Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAS) meets today (November 29), with the proposed formation of a specialized anti-terrorism force expected to be high on its agenda.
YAS traditionally meets twice a year to discuss issues related to personnel, training, and future plans for the armed forces: once for four days at the beginning of August, when its agenda is dominated by the annual round of appointments and promotions (see EDM, August 1), and once for two days in late November or December. On each occasion the Turkish General Staff (TGS) traditionally also uses YAS meetings to expel members of the officer corps for breaches of military discipline, most controversially for suspected Islamist sympathies (see EDM, August 6).
YAS is comprised of the prime minister, defense minister, and the 15 highest-ranked members of the TGS, including the chief of staff and all the force commanders. Meetings are chaired by the prime minister, and its decisions are subsequently forwarded to the president for ratification. Officers expelled from the military at YAS meetings do not have the right of appeal.
Since coming to power in November 2002, representatives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have attached reservations to decisions to expel officers for suspected Islamist sympathies. The AKP’s draft of a new constitution, which is due to be made public on December 15 (see EDM, November 27), is expected to grant expelled officers the right of appeal to a civilian court.
The current YAS meeting will be the first since the appointment of Abdullah Gul as president on August 28, 2007. In December 2002, during his brief tenure as prime minister, Gul attached a reservation to the expulsions ordered by YAS. There has been considerable speculation in the Turkish press as to whether Gul will again express his reservations or even refuse to ratify any expulsions (Hurriyet, Radikal, NTV, November 29).
The AKP’s landslide election victory on July 22 and its subsequent appointment of Gul as president, despite the public objections of the TGS, have been widely interpreted as major setbacks for the Turkish military’s self-appointed guardianship role in Turkey. Nevertheless, the majority of the officer corps remains deeply uneasy about what they perceive as the AKP’s long-term Islamist agenda. The general expectation is that Gul will avoid provoking another confrontation with the TGS and ratify the YAS decisions presented to him (NTV, CNNTurk, Hurriyet, Sabah, November 29).
Both Gul and Erdogan are also believed to be anxious to avoid a confrontation over expulsions that would overshadow plans to form a specialized anti-terrorism force comprised of full-time professionals. Almost all of the nearly 40 members of the Turkish armed forces killed in a series of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in September and October were conscripts performing their military service and drawn from the villages and small towns of Anatolia, which are the AKP’s core constituency.
In addition to its officer corps, the Turkish military has long employed a number of full-time professional NCOs. Indeed, the combination of a change in battlefield tactics and the experience of professional NCOs is generally acknowledged to have played a key role in the eventual military containment of the PKK during its first insurgency in 1984-99. However, the numbers of professional NCOs have traditionally been small, and they still serve in units consisting primarily of conscripts.
“When soldiers are discharged at the end of their military service, they take with them their experience of the struggle against terrorism,” said retired General Osman Pamukoglu, who commanded a mountain commando brigade in southeast Turkey at the height of the PKK’s first insurgency (SkyTurk, October 21).
Today’s YAS meeting is expected to discuss plans to form six specialized commando brigades, each consisting of 1,500 full-time professionals who have already completed their military service. Members of the new force will undergo training at the Turkish military’s commando school in Egirdir in central Anatolia and the first brigade is expected to be deployed against the PKK in May 2008. Five of the six brigades will be attached to the Land Forces Command and the other to the Gendarmerie, which is responsible for security in rural areas in Turkey (Zaman, November 27).
Defense Minister Gonul described the creation of the new force as the first step in a gradual transition to a fully professional military. He said that the next phase would include the recruitment not only of front-line troops but also those with technical expertise, such as university graduates who had specialized in mechanical or computer engineering (Zaman, November 27). However, the recruitment of professionals will run in parallel to conscription. There are currently no plans to announce a timetable for the phasing out of compulsory military service.
Similarly, the new professional commando brigades are expected to be used primarily for offensive operations against the PKK. In recent years the majority of military casualties have come in PKK ambushes and attacks on members of the Turkish security forces. Given that approximately 250,000 Turkish military personnel are currently deployed in provinces where the PKK is active, conscripts are likely to continue to bear the brunt of defensive duties for the foreseeable future.