Saturday, July 30, 2016

Partial Assessment of Turkey’s Post-Coup Attempt Military Purge

By: Jennifer Cafarella with Elizabeth Sercombe and Charles Vallee

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ongoing military purge is not merely a response to a coup, but an aggressive restructure, rebranding, and reorientation of the Turkish military. Erdogan began to purge the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after elements of it launched an unsuccessful coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Turkish security forces detained nearly 10,000 service members including 143 general officers and admirals in the first week, totaling over 1/3 of the officer corps. Erdogan justified his crackdown on a counterterrorism basis, claiming to remove members of exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen’s movement, which Turkish authorities have designated as the “Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).” He has also dismissed, and in some cases arrested, tens of thousands of judges, civil society members, and academics, and he closed down dozens of newspapers. The extent of Erdogan’s purge and his use of a counterterrorism justification demonstrate his intent to use the coup attempt as an excuse to transform the Turkish military into a source of personal power and eliminate sources of dissent in Turkey.

The current military purge is part of an ongoing campaign by Erdogan to eliminate threats to his Islamist regime. The Turkish military historically has a secular culture and views itself as a protector of the post-Ataturk democratic society. Erdogan thus views the military as a threat to his vision of an Islamist autocracy and has taken steps to eliminate it since 2007. He dismissed 400 Turkish officers including 37 generals and admirals in response to alleged coup conspiracies between 2007 and 2010, prompting the resignation of the Chief of the General Staff and the Commanders of the Turkish Navy, Land Force, and Air Force. About half of the Brigadier Generals and Rear Admirals removed this month were promoted to their rank after the initial purges. Erdogan’s aggressive measures after the recent failed coup attempt indicates that he likely seeks to finish his long-time campaign through this final purge.

Erdogan’s purge targeted a wide swath of the TSK leadership. He used the justification of alleged membership of individual commanders to the alleged FETO rather than direct participation in the coup attempt itself.  The main units that participated in the coup attempt were the Istanbul Gendarmerie, the Istanbul-based 1st Army 3rd Corps, the Ankara-based 2nd Army 4th Corps, the 4th Main Jet Base group at Akinci, and the 10th Tanker regiment at the Incirlik Airbase in Adana. Erdogan nonetheless extended his purge throughout non-combat units that did not appear to play a direct role in the coup attempt.. He purged the General Staff, the Training and Doctrine Command, and Turkey’s military and police intelligence community, which he condemned for “significant gaps and deficiencies” in failing to prevent the coup attempt. Erdogan’s purge centralizes his authority, removes internal resistance, and takes control of the training programs for young military officers in order to retain control of the TSK’s future.

Erdogan is centralizing his control over a new national security apparatus as he consolidates. He stated in his first interview after the coup attempt: “a new structure will be emerging. With this new structure, I believe the armed forces will get fresh blood.” Turkish Prime Minister Yildrum later provided additional details, stating: “There are problems in [the] hierarchy between lower level and senior level [officials.] We will restructure [the army] in a manner that will resolve these problems.” His statement indicates that Erdogan will collapse some command echelons in order to ensure that the culture and ideology at the now-loyal senior officer ranks diffuses throughout the entire force. A Turkish parliamentary official reported that Erdogan intends to transfer control of the General Staff and MIT from the Prime Minister’s office to his own, which would provide Erdogan with direct operational control over the TSK and Turkey’s intelligence establishment. The move requires parliamentary approval, which he will almost certainly receive. He is also empowering the Turkish police, which played a major role halting the coup attempt. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala announced that Turkish police will be equipped with heavy weapons on July 28. The strengthening of the Turkish Police is likely a mechanism to balance the strength of the Turkish Gendarmerie, elements of which participated in the coup attempt.

Erdogan will also reward commanders that remained loyal to him during the coup attempt by promoting them to senior positions within the government after they finish their service. The career trajectories of these commanders will signal how Erdogan is consolidating his personal control over the Turkish security apparatus. Commanders to watch out for include:

·       Chief of the General Staff General Hulusi Akar and his deputy General Yaşar Güler
·       Air Force Commander General Abidin Ünal
·       Navy Commander Bulent Bostanoglu
·       Land Forces Commander General Salih Zeki Colak
·       Turkish Police Chief Celalettin Lekesiz
·       Istanbul Police Chief Mustafa Caliskan,
·       Commander of the Ankara Gendarmerie Ferdi Korkmaz.

