Erdogan’s appointment of army chief as defense minister is significant
Turkey has a new and interesting Cabinet that was formed on Monday in accordance with the nation’s new presidential system. It was announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself soon after his inauguration ceremony. As part of the new system, some ministries were combined in order to make the state structure work more efficiently, with the total number of ministries decreasing to 16.
In the new Cabinet, there are few names that remain unchanged. The newcomers seem to have insightful experience in their areas of expertise, having come from the worlds of bureaucracy, business or non-governmental organizations. For instance, the country’s first Vice President, Fuat Oktay, comes from the civil service, while Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan has a background in business. The names, stances and the formation of the new Cabinet are essential to knowing the dynamics of the Turkish presidential system and its upcoming foreign policy moves.
Among those to have remained in their old Cabinet posts is Mevlut Cavusoglu. As foreign minister — a post he has held since 2014 — he has overseen the operations conducted by the Turkish military against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq. He is known for his decisive stance on the cross-border operations that threatened Turkey’s national security and stability. The reappointment of Cavusoglu shows that, under the new system, continuation rather than change will become the main tenet of Turkish foreign policy in the near future. Although there were several names linked with the post of foreign minister, Cavusoglu’s return indicates that Erdogan considers his record to be positive.
Cavusoglu might not have surprised us that much, but the appointment of Gen. Hulusi Akar, who had been the Turkish Army’s Chief of General Staff since 2015, as the new defense minister was a major shock. Akar’s appointment is the first time in modern Turkish history a chief of staff has assumed this position.
Gen. Hulusi Akar’s appointment is the first time in modern Turkish history a chief of army staff has assumed this position.
For decades, the Turkish military has played an important role in influencing the nation’s politics. Because Turkey’s foreign policy has been securitized, the army was the chief foreign policy decision-maker. Also, in Turkey, the army resembles the secular character of the state, holding the power to interfere in politics when it finds it necessary. Thus, it has carried out several coups d’etat and toppled many democratically elected governments since 1960.
Akar’s appointment to the ministry has two significant points. While some criticized his appointment, others say his assuming the Defense Ministry position, in order to work closely with Erdogan, indicates the changing balance of power in Turkey. Some consider his appointment as a milestone in terms of the history of the guardianship system and the normalization of politics. However, in my view, Erdogan is likely to further securitize his foreign policy by bringing Akar to this position.
Nevertheless, there are a number of sticky foreign policy issues that the new Cabinet has to deal with. The Cabinet is likely to be occupied with reframing the structural problems existing in Turkey’s ties with Europe and the US, and strengthening its cooperation with regional countries over the common threats they face. In this sense, operations against terrorist elements in Syria and Iraq are significant.
Erdogan was in Brussels this week to attend the NATO summit hosted by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Cavusoglu and Akar accompanied the president on this significant trip, which saw the official inauguration of Turkey’s Permanent Mission to NATO at the new NATO headquarters.
Cavusoglu was the figure in the spotlight during the summit. First he gathered Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May in a semi-circle around him when he opened a live broadcast of the World Cup on his mobile phone. Then his speech on Turkey receiving its first delivery of the Russian S-400 missile system by late 2019 was significant. During the meeting, Cavusoglu said that the US and some other NATO member states had questioned the purchase, but that this must end.
With this speech, he indicated that Turkey would continue to play upon the fragile balancing act between Russia and NATO for the foreseeable future. Despite warm pictures of Erdogan with US President Donald Trump and other Western leaders throughout the summit, it would be too bold to say that the NATO summit is a turning point in Turkey’s relations with the West.
However, the summit could be considered as a positive step taken in order to ease the tensions that have escalated in the last few years, especially during the build-up to the recent elections. In his first foreign policy test, Erdogan and his team’s record seem positive, and time will tell us how the Cabinet will perform regarding Turkey’s foreign relations with both the West and the rest of the world.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.