The Changing Role and Position of Turkish Armed Forces in Turkish Foreign Policy


The Turkish Armed Forces have been discussed substantially during the last few years in the context of Turkish Foreign Policy due to new developments in the military; such as building a military base in Qatar and Somalia, technological transformation, the S400 strategic defence system deal with Russia, and operations in Iraq and particularly in Syria.

Historically, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) were identified as one of the most significant institutions, if it was not the most, within the Turkish domestic and international political sphere. Turkey was formed under the strong modernist perspective of Turkish military cadres. However, after the consolidation of the power of civil politics in Turkey during the Justice and Development Party (JDP) era, TAF became the primary foreign policy instrument of the state after once being its sole determinant.

Consolidating the power of civil government to rescue from the power struggle between army and government led JDP to improve the diplomatic capability of Turkey. This process caused substantial changes not only in the domestic but also in the foreign politics of Turkey as well. On the basis of these changes, Turkey attempts to redesign its type of relationship with the other countries specifically Western powers and institutions along with changing the way of doing the foreign policy as using the military as a foreign policy instrument. For instance, when Turkey perceived that NATO and specifically the US do not prioritise the Turkey’s security concerns in Syria, Turkey launched to military operation in Syria. However, it should not be understood that Turkey had a different direction from the West and against the western institutions. For instance, while France, Germany and the US openly opposed the Turkey’s latest operation in Syria, foreign ministers of the UK and Netherland supported the right of Turkey’s operations against the PKK and PKK affiliated groups in Syria.

Transformation of the TAF’s role in the Turkey’s Foreign Policy

TAF frequently intervened in and challenged the foreign policy decisions of the civil governments throughout the Turkish political history, often preventing the governments from implementing their own policies. For instance, when President Turgut Ozal wanted to play an active role in the Middle East, specifically during the 1990-91 Gulf Crises, TAF openly declared its position against him. And this process ended with the TAF’s view on the foreign policy.

Similarly, in 2003, Prime Minister Erdogan wasn’t able to get the majority vote of the Turkish Parliament to play an active role in the American intervention in Iraq. The famous interview of Fikret Bila (a senior journalist of Milliyet daily newspaper) with an anonymous general indicated the critical opposition of the TAF and their potential to interfere in the parliament’s potential decision. This sentiment echoed loudly when the front page of the Milliyet newspaper was printed with the following title: “the military is uncomfortable” on the 26th February of 2013 just 2 days before the Turkey’s parliament meeting to discuss the issue of Iraq.

Clashes between the civilian government and TAF on foreign policy became more apparent during the mid 1990s. Whilst Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was trying to improve the relations with Muslim majority countries as part of his vision to establish an Islamic commonwealth, General Cevik Bir, who was considered a foreign minister in TAF, sealed critical military agreements with Israel – declaring the so-called “Turkish-Israeli axis” in the Middle East. This was done against the elected government’s foreign policy at the time.

Having stepped back the TAF, JDP plays an increasingly active role in the country’s foreign policy. This newly emerging concept of civil-military relations is mainly originated from the social, economic and political transformation of Turkey in favour of empowering the civilian politics during the JDP governments since 2003. Moreover, TAF has experienced an internal conflict and judiciary process during the Ergenekon (2008) and Balyoz (2010) cases that demised the power of TAF over the Turkish politics.

In the meantime, JDP governments stand powerfully with the support of the majority of Turkey’s people against the 2007 e-memorandum and the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. In addition, JDP governments has institutionally changed the governance and education system of military empowering the civilian governments over the TAF after the July 15th coup attempt.

The military wing no longer openly expresses its opposition, nor does it act against the government’s decisions, marking a major sign in its transformation. As such, Turkey today sees the rightfully elected and civilian politics overcome TAF in domestic and international issues.

Potential Affects the Relationship between Turkey and Western Countries

Once TAF’s role in Turkey’s foreign policy has been transformed, questions regarding Turkey’s relations with the Western world started to emerge since the TAF was always considered as Turkey’s key institution in improving the country’s relations with the West. However, historical facts indicate that the relations between West and TAF were not always as good as they were perceived.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, leftist factions were empowered and organized within TAF in order to change the direction of Turkey from the Western World to Communist. They even attempted a coup in 1971, which was prevented by other pro-NATO factions within the military. While TAF upsurge these leftist soldiers and their population and power is weak, critical leftist soldiers have always remained within the Army.

In addition to anti-Western factions within TAF, the Cyprus operation in 1974 resulted the US arms embargo to Turkey, the Kurdish issue caused controversies in the context of human rights and the blocking the democratic process due to the army’s coups for decades caused problems between TAF and Western countries. Also, TAF was so critical to JDP’s pro-EU policies during the 2000s.

The decreasing power of TAF and consequent empowering of civilian politics in Turkey are, in fact, supposed to be better for Turkey-Western relations. As such, the decreasing power of TAF in the domestic and international sphere should not be perceived as a negative aspect for the continuation of Turkish-Western relations. At the same time, it should be noted that foreign policy is based on the realist policies of the countries. As the interests of Turkey and Western countries have not overlapped in the Middle East after the Arab Spring and specifically on the Syrian refugee policies which has caused several problems.

Technological Transformation of TAF and Military Operations

The JDP currently can easily use TAF as an instrument for the implementation of foreign policy which improves the pro-active foreign policies. Turkey has built military bases in Somalia and Qatar where its political, economic and cultural ties are strong. Additionally, during the last visit of President Erdogan to Sudan on 24th of December 2017, Turkey signed 13 agreements including the ports and shipyards for the use of military ships in the Red Sea. The policy of expanding Turkey’s military bases in other countries is a new precedent in contemporary Turkish history.

While the building of Turkey’s military bases in the other countries is a new concept, Turkey has always been a part of international peacebuilding and NATO operations in different countries such as in Somalia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

TAF is undergoing significant technological transformations. The primary change is to attempt to be self-sufficient on the military equipment under the new technological security projects.

The improvement of Turkey’s weapons was sparked upon its inability to buy weapons for the use against the PKK, despite its pledge to NATO member states. As a result, Turkey decided to produce its weapons that has improved several security industries such as the drone industry.

Additionally, Turkey’s acquirement of missiles via the S400 missile deal with Russia has been a significant milestone in Turkish military development and modernisation, given the advanced technology and attributions of the weaponry against any threat from the neighbouring countries as Iraq and Syria are currently in conflict. Another dimension of that agreement relates to Turkey-NATO relations. According to experts Turkey wants to diversify its security relations with the neighbouring countries specifically Russia and Iran besides NATO member states which causes tensions between the Turkey-NATO relations.

Also, Turkey has launched several military operations in Iraq and Syria against the terrorist threats from the DAESH, PKK and PKK affiliated groups such as YPG (People’s Protection Units), PYD (Democratic Union Party) and SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). The first military operation, which was named Operation Euphrates Shield that was mainly against the DAESH dominated areas and some YPG areas as well, was launched on August 24th, 2016. The latest operation is the “Operation Olive Branch” which was launched in Afrin, Syria on January 20th, 2018 mainly against the PKK and PKK affiliated groups and DAESH as well. In contrast to previous behaviour of TAF during the significant developments in foreign policy, JDP controls the entire process of the military operations in Syria.

It is clear that the role and position of TAF in the context of Turkish foreign policy have changed massively during the JDP era. Turkey has found a new opportunity to implement active and impactful security policies, given their new and overarching control over the military.

Image: Turkish Republic Day parade, 2012, Ankara, via wikimedia commons

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