Why NATO Should Care About Mindset Shift in Turkish Armed Forces?

Turkey’s Journey in NATO

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. Its geo-strategic location has been considered crucial for NATO’s presence in the Middle East, Caucasus, and the Black Sea. Allied Land Command (LANDCOM), the highest command of land warfare under the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, is based in Turkey. Turkish Armed Forces is the second largest army after the United States. As for military spending, Turkey is the eighth nation in the Alliance, with $ 12.1 billion defense budget.

nato spending

Turkish Armed Forces reached significant operational capability in NATO by acquiring modern weapon systems and equipment, integrating highest level command and force structure and gaining real-world combat experience. Over the years, thousands of military personnel attended training and graduated programs in the western countries. Consequently, the Turkish Army fully integrated with member states in terms of defense systems, training and education above all, Western mindset.

Turkey played an extremely important role in the defense of alliances against the Russian threat during the Cold War. After the cold war, Turkish Military contributed numerous NATO operations, including The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Peace Support Operation in Kosovo (KFOR), Active Endeavor Operation for counter terrorisms and, Operation Ocean Shield for counter-piracy. Turkey’s importance to NATO continues today, especially after the Russian threat has reappeared in the southeast flank.

turkey geostratagy

Turkey’s Geostrategic Position. Source: http://amsterjob.com

Massive Purge in the Turkish Armed Forces

Unfortunately, dramatic change in Turkish Armed Forces under Erdogan’s rule is taking away 66 years of accumulation of NATO experience and western mentality day by day. More than twenty thousand officers and petty officer including jet pilots, sailors, army officers, engineers, and even technicians have been dismissed from military service after a so-called coup attempt in July 2016. These were considered as the final step for turning democracy into an authoritarian regime under Erdogan’s rule. New regime gradually has changed the direction of Turkey from the western alliance to Russia and Iran. Part of this shift, pro-Russian officers have been promoted and assigned in critical command roles in the military.

Adm. Cihat Yayci, who served as military attaché to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, played a crucial role in this transformation. Adm. Yayci, as Chief of Human Resources for the Turkish Navy, created a metrics known as the “Fetometre” to identify officers who are seen as a threat to the Erdogan’s new regime and the new military approach. Western-minded officers who believe in the core value of NATO have been dismissed on the basis of this unlawful metric that violates every fundamental human right. The metrics is based on some subjective criteria interrogating, and targeting specifically western minded personnel. These are including personnel’s English knowledge level, service in NATO posts and representation at military attache roles in NATO countries. The metric gives negative points if you fulfill all these criteria. Furthermore, According to the metrics, having a graduate degree from western universities makes you number one suspect of being a terrorist.

After controlling critical positions in the army, the pro-Russian leadership including Adm. Yayci took many steps to form a new partnership with Russia. The military rapprochement between Turkey and Russia has reached a strategic partnership level with the acquisition of S-400 Air Defense missiles from Russia. On the other hand, NATO has been systematically demonized by the current leadership.

Massive dismissal means the loss of years of combat experience, operational capability, and technical know-how because of the fact that building combat-ready forces requires years of training and development.

Almost 90% of the staff officers including commanding officers and executive officers of frigates, submarines, fast patrol boats were dismissed from the Navy. Thousands of army and special force officers with tremendous experience on counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria were put in jail. The jet pilot shortage has reached under critical level due to the dismissal of more than 850 jet fighter pilots. In a sign of desperation, the Turkish government has issued a decree that threatens 330 former pilots with the revocation of their civil pilot license, unless they return to Air Force duty for four years[i]  the Only handful of pilots has returned to military service after this decree.

Many modernization projects were halted due to the loss of technical know-how and the current economic crisis. Systematic and endless witch hunts based on espionage destroyed the trust relationship in the military. Promotion system based on qualification and veteran curve has been replaced with the new one which totally politicized and controlled by the regime. The morale and motivation of personnel in the dip because of all uncertainties and broken trust. The ability to hire the best is significantly reduced due to the fact that starting a career in the military is considered extremely risky as thousands of officers lost their jobs and freedom without legal process. For the reason mentioned above, the combat readiness and operational capacity of the Turkish Armed Forces has fallen dramatically.