Erdogan’s purge affects the American military relationship with Turkey. In the short term, the TSK will have limited ability to conduct military operations as Erdogan completes his purge and restructure. Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General James Stravridis said Erdogan’s purge is having a “chilling effect” on the TSK, stating, “there will be a strong negative impact on the ability of the Turkish military to perform its duties across the spectrum of alliance activities.” Previous options in the anti-ISIS fight such as deploying large numbers of TSK to shut down the Syrian-Turkish border are likely now unviable in the short term, even if Erdogan wanted to undertake them. Erdogan’s consolidation of personal power and removal of the TSK’s secular culture will likely also have long-term implications for Turkish-American military relations.

This report will present a partial assessment of the Turkish Order of Battle prior to the coup based upon the rank and position of general officers and admirals that either remained loyal to Erdogan during the coup attempt (highlighted in green) or that were purged in the first week after the coup attempt (highlighted in red).

Turkish Land Forces

1st Army (Istanbul). The 1st Army is headquartered in Istanbul with units stationed along Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria. 1st Army Commander General Umit Dundar was critical to Erdogan’s victory over the coup attempt. He warned Erdogan of the coup early enough to enable Erdogan to escape detention. He later appeared on television to declare the coup illegitimate, projecting a source of strength and anti-coup sentiment that fueled anti-coup protests. He then led police and civilians to retake the Ataturk International Airport.

The 5th Corps’ 54th Mechanized Infantry Brigade is headquartered in Erdine and stationed along Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Turkish security forces arrested its commander, Brigadier General Hidayet Ari Erdine.

The 1st Army also includes the Izmir-based 3rd Corps, currently designated as the NATO Response Force –Turkey. Numerous 3rd Corps units participated in the coup attempt. Turkish security forces arrested 3rd Corps Commander Lieutenant General Erdal Ozturk, although his exact role in the coup attempt is unclear. The 52nd Tactical Armored Division’s 66th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, based in Hasdal Istanbul, participated in the seizure of the Ataturk Airport. Turkish security forces arrested its commander Brigadier General Mehmet Nail Yiğit.

2nd Army (Malatya). The 2nd Army is headquartered in Malataya with units stationed along Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It is Turkey’s second largest land formation at 100,000 troops, including three corps. The 2nd Army is the ostensible “invasion force” - Erdogan would use it in a military intervention into Syria, but had objected to proposals for intervention in the past. It played a large role in anti-PKK operations in southeastern Syria.

Turkish security forces arrested 2nd Army Commander General Adem Huduti and Chief of Staff Avni Angun along with most of the commanding officers in the Diyarbakir-based 7th Corps, including three mechanized units. Erdogan’s purge of the 2nd Army may make it more amenable for use in Syria in the future. Alternately, the purge could neuter the 2nd Army, requiring Erdogan to consider other options for influence in Syria. An alliance with Syrian Salafi-jihadi groups is one possibility, as a previous ISW report examined.

3rd Army (Erzincan). The 3rd Army is the largest Turkish land formation. It is headquartered in Erzincan with units stationed along Turkey’s borders with Armenia and Georgia. 3rd Army Commander Ismail Serdar Savas remained loyal to Erdogan during the coup attempt. The purge left the 3rd Army’s leadership largely intact, possibly indicating its loyalty to Erdogan.

Aegean Army Command (4th Army) (İzmir). The Aegean Army Command is headquartered at Izmir with units stationed along the west coast of the Anatolia peninsula. It consists primarily of training brigades and the Cyprus Turkish Peace Force. Turkish authorities arrested its Chief of Staff Mehmduh Hakbilen and Deputy Chief of Staff Hakan Eser during the purge.

Additional NATO Units

The military requirements of allied NATO nations has not deterred Erdogan’s purge. Erdogan has eliminated numerous Turkish generals serving in positions for NATO, demonstrating a newfound defiance. Erdogan’s disruption of NATO could simply be an unhindered extension of his aggressive purge. Alternatively, he could be setting conditions to break with NATO by drawing back Turkey’s role.   

