Umit Bektas / REUTERS Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar at a funeral ceremony for a Turkish army officer killed in clashes with Kurdish militants, in Ankara, February 2016.

Turkey's Next Military Coup

How Empowering the Generals Could Backfire

Before Turkey took an authoritarian turn under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, many thought that the former head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would go down in history as the leader who finally tamed Turkey’s military and resolved the country’s decades-long conflict with the Kurds. Such hopes now seem outrageously misplaced. Erdogan has given the military a blank check to wage war against Kurdish insurgents and has struck a cozy alliance with the generals. For his part, Erdogan must believe he is killing several birds with one stone. The military campaign against the Kurds both weakens the country’s largest minority, which recently dealt a blow to Erdogan’s ambitions for unchecked power, and consolidates his power among the country’s nationalists. Along the way, Erdogan might mend ties with the country’s long-estranged military, which could come in handy as his domestic and international opponents begin to encircle him. But for Erdogan, empowering the military could be risky. There are even those within his close circle, including some of his advisers, who fear that the president is riding a tiger that, after years of harsh treatment under the ruling AKP, is all the wilder and more vengeful.

The military has reason to hold a grudge. For much of Turkish history, it has held significant sway over political affairs, staging four outright coups, forcing several other political leaders to resign, and acting as an unquestioned guardian of secular democracy. Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has whittled away at the generals’ influence, which has left Turkey’s once omnipotent armed forces weak and divided. To meet EU accession criteria, Ankara implemented measures to bring the military within civilian control. It limited the jurisdiction of military courts in favor of civilian courts, and it started to play an active role in the appointments of top military commanders. A further blow to the military’s standing came in April 2007, after the military posted to its website an ultimatum (later Abdullah Gul, who previously belonged to an Islamist party and whose wife wears a headscarf, for the presidency. The public and the AKP were outraged, and Gul was elected. The military’s attempt to intervene against a popular party dealt a serious blow to its standing in society, and in an early vote held right after the e-coup, the AKP increased its vote share by 13 percent.

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