One month after the failure of the coup on July 15, Turkey decided to invade Syria. The historical record suggests this is a very bad idea. Here is why.
On August 24, 2016, 450 Turkish troops, supported by tanks, armored trucks, air, and artillery support, crossed the Syrian border as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Initially, things seem to go well, though ominous signs already loom on the horizon. Pushed by Erdogan’s pride and anger, nationalist public opinion, and a strong urge to justify sunken costs, the Turkish army may get entangled in an endless counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately for Turkey, its military forces are undergoing a severe crisis that undermines its capacity to conduct such warfare. After the abortive military coup in July, the government engaged in a series of sweeping purges in its armed forces. More than 2500 officers, including at least 119 generals and admirals, were arrested or discharged, in addition to sweeping purges in the judiciary, police, schools, and universities. The regime also purged MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence agency, and as Gönül Tol maintained, its remaining agents are likely to invest more resources in fighting the elusive “Gülen conspiracy” than real terrorist threats.
The connection between the coup attempt in July and the military adventure in August is quite direct. One Turkish observer wrote that the anger on the coup brought Erdogan the public support needed for such an adventure. In The Washington Post, Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly offered convincing evidence that the operation was delayed for almost one year by officers who eventually participated in the coup. If this information is true, then their purge enabled Erdogan to overcome remaining resistance and launch the invasion. Unfortunately for Turkey, the ramifications of the coup on the future of its Syrian intervention may be even bigger. Turkey is going into a military adventure in Syria precisely when its army is least prepared for such a task. As we shall see below, purges and coup-proofing treatments might be dramatically detrimental to military effectiveness, both in counterinsurgency and conventional wars. To use a medical metaphor, they are similar to chemotherapy treatments: very effective in fighting cancer, but at the same time ruinous to essential bodily functions.
Coup-Proofing and its Ramifications: The Historical Experience
As a historian, the Turkish case tempted me to draw some comparative insights. I opened Caitlin Talmadge’s seminal The Dictator’s Army, which examines the influence of coup-proofing on military effectiveness. Three of Talmadge’s case studies - South Vietnam (1965-1975), Iraq, and Iran (1980-1988) - faced considerable threats of military coups and therefore subjected their army to rigorous coup-proofing treatments. The results were disastrous. In all three cases, officers were usually promoted based on political or personal loyalty. Sometimes, talented officers were purged or marginalized if they were seen as lacking the requisite loyalties. Because maneuvers could be used as a pretext for military takeovers, the three armies were poorly trained. Further, their command systems were both centralized and convoluted to ensure control and allow governments to spy on units. Finally, there were considerable deficiencies in intelligence and dissemination of information: pessimistic or critical reports might have branded an officer as disloyal. These deficiencies were usually absent in armies unafraid of coups (i.e. North Vietnam), as well as Iraqi, Iranian, or South Vietnamese units exempted from coup-proofing treatments (In the case of South Vietnam, some units were far away from the capital and therefore deemed unthreatening. Iran only gradually coup-proofed the remnants of its old army. In Iraq, certain units were exempted after the war with Iran took a disastrous turn).
Such practices might be efficient to prevent coups, but at the same time they reduce an army’s capacity to fight external foes. As both Caitlin Talmadge and Stephen Biddle maintain, the “modern system” of conventional warfare is based, among other things, on merit promotions, small-unit initiative, complex training, decentralized control, and information sharing. These are precisely the functions that coup-proofing harms the most.
Next, I examined the cases of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, familiar to me from my own research. The Japanese case adds a new dimension to Talmadge’s conclusions, as it shows how coup-proofing treatments might result in factional strife and distorted decision making. During the 1930s, a pervasive fear of coups inside the Japanese high command was a serious obstacle for merit-based appointments. Often, officers were appointed and demoted according to political allegiance alone. Kanaya Hanzō, a useless alcoholic, was commissioned in 1930 as the chief of the general staff for purely factional reasons. Lt. Gen. Nagata Tetsuzan, one of the most brilliant strategists that the Japanese army ever had, was declared by his factional rivals an “evil genius” and cut down in his office by a military assassin.
Following a failed revolt on February 26, 1936, the Imperial army had undergone extensive coup-proofing treatments. Scores of officers who belonged to the faction sympathetic to the conspirators were fired, including talented professionals. This infighting did not only preclude merit-based promotions but also distorted strategic decision-making. Recently, Andrew Levidis discovered new evidence on this that he discussed at a lecture at Harvard University in November of last year. He found that the decision to expand the conflict with China in 1937, a major cause of the Pacific War four years later, was strongly influenced by post-coup factional calculations. One faction was afraid that if it let troops out of southern China by downsizing the conflict there, its adversaries might use them to attack the Soviet Union instead. The war in China was therefore perceived as the lesser of two evils.
