Turkey, which accused Syria of acting in a hostile and deliberate manner by downing a plane in international airspace that it said was unarmed, has changed its rules of engagement and said Damascus’s act would not go unanswered. This incident requires an analysis from the perspective of a paradigm shift in Turkey from one based on relying on democratic principles to one based on security first policies.
Whether it is a coincidence or not, since Turkey-EU negotiations have come to a standstill in the past several years, Turkey’s policies have shifted from using the tools of democratic rules to security-based policies. This has been evident since an attack by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) last year in July on a Turkish military outpost in the town of Silvan in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of Turkey. Since then Turkey has intensified its security-first policies in parallel with a move to jail thousands of Kurdish politicians and Turkish academics on charges of being members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which it accuses of making propaganda for the PKK. As security-first policies have been emphasized, finding a solution to the Kurdish question through political means has been neglected.
At the same time, needed military reforms to change the equation in civil-military relations in favor of civilians have also come to a standstill. Reforms required for further bringing the military under civilian democratic control have been replaced by symbolic changes such as occurred at military headquarters in Ankara where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat by himself at the head of the table, bringing the generals of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) together. At previous YAŞ meetings, the prime minister and the chief of General Staff sat together at the head of the table to show that the country was governed by both the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the elected government.
A recent seminar in Ankara held jointly by a European think thank and a Turkish one -- the names of which cannot be disclosed due to a rule that organizers and speakers cannot be mentioned but remarks can be quoted -- examined the issue of whether the military can maintain its privileged status while also accepting civilian control.
The aim was to see whether Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of objective and subjective control of the armies can be applied to the TSK to allow it to retain its privileged status to a certain degree instead of ensuring full civilian democratic control.
In his book “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations,” published in 1957, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington advances the theory of objective civilian control, according to which the optimal means of asserting control over the armed forces is to professionalize them. This is in contrast with subjective control, which involves placing legal and institutional restrictions on the military’s autonomy.
Former Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, currently in jail on charges of making coup plans to unseat the government, promoted a model in 2010 that is based on Huntington’s objective control theory written 53 years ago, falling short of reflecting a model that fits 21st century armies whose democratic civilian controls are ensured.
“The reason that lies behind Gen. Başbuğ’s opinion that in military-civilian relations the last word lies with civilians is his linkage to the opinion of objective control but not subjective control of the armed forces. … Objective control envisages a professional army fulfilling its duties well enough while trying to stay out of politics,” said Professor Metin Heper in an article he wrote in Star daily’s Açık Görüş supplement on March 7, 2010.
Retired Gen. Başbuğ’s model suggested for the TSK cannot be applicable in today’s world, where democratic civilian control of the army, but not “civilian control,” as suggested by Huntington 53 years ago, is valid. Therefore, in today’s world, there needs to be societal democratic civilian control over the armed forces so that democracy can function fully.
But I noticed from several remarks that current Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel made, he also promotes the idea of objective control of the TSK. Gen. Özel appears to have succeeded in imposing this theory on the government. This is evident from the fact that the government has long been dragging its feet on placing legal and institutional restrictions on the military’s autonomy.
I now wonder whether the government listened to the military’s advice as part of pursuing objective control of the TSK and allowing a Turkish jet to fly in a dangerous zone -- i.e., close to Syrian territory where a popular uprising continues unabated against the Syrian regime -- that resulted in its downing; whereas, common sense dictates that Turkish jets should have been advised not to fly in a war zone to avoid being dragged into another country’s civil war.