Since the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish army has undergone a rapid transformation, moving beyond tasks limited to UN and NATO peacekeeping and support missions to conducting operations to maintain Turkey's national interests.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have always been one of Turkish society's most respected institutions. While the warrior heritage derived from the Ottoman period has provided it with psychological strength, Ataturk’s legacy has imparted to the military courage, patience and endurance. Thus, even though the involvement of a rogue faction of the TAF in the failed coup d’etat of July 15, 2016 harmed its reputation on a national and global scale, its robust institutional culture and structure enabled TAF to rise from its ashes, even stronger than before. This was seen in both its crisis management capabilities and an evolution of its military strategy and doctrine.
The TAF launched Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, 2016, a cross-border military operation planned and conducted just 40 days after Turkey's bloody coup attempt. In this respect, Operation Euphrates Shield symbolises a turning point for the armed forces since it demonstrated the institution's crisis management capabilities after the purging of Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO) members from the military following the failed coup.
Five days after the coup attempt, 124 generals and admirals were arrested, indicating the probable technical issues and challenges in decision-making processes. Taking Operation Euphrates Shield as a reference, FETO terrorism did not damage the combat effectiveness of the TAF as it was widely presumed.
Contrary to the estimated dramatic shift in military performance, the TAF's organisational structure underwent a rapid transformation, demonstrating a much more efficient command control mechanism, personnel policy, military intelligence and operational capability. The operation also revealed the TAF's eagerness and readiness to allow the political authorities to intervene in the Syrian conflict and its desire to re-establish its stature and credibility.
Second, the TAF restored its reputation in the public eye. According to the Survey on Social and Political Trends in Turkey, conducted every year by Kadir Has University, 60.1 percent of respondents in 2019 reported the TAF to be the most trusted institution.
The survey's findings, announced in 2020, demonstrate that despite July 15, TAF rose again to the first place on the list of the most reliable institutions in Turkey.
Even though thousands of FETO-linked military officers, sergeants, and technical staff were fired from the defence and security bureaucracy, TAF demonstrated its resilience by taking out multiple operations in multiple battlefields and projecting military force to ensure and sustain security and stability in operational theatres.
The TAF also demonstrated its support for the unfinished democratisation project of healthy civil-military relations, which is crucial for increasing public appreciation and combat effectiveness.
Changing dynamics of military doctrine
Since 2016, Turkey’s military has witnessed a transformation of mindset from policymaking to kinetic operations.
The first change came after FETO members who held strategic positions within the decision-making mechanisms of the military, were extracted. This allowed for the more accurate and appropriate determination of operational needs. In other words, military options, which were hitherto off the table, became available to political authorities.
For example, while the Syrian conflict and the significant threat stemming from the PKK terror group's Syrian offshoot, the YPG/PYD dates to 2011, military authorities resisted the use of military options, and the TAF remained in a defensive position from the onset of the Syrian crisis until Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. Operation Shah Euphrates (February 22, 2015), in particular, represented the defensive instrumentalisation of military options.
However, following the failed coup attempt, TAF adopted a drastic new approach which paved the way for acquiring an offensive use for defensive purposes as a part of proactive counter-terrorism strategies.
In brief, the success of reverting the implications of the coup attempt reintroduced a long-forgotten strategic mindset to Turkey.
The TAF evolved into an army that freed itself from restraints, thus allowing it to be employed not only multilaterally, as observed between 1974 and 2016 but also as an armed force that could plan, execute, and finalise operations for national objectives.
This new conjecture encouraged TAF to develop novel military concepts and doctrines substantially different and far ahead of its peers, while lessening the intended effects of the supremacy of NATO concepts and doctrines.
As a strategic priority, the TAF's increasing role in carrying out national military operations brought the opportunity to mitigate the risks and threats targeting Turkey's vital security interests. It also gave policymakers the chance to get involved in the game as an influential actor to narrow other players' options.
To sum up, a new understanding and reintroduction of a strategic mindset allowed the TAF to carry out unilateral joint operations without relying on her allies. This allowed for the creation of de facto situations, which was not the case since Turkey's Cyprus Peace Operation in 1974.
After the clearing of FETO-linked groups from critical military posts, the ends and means of the Turkish military became aligned. In this regard, the rise and expansion of the Turkish defence industry provided the instruments needed to meet objectives, as was witnessed during the liberation of the Armenia-occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
Turkey not only changed the battlefield with its drone warfare strategy and tactics, but also ended a long-lasting and unresolved de facto situation serving the interests of Armenia.
The TAF's transfer and implementation of military doctrine to Azerbaijan demonstrates how the Turkish army transformed itself from a military doctrine importer to a doctrine exporter.
Likewise, Turkey's military involvement in Libya prevented Khalifa Haftar's forces — and his backers, mainly Russia, Egypt, the UAE and France — from overthrowing the UN-recognised Government of National Accord. This also highlights how Turkey's military assistance and operations contribute to the preservation of a rule-based international order.
In addition to its roles in Libya and Azerbaijan, Turkey’s mitigating role in Syria not only honoured the UNSC resolutions but also promoted and strengthened the diminished position of international organisations as the UN and OSCE, which were ineffective in upholding their role as peace providers in Libya and Azerbaijan.
Syria is a significant case showing how Turkey has been successful in mitigating the effects of proxy war with drone warfare, as pointed out by Hasan Yukselen.
There is no doubt that the TAF still suffers at some level— and will continue to do so due to the effects of FETO. But the revolution, both in mindset and organisational and operational initiatives, led to a high level of military performance and demonstrated the fast recovery of the armed forces with the help of political and public support.
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