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Turkey: Historical Role of the Armed Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Historical Role of the Armed Forces


The professional armed forces of Turkey trace their origins back more than five centuries, to a permanent body of men recruited to form the nucleus of the much larger armies mobilized to conduct annual campaigns against selected objectives. A unique feature of the Ottoman military organization was the janissary army, whose members were conscripted as youths from among the empire's non-Muslim subjects in the Balkans, converted to Islam, and given military training. Gradually acquiring high status, prominence, and privilege, the janissaries ultimately constituted a reactionary palace guard resistant to reforms and of little military value to the reigning sultan.

Military conquest permitted the spread of the Ottoman Empire through the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, and most of Eastern Europe. The sequence of Ottoman victories was finally halted and a gradual military eclipse ensued after the failure of the siege of Vienna in 1683. Vast territories were relinquished as a result of a century of setbacks in battles with the European powers.

The need to modernize a military system engaged in a losing struggle to maintain Ottoman control over the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East was recognized by the first of the reforming sultans, Selim III (r. 1789-1807). He introduced French instructors to train the soldiers of a new volunteer army organized along the lines of contemporary European armed forces. However, his efforts were successfully resisted by the janissaries, who concluded that reform foreshadowed an end to their traditional privileges. Rising up in 1807, the janissaries precipitated the sultan's abdication and the dismantling of the new army. Mahmud II (r. 1808-39) eventually became strong enough to challenge the power of the traditional military caste. He reinstituted the reformed army and, in 1826, crushed the janissaries with a massive artillery barrage aimed at their barracks.

The internal decay of the Ottoman Empire during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by growing disaffection and turmoil among younger military officers and civil servants. Coming together as the Committee of Union and Progress (better known as the Young Turks), and operating as secret cells within military units, the dissidents instigated a series of upheavals and mutinies within the military that culminated in the revolution of 1908 and the fall of Sultan Abdül Hamid II.

A new contingent of Young Turks led by the war hero Atatürk resisted the postwar occupation of most of Turkey by Greek, French, Italian, and British forces. A series of defeats were administered to the Greek troops, resulting in their withdrawal in 1922. The Turks subsequently forced the occupying Allies to accede to a peace treaty recognizing the present borders of Turkey and enabling the proclamation in 1923 of the Republic of Turkey, with Atatürk as its president.

Atatürk envisioned Turkey as a modern, secular democracy in which the army would distance itself from the civil functions of government. The army nevertheless preserved the right to intervene as the ultimate guardian of the state if the political system became deadlocked or Atatürk's reforms were endangered. Although active-duty officers were forbidden to engage in politics, the interests of the military did not go unrepresented. Until 1950 many influential leadership posts and at least 20 percent of the seats in the Grand National Assembly were held by individuals with military backgrounds. For nearly thirty years, the nation was governed by two military heroes of the War of Independence -- first Atatürk and then, after his death in 1938, Ismet Inönü -- and a single political party in which retired senior officers were heavily represented.

Data as of January 1995

Last Updated: January 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Turkey was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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