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Coup Proofing Turkey’s Military? History has Ominous Lessons

One month after the failure of the coup on July 15, Turkey decided to invade Syria. The historical record suggests this is a very bad idea. Here is why.


Credit: Activist Post

This article was originally posted in War on the Rocks

On August 24, 2016, 450 Turkish troops, supported by tanks, armored trucks, air, and artillery support, crossed the Syrian border as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Initially, things seem to go well, though ominous signs already loom on the horizon. Pushed by Erdogan’s pride and anger, nationalist public opinion, and a strong urge to justify sunken costs, the Turkish army may get entangled in an endless counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately for Turkey, its military forces are undergoing a severe crisis that undermines its capacity to conduct such warfare. After the abortive military coup in July, the government engaged in a series of sweeping purges in its armed forces. More than 2500 officers, including at least 119 generals and admirals, were arrested or discharged, in addition to sweeping purges in the judiciary, police, schools, and universities. The regime also purged MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence agency, and as Gönül Tol maintained, its remaining agents are likely to invest more resources in fighting the elusive “Gülen conspiracy” than real terrorist threats.

The connection between the coup attempt in July and the military adventure in August is quite direct. One Turkish observer wrote that the anger on the coup brought Erdogan the public support needed for such an adventure. In TheWashington Post, Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly offered convincing evidence that the operation was delayed for almost one year by officers who eventually participated in the coup. If this information is true, then their purge enabled Erdogan to overcome remaining resistance and launch the invasion. Unfortunately for Turkey, the ramifications of the coup on the future of its Syrian intervention may be even bigger. Turkey is going into a military adventure in Syria precisely when its army is least prepared for such a task. As we shall see below, purges and coup-proofing treatments might be dramatically detrimental to military effectiveness, both in counterinsurgency and conventional wars. To use a medical metaphor, they are similar to chemotherapy treatments: very effective in fighting cancer, but at the same time ruinous to essential bodily functions.

Coup proofing and its ramifications: the historical experience


Credit: International Business Times

As a historian, the Turkish case tempted me to draw some comparative insights. I opened Caitlin Talmadge’s seminalThe Dictator’s Army, which examines the influence of coup-proofing on military effectiveness. Three of Talmadge’s case studies  —South Vietnam (1965-1975), Iraq, and Iran (1980-1988) — faced considerable threats of military coups and therefore subjected their army to rigorous coup-proofing treatments. The results were disastrous. In all three cases, officers were usually promoted based on political or personal loyalty. Sometimes, talented officers were purged or marginalized if they were seen as lacking the requisite loyalties.  Because maneuvers could be used as a pretext for military takeovers, the three armies were poorly trained. Further, their command systems were both centralized and convoluted to ensure control and allow governments to spy on units. Finally, there were considerable deficiencies in intelligence and dissemination of information: pessimistic or critical reports might have branded an officer as disloyal. These deficiencies were usually absent in armies unafraid of coups (i.e. North Vietnam), as well as Iraqi, Iranian, or South Vietnamese units exempted from coup-proofing treatments (In the case of South Vietnam, some units were far away from the capital and therefore deemed unthreatening. Iran only gradually coup-proofed the remnants of its old army. In Iraq, certain units were exempted after the war with Iran took a disastrous turn).

Such practices might be efficient to prevent coups, but at the same time they reduce an army’s capacity to fight external foes. As both Caitlin Talmadge and Stephen Biddle maintain, the “modern system” of conventional warfare is based, among other things, on merit promotions, small-unit initiative, complex training, decentralized control, and information sharing. These are precisely the functions that coup-proofing harms the most.


Studied the effects of coup-proofing: Caitalin Talmadge

Next, I examined the cases of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, familiar to me from my own research. The Japanese case adds a new dimension to Talmadge’s conclusions, as it shows how coup-proofing treatments might result in factional strife and distorted decision making. During the 1930s, a pervasive fear of coups inside the Japanese high command was a serious obstacle for merit-based appointments. Often, officers were appointed and demoted according to political allegiance alone. Kanaya Hanzō, a useless alcoholic, was commissioned in 1930 as the chief of the general staff for purely factional reasons. Lt. Gen. Nagata Tetsuzan, one of the most brilliant strategists that the Japanese army ever had, was declared by his factional rivals an “evil genius” and cut down in his office by a military assassin.