The Impact of Massive Dismissal on NATO

Regarding operational capability and interoperability, massive dismissal has largely abolished the interoperability of the Turkish Armed Forces in all operations carried out under the NATO. Considering the fact that Turkey is the second country with the largest manpower after the US in the alliance, it is clear that this will greatly affect the force structure of NATO. Not only Turkish Armed Forces but also NATO lost such a valuable military personnel with tremendous talent and expertise. In fact, this concern has been voiced by General Curtis Scaparrotti, who is NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. He said the impact of the massive dismissal was “noticeable”. General Joseph Votel, who is Commander of CENTCOM also shared his concern publicly “I am worried about the long-term impact on operations, level of cooperation and collaboration. We certainly had a relationship with a lot of Turkish leaders, military leaders who are in prison now in particular[ii].”

As regards to NATO’s integrity, NATO’s core values which are defined as a democracy, individual liberty, freedom and the rule of law in the founding document of the 1949 Washington Treaty is being subject to damage by its own member. The Brussels Summit Declaration of July 2018 states that NATO leads by example in upholding the principles of democracy and human rights. Turkey under Erdogan’s rule is far from setting a good example in terms of democracy and human rights. On the contrary, Turkey is categorized as a “non-free country” and ranks number one in the world in terms of declining freedom[iii]. In addition, the UN Human Rights Report in March 2018 revealed profound human rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people, including free movement, torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention.[iv]

freedom house freedom index

Freedom House Freedom Index, 2018

As for decision-making process and information security, as Turkish Armed Forces has been transformed by the regime, those officers who assigned to NATO post are most likely to be pro-Russian. This is the biggest risk and significant challenge for NATO because the new staff has access to all information including top secret and cosmic plans in some cases. Nobody can underestimate the possibility of sharing this information with Russia. If this happens, Russia can reach a position to access all the cosmic information of NATO through Turkey.  As Russia becomes a threat, the Russian influence in Turkish Armed Forces can be a critical weakness for NATO. Russia has a perfect trojan horse to attack the integrity of NATO by using Turkey as a pawn within NATO.[i] Since every decision is taken by consensus, Turkey can slow down or even stop the decision by exercising veto power. Any delay in decision making or planning process of NATO operations can have dangerous consequences for those who put their lives in risk to defense alliance.

As for alliance deterrence and defense posture, Turkey’s strategic partnership with Russia and pro-Russian leadership in Turkish Armed Forces create extreme concern for NATO’s collective defense capability. Because Turkey’s contribution to NATO in any operation against Russia is uncertain due to increasingly advancing strategic partnership and military cooperation with Russia. NATO’s forward presence and maritime activities in the black sea region can also be harmed by Turkey in case of any Russian demand.

As for counterterrorism, Turkish Army and Special Forces lost valuable expertise and combat experience on counter terrorisms. Erdogan regime even dismissed the Commanding Officer of Center of Excellence against Terrorism after the so-called coup attempt. On the other hand, there are numerous claims regarding with the relationship of Erdogan’s regime and ISIS. Prosecutors, gendarmerie and even journalist who revealed the Government’s secret armed transfer to ISIS has been jailed[ii]. Erdogan’s support in ISIS and reduced counterterrorism capability certainly undermine the NATO’s contribution to Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its ability to project stability and fight against terrorism.

In conclusion, the Turkish Armed Forces has significantly lost operational capability and interoperability with NATO.  NATO puts his own integrity in danger by allowing Turkey as a member to drift away from core values of alliance which are a democracy, freedom, and rule of law. It would be a historical mistake to ignore Russian influence and mindset shift in the Turkish Armed Forces. Finally, being a silence regarding tortures and unlawful acts against man and woman who served for NATO damages organizational identity and loyalty of NATO.

[i]https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/how-turkey-destroyed-its-own-air-force-24942
[ii]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ho5Ld3Pb75c
[iii]https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018
[iv]https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22853
[v]https://turkeystudies.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/erdogan-regime-threatens-regional-and-global-stability/
[vi]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/28/truth-president-erdogan-jailed-turkey-regime-state-security-crime