Turkey's purged post-coup military has NATO allies nervous: Brian Stewart

Just over two months after the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Erdogan's relentless purges of many layers of society are putting the country's fragile democracy under extraordinary strain.

Guardian of dozens of U.S. nukes and key defender of NATO's southern flank has seen its ranks badly depleted

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown following the coup attempt in July has badly weakened the country's military. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Now 2½ months removed from the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Erdogan's rolling purges of many layers of society are putting the country's fragile democracy under extraordinary strain.

But no institution is as fractured and battered as Turkey's large military, which is a major concern for NATO allies who have long considered it one of the core strengths of the alliance. 

Turkey's military is a behemoth inside NATO, the second-largest standing force after the U.S., and guardian of an estimated 90 American B61 nuclear bombs. It's also the key defender of NATO's entire southern flank, and is vital to the U.S.-led coalition fight against ISIS in Syria.

Its location in a tough neighbourhood — close to Russia and bordering eight nations, including Syria, Iraq and Iran — makes its stability strategically important.
Turkish soldiers in an armoured vehicle are seen in Karkamis, near the Syrian border. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

But the military is badly damaged following the failed coup of July 16. A faction of the military launched the uprising and the entire force remains very much under suspicion and investigation.

At least a third of its top officer ranks, 143 generals and admirals, were thrown into detention, and 10,000 officers of lesser rank were also arrested for suspected ties to the coup plotters. None, as yet, has been brought to trial.

The air force has been hit the hardest. It faces a severe pilot crisis after 300 flyers, roughly half its duty roster, were purged. Such a massive shortage will be very difficult to recover from given the time it takes to train combat-ready crews. As many as five squadrons of F-16 fighters are reported to have been shut down.

Nuclear weapon storage

The air force seems to have been significantly involved in the attempted coup. This is particularly worrisome for NATO because of the crisis that flared around the major southern airbase of Incirlik, which plays a vital role in supporting U.S. and allied anti-ISIS air attacks in Syria.

The base also houses NATO's largest nuclear weapons storage facility — where those 90 or so B61 nukes are kept.

The Stimson Center, a U.S. think-tank, has raised nervous questions about whether America's warheads should remain in Turkey.
A service vehicle with a sign reading 'Welcome to Incirlik' is pictured at the airbase, which houses NATO's largest nuclear weapons storage facility. (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based writer and analyst, warned when the crackdown began that it will have long-term consequences for the military.

"What we have seen ... is the start of a process which will have an impact on Turkey and its armed forces for the next 20-30 years."   

Former NATO supreme commander James Stavridis is concerned the crucial ally will become distracted.

"Unfortunately, it is likely that the military, in the wake of the coup, will be laser-focused on the internal controversy, endless investigations, and loyalty checks — and simply surviving as an institution," the retired admiral said.

'A total witch hunt'

Of course, it's not just the military that's been shaken by the massive crackdown. 

More than 100,000 people, including judges, mayors and school teachers, have been arrested or dismissed from work without a hearing.

Turkish opposition leaders say basic civil liberties are regularly violated.

"This is the point we have reached now," opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said recently. "A total witch hunt has been launched in many fields."

The risk now, according to Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is that "in its righteous anger and its attempt to clean the state, the Turkish government might destroy the frail democracy it is trying to save."

Amnesty International says many arrested military officers have been tortured and denied food for days. 

The chief targets of the post-coup crackdown are members of the highly secretive Gulenist movement. Erdogan blames the Islamic movement and its founder, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the U.S., for the coup. The president appears intent on sweeping all traces of it from public life.
U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Turkey's president blames Gulen and his Islamic movement for the coup attempt. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

The movement is reported to have possibly millions of followers in Turkey and around the world, and runs many philanthropic and educational enterprises. Over a dozen years, it also placed members deep within the Turkish bureaucracy, including police, the judiciary, intelligence agencies and the military.

Erdogan, never himself a Gulenist, appears to have become alarmed by the movement's growing influence in security and military sectors and turned against the Gulenists three years ago. Tensions between Erdogan's ranks and the Gulenists intensified into what was described as a silent civil war, which ultimately erupted with the failed coup and the purges that followed.
Protesters hold a model plane with a doll depicting opposition cleric in exile Fethullah Gulen attached to the front during a rally in Istanbul last month. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Many arrests were expected after such a serious uprising involving a portion of the military, but the scale of Erdogan's sweeps is closer to what you'd expect in a police state. What's more, as always happens in such purges, neighbours turn on each other, creating a self-perpetuating fog of fear.

Even a few government ministers have hinted lately that too many innocent people may have been victimized. The government says 32,000 people have been jailed, with prisons so crowded pre-coup inmates are being released early to make room for the overflow.

Gulenist plotters are by no means the only targets, Aydintasbas says, with the net widening to include 200 journalists and Erdogan's political critics.

"Liberal dissidents and Kurds have also suffered in the crackdown," she wrote. "Authorities have arrested dozens of Kurdish activists, politicians and mayors and dismissed 11,500 teachers belonging to a left-wing union." 

Yes, the attempted coup was an extremely serious threat to Turkey's government that required a strong response. Still, no one knows how much further Erdogan will push this staggering social upheaval in an already deeply troubled nation.

And that's a nightmare for Turkey's allies.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.