Nazi Germany is an interesting and different case in point. For most of the Third Reich’s history, Hitler and his minions had used relatively mild coup-proofing techniques. As Jasen Castillo and Dan Reiter both note, Hitler blunted the army’s teeth without excessively undermining military effectiveness. Unlike in the countries studied by Talmadge, German soldiers were thoroughly trained. Inter-factional rivalries, though present, were never as acute as in Japan. Apart from several top-brass positions, promotions in the Wehrmacht were largely based on merit and battlefield performance, not on loyalty to the Nazi Party (though “National-Socialist attitudes” did play a certain role). Hitler placed some limits on field initiative of top commanders through his famous “no retreat” orders on the Eastern front, but lower commanders had a larger degree of operational discretion. Commanders were usually unafraid to report delicate information, and many criticized Hitler’s decisions, sometimes to his face. The historian Harold C. Deutsch noted that between 1939 and 1940, for example, many top commanders criticized the impending attack on France. None of them was harmed, and many were even promoted. Instead of engaging in coup-proofing treatments likely to reduce military effectiveness, Hitler “vaccinated” his army through other means: bribery of generals, ideological inculcation, and establishment of parallel military organizations such as the SS.
That, however, changed after the abortive coup d’état on July 20, 1944. That coup could happen, as a high Gestapo official complained, only because the conspirators were sheltered by their peers. “The army”, he bemoaned, “operated according to its own rules.” This document, found in a collection of Gestapo documents that were published in 1961 by Seewald Verlag, reveals that after the coup, hundreds of officers were purged by “honor committees” and many were executed, even if they had no links with the conspirators. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the noted Panzer leader who served as chief of the general staff after July 20, openly declared that future commissions to the General Staff would be based on National-Socialist convictions. Had the Wehrmacht not collapsed within months for other reasons, these coup-proofing treatments might have seriously reduced its war-making capacities.
Turkey: Ominous Signs Ahead
No country is the same as another, and it would be a folly to assume that Turkish events will unfold exactly according to theory or past precedents. We are not yet sure, for example, whether the post-coup measures in Turkey will include restrictions on training and field initiative as in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran.
We do see, however, ongoing purges in the armed forces. In its air force, the sheer number of the pilots purged may be causing severe personnel shortages. While, before the coup, Turkey had a normal 1.25:1 pilot-to-cockpit ratio, now they have a debilitating 0.8:1. The Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan assumes that it will take the air force at least two years to fill up the vacancies (or ten years, according to a more pessimistic assessment). The special forces were also badly affected. The picture is not as dire in the Turkish army and navy, and the second army, which bears the main burden of Operation Euphrates Shield, is reportedly the least affected. However, the pilot shortage could diminish air support capabilities for the Turkish ground forces in Syria, and corresponding shortages in the special forces could also create problems for Turkish military commitments and ambitions. This problem may worsen, because denunciations and the witch-hunt feel to the ongoing investigations are likely to result in more dismissals.
These purges are a painful lesson for the Turkish army. It is very likely that in the future, promotions will be based on political allegiance, not merit. True, politicization of promotion is not new by itself. Admittedly, the old officer corps strongly preferred Kemalist candidates for promotion. But as there was a large pool of such officers in the army, the high command could choose the more talented ones. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s definition of loyalty is much more capricious. “The uprising,” he said, “is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” Defense Minister Fikri Isik openly admitted that the purges are not limited to participants of the coup or even to Gülenists: Anyone who did not oppose the Gülenists strongly enough is likely to be demoted. Even loyal officers who are too independently minded or do not share Erdogan’s vision for a 'new Turkey' may fall under this definition. The term “Gülenist” itself is now a code word for anyone with insufficient loyalty, to include people with no plausible connection to this movement. At the same time, officers who showed strong personal loyalty to Erdogan were promoted, including to key roles in Operation Euphrates Shield. President Erdogan may also interfere in the military education system in such a way that will prevent the Kemalist elite from replicating itself. There is already talk on opening the military institutions to graduates of religious seminaries. That, by itself, does not exclude promotion by merit. In the current circumstances, however, such graduates could be slated for promotion based on religious commitments and loyalty to Erdogan, regardless of their professional performance.
Erdogan’s reforms are also likely to create a fragmented military structure with a convoluted chain of command, yet another common result of coup-proofing. As Metin Gurcan reports, Erdogan intends to subordinate different branches of the armed forces to different ministries and make the chief of the general staff a weak coordinator directly subordinate to the president. Obviously, this move is likely to increase civilian control and make it difficult for conspirators in different branches of the armed forces to cooperate, but it could also give rise to factional strife. The elevation of loyalty to Erdogan as the primary criteria for promotion may incentivize opposing groups to compete for the president’s favor, leading to Japanese-style factional infighting. Information flows in the army must suffer as well. Erdogan will have to closely supervise the different branches of the armed forces to forestall future coups and prevent “Gülenist” incursions, resulting in a rigid and convoluted command and control procedures.
Erdogan has an alternative. Instead of terrorizing his army officers, he can woo, bribe, and seduce them, providing a measure of coup-proofing without an excessive cost to battlefield effectiveness. The Turkish president, however, chooses to apply treatments similar to South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran’s. Tragically for Turkey, he also embarks on a dangerous cross-border adventure. Judging by the historical record, this is a very bad idea. If Turkey does not set modest goals and withdraw quickly after achieving them, the consequences might be serious indeed.