Turkey’s Ongoing Military Purge Drives, Complicates Regional Ambitions

Turkish policymakers are writing rhetorical checks their decimated military may not be able to cash.

In an ambitious effort to ensure that Turkey plays a leading role in shaping Iraq and Syria after the ouster of the Islamic State, Turkish officials have gone on the offensive in recent months, deploying troops across borders, issuing threats to foreign governments, and publicly yearning to claw back former Ottoman territory carved away nearly a century ago.

But such saber rattling comes just as the Turkish military is being gutted in a months-long purge that has seen thousands of troops cashiered and hundreds of senior officers jailed or fired, while hundreds more have been recalled from overseas postings with NATO and other allies. The far-reaching reprisals follow the failed military coup that sought to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, and vastly overshadow previous Turkish purges after abortive putsches.

The Turkish air force, in particular, is being decimated. At least 300 of its officers have been sacked, leading to the grounding of five squadrons of F-16 fighters and thereby cutting the available jets from 240 to about 140. Even those may be tough to properly maintain, given the purge of mechanics and ground crews in the aftermath of the July 15 coup, in which several F-16s bombed the parliament building in Ankara and Erdogan’s palace.

On Thursday, Turkish police arrested another 45 air force pilots, just the latest salvo in a purge whose scope is unprecedented in NATO history. As many as 10,000 service members have been fired or arrested over the past three months, arrests which have hit the air force particularly hard given that several top air force generals took part in the coup attempt. Overall, at least 149 generals and admirals have been fired or arrested, half of Turkey’s total roster. The ouster has cut so deep that Ankara is scouring for engineering students and even secular officers forcibly retired after a 2010 coup attempt to stanch the brain drain.

The military purge is both pushing Turkey to play a more adventurous role in the region, by giving troops a fight outside Turkey, and making those irredentist visions that much harder to achieve. What’s more, Turkey’s military housecleaning threatens to seriously weaken NATO’s southern flank just as Russian adventurism in the neighborhood has ratcheted up, with a renewed Russian military operation in support of Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria and a heavy Russian naval deployment to the Mediterranean.

Erdogan’s government desperately “wants to rebuild the image of the military,” after the coup, Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s center for Turkish studies, told Foreign Policy. One way to do that is to get them into the fight. Turkish forces plowed across the Syrian border in August during Operation Euphrates, a push to kick the Islamic State off the Turkish border and keep Kurdish militiamen from broadening their Syrian holdings.

Since then, Turkey has only dialed up the rhetoric. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has played a key role, threatening a ground invasion of Iraq, more attacks on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, and claiming that Turkish F-16s are involved in operations over Mosul. (They aren’t.)

Erdogan himself has fanned the flames. After the Iraqi government rejected Turkey’s offer of its F-16s to take part in the fight for Mosul earlier this month, Erdogan told the Turkish parliament, “we will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating.” Some 600 Turkish troops remain unwelcome interlopers at a base north of Mosul, where they have been training Sunni and friendly Kurdish militias, despite howls of protest from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Regional experts say that the Turks aren’t out of bounds in looking to play a serious role in security operations in the region. Turkey shares long and often porous borders with both Iraq and Syria, and Ankara has spent decades fighting Kurdish PKK militants in southeastern Turkey who use both countries as safe havens. Ankara’s desire to shape what happens after the ouster of the Islamic State is in many ways an extension of deeply entrenched security habits, especially when it comes to checking the threat of the various Kurdish militias.

But recent comments — from trampling on Iraq’s requests to pull troops out, to expansionist dreams of territorial aggrandizement — have hurt Ankara’s standing on the global stage.

“They’re expending political capital more than anything else” throughout the Middle East and in Europe, said Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Relations with the United States aren’t much better. Erdogan’s government has blamed the coup attempt on forces linked to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric and onetime Erdogan ally living in exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen’s movement has spread throughout the armed forces, Erdogan and his supporters say, and Washington’s refusal to extradite him to Turkey has created a major rift between the pair of NATO allies.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag met with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Washington to press Turkey’s case that Gulen was the coup’s mastermind, and that he directly influenced key officers. Bozdag presented Lynch with the testimony of Lt. Col. Levent Turkkan, the aide to military Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, in which, under questioning, Turkkan admitted to being a Gulenist, and of wiretapping the chief of staff and delivering the tapes to contacts for shipment to Gulen in Pennsylvania. Like many other top officers arrested after the coup, pictures taken of Turkkan in the days after the failed operation show his face bloodied, and his hands and midsection heavily bandaged.

Speaking to reporters at the Turkish Embassy on Thursday, Bozdag warned, “it will deal a blow to the relationship between Turkey and the United States if Gulen is not extradited. We want the United States to understand us, because there is a growing anti-Americanism among Turkish people.”

Lynch has said that for extradition the United States requires evidence that would stand up in a U.S. court. A statement from the Department of Justice on Wednesday said the two sides “will continue their ongoing close and full cooperation” in the matter.

Turkey’s purge also threatens to undermine NATO, of which it has been a crucial part since 1952; Turkey has the second-largest military in the alliance, after the United States. The culling has hit liaison officers with NATO and other allies particularly hard, which makes it more difficult for countries like the United States to coordinate on military operations. Many of the dismissed officers trained or studied in the United States, and their departure creates a vacuum within the upper ranks of the armed forces, where seasoned officers with relationships built over the course of years with NATO officers and diplomats are critical.

Since July, dozens of officers posted to NATO assignments have received orders to come home, where many have been arrested, and others simply given their walking papers. A total of 149 of Ankara’s military representatives at NATO facilities in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have returned to Turkey. Of the 50 Turkish officers serving at NATO headquarters in Brussels, only nine remain.

Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council, says Turkish officials have told him that about 400 of Turkey’s military envoys across the world have also been fired or called back.

The magnitude of Erdogan’s purges — which also include tens of thousands of judges, police officers, teachers, journalists, and academics — further “fuel instability in a major NATO ally that is already under strain from terrorist attacks, a huge population of refugees, and a war next door in Syria that is becoming even more violent,” Benitez said.

And that is disturbing news not just for the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, but as part of NATO’s effort to hold the line against an increasingly aggressive Russia, which has bolstered its defenses in the Black Sea and whose military expedition in Syria is the country’s largest overseas deployment in years.

“There’s no question it’s going to make it less easy to operate together” as an alliance, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman observed to FP.

Foreign Policy’s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.


Photo by Stringer/Getty Images

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