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Chapter 5. National Security

THE ARMED FORCES have figured prominently in Turkish national life for centuries. Under Ottoman rule, the government and the military establishment were virtually indistinguishable. After World War I, the army commander, Mustafa Kemal, later called Atatürk (meaning Father Turk), evicted the occupying forces of the victorious Allies from Anatolia and formulated the principles underlying the modern Turkish state. On three occasions since then, the military leadership has intervened to protect the nation's democratic framework. The third interlude of military rule, which lasted from 1980 to 1983, was welcomed by many Turkish citizens because it ended the terrorism of the 1970s. The military's actions, however, also limited the democratic process.

A member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 1952, Turkey long had the vital mission of anchoring the alliance's southern flank against the military power of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Turkish armed forces defended the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and Turkey's northeastern border with the Soviet Union in the Transcaucasus region. Vessels of the Soviet Union's Black Sea fleet had to transit the Turkish-controlled straits to enter the Mediterranean.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 fundamentally changed Turkey's security environment. Fear of Soviet aggression no longer looms over the nation, yet Turkey remains at the center of a region seething with political and economic discord. The stability of Turkey's borders is threatened by turbulence among the newly independent republics of the Caucasus and by hostile states in the Middle East. Turkey's concern over the fortunes of the Turkic states of Central Asia could bring it into conflict with Russia or Iran. Turkey is an advocate of the interests of Muslim peoples in the Balkans, but its modest military role as part of the United Nations (UN) Protection Force in Bosnia has generated controversy because of memories of the Ottoman Empire's long involvement there.

The Turkish government has taken sweeping measures to restructure and modernize the armed forces to deal with the new conditions, in which Soviet military might has been superseded by a multiplicity of threats near Turkey's eastern and southern borders. The new strategy emphasizes the ability to perform a variety of missions, move forces rapidly from one region to another, and mount firepower sufficient to meet any foreseeable threat. Undergoing the most radical reorganization have been the land forces, which were reduced from about 525,000 troops in 1990 to about 393,000 in 1994. For added flexibility, the army has adopted a brigade structure in place of the previous divisional pattern. The army's stocks of tanks and armored vehicles have been enlarged and improved; self-propelled howitzers and multiple rocket launchers also have been added. Troop-carrying helicopters will ensure greater mobility.

An expanded Turkish defense industry has played a major role in the modernization of the armed forces. Under joint-venture programs with United States manufacturers, combat aircraft, armored vehicles, rocket systems, and tank upgrades have been supplied. Submarines and other vessels have been produced in cooperation with the German shipbuilding industry. The centerpiece of the modernization effort has been the United States-Turkey F-16 coproduction project, which is expected to add 240 high-performance fighter aircraft to the Turkish inventory during the 1990s.

Turkey and the United States developed many defense links and common goals after United States military and economic assistance began in 1947 in response to the threat of Soviet expansion. For instance, Turkey has permitted the United States to use forward bases and intelligence installations on Turkish territory. During the Cold War, these installations were of vital importance in monitoring military activity and weapons testing by the Soviet Union. Following the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Turkish bases enabled the United States and coalition forces to conduct Operation Provide Comfort, an effort to supply humanitarian relief to Kurds in northern Iraq and enforce a "no-fly zone" in the area against Iraqi aircraft.

Overshadowing all external threats to Turkish security is the Kurdish insurgency, which began in 1984 in the southeastern region of the country. This movement, which involves only a small minority of Turkey's Kurdish population, is led by the extremist Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkere Kurdistan--PKK). The conflict became particularly violent beginning in 1992. Some 4,000 Kurds and government security personnel were killed in 1993 alone, many of them noncombatants. The activities of the PKK complicate Turkey's relations with Syria, Iraq, and Iran, where the PKK insurgents have maintained supply and training bases. By early 1995, the Turkish government had deployed nearly 200,000 soldiers and police to the region, and had adopted a policy of forcibly evacuating and often burning Kurdish villages believed to be aiding the insurgents. These measures apparently dampened the insurgency, but at the cost of alienating large numbers of Kurds not involved in the separatist movement.

