Turkey: Return of the Generals

Erdogan is shifting from the Gulenists to the military.

In his victory speech on March 30, Erdogan said that he had been naïve to let the Gulenists move into important positions. It’s true that over time, as Gulen’s followers grew more powerful, they sought to exert a more direct say in the government’s daily affairs. They objected to the AKP government’s peace talks with the PKK Kurdish rebel group. The chief prosecutor in Istanbul, seen as a backer of Gulen, called in Erdogan’s chief of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, in February 2012, to question him over the government’s overtures to the PKK. Relations collapsed completely in the late fall, with the corruption probe and release of tapes that appeared to implicate Erdogan. But Erdogan doesn’t appear to see similar risks in partnering with the military. This may be his mistake.

For the moment, the military has good reason to bury any resentment of Erdogan and move forward jointly. The military blames the Gulen movement for the trials against their officers and for what the military long claimed was doctored evidence. Basbug, the former chief of staff released last month from jail, said that neutralizing the threat posed by the Gülenist was the country’s priority. “If there is corruption then this should of course be addressed,” he said in a statement shortly before being released. “But an elected government should be voted out of power; attempts to bring it down with non-electoral maneuvers amounts to a coup.”

Senior officers aren’t just angry at the cases that decimated their prestige and morale. They are also worried about Gulen’s influence over the military’s rank and file. Over the years, pro- Gulenist young officers have risen in the ranks. The military’s top brass is afraid of being overtaken by Gulenist officers. The various leaks of government tapes showed the reach of the movement’s supporters—but no more so than the recent tape of Erdogan’s senior national intelligence chief, the deputy Chief of the General Staff and his foreign minister discussing intervention scenarios in Syria. That was a sign that even the country’s highest officials, including the military top brass, aren’t immune from the wiretapping.

The military knows that their officers wouldn’t have been in prison if it hadn’t been for Erdogan, who let Gulen supporters take the lead for so many years and ignored claims of doctored evidence. Nonetheless, partnering with AKP now is the only way for the military to exact revenge and reclaim power. But there is no reason to take for granted that the military will remain loyal to Erdogan . They are bound to be as deeply resentful against Erdogan as they are against the Gulenists. The return of the military may be good for Erdogan in the short-term, but he’s likely creating a potential new challenge in the future.

The lesson of Turkish history is clear: the military always triumphs. The mighty Janissary army that had defied the authority of countless Ottoman sultans was slaughtered by Mahmut II in 1826, but that did not spell the end of the military’s political role. Don’t bet on a break with history in Turkey.

Aliza Marcus is a writer in Washington, DC, and the author of a history of the Kurdish rebel PKK movement, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence

Halil Karaveli is senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the editor of the Turkey Analyst