In 2011, Bilgin Balanli, a decorated four-star general in the Turkish Air Force, was expected to become Turkey’s chief of the general staff. Instead, he was arrested, together with hundreds of other generals, admirals, and high-ranking officers. His supposed crime? Plotting to overthrow the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Soon, the number of arrested officers from Turkey’s Armed Forces reached 700.
Three years later, in 2014, Balanli was released, together with hundreds of other officers. No credible evidence was ever presented that they were involved in any “plot.” In April of this year, Turkey’s highest court of appeal found that the entire indictment against the officers was based on fabricated claims and that there was no “plot” against the government.
Whether or not the plot was real, the result was that the cream of the Turkish Armed Forces, NATO’s second-largest, was purged and many high-ranking officers replaced by supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a hugely influential cleric now living in self-exile in the United States.
After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan tolerated, if not supported Gulen and his secretive movement, largely because he saw the strictly secular armed forces and judiciary, which would regularly clean up their ranks of what they saw as Islamists and ethnic separatists, as a threat. Indeed, the army was uncomfortable with Erdogan’s government and in 2008 the Constitutional Court mulled banning the AKP’s leading figures from politics.
A few years into Erdogan’s rule, it became difficult to get an important government position or get a good business deal against the blessing of the “community” — a reference to supporters of Gulen, who established themselves in the military, the security services, the judiciary, the education system, and the media. This was a new and unspoken dichotomy: a traditionally secular army and court system that was infiltrated by the Gulenists. There were also many Gulenists within Erdogan’s government.
It was under these conditions that in 2011, Gulenist prosecutors and judges orchestrated an attack against senior members of the army and judiciary, claiming they were planning a “coup” against Erdogan’s government. In reality, this was just an attempt to destroy Turkey’s traditional secular and pro-Western structures.
Standing trial after his arrest in 2011, General Balanli said in court that “the goal of this dirty plot [the accusations that he was taking part in a coup] was to behead the eagle,” a reference to the Turkish Armed Forces. Last week, almost a month after the July 15 coup attempt, Balanli spoke out again in an interview with the daily Hurriyet: “With the coup attempt, the eagle has now lost its wings and tail. To achieve its pre-2011 strength, [the armed forces] need at least eight to 10 years.”
If losing some 700 officers, including generals and admirals, in 2011 was the “beheading” of the Turkish Armed Forces, the July 15 coup attempt and its aftermath has inflicted an even deeper wound on an institution whose primary goal was to safeguard the “secular and democratic republic” of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Five years ago, when the Gulenist movement first moved against the armed forces, Erdogan and his government sat back and watched. They were afraid of the military and feared the secularists had plans to remove them from power. Thus, they were happy to let the Gulenists do their dirty work. When asked about the crackdown, Erdogan and his ministers would just say that justice in Turkey was “impartial” and nobody should intervene in the proceedings.
But by 2013, those same Gulenist prosecutors and judges were campaigning against Erdogan, his family members, and close aides. They allegedly publicized audio recordings of Erdogan and his children, implicating them in corruption and misappropriation, although none of the allegations was substantiated in court.
This time, Erdogan hit back.
Shortly afterwards, he began to purge government agencies, the police, the judiciary, the armed forces, the media, and educational institutions of Gulenists. If it is true that the coup plotters were Gulen supporters acting on the cleric’s orders, then it is plausible that they decided to attack because they feared being eliminated by Erdogan and his AKP.
The failed coup has given Erdogan the perfect excuse to do just that — remove all traces of Gulenist influence. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Alan has said that some 76,000 government employees have been suspended following the failed coup attempt. They have all been accused of having connections to the Gulen movement.
“Some 3,083 of the arrested were police officers, 7,248 were soldiers, 2,288 were judges and prosecutors, 199 were local officials, and 4,161 were civilians,” the minister added. This includes around 150 generals and admirals and half of the country’s fighter pilots.
The long-term consequences for Turkey’s military could be huge. Becoming a general or an admiral can take around 20 years; fighter pilots must commit to eight to 10 years of active duty. Add to that the new changes the Erdogan government has made regarding the decentralization of the Turkish Armed Forces. Using the extraordinary power of the president during the state of emergency, all commanders of the land, air, and naval forces will report directly to their respective ministers in the civil government and no longer to the chief of the general staff, as was previously the case. The chief of the general staff will now directly report to Erdogan himself.
To some observers, this could help democratize society. There are concerns, however, that these new lines of authority will mean an end to the Turkish Armed Forces’s meritocracy, especially when those lines lead directly to the president, his prime minister, and a few loyal ministers.