Following a failed revolt on February 26, 1936, the Imperial army had undergone extensive coup-proofing treatments. Scores of officers who belonged to the faction sympathetic to the conspirators were fired, including talented professionals. This infighting did not only preclude merit-based promotions but also distorted strategic decision-making. Recently, Andrew Levidis discovered new evidence on this that he discussed at a lecture at Harvard University in November of last year. He found that the decision to expand the conflict with China in 1937, a major cause of the Pacific War four years later, was strongly influenced by post-coup factional calculations. One faction was afraid that if it let troops out of southern China by downsizing the conflict there, its adversaries might use them to attack the Soviet Union instead. The war in China was therefore perceived as the lesser of two evils.


prompted an extensive campaign of coup-proofing: The February 1936 Incident

Nazi Germany is an interesting and different case in point. For most of the Third Reich’s history, Hitler and his minions had used relatively mild coup-proofing techniques. As Jasen Castillo and Dan Reiter both note, Hitler blunted the army’s teeth without excessively undermining military effectiveness. Unlike in the countries studied by Talmadge, German soldiers were thoroughly trained. Inter-factional rivalries, though present, were never as acute as in Japan. Apart from several top-brass positions, promotions in the Wehrmacht were largely based on merit and battlefield performance, not on loyalty to the Nazi Party (though “National-Socialist attitudes” did play a certain role). Hitler placed some limits on field initiative of top commanders through his famous “no retreat” orders on the Eastern front, but lower commanders had a larger degree of operational discretion. Commanders were usually unafraid to report delicate information, and many criticized Hitler’s decisions, sometimes to his face. The historian Harold C. Deutsch noted that between 1939 and 1940, for example, many top commanders criticized the impending attack on France. None of them was harmed, and many were even promoted. Instead of engaging in coup-proofing treatments likely to reduce military effectiveness, Hitler “vaccinated” his army through other means: bribery of generals, ideological inculcation, and establishment of parallel military organizations such as the SS.

That, however, changed after the abortive coup d’état on July 20, 1944.  That coup could happen, as a high Gestapo official complained, only because the conspirators were sheltered by their peers. “The army”, he bemoaned, “operated according to its own rules.” This document, found in a collection of Gestapo documents that were published in 1961 by Seewald Verlag, reveals that after the coup, hundreds of officers were purged by “honor committees” and many were executed, even if they had no links with the conspirators. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the noted Panzer leader who served as chief of the general staff after July 20, openly declared that future commissions to the General Staff would be based on National-Socialist convictions. Had the Wehrmacht not collapsed within months for other reasons, these coup-proofing treatments might have seriously reduced its war-making capacities.

Turkey: Ominous Signs Ahead


Turkish citizens after the coup. Credit: Times live

No country is the same as another, and it would be a folly to assume that Turkish events will unfold exactly according to theory or past precedents. We are not yet sure, for example, whether the post-coup measures in Turkey will include restrictions on training and field initiative as in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran.

We do see, however, ongoing purges in the armed forces. In its air force, the sheer number of the pilots purged may be causing severe personnel shortages. While, before the coup, Turkey had a normal 1.25:1 pilot-to-cockpit ratio, now they have a debilitating 0.8:1. The Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan assumes that it will take the air force at least two years to fill up the vacancies (or ten years, according to a more pessimistic assessment). The special forces were also badly affected. The picture is not as dire in the Turkish army and navy, and the second army, which bears the main burden of Operation Euphrates Shield, is reportedly the least affected. However, the pilot shortage could diminish air support capabilities for the Turkish ground forces in Syria, and corresponding shortages in the special forces could also create problems for Turkish military commitments and ambitions. This problem may worsen, because denunciations and the witch-hunt feel to the ongoing investigations are likely to result in more dismissals.


