08 August 2018

A Defence Minister for Erdogan’s peace

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

A degree in International Diplomacy at Queen’s University, Belfast, Great Britain. His first mandate on a NATO position was as an informational officer. He led the main educational military institutions in Turkey. He led a brigade, army forces, terrestrial forces and, of course, the Turkish army. Under its direct subordination took place the two successful Turkish operation in Syria: Euphrates Shield (2016) and Olive Branch (2018). Since 9 of July, 2018, he is the first Turkey’s Defence Minister, keeping its four stars general rank, in the first government directly led by president Erdogan. His name: Hulusi Akar.

Image source: HEPTA

Dressed in training uniform, the two men supervise the troops and participate at the briefing of Olive Brunch Operation, organized in Hatay’s district headquarters, at the border with Syria. It is the winter of 2018, and the president needs to be sure that the operation will be a success. Across the border is the Afrin Canton, inhabited by Kurdish people and defended by People’s Protection Units, YPG, an organization confirmed as terrorist by Ankara. YPG must be eliminated from this canton, Turkey wants to assert its control in the protection area from south border with Syria. After the purification between 2016 and 2017, which meant, according to Deutsche Welle, passing in reserve 7600 military soldiers, 3% from the total number of the Turkish army forces, most of them being specialists, technicians, units and big units’ commanders, the president wants to be sure not only of military’s force loyalty, but also its capacity to win this operation, which seems to be complicated. The one who gives him the awaited answer is General Halusi Akar, Major General Chief of State. The two men does not seem to need words to understand each other, but in Hatay’s headquarter a firm, decisional message is needed.

After two months and four days, the Afrin Canton is fully under Turkish army’s forces control and the Syrian rebel group supported by Ankara.

After another 4 months, general Akar becomes the new defence minister in the government led by the reelected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all at once with coming into force the new presidential powers. During complicated times, the ones to choose are, personalities with complicated destinies, sometimes contradictories. Who would have thought, in 1975, meeting on a street in Belfast, two young Turkish students, who were studying at Queen’s University, that one of them will become, after 32 years, Turkey’s president, and the other, during president’s mandate and with its approval, will be promoted to four stars general position. The name of the two men: Abdullah Gul- Turkey’s president between 2007-2014, and Hulusi Akar, ex colleagues in post university studies in International Diplomacy. And who would have thought, that no longer than this spring, at the beginning of the electoral campaign for parliament and presidential election in Turkey, the two will meet in a whole other context. General Akar, after three years of being Turkey’s Major General Chief of State, visited the ex-republic’s president[1] with the purpose of convincing him to give up his possible candidacy, which seemed at that moment a unifying solution of Turkish’s opposition. The purpose of the visit from 24th April was not confirmed, but Gul’s decision to not candidate anymore was made publicly on 28th of April, which is considered to be the direct result of that meeting. The general was the loyal messenger and, apparently, efficient of the one to win from the first tour the presidential elections and with whom he supervised Hatay’s headquarter of Olive Brunch Operation, president Erdogan.

After the election of General Akar as Defence Minister in an ironic congratulation message,[2] made publicly through social media, ulterior took over by the press, the Vice-Admiral in retreat, Atilla Kryat, ex-commander of Turkish fleet at the Black Sea, says he is glad for the general (“no one is more appropriate than you for this position”), and, especially, because he no longer have to wear the military uniform (not the case anymore). After Kryat details 6 of the main reasons why this decision was taken: the military coup from 15th July, 2016, organized by general’s subordinates, his arrest by the same subordinates (during the coup, the SMG chief was a hostage of its own aides, for 12 hours), the silent treatment (lack of reaction) of general Akar at the closure of some military schools and academies, at the transfer of forces categories from SGM to Defence Minister, the same silent treatment regarding the closure of some military hospitals, the apprehension of some military students who participated at the military coup, even these were informed that was only an exercise.

Reading this “sins inventory”, you may think that General’s Akar profile is created only by shadows. But there are also lights, and not few, in his portrait, during the time. His ambivalent attitude allowed and facilitated his career ascension, despite some doubtful circumstances and gestures, in which he was criticized by the nationalist part of the political spectrum (for example, for introducing the EU curricula in university military studies[3], a decision which would break the Kemalist base of Turkish’s military education), but also by the human’s rights defenders, the boosters of democracy (for example, for the privileges given to military leaders in Hasdal prison[4], accused for organizing a military coup).

Other decisions, after 2011, when he is promoted as alternate of Major General Chief of State, he is more transparent in Turkish’s military spending (previously, the inspectors of Account Court were not allowed to enter the military units), committed in reforming the military structures by giving orders which cancels the treatment difference between military ranks, officers and sub officers, in using military clubs, military recreation facilities. General Akar is also the one who, in April 2011, participates at the funeral organized by the Armenian Church Surp Vartanants/ Istanbul, for an Armenian soldier, who died on duty. A new gesture for the Turkish’s military establishment.

