Turkey’s Coup Plotters and Human Rights Abusers: Made in the USA?
US documents reveal Turkish leaders involved in 1980 coup, 2019 attack on Syrian Kurds likely trained in the U.S. through the IMET program
Turkish officials involved in the country’s 1980 military coup and in the 2019 invasion of northern Syria—both of which led to systemic patterns of grave human rights abuses—were trained in the United States through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program, which pays for members of foreign militaries to receive professional military education in the United States, U.S. documents show.
Turkey is a top recipient of IMET funds worldwide, according to data made available by Security Assistance Monitor. From 2000 to 2021, the country reportedly received $61,642,000 total in IMET assistance, the second-highest total for any country in the world.
Security Assistance Monitor data also shows that IMET aid is one of the largest sources of U.S. security assistance to Turkey, when compared to the value of other security assistance programs that Turkey benefits from.
Investigations have previously found that IMET-trained officers have gone on to commit human rights violations in their home countries. So far, Turkey has evaded this kind of scrutiny— but evidence suggests that the same pattern may have repeated there.
1980 Coup Perpetrators Allegedly Trained Under IMET
A 1979 diplomatic cable sent by then-U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ronald Spiers to make the case for increased IMET aid to Turkey named several senior Turkish officers who had been “trained in the United States under IMET auspices” and who, in his words, “represent[ed] a nucleus of personnel who have been extensively exposed to United States’ training and military doctrine as well as American society as a whole.”
Members of this pro-American “nucleus” included General Necdet Üruğ, commander of the 1st Army of Turkey; General Selahattin Demircioğlu, commander of the 3rd army of Turkey; General Bedrettin Demirel; General Tahsin Şahinkaya, commander of the Turkish Air Force, and Admiral Nejat Tümer, commander of the Turkish Navy.
These men would become infamous less than one year later, when the Turkish military overthrew the country’s elected civilian government and established a repressive military regime that cracked down brutally on political dissidents and ethnic minorities.
General Şahinkaya and Admiral Tümer were among the leaders of the September 12, 1980 military coup and members of the National Security Council that ruled by decree for three years afterward.
General Üruğ was responsible for the martial law command in Istanbul in the aftermath of the coup. He became Chief of the General Staff in 1983, a position he held until 1987.
General Demirel was responsible for the post-coup martial law command in the provinces of Konya, Niğde, Kayseri, Nevşehir, Kırşehir, and Yozgat.
General Demircioğlu was responsible for the martial law command in the provinces of Erzincan, Gümüşhane, Giresun, Trabzon, Rize, Ordu, Sivas, Tokat, Amasya, Çorum, Samsun, and Sinop.
While less discussed than other right-wing coups carried out by US-backed and US-trained militaries during the Cold War, Turkey’s 1980 coup led to a similar pattern of violence and repression.
The country’s elected parliament and political parties were dissolved. Labor unions and civil society organizations were outlawed, and newspapers were banned from publishing. More than half a million people were arrested on politicized charges. Torture was systemic, and hundreds of people were known to have died in prison.
Ethnic Kurds, who made up about 20% of Turkey’s population and live primarily in the country’s southeast, were perhaps the hardest hit. They had already been subjected to forced assimilation and outright ethnic cleansing throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
The 1982 constitution, written by the military and still in force today, said that every citizen of Turkey was a Turk, denying the presence of other ethnic groups that had called Anatolia home for thousands of years. Kurds could be jailed or worse for as little as speaking their own language in public.
When General Şahinkaya was put on trial in 2012 for his role in the coup, Human Rights Watch said that “the 1980 coup derailed democracy and ushered in restrictions on rights and freedoms still in evidence in Turkey today,” and called for the trial to “deliver justice for the gross human rights violations that followed the coup — most notably, mass torture and deaths in custody, which amount to crimes against humanity under the present Turkish Penal Code.”
The group also called for Turkish prosecutors to investigate a coup-era “policy of torture at the highest level” that included a“wide network of military personnel, police, public officials, and doctors involved in torture as a state policy in provinces throughout the country.”
Turkey’s US-Sanctioned Defense Minister Allegedly Trained Under IMET
The role of IMET-trained personnel in Turkey’s most destabilizing and destructive policies appears to be far from a thing of the past.
A publicly available, partially redacted list of IMET trainees who hold “positions of prominence” in their home countries appears to include currently serving Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar—who has been sanctioned by the United States on human rights grounds.
While names are redacted, the titles and time periods during which they were held correspond with Akar’s career.
The listing suggests that Akar was trained in the United States under IMET auspices between January and June of 1987.
The course code included in the listing, P171014, corresponds with a course that as of 1998 was known as “Joint/Combined Staff Officer School” and is currently cited on the website of the DSCA as “Joint Combined Warfighting School.”
Akar became Turkey’s Defense Minister in 2018, a position that he holds today. In October 2019, when Turkey invaded the northern Syrian cities of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad in a brazen attack on Kurdish forces that had led the fight against ISIS, he was one of several Turkish officials sanctioned by the United States for actions “endangering innocent civilians” and “destabilizing the region, including undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS.”
Amnesty International said of the 2019 invasion that “Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed Syrian armed groups have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians, during the offensive into northeast Syria.”
The United Nations has also criticized “grim” human rights conditions in areas of northern Syria invaded by Turkey, including the zone occupied in October 2019.
The Need for Accountability
If Turkish military officers serving at the highest levels of government and implicated in serious anti-democratic actions and systemic human rights abuses were trained in the United States via IMET—as the credible U.S. sources laid out here state that they were—this warrants a high-level investigation.
The people of Turkey, the people of North and East Syria, and the people of the United States all deserve to know the truth about the impact IMET aid to Turkey has had, and U.S. policymakers ought to determine the program’s future accordingly. Investigations into the School of the Americas—where training for dictators and death squads that terrorized civilians across Latin America was paid for by IMET assistance—could serve as a blueprint.