These purges are a painful lesson for the Turkish army. It is very likely that in the future, promotions will be based on political allegiance, not merit. True, politicization of promotion is not new by itself. Admittedly, the old officer corps strongly preferred Kemalist candidates for promotion. But as there was a large pool of such officers in the army, the high command could choose the more talented ones. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s definition of loyalty is much more capricious. “The uprising,” he said, “is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” Defense Minister Fikri Isik openly admitted that the purges are not limited to participants of the coup or even to Gülenists: Anyone who did not oppose the Gülenists strongly enough is likely to be demoted. Even loyal officers who are too independently minded or do not share Erdogan’s vision for a “new Turkey” may fall under this definition. The term “Gülenist” itself is now a code word for anyone with insufficient loyalty, to include people with no plausible connection to this movement. At the same time, officers who showed strong personal loyalty to Erdogan were promoted, including to key roles in Operation Euphrates Shield. President Erdogan may also interfere in the military education system in such a way that will prevent the Kemalist elite from replicating itself. There is already talk on opening the military institutions to graduates of religious seminaries. That, by itself, does not exclude promotion by merit. In the current circumstances, however, such graduates could be slated for promotion based on religious commitments and loyalty to Erdogan, regardless of their professional performance.


A symbol for everybody Erdogan dislikes: Fethullah Gullen. Credit: News Okezone

Erdogan’s reforms are also likely to create a fragmented military structure with a convoluted chain of command, yet another common result of coup-proofing. As Metin Gurcan reports, Erdogan intends to subordinate different branches of the armed forces to different ministries and make the chief of the general staff a weak coordinator directly subordinate to the president. Obviously, this move is likely to increase civilian control and make it difficult for conspirators in different branches of the armed forces to cooperate, but it could also give rise to factional strife. The elevation of loyalty to Erdogan as the primary criteria for promotion may incentivize opposing groups to compete for the president’s favor, leading to Japanese-style factional infighting. Information flows in the army must suffer as well. Erdogan will have to closely supervise the different branches of the armed forces to forestall future coups and prevent “Gülenist” incursions, resulting in a rigid and convoluted command and control procedures.

Erdogan has an alternative. Instead of terrorizing his army officers, he can woo, bribe, and seduce them, providing a measure of coup-proofing without an excessive cost to battlefield effectiveness. The Turkish president, however, chooses to apply treatments similar to South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran’s. Tragically for Turkey, he also embarks on a dangerous cross-border adventure. Judging by the historical record, this is a very bad idea. If Turkey does not set modest goals and withdraw quickly after achieving them, the consequences might be serious indeed.


Sum of all Fears: The Key to ISIS’ power

How horror and pluralism, wisely combined, gave rise to ISIS’ Empire in Iraq and Syria


The little town of Shariya, in northern Iraq, used to be an obscure, distant community, yet another Ba’athist experiment in social engineering. As part of his pet “Arabization project”, former President Saddam Hussein forcibly evacuated members of the Kurdish-Yazidi minority from their mountain villages and “resettled” them in planned communities under regime supervision. Normally, international attention was far away from Shariya and its inhabitants, but last summer things had changed.

Visiting the town in August this year, University of Chicago scholar Matthew Barber witnessed endless rows of cars and pickup trucks with Yazidi refugees from the Sinjar Valley. The cruel army of ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and A-Sham), flooded the valley with its troops, black banners, and intense firepower. Using American weaponry secured from the collapsing Iraqi Army, ISIS soldiers surprisingly defeated the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Sinjar, formerly known as one of the most efficient armies in Iraq. The Peshmerga (Kurdish: those who confront death) did not lack bravery, but its men and women’s old Soviet arms were no match for ISIS firepower. Sinjar is located outside of the Kurdish autonomy in Northern Iraq, but only 40 kilometers out of the Kurdish capital of Irbil, ISIS advance had put the Kurdish embryonic state in severe danger. Only US military involvement, both in aerial strikes and parachuted supplies, was able to avert this catastrophe so far.