Historical Role of the Armed Forces

The professional armed forces of Turkey trace their origins back more than five centuries, to a permanent body of men recruited to form the nucleus of the much larger armies mobilized to conduct annual campaigns against selected objectives. A unique feature of the Ottoman military organization was the janissary army, whose members were conscripted as youths from among the empire's non-Muslim subjects in the Balkans, converted to Islam, and given military training. Gradually acquiring high status, prominence, and privilege, the janissaries ultimately constituted a reactionary palace guard resistant to reforms and of little military value to the reigning sultan.

Military conquest permitted the spread of the Ottoman Empire through the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, and most of Eastern Europe. The sequence of Ottoman victories was finally halted and a gradual military eclipse ensued after the failure of the siege of Vienna in 1683 (see Köprülü Era, ch. 1). Vast territories were relinquished as a result of a century of setbacks in battles with the European powers.

The need to modernize a military system engaged in a losing struggle to maintain Ottoman control over the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East was recognized by the first of the reforming sultans, Selim III (r. 1789-1807). He introduced French instructors to train the soldiers of a new volunteer army organized along the lines of contemporary European armed forces. However, his efforts were successfully resisted by the janissaries, who concluded that reform foreshadowed an end to their traditional privileges. Rising up in 1807, the janissaries precipitated the sultan's abdication and the dismantling of the new army. Mahmud II (r. 1808-39) eventually became strong enough to challenge the power of the traditional military caste. He reinstituted the reformed army and, in 1826, crushed the janissaries with a massive artillery barrage aimed at their barracks.

The internal decay of the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by growing disaffection and turmoil among younger military officers and civil servants. Coming together as the Committee of Union and Progress (better known as the Young Turks), and operating as secret cells within military units, the dissidents instigated a series of upheavals and mutinies within the military that culminated in the revolution of 1908 and the fall of Sultan Abdül Hamid II (see The Young Turks, ch. 1). Divided between nationalist and liberal factions, the Young Turk officers could not prevent foreign powers from seizing portions of the empire's Balkan holdings. After the empire's defeat at the hands of Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Serbia in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, a military dictatorship emerged, under the nominal control of the sultan. Motivated by their fear of Russia, the nationalist officers made the fateful error of joining the Central Powers in World War I. Initially, the Turkish army was successful, stubbornly resisting the landing of British and Australian forces at Gallipoli in 1915 and forcing their withdrawal the following year. But operations against Russia went badly, and tsarist forces advanced onto Turkish soil. In Mesopotamia and Palestine, British and Arab units also prevailed against the Turks (see World War I, ch. 1).

A new contingent of Young Turks led by the war hero Atatürk resisted the postwar occupation of most of Turkey by Greek, French, Italian, and British forces. A series of defeats were administered to the Greek troops, resulting in their withdrawal in 1922. The Turks subsequently forced the occupying Allies to accede to a peace treaty recognizing the present borders of Turkey and enabling the proclamation in 1923 of the Republic of Turkey, with Atatürk as its president (see War of Independence, ch. 1).

Atatürk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular democracy in which the army would distance itself from the civil functions of government. The army nevertheless preserved the right to intervene as the ultimate guardian of the state if the political system became deadlocked or Atatürk's reforms were endangered. Although active-duty officers were forbidden to engage in politics, the interests of the military did not go unrepresented. Until 1950 many influential leadership posts and at least 20 percent of the seats in the Grand National Assembly were held by individuals with military backgrounds. For nearly thirty years, the nation was governed by two military heroes of the War of Independence--first Atatürk and then, after his death in 1938, Ismet Inönü--and a single political party in which retired senior officers were heavily represented.

Data as of January 1995

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