Implicit Traces of Security Sector Reform in Turkey: A Fragile but Steady Process By: Ahmet Barbak | Turkey | Apr 20, 2015

Turkey, because of its peculiar historical conditions, is a country where the military has played a dominant role in its politics. With several military interventions in its modern history, Turkey has been recognized as a unique example of civil-military relations given that its democratic institutions have persisted and co-existed with the politically active military. The last military intervention in Turkey is said to have taken place in 1997, and called a “postmodern coup”, which saw the Cabinet implicitly forced to resign at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting. That no weapons were used nor shots fired and that both the media and political organizations supported the military has prompted many to label it as postmodern.

The intervention was defended as a necessary step to protect the secular character of the Turkish state. Critics called it another example of “military tutelage” in Turkey. In 2007, the last attempted military intervention occurred, dubbed an “e-memorandum” to the political leadership out of concern that the secular structure of the Turkish Republic was under threat by Islamic radicals.

Reforming civil-military relations and steps to eliminate military tutelage in Turkey began in 2001 when a constitutional amendment civilianising the National Security Council (NSC) was enacted. This involved increasing the number of civilian members of the NSC and changing the Secretary of the NSC from a military position to a civilian post, envisaged to be appointed by the elected political leadership. The amendment established that the NSC would serve in an “advisory” role to the Cabinet, rather than formulate policies on its own. This shift in core security roles launched a process to narrow the military’s authority in the state decision-making bodies. This process can be characterized as an effort to crowd out military authority in the public administration and political arenas thus decreasing the potential power of the military to dictate social, economic and security policies. Another action to eliminate military tutelage took place in 2002, when the long lasting State of Emergency, declared in 1987 in Turkey’s Southeast region due to military operations against Kurdish separatist militancy, was abolished. This was a major shift in policies that was shaped by the statist security approach of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). Because, previously, the State of Emergency allowed the TAF to undertake domestic security tasks, respond to the issues only militarily on account to national security and thus dominate policy formulation in social and economic domains. Furthermore, the TAF had delivered some public services in the villages of Southeastern Turkey, such as health and education, in order to maintain people’s trust and keep them away from Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)’s separatist militancy.

Turkey’s initial involvement in security sector reform (SSR) as a ‘local owner’ was in 2003, when Turkey became a member of the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF). It was a turning point in that Turkey’s political leadership committed to democratic control of armed forces both at national and international levels carrying it to political agenda, which is an unprecedented initiative to tackle military tutelage and cope with praetorian tradition. Besides, the cooperation of Turkey’s Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) with DCAF as a civil society organization has supported the process as a policy transfer agent. One should also take into account the positive effect of Turkey’s European Union (EU) Accession and Discussion process in 2000’s following the EU’s first Progress Report in 1998 on Turkey’s progress towards accession that highlighted the civilian control of the military. After the EU’s adoption of the European Security and Defence (ESDP) Support to SSR Concept in 2005 and the European Commission Support to SSR Concept in 2006, criticism of Turkey was then framed by the SSR approach in EU circles, broadening the discussions regarding accession negotiations on Turkey’s civil-military relations issues so as to address not only the National Security Council but also its national security approach and policies, development issues, and human rights in a comprehensive manner. The political leadership sought to advance what it called a “democratization” process in the security sector using EU accession as a means to legitimize and rationalize administrative and political reforms in the state apparatus. This reform agenda included actions to limit Turkish Armed Forces’s authority, such as eliminating military members in the Board of Higher Education, Radio and Television Supreme Board, Higher Board of Communication etc.

From then on, an implicit process of security sector reform (advancing democratic civilian control of the TAF) has been referred to as “democratization” process by the political leadership to build local ownership both in the state and civil society. During this process, a major step to decrease the authority of TAF in the state apparatus was an amendment to the TAF’s Internal Service Code narrowing its mission mandate to matters of warfare, curtailing its praetorian role in regard to the secular character of the regime. This was called the “neutralization” and “depoliticization” of the TAF, distinguishing between its statist ideology and its commitment to respect the political will of the civilian government. It is, after all, the TAF’s traditional role as protector and guard of the regime that has been seen as the root cause of military interventions.

Another shift limiting the TAF’s authority involved changes to the relationships of the TAF to governors and the Internal Affairs Ministry in a State of Emergency. This change reframed the TAF’s relations with both provincial administrations (governors) and the central government, recognizing the TAF as the operational arm of the civilian government. While the TAF had previously been the dominant and decisive actor in the state, the changes subordinated them to civilian authority at both the provincial and national levels.

In Turkey, the term “security sector reform” was first voiced officially by political and military leadership in two projects after 2010. One of them was the Improvement of Civilian Oversight of Internal Security Sector Project which aimed to create a common understanding regarding civilian oversight between internal security forces and civil society organizations, codify civilian oversight through a legal framework and enhance the oversight capacity of the Internal Affairs Ministry. Financed by the EU, this project was signed by UNDP Turkey and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Since Gendarmerie forces, appointed by TAF but supervised by Internal Affairs Ministry, constitute the largest part of the internal security apparatus beside the police forces, this led to a questioning of the structure of the domestic security system. Recently, a domestic security bill was passed by the Parliament, tying gendarmerie forces to the Internal Affairs Minister, thus decreasing the command and control relations between General Staff and Gendarmerie, and enhancing civilian control by increasing the domestic security enforcement powers of the government. According to this legislative act, Gendarmerie forces will be accountable to the Minister at national level and governors at provincial level. They will be evaluated by the governors annually which will provide input for their promotions, appointment, and awards. Additionally, top provincial Gendarmerie commanders will be appointed by the Internal Affairs Ministry. Nevertheless, it is argued by opposition parties that this amendment will lead to increased politicization of the Gendarmerie forces and as so far proven controversial.

The second project, “Civic Training for Mehmetçik” aims “to educate conscripts who are in military service on the issues of human rights, gender equality and women’s rights, children’s rights, protection of the environment, general healthcare, legal empowerment and other relevant issues so as to make them responsible and sensitive individuals of the society.” Also financed by the EU and co-signed by UNDP Turkey and TAF, the project is the first direct relationship between the EU and TAF in the domain of security sector reform.

In August 2014, another major step towards security sector reform was taken with the release of the Defence Reform Report which is the first to have been prepared by a civil-military committee tasked by the President. It also framed the debate by bringing together the two words of “defence” and “reform” officially and publicly in Turkey. The issues addressed in the Report encompasses topics, such as civil-military relations, democratic civilian control, defence acquisitions and outsourcing, defence budget, human resources, and military higher education, providing a public space to discuss neglected aspects of defence and to open the discussion of military and defence issues to civilians’ views at a strategic level.

In short, it is a fact that Turkey has progressed in voicing criticisms about its military and questioning the military’s role in Turkish politics and society. Security sector reform process in Turkey is likely to progress in three main paths, that is to say modernizing TAF for the purposes of effectiveness and professionalization, enhancing military’s subordination to policy makers, and sustaining the “solution process” by which it is aimed to end PKK’s separatist militancy in favor of both individuals’ security needs and regional development, while taking into account military’s sensitivity about Turkey’s unitary state structure. Here, it should be noted that both the SSR process and civil-military relations in Turkey will be shaped by these paths in the next decade.

Ahmet Barbak, PhD in Political Science and Public Administration, is a Researcher and Lecturer at Izmir Katip Çelebi State University, Turkey.


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