Brave but outmaneuvered: Peshmerga Fighters

What is the secret behind ISIS power? The answer is essentially twofold: horror and pluralism. Sounds contradictory? In order to understand this apparent riddle it may be instructive to look 800 years to the past, into the rise of the Mongol Empire. In the Thirteenth Century, this hitherto unknown confederation of nomadic tribes, led by the notorious Genghis Khan, was sweeping over large swaths of the globe and smashing formidable empires into pieces. The heirs of Genghis conquered China, laid waste to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, occupied Iran and reached the Western borders of Russia. The Mongols were able to rise so quickly partly as a result of their ethnic tolerance. The new conquerors were prudent enough to absorb warriors, scientists and intellectuals from a myriad of religions, colors and ethnic groups. Only through this relatively tolerant policy, they were able to amass talent internationally, thereby upgrading their mounted army into a global empire.

אימה צרופה ופלורליזם: ג'ינג'יס חאן, מייסד האימפריה המונגולית

horror and pluralism: Genghis Khan

However, this ethnic pluralism was accompanied by a ruthless form of psychological warfare. The Mongol conquerors were able to convince so many talented subjects to join their ranks, only due to their ability to overcome countless kingdoms, city-states and other political entities without a serious fight. The reason they were able to proceed so smoothly was the horror they were spreading along the route of their advance. When Genghis Khan’s army fought in Khorasan (Eastern Iran), it imposed blood-chilling punishments on every city that failed to submit. The women and children were sold to slavery; some useful artisans were sent to the Empire, and the rest of the men were put to the sword. Sometimes the punishment was even more horrifying. After Genghis’ beloved son-in-law was killed in battle of Nishapur, the Great Khan and his men slaughtered all living souls in the city, including cats and dogs. Sometimes, the Mongols allowed refugees to escape and spread the word to cities and towns further down the road. Projecting the futility and the terrible price of resistance, many of these cities quickly surrendered to the advancing hordes. This paralyzing fear, further intensified by overblown rumors, was the Mongols’ most deadly weapon, even more than horses, swords, and bows.

אימה צרופה: ייצוג פרסי של לוחמים מונגולים

Just like the Mongols eight centuries ago, the fighters of ISIS are using the twin strategy of horror and pluralism. The horror is evident for all to see. In his Sinjar report, Matthew Barber observed that many refugees were fleeing in circles, moving back and forth, from town to town, whenever they heard rumors (true or false) on ISIS military advance. And they had good reasons to flee, as mass media stories about slaughtered Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites, girls sold to slavery and mass massacres of prisoners had circulated far and wide. Many of these refugees fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, the only functioning quasi-state in the region and ISIS’ most formidable rival, thus burdening its economy to the breaking point. The waves of refugees are a highly useful weapon that ISIS utilizes against its rivals in Northern Iraq and elsewhere, and it begins to take effect even before real shots are fired.

גלים של אימה: אנשי דאע"ש טובחים בשבויים

shock waves of horror: ISIS fighters mowing down prisoners

However, and this is much less obvious, ISIS success cannot be understood without the other element in its strategy: ethnic pluralism. In Western imagination, ISIS and pluralism are far apart as night and day, but this is true only in regard to religious ideology. ISIS is highly intolerant to non-Muslims, Shiites and even Sunnis who do not share its hard-line ideology, but it is blind to class, color, nationality and ethnicity. In the new Caliphate, every radical Muslim can advance in the ranks, whether he is Iraqi, Chechen, British or American. Hence, ISIS can amass military talents from all over and beyond the Muslim world, fanatic volunteers able to build careers regardless of nationality, ethnicity, color or race. For Yazidis, Christians and rival Muslims, the name ISIS equals horror, but for numerous frustrated youngsters around the globe it signals opportunity and temptation. This sophisticated combination of seduction and horror is the true key to ISIS’ power.

Indeed, if the world lets this emerging empire gather strength, it will be increasingly difficult to stop it in the future. It is not enough to send supplies to besieged Yazidis; bomb sporadically or even commission military advisers. President Obama has to supply the Kurdish Peshmerga with cutting-edge weapons and support it with formidable detachments of US troops. Professional pacifists and isolationists should be ignored. Without American boots on the ground, no one else in Syria and Iraq will be able to stop the tide. And the massacres in Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kobani, crowded with horror-stricken refugees, can only be imagined. Action must be prompt, and it must come from the US and its European allies, not from the slow, ineffective UN Security Council. Now is the time to stop mass massacres in the making. One minute of delay and it may already be too late.

The only solution: boots on the ground