President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates in the government have removed nearly all flag officers from NATO’s second largest army, leaving only a small fraction on active duty while allowing Islamists and neo-nationalists to quickly move up in the ranks, a survey of confidential military documents conducted by Nordic Monitor has revealed.
According to the data compiled, more generals and admirals were pushed out of the Turkish Armed Forces than what the government let public know in the aftermath of a failed coup on July 15, 2016 under the pretext of criminal prosecutions, administrative dismissals, early retirements and forced resignation schemes.
Only 42 flag officers out of the 325 who were on active duty at the time of the abortive putsch have managed to retain their rank or receive promotions, confirming the view that Erdoğan’s Islamist government was intent on transforming the military into a bastion of partisans, zealots and loyalists. It is no surprise that the first Turkish military incursion into Syria in 2017 took place following the coup attempt given the fact that the military was apparently resisting Erdoğan’s war plans in Syria as well as his alliance with Russia up until the first half of 2016.
It looks odd that a significant number of the generals and admirals who continue to serve in the military are in fact those who failed to prevent the coup attempt despite the fact that they received a tip about it six to eight hours before it started. They were rewarded for their failures, suggesting that the attempt was actually a false flag for the benefit of the Erdoğan government.
For instance, then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, who refused to issue an order to stop any military mobilization across the country on the afternoon of July 15, which is standard operating procedure in the army in times of emergency, is now the defense minister in Erdoğan’s cabinet. It was revealed that Akar had a meeting with intelligence chief Hakan Fidan related to a possible coup attempt for long hours on July 15. Akar was criticized for his efforts to create the perception that there was actually an attempt made to stage a real coup, given the fact that he could have easily stopped it in its tracks or prevented it by simple and quick measures early on.
According to a classified official document signed by Brig. Gen. Nerim Bitlislioğlu, head of the Turkish military’s human resources department, 149 generals and admirals out of 325 were purged from the service one week after the coup attempt by a presidential decree issued during a state of emergency declared on July 20, 2016. However, it was later revealed that most of the top officers were either on vacation with their families, in a city other than that of their permanent deployment or trying to prevent the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
According to the official account, 8,651 military personnel took part in the coup, corresponding to only 1.5 percent of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Of those 1,761 were conscripted privates and 1,214 were military cadets. Given the fact that around 150 generals and thousands of officers are now being tried on coup charges, military experts find it odd that such an insignificant number of troops took part in the coup attempt.
Purged generals who were convicted and received lengthy prison sentences or are still standing trial are accused of alleged links to the faith-based Gülen movement which the Erdoğan government accuses of orchestrating the coup attempt. The movement strongly denies any role in the failed coup, and the government has failed to present any evidence of the movement’s complicity in the putschist attempt.
Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center, in February 2018 said many of the generals dismissed by the Turkish government were pro-NATO and pro-American, foreseeing a possible shift in Turkey-NATO relations.
Nineteen generals who were on active duty in July 2016 have resigned in the last three years, 16 of whom resigned immediately after July 15, 2016. The real motive behind these resignations is still unknown; however, they were believed to be under heavy pressure from to retire voluntarily. Among those who resigned were two four star generals, Kamil Başoğlu and İhsan Uyar. Başoğlu was previously projected to become chief of general staff in 2012 under normal circumstances.
Vice-admirals Veysel Kösele and Hasan Şükrü Korlu submitted their resignations in protest when a less senior vice-admiral was appointed as the new naval forces commander.
Maj. Gen. Ercan Çorbacı, who was serving at the Special Forces Command in 2016, and four newly appointed brigadier generals resigned in 2019 in reaction to the government’s reassignment of top officers responsible for the Syrian border. It was claimed that the government transferred some of the generals who were opposed to the military intervention in Syria.
One hundred eight generals and admirals who were serving in 2016 retired from the military as they had not been listed as permanent staff between 2016 and 2019, 50 of whom left immediately after the coup attempt, whereas 31 departed in 2017, 10 in 2018 and 17 in 2019. Very few of them retired at their normal age of retirement. Nordic Monitor has learned that many of those who retired were forced to do so by the government in order to avoid being purged and imprisoned on false charges of membership in a terrorist group or plotting a coup against the government.
It is noteworthy that 29 officers who were promoted to the rank of general after July 15, 2016 had to retire in line with Supreme Military Council decisions thanks to a law that went into effect in March 2018 that allows President Erdoğan to dismiss any top officer regardless of years of service. Prior to 2018 generals were not put out to pasture before they had served at least four years in a specific rank.
The massive purge of Turkey’s top officers begs the question of who now becomes a general in the army. Traditionally staff colonels were predominantly selected for the rank of general up until July 15, 2016. The Erdoğan government systematically imprisoned staff colonels on coup charges simply for the reason that successful and highly trained officers who speak at least one foreign language and have master’s degrees in non-military fields are mostly labelled and profiled by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) as Gülenists and pro-Western. The Supreme Military Council in August 2019 decided to promote 23 colonels to general, only two of whom were staff colonels, sounding alarm bells about the well-being and effectiveness of the command structure. Experts claim that the Erdoğan government could find and entice more loyal officers among those in the lower ranks, particularly, non-staff officers. These non-staff officers might be promoted more quickly and become generals in the near future in exactly the same way young, partisan, pro-government bureaucrats are assigned to critical positions in the state regardless of their proficiency.
İsmail Hakkı Pekin, a former intelligence chief at the General Staff and a close ally of Doğu Perinçek, chairman of Turkey’s pro-Russian, ultranationalist Vatan Party, claimed on a TV show in July 2019 that imprisoned officers were very hard working, smart boys who did their jobs well.
“They had master’s degrees and doctorates. Very qualified officers. If one were to ask me whom I prefer working with in the army, I would surely select them.”
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Akar on February 20, 2019 said there was a significant staff shortage within the military and that only 65 percent of the posts were filled.
As of March 2019, according to numbers provided by the Ministry of Justice, more than 150,000 public servants have been removed from their jobs by the Turkish government due to their alleged links to the Gülen movement. A total of 30,727 of these civil servants were in jail as of March 8. A total of 6,760 members of the military are currently in jail, of whom 5,960 had the rank of colonel or lower and 142 had the rank of brigadier general or higher. One hundred sixty-nine of them were privates and 489 were military school cadets.
generals ad admirals who continue in 2019