkey’s press, especially those who support the government, are slapping themselves on the back as well. Yasmin Congar in Taraf applauded: “It is one major step in Turkey’s very long path of democratization.” Today’s Zaman gleefully profiled Necdet Özel, the country’s new acting commander, calling him “an army man with solid democratic credentials...
The [resignation] marks the end of an era during which top military commanders saw themselves as self-appointed guardians of the regime against the democratically elected governments.” Asli Aydintasbas at the Milliyet newspaper rejoiced: “This is the symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins.”
And there are no more pleased people than those in the ruling AKP party. The vice president of the party, Huseyin Celik, explained the army’s new place in society: “In your capacity [as army chief], you can propose names [for promotion], but you can’t impose.”
THE ARMY as an institution has suffered the tearing down of its reputation in recent years.
This presents a troubling message to those who believe that values such as secularism can be defended merely by strong institutions. The army used its broad sword to defend the Turkish state, sometimes rightly, from Islamists who exploit democracy to enshrine their anti-democratic rule. But institutions are like grapes on a vine; they wither when the society from which they spring does not love and nurture them.
Turkish society is moving away from secularism and is enshrining populist one-party rule. The army as an institution cannot save it from itself, just as the Praetorian guard did not save Rome. However, those who see in the recent events a triumph for civil society may find that Turkey is not actually moving in a purely democratic direction.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.