By Group Captain Murli Menon (Retd.)
Indian Air Force
Image Attribute: The Flag of Turkey / Wikimedia Commons
Having spent close to four interesting years at our Embassy there five years ago,one looks at the recent happenings in the Turkish landscape with a sense of sang froid. As a "civilian" functionary handling Consular Affairs one had a unique exposure to its political and military establishments a routine call on a senior Turkish Air Force official left me feeling rather impressed with their "Americanized" open system. I was able to reach his office without being accosted by security even once. Clearly, I was expected!
On another occasion, whilst driving around the countryside I had a good look at the typical shopping / corner shops complex abutting the vital installations at NATO's Incirlik airbase, traveling as I was in a diplomatic (CD) car with family.
On yet another occasion I had the privilege of standing in for the Ambassador at a sit-down dinner hosted by then PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Another memorable occasion was a visit to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss Consular affairs. Turkey had then just announced visa- free regimes with seven countries, including Libya and Syria, and we conveyed the Embassy’s concern at this as undesirable elements would transit across to our homeland shores. This threat, significantly to Europe, was to play out dramatically down the line. Of course, it would be a while before normalcy would return to affairs in Turkey.
Role of Army in Kemalist Turkey
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, when he took over the reigns of a new nation in 1924 wished to make his country secular like the USA which was his ardent desire. Being a young Captain himself at that time, he was a unique military –civilian persona.The Turkish military had the onus to temper the nation’s secular format, what with the infamous bans on the Turkish fez caps as a colonial relic and women’s head scarfs as a vestige of Islamism. Incidentally President Erdogan’s and several AK Party leader’s wife's sport head scarfs, a clear sign of the party’s Islamic moorings and Muslim brotherhood origins.
Turkey has compulsory military service and it is considered prestigious to enlist. Girls swoon after soldiers traditionally and his entire village sees him off to duty with fanfare. Now, once Erdogan is done with his putsch one does not expect the Turkish Army’s elan (or fighting prowess for that matter) to be anywhere near what they were known to be.Having seen up close and understood the history of their independence movement as vividly depicted at the Ataturk Mausoleum, the Anatkabir in Ankara, it is difficult to imagine a Turkey without a prominent "Armed Force".
History of Coup in Turkey
Turkey has had three regular military coups and one soft military coup (Darbe in Turkish) in the past, all caused by the Turkish Army (TSK)'s innate belief to be the guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s pro-West, secular outlook. Any government with a tinge of Islamism was routinely dismissed by the military.
- The first military coup in 1960 led to the trial and hanging of the Prime Minster Adnan Menderes and his Foreign/Finance Ministers.
- The second one in 1971 saw the overthrow of conservative PM Suleyman Demirel.
- Then again the third coup in 1980 took place in the overhang of the Iran hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, leading to American support for the coup makers and the assumption of power by Kenan Evren, its leader.
- Another soft coup in 1997 took place under the TSK’s pressure when Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist government was removed by the Army in favor of a secular entity.
Attempted Coup of July 15, 2016
Details of what actually transpired in Istanbul and Ankara on July 15,2016 are still not fully out in the public domain.
From available inputs from UN Human Rights fora and some inputs from friends located there, many a doubt exists in the modus operandi of the coup itself and the naïve manner in which basic tenets for a successful take over such as take over of national media and shut down of social media and the Internet- were not followed.
The bombing of the Turkish Parliament and supersonic fighter runs over cities at night appear without any bigger plans or even juvenile. Now it seems that the coup did not have the support of the Kemalist upper echelons of TSK.
Western media reports immediately after Erdogan’s much touted Skype proclamation talked of a stage- managed affair , carried out by Erdogan and the AK Party to cleanse the military, judiciary, and paramilitary of "Gülenists". Several thousands of senior and junior military officials have since been fired, so also many jurists, academics, and media personnel.Academics were prevented from traveling abroad and several army institutions and schools , some of them a couple of centuries old,have been shut down.
Erdogan now plans to channelize the entire training regimen of the TSK through the portals of a Defense University to be closely monitored by him.
Who is Fethullah Gülen?
Erdogan has sought to pin the entire blame for the latest coup to a little known 75 –year old Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gülen, exiled to Pennsylvania for Islamist activities in Turkey. There he built up an international media empire and a whole slew of Gülen Schools propagating the "Hizmet Hareketi" ideology in an insidious manner curricula-wise and funding-wise.
The AK Party was in bed with Gülenists till they enabled the virtual seating of the party in Turkey’s political landscape. Erdogan himself is a product of Islamist schools and one of his government’s early actions was to undo an earlier proviso denying upward mobility to students from this madrasa- type schooling.
Though Gülen's Hizmet ideology clearly had sympathizers in the military, bureaucracy, and the police. His actually being hands on for orchestrating the coup, is highly unlikely. In a much-hyped coup scenario a while earlier, nicknamed "Balyoz", the AK government had gone to town giving details of how a border skirmish and air war with Greece was to be the curtain raiser for a coup a couple of years ago.
