The resignation of the Turkish military high command: an enigma

WJC ANALYSIS – Pinhas Inbari: The resignation of the Turkish military high command: an enigma



Last week, when the Turkish high command resigned; its resignations were happily accepted by Prime Minister Erdogan. The Turkish prime minister demonstratively and quickly presided over the General Staff to deliver a message stating that the civil polity had prevailed over the military, which, according to the dying Kemalist constitution, is still the guardian of the republic and hence designed to dominate the civil political system. The army’s high command resigned in a revolt against the trial of senior officers for an alleged failed coup d’état. This might appear as a plausible explanation for the enigma. However, given that the army and the Islamist-leaning Turkish government are mired in an immense conflict, it might be more logical to suppose that the opposite outcome was to be expected: the high command would entrench in its ditches and not abandon post.

The key to the enigma lies elsewhere. Apart from forfeiting its historic duty of serving as the protector of the Kemalist revolution, the Turkish army has developed a spirit and tradition that does not jive with the spirit, tradition and aspiration of the Muslim Brotherhood element in the AKP ruling party. The Turkish military, and with it Turkey itself, used to be one of NATO’s biggest supporters and the loudest champion of US worldwide deployment. However, during the long and protracted era of Turkey’s bid to join the EU, Europe weakened the position of the army by demanding it become subordinate to the civil administration.

The United Stated also did not come to the military’s aid and, after President Obama came to office, his administration’s position weakened the Turkish military further due to its policy of outreach to Islam in the region.

The military could have adapted itself to the new rules of the game had Turkey become a model for moderate Islam and an example for other Islamist governments to follow. However, it seems that the latest developments in the Middle East caused the military high command to think that they might be asked to follow a policy contradictory in all aspects to everything it has ever represented. Instead of standing guard and protecting the West from Eastern threats, the high command is asked to involve the Turkish army in adventures typical to an Eastern army removed from Western interests and values.

More precisely, it fears the option of invading Syria in order to enhance the Muslim Brothers’ power there. As far as the high command is concerned, this not the business of a NATO member and is an entirely alien project to their set of merits and values. The modern Turkish army was founded by Kemal Atatürk to ensure that the Ottoman Empire does not rise from the dead, something the Islamist government in Ankara is actively pursuing.

In addition, a hidden struggle is currently in the works between Turkey and Iran over Syria. While Turkey is pressuring President Bashar Assad to launch political reforms, i.e. include the Muslim Brothers in the government, Iran vehemently opposes this motion, as does Syria’s besieged president himself.

Assad has published a draft of a law on new parties that looks like an opening for the multitude of parties that will end the hegemony of the despotic monopoly of the ruling Baath party. Yet, a careful reading into the text tells us that while many parties might be included, the criteria exclude one specific party: the Muslim Brothers.

While observers of Turkey’s behavior must consider a possible Syrian invasion, one must also pay attention to the diplomacy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Turkey’s foreign minister has shuttled between Tehran and Damascus in efforts to avoid military engagement. However, Davutoğlu’s shuttle diplomacy has been governed by a concrete set of rules from the outset: zero problems policy with Syria and Iran.

In other words, Turkey’s official policy calls for an alliance with its two neighbors. One can see the practical application of this policy in Turkey’s alliance with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers. Why Hamas? Because it is allied with Iran and Syria.

Hence, despite the growing tensions that may end in war or another kind of belligerency, it is likely that Turkey, Iran and Syria will do all they can in order to avoid a showdown. The potential triple alliance is further reinforced by the Kurdish threat. The Kurds are able to tare Turkish territorial continuity to pieces, something the Turks fear may happen in the aftermath of American withdrawal from Iraq.

The AKP is concerned that Assad’s butchery of his own people is denying Turkey its prime foreign policy goal – to reach regional understanding with Iran about the day after the Americans withdraw from Iraq. Its vision of two Muslim powers allied against the West stands in stark contrast with the norms and ethics of the fading Kemalist army.