Turkey’s military in turmoil as top brass quit

ISTANBUL – Turkey faced turmoil within its military on Saturday after the country’s four most senior commanders quit in protest over the detention of 250 officers on charges of conspiring against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Chief of General Staff General Isik Kosaner stepped down on Friday evening along with the army, navy and air force commanders, plunging NATO’s second largest armed forces into uncertainty shortly before a senior promotions board convenes.

In a farewell message to “brothers in arms,” Kosaner said it was impossible to continue in his job as he could not defend the rights of men who had been detained as a consequence of a flawed judicial process. Relations between the secularist military and Erdogan’s socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AK) have been fraught since it first won power in 2002, due to mistrust of the AK’s Islamist roots. “Four-star earthquake,” a headline in Sabah newspaper said of the generals’ decision, while papers also highlighted Kosaner’s criticism of media reporting on the military.

“They tried to create the impression that the Turkish Armed Forces was a criminal organization and … the biased media encouraged this with all kinds of false stories, smears and allegations,” Kosaner’s statement said. In years gone by, Turkey’s generals were more likely to stage a coup than quit, but Erdogan has ended the military’s dominance through a series of reforms aimed at advancing Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union. The subordination of the generals was starkly demonstrated last year when police began detaining scores of officers over “Operation Sledgehammer,” an alleged plot against Erdogan’s government discussed at a military seminar in 2003.

The officers say Sledgehammer was merely a war game exercise and the evidence against them has been fabricated. About 250 military personnel are in jail, including 173 serving and 77 retired staff. Most of them are held on charges related to Sledgehammer.

MILITARY MORALE SAPPED

A court accepted on Friday an indictment on another alleged military plot, known as the “Internet Memorandum” case, and prosecutors sought the arrest of 22 people including the Aegean army commander and six other serving generals and admirals. Aksam newspaper described this as “the indictment which triggered a crisis” in a case where the military is accused of setting up anti-government websites. Newspapers also said disagreements over new senior appointments also prompted the generals to quit.

The detentions have sapped morale and spread mistrust and suspicion among the officer corps, and many had been looking for Kosaner to take a stand since his appointment last August. More than 40 serving generals, almost a tenth of Turkey’s commanders, are under arrest, accused of a various plots to bring down the AK party. “It is clear as day that this extraordinary development has opened the door to a serious state crisis,” said Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party.

Analysts see little political threat to Erdogan’s supremacy. AK won a third consecutive term, taking 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election in June. The resignations of Kosaner and the others could give Erdogan a chance to fill the top brass with officers more friendly to his party, raising the possibility of more officers retiring early, or quitting. Though the sudden departures are embarrassing, they could give Erdogan a decisive victory over a military that sees itself as guardian of the secularist state envisioned by the soldier statesman and founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan marked out Kosaner’s successor on Friday, as his office put out a statement naming paramilitary Gendarmerie commander General Necdet Ozel as new head of land forces, and acting deputy chief of general staff, effectively making him next in line when Kosaner handed over the baton. The statement said the four commanders had retired and made no mention of the reasons why. It said a meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which meets twice-yearly to make top appointments, would go ahead as planned on Monday, showing Erdogan is in a hurry to restore the chain of command and present an image of business as usual.

Though well used to Turkey’s turbulent politics, investors can easily take fright given the fragile state of world markets. Just last week the central bank was forced to take steps to halt a sharp fall in the lira currency due to concern over the vulnerability of the Turkish economy to external shocks. – Yahoonews