Turkey: How Conscription Reform Will Change the Military

STRATFOR INTELLIGENCE – 21.11.2013 – Summary : A large, conscripted military may no longer be the most appropriate way for Turkey to protect its interests and defend against external threats. Ankara appears to have acknowledged as much Oct. 21, when it voted to reduce the length of time conscripted soldiers are required to serve. The measure, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2014, will effectively shrink the military by 70,000 members. This is no small diminution, considering that Turkey, with its 750,000 soldiers, has the second-largest military among NATO members. Political and economic considerations may have informed Ankara’s decision, but ultimately the move was made to reflect the changing geopolitical conditions under which Turkey now finds itself.


Historically, Turkey’s location and geography has necessitated a robust military. Located at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, the country was critical terrain during the Cold War. In 1952, Turkey became a member of NATO, serving as the southwestern bulwark against the Warsaw Pact. It mustered a large standing military by establishing compulsory service for all Turkish men. Though the Cold War ended two decades ago, Turkey has maintained this practice.

Turkish Armed Forces

Conscription is mandated by the Turkish Constitution, but the legislature determines how it will be enacted. Currently, a healthy Turkish man with no college education serves for 15 months. Prior to 2003, the minimum requirement was 18 months. The upcoming change will reduce this term to 12 months. Of course, there are some exceptions to the mandate. Men with college education have a shorter commitment of six to 12 months, and men over the age of 30 can buy their way out of service for a fee.

Exemptions notwithstanding, conscripts constitute the majority of Turkish service members, comprising some 500,000 soldiers. With such a short service time, many conscripts fail to gain experience after their basic training. As a result, the Turkish military has a small professional core that is augmented by lightly trained forces.

Old Structures, New Threats

This structure made sense during the Cold War, when Turkey was facing similarly structured Soviet and Soviet-backed militaries. Mobilizing an entire population of even lightly trained service members, should the need arise, certainly has its advantages. But times have changed, as have Turkey’s primary strategic threats. Whereas once the country was confronted with the prospect of a Soviet ground invasion, it now contends with domestic terrorism, Kurdish insurgents and, more recently, border issues with neighboring Syria, still in the throes of civil war. Smaller, more agile professional forces, along with Turkey’s paramilitary forces, are better suited to address these security concerns.

However, force structures are not determined by threats alone. For decades, the Turkish military acted as the guardian of the Kemalist principles upon which the country was founded. Maintaining a large standing army helped the military extend its influence into the political affairs of the state. But the rise and political consolidation of the ruling Justice and Development Party over the past decade has severely undermined the Turkish military’s political influence. The mere sight of once-invulnerable Turkish generals in jail confirms that Turkey’s civilian political leadership has supplanted the military establishment.

Clearly, there is a political element to the conscription reform, as evidenced by the Justice and Development Party’s political consolidation and its imperative to curb the military’s influence. Equally important, a presidential election will take place in 2014 and general elections in 2015. A circumscribed military service requirement will likely buy the ruling party considerable political capital among voters, many of whom would rather study, work and earn a living than perform an increasingly archaic social service.

Aside from political considerations, military modernization and increasingly capable military technology demand that force structures maintain highly trained, professional personnel. New technologies and the requisite personnel operating them require more time and more money. The current conscription model does not address these requirements sufficiently. Therefore, the military is being reconfigured as a smaller, better-trained and more expensive per capita professional force supported by higher-end technological platforms.

This transformation likely will continue for the foreseeable future. Conscription will be modified to the point that it faces elimination, which would probably require a constitutional amendment. Other countries that have undergone similar reconfigurations, including former Warsaw Pact members that later joined NATO, have learned that this process can take decades to complete and that a smaller military is not necessarily a cheaper military.


Sectarianism Brings Turkey, Iran Closer

Doran Jones – 22-11-2013 – ISTANBUL (VOA) — Turkey’s foreign minister is due to visit Tehran on November 26, the latest step in rapprochement efforts between the former close allies. Relations soured over the Syrian civil war, but with rising sectarian tensions across the region, the two countries have committed to rebuild their relationship.

Turkey and Iran, on opposing sides of war in Syria, have been signaling a thaw in relations, saying they share concerns about the rising sectarianism in the conflict and could collaborate to bring peace to their neighbor.

Sinan Ulgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. He says the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president has also opened the door to warming relations.

“There was a rift. Now with the new presidency in Iran, Ankara sees the opportunity and tries to engage the new leadership. We can talk about a new period in terms of the Iranian-Turkish relationship, which, despite disagreements on a number of regional issues including Syria, seems to be going in the right direction,” says Ulgen. During a meeting earlier this month in Istanbul, the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers pledged to work together to ease regional sectarian tensions. Until recently, the two countries had accused one another of stoking tensions between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

As a Sunni power, Turkey and its government, led by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, have been accused of pushing a foreign policy that favors Sunni interests. Iran and its Shi’ite clerical hierarchy have been guardians of Shi’a Islam in the Middle East, supporting Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group. Murat Bilhan is a former Turkish ambassador and works for the Tasam think tank. He says despite the new dialogue, suspicions will linger.

“They still had a frank talk and these discussions have toned down the rhetoric between the two countries. They have difficulties to trust Turkey because they look from an angle of sectarianism to Turkey. That is how they perceive the Turkish foreign policy,” says Bilhan.

Despite bilateral tensions, trade between the countries has continued to flourish. Turkey is Iran’s biggest customer for natural gas and Ankara has indicated it may increase its consumption. Turkey has few natural energy reserves of its own.The increase in trade comes despite international sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear energy program. Western countries claim the program is being used to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies.

This week, world powers are meeting again in Geneva for talks on Iran’s nuclear program. The renewed diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute is also another factor behind Ankara’s rapprochement efforts, says analyst Ulgen.

“The nuclear negotiations have gathered momentum and there seems to be some quite substantial developments. And Turkey does not want to be totally alienated from this process. That’s also another reason why there has been a decision to reach out to Iran,” says Ulgen.Those efforts are expected to accelerate in the coming months, with visits by the Iranian president to Turkey and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran. But observers say any efforts to expand ties between the two countries will be constrained by the Syrian conflict and the fact that Turkey and Iran have been – and will remain – regional rivals.