Big changes afoot in Turkish military command as Euphrates operation flounders

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared on Dec. 12 his intention to launch a military operation “within days” against Kurdish militias in northern Syria, including those deployed alongside U.S. forces in areas like the town of Manbij.

Exactly a week later, U.S. President Donald Trump further disrupted dynamics in Syria by making the surprise announcement on Twitter that he intended to pull U.S. forces out. 

At the same time, changes to those in command of the Turkish units to be deployed in the projected operation in Syria have raised questions in Turkey and led to claims the government is not seeing eye to eye with the armed forces. 

Trump justified his decision to withdraw by saying Erdoğan would take over the duty of wiping out Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, the stated objective that had brought U.S. troops to the country in the first place. He had nothing to say about Erdoğan’s main objective: defeating the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that fought alongside U.S. troops against ISIS, but viewed as enemies by Ankara due to their links to Kurdish militants in Turkey.

But the U.S. president later revised his promise of a swift withdrawal within 100 days, and is now talking about pulling troops out more gradually. With conditions on the ground in Syria swiftly changing, new developments appear to be turning the tide against Erdoğan’s planned military incursion.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar led a delegation to Moscow on Dec. 29, but judging by statements after the visit, returned without securing Russian consent for an operation east of the River Euphrates.

Iran has chosen to maintain silence regarding the operation. Meanwhile, the vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal could be filled by Saudi Arabia, the Americans’ staunch allies in the Gulf region, and their partners in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The Gulf states have reopened their embassies in Damascus after seven years, and at the same time the Arab League has made moves to readmit Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government eight years after its expulsion. These moves can be seen as an effort to isolate Turkey, which has refused dialogue with the Syrian dictator.

Then there is the statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said the Turkish Armed Forces were present in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, with the Assad government’s consent. Reading between the lines, Lavrov’s message appears to be that Damascus will not allow a Turkish operation in Manbij or east of the Euphrates, and that Russia shares the same view.

 Hulusi Akar, Turkey's Defense Minister and former Chief of Staff, center, and top army commanders visit Turkish troops stationed at the border with Syria, in Kilis, Turkey. (via AP)
Hulusi Akar, Turkey's Defense Minister and former Chief of Staff, center, and top army commanders visit Turkish troops stationed at the border with Syria, in Kilis, Turkey. (Via AP)

Developments on the Turkish side show similar signs of turmoil. Just as Turkish tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles began deploying in force on the Syrian border, İsmail  Metin Temel, the commander who would be in charge of an operation, was suddenly removed from his post.

This was the general who successfully commanded the two previous incursions into northern Syria, the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield that took al-Bab and Jarablus and the January 2018 Operation Olive Branch that established Turkish control over the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin.

It was Temel who caused an uproar before the June 24 elections when he applauded Erdoğan’s criticism of his rival in the presidential election, the main opposition Republic People’s Party candidate Muharrem İnce. 

İnce at the time said Temel should have his general’s epaulettes removed for showing political favour. Erdoğan was stringent in his defence of the general, but six months later appears to have done exactly as İnce suggested with a presidential decree consigning him to desk duties that are effectively a forced retirement.

The same decree also removed Brigadier General Mustafa Barut from the field and assigned him to a desk role. Barut was the commander of Turkey’s elite Bordeaux Berets during the Afrin campaign, and it was his men who raised the Turkish flag over the town centre in March. Like Temel, Barut’s new assignment has been interpreted as a move to force the general into retirement.

Political circles in Turkey have put the dismissal of the two active and decorated officers down to their disagreement with Akar and the Chief of the General Staff Yaşar Güler. This was reportedly spurred by objections expressed by Temel to the planned operation, based on his perception that such a large-scale military offensive over a broad area would require a large military force, and the risk of casualties was high.

Temel is said to have expressed concerns that insufficient planning had gone into the proposed operation, which would take place over a 500-km expanse and in which Turkish troops would face forces both from Islamic State and YPG.

Their objections apparently did not make an impact on the senior command, and on Dec. 14 and 15, days after Erdoğan announced the impending operation, Temel and Barut failed to make an appearance at the year’s military evaluation meeting in Ankara, citing illness. 

The officers’ absence was seen as a protest against Akar and Güler, and there is wide speculation in Turkey that Erdoğan dismissed the heroes of Afrin at the suggestion of their superior officers.

Hakan Atınç, a general known to be close to Temel, was also removed from his role commanding the joint task group directing operations in Syria.

The dismissals were the first time general staff appointments have been made under the new executive presidential system directly by Erdoğan himself with a single signature.

But political circles in Turkey describe Temel’s dismissal as masterminded by Akar and Güler, rather than the president. The pair are said to have taken action against a general whose star was in the ascendant and whom they saw as enjoying Erdoğan’s favour.

They reportedly made a preliminary move against the general by cutting out any possible route that would lead him to ground forces command or the general staff, before conducting a campaign against him to try and force his resignation.

Judging by Turkish media reports, the operation was a success – Temel is said to have accepted his dismissal without protest.

Rumours are circulating that Akar and Güler are looking to further reshape the armed forces by pushing more officers out through presidential decree, forced resignations or retirements.

The dismissals of Temel and Barut have been taken as a sign that the civil administration is giving precedence to its own will and is willing to eliminate any challengers to its policies. They are also said to indicate that changes are in store for the higher ranks of the armed forces.

The removal of these officers, without any consideration of their rank or seniority, is the strongest expression of the new presidential system’s singular concentration of power and intolerance of opposition. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.