In 2007, the TSK brought pressure on the AK to soft-pedaled its Islamist policies. But Erdogan outmaneuvered them, assuming Presidency for himself and proceeding legally against scores of senior army officers.
Now that he appears to have fallen out with Gülen, Erdogan has now released several senior TSK officers, including the former Chief of the General Staff (Turkish Armed Forces) İlker Başbuğ, from custody. They had been apparently framed by the Gülenists as a ploy to further their own careers. Başbuğ himself has expressed his doubts in the veracity of the latest coup attempt.
Role of MIT - Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı
Turkey’s now all powerful Intelligence agency named the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT) was earlier as a single organization responsible for external and internal intelligence.
Erdogan brought in Hakan Fidan as its Chief, whose university dissertation at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University was on how external and internal intelligence gathering needed to be separated, Fidan himself was a retired Sergeant from the TSK, whom Erdogan cultivated as his "right-hand man". Erdogan is now expected to have direct control over the TSK and the MIT.
Turkey has also selectively supported terror groups such as the Hamas , whose leader Mashal was given refuge in Turkey even as Syria was gunning for him. India had an experience of a Volvo bus with hidden compartments transiting from Istanbul via Pakistan, picking up contraband Indian currency and entering into India. Fortunately, the counterfeit smugglers were apprehended in the state of Uttar Pradesh (U.P) on the way back from Bangladesh.
What the Future Portends?
Turkey has been NATO’s vital Cold War ally, what with 90 nuclear warheads stored at Incirlik.,Turkey had recently permitted the USAF to undertake aerial missions against the ISIS, something it had denied them earlier when the Iraq invasion got underway.
With NATO’s credibility at stake and its viability critical for situations such as the Russo-Ukrainian standoff , what happens in Turkey concerns the Western powers immensely. With the TSK’s morale and combat leadership adversely impacted now, Turkey’s contribution to any NATO operation has become suspect and its membership of the organization itself seems to head for uncertain times.
Along with Erdogan’s attempt to bring back capital punishment (requiring 2/3 majority in a Parliament vote to amend the Constitution) is another aspect angering the West and the EU. It is learned that the recent retrenchment of Gülenists has left Turkey woefully bereft of officer cadre and specialists such as fighter pilots.Reservists are already being called in reportedly.
Erdogan has declared a six-month emergency , virtually opting to rule without a government. Whilst Erdogan’s attempts to have Gülen extradited from the US is unlikely to bear immediate fruit, there is a limit to how much longer he could extend his autocratic reign. There are lessons here for any nation that has a politico- military fault line and where autocracy rears its head. My personal belief is that Erdogan’s days are numbered.,There is that much any system or the moderate segment of society would tolerate and then the entire edifice would collapse. Erdogan’s voter base is in rural Turkey. Many jihadi elements from Turkey have been active in Afghanistan, North Waziristan, and Syria. The Shia-Sunni factor would accentuate in all the ongoing war zones and Turkey would be subject to more of ISIS attacks. Coupled with the revived Kurdish insurgency Turkey’s landscape is ripe for a protracted civil war. Things are bound to get much worse there before it gets better. NATO’s intransigence to accede to Erdogan’s Islamism and a disenchanted civil society would make the erstwhile Ottoman State a crippled political entity.
Erdogan is making a great mistake by denigrating his Army establishment in this manner and seeking to browbeat public dissent through high-handed police and intelligence agency action. Any balanced nation , more so one that had its Army to thank largely for its creation and largely for retaining its geopolitical interests, would find itself in a quandary when one such pillar of the national psyche is drastically emasculated. Conditions would deteriorate rapidly as and when an alternate leadership option than Erdogan becomes available.,Then the nation would rally around him or her to hark back to its ha yon days, in this case, the Kemalist Turkey rather than an Islamist one.
Turkey has many similarities to our good neighbor Pakistan.Both are Sunni republics with histories of military coups, dictatorships, and latent Islamism. Uncannily both nations have the same numbers of Army Corps and Air Force Squadrons.
It is well known that certain Pakistani dictators like Musharraf got inspired by Ottoman folklore and exploits of the Turkish Army.What is happening in Turkey could be a harbinger of things to come in our neighborhood.
As for India, several numbers of Gülen schools operate in India in cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad, and Bangalore.The children studying in these schools are periodically taken to Turkey to "celebrate" neo-Ottomanism. The schools are run under the aegis of the Indo-Turkey Business Association (ITBA). The government needs to review the working and, if the suspect, close down these institutions because of their possible nefarious hidden Islamist agenda. Many Gülen schools have already been shut down by Erdogan post last month’s attempted coup.
It is very much crystal clear, that India's soil cannot be allowed to be used for germination of unconducive ideologies in the future generations.Our own interaction with the TSK, Turkish MIT and the AK government at large need to be re-calibrated by all means.
About the Author:
Group Captain Murli Menon (Retd.) served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting it tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.
He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and since post retirement he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.