Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ongoing military purge is not merely a response to a coup, but an aggressive restructure, rebranding, and reorientation of the Turkish military. Erdogan began to purge the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) after elements of it launched an unsuccessful coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Turkish security forces detained nearly 10,000 service members including 143general officers and admirals in the first week, totaling over 1/3 of the officer corps. Erdogan justified his crackdown on a counterterrorism basis, claiming to remove members of exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen’s movement, which Turkish authorities have designated as the “Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).” He has also dismissed, and in some cases arrested, tens of thousands of judges, civil society members, and academics, and he closed down dozens of newspapers. The extent of Erdogan’s purge and his use of a counterterrorism justification demonstrate his intent to use the coup attempt as an excuse to transform the Turkish military into a source of personal power and eliminate sources of dissent in Turkey.
The current military purge is part of an ongoing campaign by Erdogan to eliminate threats to his Islamist regime. The Turkish military historically has a secular culture and views itself as a protector of the post-Ataturk democratic society. Erdogan thus views the military as a threat to his vision of an Islamist autocracy and has taken steps to eliminate it since 2007. He dismissed 400 Turkish officers including 37 generals and admirals in response to alleged coup conspiracies between 2007 and 2010, prompting the resignation of the Chief of the General Staff and the Commanders of the Turkish Navy, Land Force, and Air Force. About half of the Brigadier Generals and Rear Admirals removed this month were promoted to their rank after the initial purges. Erdogan’s aggressive measures after the recent failed coup attempt indicates that he likely seeks to finish his long-time campaign through this final purge.
Erdogan’s purge targeted a wide swath of the TSK leadership. He used the justification of alleged membership of individual commanders to the alleged FETO rather than direct participation in the coup attempt itself. The main units that participated in the coup attempt were the Istanbul Gendarmerie, the Istanbul-based 1st Army 3rd Corps, the Ankara-based 2nd Army 4th Corps, the 4th Main Jet Base group at Akinci, and the 10th Tanker regiment at the Incirlik Airbase in Adana. Erdogan nonetheless extended his purge throughout non-combat units that did not appear to play a direct role in the coup attempt.. He purged the General Staff, the Training and Doctrine Command, and Turkey’s military and police intelligence community, which he condemned for “significant gaps and deficiencies” in failing to prevent the coup attempt. Erdogan’s purge centralizes his authority, removes internal resistance, and takes control of the training programs for young military officers in order to retain control of the TSK’s future.