After signing the presidential decree to instate top-level changes in the Turkish National Police Force on August 2, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan approved important changes in the upper echelon of the Turkish Armed Forces on August 3.
The post had been vacant since General Yaşar Güler was appointed as the Minister of National Defence with June 3 decisions after Erdoğan was re-elected as president with May elections.
It had been rumoured in Ankara for some time that there would be high-level changes in the Turkish Armed Forces, and Gürak’s name stood out as the strongest candidate.
With the YAŞ decisions, General Selçuk Bayraktaroğlu, Second Chief of General Staff, was appointed as the Commander of the Land Forces, and General Ziya Cemil Kadıoğlu, Commander of the Combat Air Force, was appointed as the Commander of the Air Force. Naval Forces Commander Admiral Ercüment Tatlıoğlu remained in his position.
Erdoğan’s goals: Politized are “sidelined”
It is impossible to separate these high-level changes in the security bureaucracy in two days from each other in terms of Erdoğan’s short-term and long-term goals.
I will first analyse the appointments in the security bureaucracy in terms of short-term goals and then the military.
The appointment of Ali Yerlikaya as Interior Minister in place of Süleyman Soylu followed the replacement of 52 provincial police chiefs with a Presidential Decree.
The replacements signed by Erdoğan on August 2, which reshuffled more than 80 high-ranking police officers, were the most comprehensive changes in the force.
Twenty-four of these 52 replacements were not given active duties. This was inevitably interpreted as the “sidelining” of names known to be close to former minister Süleyman Soylu by Yerlikaya and, of course, with Erdoğan’s approval.
Soylu’s employees or not?
Of course, it is not possible to define every police chief who was replaced as “Soylu’s employee”. After all, Soylu served as Interior Minister for seven years. However, for example, Ankara Police Chief Servet Yılmaz, one of the names closest to Soylu, is among those who were removed. Yılmaz had initiated a “last minute” FETÖ investigation against current Minister Yerlikaya when he was the governor of Istanbul.
However, Istanbul Police Chief Zafer Aktaş, who is known to not be Soylu’s choice, has kept his position. Likewise, Adana Police Chief Doğan İnci and Antalya Police Chief Orhan Çevik.
The new Ankara Police Chief that replaced Servet Yılmaz with the decree is Engin Dinç against whom there are allegations of intelligence negligence in the assassination of journalist Hrant Dink and the 2015 Ankara Train Station bombing, which is the deadliest terrorist attack in Türkiye.
The predominant common denominator of the new team in the police force, including Dinç, is that they are not as politicised as Soylu’s team.
Are the changes election-oriented?
Yerlikaya’s new team in the Police Department is not as politicised as Soylu’s team. Actually, the AKP administration has shifted names that were deemed “too MHP-oriented” to less influential positions.
If you look at it from one side, you can say that Erdoğan had Soylu do what he wanted him to do, especially in the PKK and FETÖ operations, but after winning the presidency, he needed new cadres for his new goals.
Erdoğan’s current, short-term goal is to win all 11 metropolitan municipalities held by the CHP in the March 24, 2024, local elections. He is aware that he cannot do this with shark names, but with more centrist, moderate candidates who can appeal to a wider audience. The recent elections have shown that the organisation of the police force plays a role in elections, perhaps second only to the Supreme Electoral Council.
It is possible to state that Erdoğan is aiming for a law enforcement structure that will fulfil his instructions in the 2024 elections without pursuing secondary political goals.
Another possibility, which does not contradict the focus on local elections, is that Erdoğan thinks it is time to create a police force that does not rely on alliances, including with the Nationalist MHP, and loyalty to politicians, such as Soylu, who can be seen as a separate political focus within the AKP.
Gürak is the beginning of a change
Changes in the structure of the Turkish Armed Forces should not be focused on local elections, but should be considered in the long term.
Erdoğan is in power for another five years. His next target after the local elections will be the constitutional amendment.
This process will also be a time when it will become clear whether Türkiye will be able to survive the economic crisis and whether new horizons will open up in foreign and security policies depending on the nature of its survival. As is well known, the YAŞ determines not only promotions and purges in the military ranks but also the state of readiness for war and the possibilities for restructuring, all of which are issues that closely concern the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Treasury and Finance.
Erdoğan wants to work with a new and, let’s say, relatively trustworthy command. He wants to build a team that is less politicised, just like the police force, and that has members who are not over 65 years old, especially in the first years of the process, who have proven themselves in the field, in the combatant class, and have risen through the ranks.
Therefore, the appointment of Metin Gürak, the commander of the Second Army, who coordinated the Libya operation as the second chief of the General Staff after previously being the co-chair of the joint military delegation with Azerbaijan, and who has been directing the TSK operations against the PKK in Iraq and Syria in cooperation with MIT since 2020, was not a surprise for those following the issue.
Attention to another July 15 risk
In the Turkish Armed Forces, it can be observed that Erdoğan aims for a command team that is more military-oriented and “will not be distracted”, just like the police force in the Turkish National Police, which will “carry out instructions immediately” rather than “looking to a different political focus”.
After the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, it would not be wrong to say that the management team formed under Hulusi Akar’s leadership was a “collection” team. With this YAŞ, Erdoğan seems to want to take the first step towards a radical change in the TSK. When we say less politicised, it is important to note Erdoğan’s desire to see the Turkish Armed Forces as the “army of the Prophet” on the one hand, and the obligation to keep the military out of the influence of religious sects on the other, and that the cost of ignoring this may be very high.
For the sake of Türkiye and its people, it would be useful to remember what the “religious generation” discourse has led to in the military, just like in the police force, and learn from it.