Updated: Oct 8, 2022
Even long before the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 Ankara bureaucrats would joke, “We have to keep the military busy so it won't have time to cause trouble."
AKP elites haven't hidden their suspicion of the armed forces. They have persistently expressed dislike of national holidays celebrated with military parades, which used to be opportunities for the armed forces to show their strength.
Through the years, AKP leaders have found perplexing excuses not to attend national celebrations, and they sometimes ban military parades altogether.
Instead, government offices, schools and the public have been encouraged to celebrate newly discovered Islamic holidays and AKP-approved events.
A few recent cases that didn't escape the press indicate that AKP officials, including Erdogan, may indeed be more worried about the armed forces than ever before.
For example, in May, just before Erdogan’s arrival in the city of Tekirdag, a soldier assigned to salute the president was removed from the military guard. He was accused of being a member of the Gulen movement.
Officers with empty holsters saluting Erdogan
Last June, images of officers with empty holsters saluting Erdogan appeared in the media. And it's not just Erdogan who may not like security personnel with guns.
On July 11, 2017 Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu was photographed saluting special operations police who had blank firing adaptors attached to their automatic rifles.
Although unverified, there have long been rumors that Erdogan, AKP bureaucrats, lawmakers and even pro-AKP journalists wear bulletproof vests. So what is the cause of their hyperbolic fear of the military?
A professor of Ottoman history who works at a government university and spoke on condition of anonymity told us, “Trying to revitalize the Ottoman Empire’s glory, Erdogan has definitely woken up the sultan’s nightmare of the Janissaries.
For centuries, the sounds of their cauldrons’ banging sent chills down the spines of the palace elite. So the tradition of a military shadow on politics is part of the culture here. Despite multiple coups, armed forces are revered because they are considered just and necessary for modern Turkey."
However, he said, "in the last decade, starting with the damaging plots, such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz [cases] against high-ranking military officials, the reputation of the army has been tarnished.
There are also concerns that Erdogan is raising his own private army [referred to as Sadat in the daily lexicon]. Still, for Erdogan’s and other officials’ security details to collect weapons from honor guards required by protocol is unheard of.”
Given Erdogan’s show of strength on July 15, and given that the military’s reputation and power are at their lowest point in the last decade, why are government elites still scared of their own soldiers?
Limited data on the past 15 years of the armed forces show a dismal picture. For example, between 2005 and 2015, more soldiers committed suicide than died in combat.
That said, the number of security personnel lost in combat or terror attacks has also risen significantly since 2015.
Government purges have hit the security forces the hardest, and the latest recruits haven't been trained properly, leading to undeniable incompetence in their service at all levels.
To top this off, thousands of conscripts suffered from food poisoning in May and June this year, and it is doubtful that the allegations of corruption involving the Defense Ministry and catering firms will ever be investigated diligently.
A Colonel who spoke on condition of anonymity told us:
“Erdogan will go down in Turkish political history as a politician with the least tolerance toward criticism and satire. We knew he had a fragile ego. We now see the fear of death is quite potent for him, and it is contagious. For now, fear compels obedience.
Once the threshold for fear is surpassed, the result is disobedience. Once you have overt disobedience, further domestic
pressure becomes inevitable and the cycle for disaster starts. What if people no longer fear the system?”