The Destruction of the Turkish Army

Turkish officers

Turkish Officers

Since the abortive coup attempt in Turkey there have been truckloads of political pontifications  concerning the future course of the Sultan Erdogan’s “new Turkey.”

Most  of the Western leadership and the Arab Gulf states have announced their support for the continuation of the Erdogan government on the basis that it was a win for what they perceive as “democracy”.

In reality, Erdogan’s survival  is a win for the rising Islamism with contending centers of power within the Sunni world vying for leadership  i.e. Saudi Arabia,  the so-called “Islamic State”, and Turkey.

Erdogan’s followers,   both Arab Sunnis and  Turkish, see Turkey reviving the Ottoman Caliphate, competing with the  ISIS  for Sunni leadership and  absolute power.  It has far more to do with an obsession for unbridled power that religion. However religion as an identity rather than a spiritual force is being used by Erdogan.On the part of the  Sunni Arab Gulf regimes, supporting Erdogan had obvious rationale. With the withdrawal of American protectionism from the Arab Gulf, they need Turkish support in the age old conflict with Iran.

Additionally, the core of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership (MB), ( consistent supporters of the Erdogan regime)  fled to Turkey after the demise of the Al Morsi regime in Egypt  .It has been promoted by the Qatari regime for years. It a part of dynastic: Arabs  vs Persians, and sectarian  conflict: Sunni vs. Shi’a.

Western acquiescence  in continuation of  Erdogan regime is a primarily a result of  leadership exhaustion. The West, as Solzhenitsyn foresaw in 1976, has moral and spiritual exhaustion. The leadership has neither the nerve or understanding on how to confront the dangers. They have no idea what to do, and the status quo is a safe option.

Moreover within the Obama administration there is still a sort of weird attachment to the notion that Islamism as exhibited by the Muslim Brotherhood is the wave of the future, a sort of antidote to the more virulent Islamic State variety.

In many ways the MB is a more dangerous form of Islamism because of its  ore insidious nature, with the characteristics of a chameleon, putting on a suit and tie in the West and a dikdashi in the East.

Some observers have written that this was a secular vs Sunni fundamentalist struggle. Actually it was the last gasp of secularists and they had only a thin crust of support to begin with.

Despite the secular trappings of the big cities like Ankara and  Istanbul, the Anatolian peasant has always been a fundamentalist Muslim. Ataturk did not change that. As in Iran of the 70’s, the Western elitist journalists, hob nabbing with the  westernized Turkish elite got a false picture of the people.

I have traveled in Turkey a number of times, in the late 60’s, the 70’s, 80’s, and the last time in 2006. As the years  went by I observed the increasing re-islamization of Turkey.

The  rampant and trendy anti- Americanism is not new either. Way back  in  1964 President Johnson ordered a Carrier task force to  block Turkish plans to  invade Cyprus. It was an immensely unpopular  move in Turkey. There have been many American – Turkish  irritants since that time, including Western displeasure when Turkey did invade and occupy Turkish Cyprus ( and quite a bit of Greek Cyprus as well) in 1974.

General Liman  Von Sanders, the German commander of a Turkish army in world war I repeated a saying popular among Syrians at the time: “Wherever a Turk sets his foot, there the land becomes unproductive for a century.”  This is in his excellent memoirs, Five Years in Turkey, an excellent background reader for anyone studying the history of the Turkish army.

Von Sanders extols the courage and martial qualities of the ordinary Turkish soldier but is highly critical of most of their commanders and s depicts the Ottoman government as corrupt and rapacious. It was feared and hated by most of the Arabs. The Turkish commanders showed  little concern for the well being of their troops and rarely displayed any initiative.


Von Limans Sanders memoirs  brought back to me my  observations while on a Cyprus visit in the late 90’s. I visited both the Greek and Turkish side of the Island, and while the Greek side was thriving and bustling with activity, the Turkish occupied side of the Island was depressed and looked decrepit.

The once beautiful city of Famagusta  seemed  to have  many apartments empty with  clothes hanging out the windows to dry. It looked very much as a third world region. The Turks also destroyed a number of Greek churches during the brief war and the Greeks  were expelled ( or fled). Nevertheless, like most Western soldiers, I admired the Turkish army and enjoyed the company of their officers. They were professional and buoyant in spirit. In contrast, the Greek officers I met were whiny, complaining that the Americans had allowed the Turks to  invade.



As a former and long-time admirer of the Turkish army, the Erdogan destruction of this institution is of particular interest to me. While some wrote and will continue to write that this is will be a result of the failed coup, I  actually believe that the failed coup is a symptom of the erosion of the Turkish army  that began with the advent of the Erdogan regime.

Had the 2016 Turkish army been that of the  1980’s the coup world not have failed.  Most of the army did not take part and many opposed it. The fact that the pro-Erdogan Islamist oriented followers were in the streets would not have deterred the former Turkish army to overwhelm the opposition. Half hearted coups never succeed.

Overwhelming military force would have destroyed embryonic counter-coup attempts despite pro-Erdogan social media and  clerical calls from the Minarets. Historically the obedient Turkish soldier has never had a problem firing on civilians. I’ll leave it to others to debate the question of what is better, a bloody coup or more years of increasing dictatorship (and a drip, drip of blood). My interest continues to be the Turkish army.

Turkey pic

During my last visit to Istanbul in 2006

In short, Erdogan has been politicizing the army since his accession to power, as has been done throughout the Middle East. Loyalty to the regime has been  the primary path to promotion and monetary rewards.

As I have been writing for many years, the Arab politicizing of their militaries has been one of the primary reasons for the poor performance of their armies  against determined foes. See my  article “Why Arabs lose Wars?” in the Middle East Quarterly.


Despite overwhelming numbers and firepower the Turkish army has been unable to suppress Kurdish demands for autonomy. The scorched earth policies of the Turkish government, including  relentless artillery and air bombardment of Kurdish towns and villages, has not worked.


Kemal Ataturk

The legacy of  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey will continue to erode and steps will be taken to subtly erase his historical significance and the army will continue on the path to be just another regime protection institution. Turkey will be of diminishing value to NATO or the West in general.


About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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