Author: Selahattin Yüzbaşı
It has been almost two months since I wrote this article, but this week I decided to publish it. The reason will be understood towards the end of the article. My interest started with an opinion piece about the operation Euphrates Shield by SETA, a so-called think thank considered the mouthpiece of Turkey’s omnipotent President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party AKP released. The report itself deserved some serious scrutiny but I was rather curious about what SETA’s photo of choice to promote its which shows the new face of the “New” Turkish Army.
The picture shows a soldier on the turret gun of what seems to be a variant of an M60 main battle tank. This tired looking soldier’s outfit is anything but combatant: He has no helmet, he doesn’t wear a uniform rather he chose to pose with his A-shirt. He wears a slightly unfitting goggle (which doesn’t seem like standard issue) in addition to a comms kit which doesn’t look assuring at all, with cables sticking out at every direction. Recently, mechanized units in the Turkish Army have recently been issued with new helmets with comms kits but for some reason, they do not seem to have found their way to this soldier.
For non military people, this particular picture may not mean a lot, other than the fact that this individual doesn’t look like a professional soldier but rather a member of the Syrian opposition, a militia member. However, for a trained eye, this picture is merely one of many, which shows a very frustrating trend in the Turkish Army, especially since the coup attempt in 15 July 2016: Complacency about physical appearance and indiscipline.
Here is this disturbing phenomenon in a nutshell: There is an abundance of recent photos showing Turkish soldiers either with non-government issue equipment, clothing or even more disturbingly, in ragged uniforms, which is noted by other observers of the Turkish Army as well. Nowadays, not to pay attention to uniform and a proper appearance seems to be in vogue in the “new” Turkish Army. Looks like, Turkish Army started to look like the militia groups it claims to give training to: a potpourri of outfits rather than a -as the term clearly suggests- a uniform appearance, trademark of a professional and competent fighting force. From a professional point of view, I can think of two main reasons for this complication:
Why do soldiers buy their own equipment?
1. Unsatisfactory equipment: If not issued by government, a trooper would certainly feel the need to buy the best piece of equipment out of his own pocket. It simply is a survival issue for the soldier. This, unfortunately, has been the case for a very long time in the Turkish Army. For example, it is almost impossible to see a soldier (even generals, including Gen.Akar, Joint Chief of Staff) wearing a standard Army issue boot, instead everybody buys his own.
Same goes for undershirts, coats, socks, warm clothing, gloves, etc. The list goes on and on. More worryingly, it is not just boots or clothing: Soldiers buy tactical gear, i.e., vests, backpacks, optics, comms equipment (especially personal cell phones in addition to walkie talkies), holsters even helmets/helmet covers.
2. The second reason, and from a professional perspective the more important one, is lack of personal discipline and oversight. Apparently, soldiers, even high ranking officers feels the liberty to don whatever they feel like.
Furthermore, leaders at all levels seem to be complacent about what their subordinates wear. This is a phenomenon we started to see more frequently after the failed coup attempt in July 15. Apparently, the unprecedented purge after the coup attempt, manifested itself not only in the massive drops in the number of officers but also the discipline of the force which is ensured by the officer corps.
Complacency at its Worst
Not paying attention to personal appearance is not only indiscipline but also an indication of serious problems with the professional ethics of the force. As in any respectable military, the Turkish Military Code of Conduct obliges its members to wear the prescribed uniform. Not only that, but traditionally, a good personal appearance has always been of utmost importance (I even thought it was rather exaggerated and used to hide other problems) and indication of the effectiveness of the force in the Turkish Military. Apparently, this is not the case anymore. Just looking at the pictures from a highly advertised operation, Kale Tepe, in September 2016 east of Çukurca/Hakkari, one can easily see an assortment of clothing and equipment.
Indiscipline and complacency is everywhere and at every level
Take the new Ministry of Defense, a former High School Math teacher, Fikri Işık’s visit to Syrian border last summer for example. The picture from Ministry’s official web page speaks volumes.
There are three Generals in the picture, albeit all with different outfits. The Commander of the Turkish Army General Salih Zeki Çolak wears what seems to be the new Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), with long sleeves, whereas Erdogan’s favorite General Metin Temel (for the first time in history he was assigned to a 4 star job while he was only a 3 star General!) is wearing a short sleeved version this uniform. The third uniform, complemented by a cumbersome vest belongs to the newly promoted Brigadier, commanding the 5th Armored Brigade in Gaziantep.
Pictures from this visit in several other military posts are also filled with a variety of uniforms, vests, helmets, almost always poorly fitted and nobody wears the same uniform as the high ranking generals.
About a month later, Mr.Işık visited the Syrian border again. Pictures from this visit reflects a slightly better situation as (at least!) both Generals wear the same uniform.
However, all other soldiers wear a different uniform. And there are, among other inconsistencies, yet again different helmets in one picture.)
This sort of complacency in appearance, especially in case of a visit from a high ranking officer or Cabinet Minister was unimaginable before. It was customary to ensure that all personnel in the unit being visited wear the same uniform as the visiting officer. It would at least be considered improper, if not outright indiscipline to do otherwise and hence never heard of. Apparently, things have changed. However subtle the messages of these pictures may be, they are quite clear:
What do these pictures tell us about the “New” Turkish Army?
1. Failed Supply System:
The worst and most heartbreaking example of this was all over the media last week. A soldier standing at honor guard for his fallen comrade in Al Bab was displayed with the equipment he had to buy out of his own pocket!
More disturbingly, as if an army from previous century, the Generals get the best uniform while the others have to make do with the scraps. It is easier to call this army a militia force, rather than a NATO member.
2. A Militia Mindset:
As pictures of not only soldiers but also high-ranking Generals in a variety of uniforms show, there is a militia mindset is setting in at their level as well. Wear whatever you feel like!
3. Compromised Chain of Command:
Moreover, the Chain of Command in the Turkish Army, after the coup attempt is not straightforward as it used to be. As Generals like Temel get unprecedented media coverage from the univocal Turkish media and support from government (President Erdogan visited him while he was a two star general, on a passive post, slated to be retired, which was quite unprecedented) of the new Turkey, they seem to be less sensitive about their chain of command and more wary of the political relationships.
Catastrophy of the Turkish Army: Politicisation!
While this (Generals worrying about politicians rather than their superiors) is a very concerning issue for any military, its consequences would be catastrophic for Turkish Armed Forces with its very long history of solid Chain of Command and an apolitical stance. If indiscipline, coupled with a militia mindset which favors political manouvers and nepotism over merit continues to gain ground, it would be inescapable for the Army and the whole Turkish Armed forces to turn into a mere tool for political operations, unlike what it used to be, a proud member of NATO with high standards.
 As elusive as it sounds, the adjective “new” seems to be accompanying anything that AKP changes in Turkey. Despite the positive connotation, for many, it symbolizes the deterioration of anything belonging to the “old” Turkey.