The main reason that Turkey’s civilian leaders, in the latest meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), tapped Gen. Hulusi Akar as commander of the Land Forces and the prospective leader of the Turkish military two years from now is Akar’s perceived commitment to civilian supremacy over the military in a democratic country. His wealth of expertise in foreign postings and his international contacts, as well as his ability to work with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government without much hassle, made him a good candidate to lead the Turkish army. The government, with Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s veto threat, had to throw the door wide open for Akar by retiring a controversial figure, Gendarmerie Commander Bekir Kalyoncu, who was lined up for the post according to unwritten — yet unbinding — military tradition.
Akar, a 61-year-old man, is the protégé of Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, who has been carefully, and successfully, navigating the Turkish military through troubled waters over the last two years as dozens of senior generals found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some have already been convicted and others are detained pending trial for attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government in a country that saw four successful military coups and many more foiled ones. That is why the mindset and character of a prospective leader of the Turkish military weighs heavy on the minds of political leaders who were recently shaken by the ouster of the first democratically elected president of Egypt by military force.
Akar’s record and background suggest that he has been ambivalent about the military’s role in politics at times, yet he also proved to be a very pragmatic and practical man despite the fact that he is a product of the military guardianship regime. That probably explains why he has been reluctant to yield to civilian rule in the past and gave a conflicting account of how an army general should behave in a democratic system. After all, he served as chief of staff to İsmail Hakkı Karadayı while the latter served as both Land Forces commander and the chief of General Staff. Karadayı has now been named as the number one suspect in an indictment against the Feb. 28, 1997 military coup, which ousted a civilian government. The intervention, often called the postmodern coup, dealt a fatal blow to fundamental rights, the rule of law and freedoms in Turkey, leaving Ankara with a rap sheet of violations at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Akar was mentioned as critical of the AK Party government in a 2005 meeting that was cited in coup diaries written by neo-nationalist Cumhuriyet newspaper’s former bureau chief, Mustafa Balbay, who is currently standing trial in the Ergenekon case, accused of conspiring with generals to overthrow the civilian government. Balbay observed that during a lunch Akar, then commander of the military War Academy, hosted for the participants of an international symposium he organized at the academy, a group of generals, including Akar, openly criticized the AK Party government. This may not be significant by itself, however, because the same year Akar was severely criticized by the ultra-leftist and neo-nationalist Labor Party (İP) when he introduced EU education and youth programs in the academy as part of education exchanges within the scope of the Socrates and Erasmus programs. The İP accused him of eroding the rigid Kemalist tradition in the Turkish military by opening up the academy to EU culture.
Akar’s behavior while he served in İstanbul as the 3rd Army Corps commander, with jurisdiction over the Hasdal Military Prison — where members of the military who are accused of having plotted coups d’état are being held — raises red flags on his democratic credentials. He reportedly ordered prison guards to give privileged and preferential treatment to detained officers. What’s more, he paid a personal visit to Hasdal in February 2011 in the company of his commanding officer, 1st Army Commander Gen. Hayri Kıvrıkoğlu. Considering that all the force commanders followed suit, including Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, in November 2011 and that those who refused to visit Hasdal were most likely stigmatized by their peers, one might argue that he had no other option but to go with the flow in the military culture of the time. These visits were severely criticized by the public as institutional support for coup plotters and as an attempt to influence and pressure the judiciary.
Akar’s turning point appears to be August 2011, when he was promoted from lieutenant general to full general and appointed as deputy chief of General Staff. He worked as current Chief of General Staff Gen. Özel’s right-hand man and became a key interlocutor between the military and the civilian government. He has worked with the prime minister and the president on many occasions and on different issues, giving the impression that he is subordinate to civilian authorities and that he is easy to work with. Akar became a liaison general who, along with Prime Minister Erdoğan’s confidant and National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, started to attend high-level coordination meetings on the terror threat that have been chaired by Erdoğan since 2011.
He also began to accompany senior government delegations on foreign trips, benefiting from past experience he gained on overseas postings. He served two terms at NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) in Italy (renamed in 2004 as the Allied Joint Force Command Naples), first as intelligence officer and later as the head of the Plans and Principles Department. He also served in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Turkish troops played a key role in the international peacekeeping mission. Akar made a strong impression on Erdoğan when he accompanied the Turkish prime minister in September 2011 at a meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the opening of the 66th regular session of the UN General Assembly. He was one of the select few to join the Turkish delegation at the meeting with Obama. Two months later, in November 2011, he also joined Gül’s entourage on a visit to the UK during which Akar signed a military cooperation agreement with UK Secretary of State for Defense Philip Hammond.
Again, in March 2012, Akar joined the Turkish prime minister on a visit to South Korea to attend a nuclear security summit in Seoul. On the way back, when Erdoğan stopped by Tehran, Akar was also there. Building on their developing trust, Erdoğan also kept him by his side when the prime minister was briefing opposition leaders on a June 2012 incident in which Syria shot down an unarmed Turkish jet, killing two crewmembers and sparking public outrage.
As number two in the Turkish military, Akar has also developed a good repertoire of military-to-military relationships with our allies, including the US. When the vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, arrived in Ankara in October 2012 to meet with Turkish military and government officials for talks on security issues that mainly focused on Syria and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Akar was the first person Winnefeld met. Both men discussed contingencies regarding Syria, including the establishment of a buffer zone. A year earlier, in October 2011, when US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow led an interagency delegation to Ankara to discuss ways to improve US-Turkey cooperation against the PKK, Akar was one of the few senior officials Vershbow talked with.
In a sign of his moving away from the status quo, Akar has sent signals that he supports change in the military. For example, in January 2012, Akar met officials from the Court of Accounts to review the authority granted the court by a recently amended law allowing for greater civilian oversight of military spending. He reportedly said to the auditors, “We’re ready; you can come and start any sort of inspection you want,” making it clear that the military would abide by the changes in the law. This was a significant departure from the past tradition of secrecy in military spending, as auditors weren’t even allowed to enter military bases to review budgetary expenses when former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ, who is now on trial on charges of trying to overthrow the government by means of an anti-government Internet campaign, was leading the military.
Another example of Akar’s commitment to reforms happened on Jan. 16, 2012, when he issued a circular canceling differential treatment at military bases’ Officers Clubs and at recreational resorts belonging to the military. In the past, higher ranks received preferential treatment over the lower ranks. He did away with that practice with his boss’s blessing. It is also noteworthy that he showed up in April 2011 for a rare official military ceremony at the Surp Vartanants Armenian Church for a 25-year-old Turkish-Armenian soldier who was accidentally killed at an outpost in Batman province during his military service. That was a kind of taboo-breaker in the military.
Akar is a man who observed the damaging impact of the military’s meddling in politics over his long career. He was personally targeted for profiling by the military when Maj. Gen. Bülent Dağsalı, responsible for army intelligence under Başbuğ, then Land Forces commander, secretly collected information on Akar’s personal life between 2006 and 2008, including his hospital records. All this must have taught Akar a bitter lesson and brought him agony and pain that he probably does not want to see future cadets experience. In all likelihood, despite the ambivalence he has shown, he will be a pragmatic general who will push for more reforms in the military whenever and wherever he sees room to maneuver.