The purge of suspected supporters of the July 15 failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan has left Turkey’s military down hundreds of thousands of men, including nearly 200 generals, just as Erdogan seeks an expanded role in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet compared the total number of military personnel on July 1, fourteen days before the failed coup attempt, to the most recent rosters of Turkish soldiers, and found a drop of 162,954 troops, including 157 fewer generals, in that time frame. The number of military personnel dropped from 518,166 to 355,212. The number of generals/admirals dropped from 358 to 2o1.
These dramatic numbers include sweeping arrests of military officials believed to be loyal to the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan has blamed for organizing the coup attempt, as well as defections by soldiers who have fled the country due to their involvement. As the event unfolded, initial reports suggested the coup was a plot by Kemalist secularist soldiers attempting to thwart Erdogan’s plans of establishing an Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood-friendly dictatorship. Erdogan instead argued that it was Gulen, a cleric based in Pennsylvania, who had mobilized his followers to remove him. Gulen has denied any involvement in the affair.
Over 200 people, most Erdogan supporters, died during the coup attempt. In the month following the incident, Erdogan purged the military, the nation’s police forces, and schools of anyone suspected of being sympathetic to Gulen. By August, nearly 100,000 people had been either fired, detained, or arrested for ties to Gulen. Erdogan also shut down 131 media outlets, alleging that they were publishing news sympathetic to Gulen.
This week, Erdogan’s government announced a new initiative to keep the military physically separate from civilian leadership: the construction of a military and intelligence complex Hurriyet dubbed the “Turkish Pentagon,” which would house both the MIT intelligence agency and the leadership of all the armed forces, far from their current location near the Turkish Parliament in Ankara.
That reset with the military may be necessary given the significantly diminished number of troops Turkey has to work with, as well as Erdogan’s expressed desire to play a larger role in Syria. In early September, Erdogan said he was willing to commit troops to the liberation of Raqqa, currently the capital of the Islamic State, far south of the Turkish border. “Obama particularly wants to do something together [with us] about Raqqa,” he told Hurriyet, “We have told him that this is not a problem for us.”
Those remarks came less than a month after Erdogan launched Operation Euphrates Shield, deploying Turkish troops deep inside Iraq to keep Syrian Kurdish YPG troops from establishing themselves west of the Euphrates River. Erdogan has accused the YPG of attempting to colonize Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish land for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan, and accused the militia of working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S. designated terrorist group (the U.S. cooperates with the YPG on the ground and considers the groups separate entities).
While Erdogan has been among the boldest voices calling for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to step down, in recent months he has warmed to the idea of allowing Assad to stay in power until the Islamic State is defeated and has begun to rehabilitate Turkey’s relationship with Russia. Turkey and Russia cut diplomatic ties in November when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had repeatedly ignored demands to stay out of Turkish airspace. Last week, Moscow confirmed that President Vladimir Putin is hoping to visit Ankara in October.
Erdogan has also kept active as a military ally of the United States. A joint Turkish-American operation has yielded success in northern Syria, where troops are close to crossing into the village of Dabiq. While not of great strategic importance, Islamic State jihadists believe Dabiq to be essential to the demise of Western civilization, and the home of the battle that will trigger the Apocalypse. Losing Dabiq would be a significant blow to Islamic State morale.