Allied Land Command

NATO’s Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) is based in Izmir alongside the Aegean Army. Its duties include serving as the “headquarters element responsible for the conduct of land operations and the synchronization of land forces command and control (C2)” for NATO operations. Turkish authorities arrested the LANDCOM Chief of Staff, Salih Sevil on July 20.

Resolute Support - Afghanistan

The United Arab Emirates authorities detained the Commander of the Turkish Task Force for NATOs Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, Major General Cahit Bakir, and the Commander of the Train, Advice, and Assist Command (TAAC) in Kabul, Brigadier General Sener Topuc, and handed them over to Turkish MIT on July 26, 2016. Bakir previously served as the Head of Turkish Air Force Intelligence until his deployment to Afghanistan in January 2015.

Turkish Air Force

Erdogan’s purge of the Turkish Air Force constituted ¼ of the total general officers/admirals purged in the first week after the coup attempt. Erdogan removed the commander of all nine Main Jet Base Group Commands, units that include combat air wings. The arrests included the Commander of the 10th Tanker Base Command at Incirlik Air Base, General Bekir Ercan Van, who requested American asylum prior to his arrest. American officials denied any involvement in the coup attempt, but the prominent role of the 10th Tanker Base has provoked popular demonstrations against the U.S. presence at Incirlik. A consolidation of command and control over Turkey’s combat air wings could position Erdogan to halt Turkey’s participation in anti-ISIS operations without meeting internal resistance.

Turkish Navy

Erdogan’s purge of the Navy was less severe, but included two key commanders: Commander of the Black Sea Region, Rear Admiral Hasan Dogan, and Commander of the Dardanelles Straight, Rear Admiral Serdar Ahmet Gundogdu. The Black Sea Region and Dardanelles Straight are strategic regions for Turkey in its relationship with Russia. It is unclear whether both commanders participated in the coup attempt, but Erdogan likely seeks to install loyal leaders in these positions.

This report does not examine detained military personnel at echelons below the general officer/admiral level or the additional personnel dishonorably discharged on July 28. Two unidentified generals in the Land Forces have also since resigned. The purge of these personnel is likely concentrated in key geographic areas where Erdogan seeks to solidify his control. Istanbul and Ankara are likely highly represented, along with Izmir, which hosts the 3rd Corps/NATO Rapid Reaction Force.


Erdogan is reshaping Turkey’s foreign policy away from U.S. interests as he carries out his purge. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper outlined the effect of Erdogan’s purge on July 29, stating “many of our interlocutors have been purged or arrested. There’s no question this is going to set back and make more difficult cooperation with the Turks.” Erdogan and loyal Turkish authorities have also fueled anti-U.S. rhetoric within Turkey. Erdogan created a narrative that the U.S. supported the coup attempt because of the asylum provided to Fetullah Gulen. Turkish officials and media outlets loyal to Erdogan have gone even further, stating that the US was directly behind the coup attempt. One outlet accused former US International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander General John F. Campbell of orchestrating the coup attempt. The anti-American sentiment Erdogan is stoking during his purge may indicate that he is setting conditions for a pivot in Turkish foreign policy away from the U.S.

Erdogan is meanwhile pursuing a closer partnership with Russia. Turkey and Russia have revived talks over the Turkstream deal since the failed coup attempt, which would expand Russia’s access to the European gas market. Turkish authorities have also alleged that the Turkish pilot who shot down a Russian jet in November 2015 was a rogue FETO member, further distancing the Turkish government from the escalation. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu contradicted the allegation, stating unequivocally “I gave the order.” Davutoglu’s statement suggests Erdogan is using the alleged FETO conspiracy to ease his rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan is scheduled to meet with Putin on August 9th in St. Petersburg. Erdogan’s purge of Turkish commanders serving in NATO raises the question of whether he is considering leaving the alliance, perhaps to enter into a partnership with Russia. He is most likely to balance both relationships in the near term, but American policymakers must nonetheless brace for the new reality that America’s alliance with Turkey is not guaranteed.