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Legacy of Coup Probes Haunt Effectiveness of Turkish Military

  • Dorian Jones

Turkish soldiers stand as people from the Syrian town of Kobani wait to cross into Turkey following the attacks by Islamic State militants as seen from the Turkish side of the border in Suruc, Turkey, June 25, 2015.

Turkish soldiers stand as people from the Syrian town of Kobani wait to cross into Turkey following the attacks by Islamic State militants as seen from the Turkish side of the border in Suruc, Turkey, June 25, 2015.

Turkish forces remain massed on the Syrian border, with Ankara warning it may intervene to secure the frontier; but, with hundreds of senior military officers jailed or forced into retirement as a result of investigations over coup plotting, questions are being raised over what impact this has had on military capabilities.

Despite the military buildup on the Syrian border, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has ruled out any imminent operation into Syria. The announcement came after the Turkish media, citing unnamed senior generals, warned against such an incursion.

In the past five years, Turkey's military has lost hundreds of senior officers, who were either jailed or forced into early retirement on coup-plotting charges. Retired Turkish Brigadier Haldun Solmazturk said the military has still not recovered from the losses.

"Not only the army, but also the air force and the navy, lost a lot of and very high-caliber generals, admirals, just because of these framed court cases. It would be illogical to argue this high rate of casualties did not have any impact on the Turkish military at all," he said.

All those jailed under alleged attempts to overthrow the government in the past were subsequently released on appeal, and a few officers even returned to their ranks; but, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of the Brussels-based Carnegie Institute, warned the real damage of the investigations could be the relationship between the generals and the Islamist-rooted AK Party.

"The military has traditionally not been friendly toward AK Party because of their perceived agenda and on top of that came the Balyoz and Ergenekon cases. Some of that was overcome when most of people who were held under those cases have been freed; however, there is a residue in the relationship and that makes cooperation more difficult," said Ulgen.

He was referring to two high profile cases in which dozens of people were accused of plotting to topple the government. The armed forces have seized power three times since 1960, the last in 1980.

In a bid to repair relations this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to hundreds of army officers, saying the investigations were a mistake and he had been misled. With growing suspicions that President Erdogan and his AK party could use any Syrian intervention for domestic political ended, retired Brigadier Solmazturk said distrust could be the main obstacle to such an operation.

"The distrust with respect to this party, it is there, no doubt, it’s unquestionable, so this may be the main reason behind the army’s hesitation," he said.

Distrust between generals and politicians, observers warn, could only add to the difficulties of any Turkish military involvement in Syria, which is already widely considered to be fraught with risk.

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