When he was number 2 in the military hierarchy, he started to be the indispensable mediator in contacts with the executive, as well as in the inter-department security reunions, led by Erdogan, premier at that time. His mandate experience in NATO’s international structures, where he worked also as informational officers, got him to official delegation, in September 2011, going with president Erdogan at his meeting with president Obama, during the participation at the 66th session of ONU’s General Assembly. Two months later, he accompanied president Gul in his visit in Great Britain. General’s Akar presence at the delegations led by the Turkish Prime-Minister becomes something usual, as well as the contacts with international military leaders, mainly form NATO and the US.

In an article[5] which analyses the conditions General Hulusi Akar had to pass to be elected for the position of Terrestrial Forces Commander, and for Major General Chief of State, are presented in a series of facts and grounds which brings him out as being pragmatic and reformist. It is true that it has passed 5 years since that moment, but the option at 61 years are, theoretically, the same with the one you have at 66 years (general Akar was born in 1952). At that moment, in 2013, the general was seen as a supporter of army’s civil control, a norm of modern democracy. His diplomatic abilities, international contacts, the easiness in managing the relations with governmental structures, made him the ideal candidate to lead the Turkish army forces in the future. His position as terrestrial forces commander was just a phase. For this position, the Gendarmery Commander from that moment[6], Bekir Kalyoncu, who according to common’s law seniority, should have been the one promoted, had to be excluded. But he was also critic against the government. The period was difficult, tens of generals were accused of participating at the organization of that military coup. That is why, the profile of the one to become Turkish’s army commander was extremely important for Turkish politic factors. The decision at that moment, on 3th August 2013, came exactly one month after the regime change in Egypt, 3th July 2013, where General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi excluded the elected president Mohamed Morsi from power. General Hulusi responded to this profile.

Five years have passed.

Meanwhile General Akar was among the guests of honor at president’s daughter weeding [7] with one of the Turkish young business men from the defence area, in an exclusive guests’ circle, which included Pakistanis prime-minister Nawaz Sharif, Albanese prime-minister Edi Rama, ex Lebanese prime-minister, at that moment, Saad Hariri. The gesture was very criticized[8] by the opposition, because this was happening a day after 8 Turkish soldiers were killed by PKK militants.

Meanwhile, there was another military coup, with a lot of unknowns[9], during whom general Akar was the prisoner of his own subordinates. After the military coup, he led directly and efficient, like he was testing his loyalty, the Euphrates Shield Operation, which blocked the Syrian Kurdish men their unifying tentative of their controlled territories in North of Syria.

Therefore, Turkey’s politic and military relations and its military forces with NATO partners passed from a mood to another, from a period to another one. The ones with Russia, exactly the same. In an emblematic photography, made in Antalya, south of Turkey, general Akar chats at the same time with general Joseph Dunford JR., president of Major States Committee of US’s army, and with general Valerii Gherasimov, Major General Chief of State of the Russian army. [10]

In the meantime, General Akar’s uniform became a civil costume, of a Defence Minister. As he is still actively in service, and president Erdogan has the right, according to new constitutional amendments, to extend his service, the military uniform can be used also. A general who imposed the army’s civil control cannot simply say goodbye to his uniform if his positions demands it.

General Scaparrotti visited Turkey. Did General Scaparrotti bet on General’s Akar influence and his diplomat fame to discuss about the Washington-Ankara disputes? We will se. Officially, SACEUR’s visit was less visible in official releases.

For the leaders with complicated destinies, who lead countries with complicated pasts, situated in complicated regions, the decisions they make, the relations they create, are never out or risks, never white, never black, never as the ones they took a day before. Or with the ones in the future. Their final or climax career point depends on their artfully in passing the suspended bridges which separates their different career periods.

For General Hulusi Akar, the first half of 2018 was such a bridge. But, will it be the last?

[1] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/former-president-gul-confirms-turkeys-top-soldier-visited-him-131335

[2] https://www.turkishnews.com/tr/content/2018/07/11/emekli-koramiral-atilla-kiyattan-hulusi-akara-gonderme/

[3] In 2005, when the general was commander of War Military Academy

[4] In 2011 when he was commander of Army’s 3 Corp/Istanbul, under his subordination being the Military Penitentiary in Hasdal.

[5] https://en.haberler.com/hulusi-akar-reformist-or-pragmatic123456789-289758/

[6] ttps://www.reuters.com/article/uk-turkey-military-idUKBRE97206L20130803

[7] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogans-daughter-defense-industrialist-get-married-99177

[8] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-military-defends-top-generals-attendance-at-presidents-daughters-marriage--99270

[10]  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/07/top-russian-turkish-us-generals-meet-amid-standoff-northern/