Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 127

On July 2 General Ilker Basbug, the commander of the Turkish Land Forces, issued a public statement calling for calm in the wake of the unprecedented wave of detentions of hard-line secularists on July 1, in which a number of high-ranking retired military personnel were taken into custody (see EDM, July 1).

“Turkey is going through difficult days,” Basbug told reporters. “We must all show common sense, remain calm and behave coolly and responsibly” (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, July 3).

Basbug bluntly refuted media speculation that in a meeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned him in advance that the police were planning to detain high-ranking military personnel, such as former gendarmerie commander General Sener Eruygur and former First Army commander General Hursit Tolon. “I want to be very clear about this. The issue was not raised in any form at the meeting,” said Basbug (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, July 3).

Basbug is widely expected to take over as head of the Turkish Chief of Staff (TGS) at the end of August, when the incumbent General Yasar Buyukanit retires. The fact that it was Basbug rather than Buyukanit who issued the military’s first official response to the July 1 detentions has reinforced the impression that, in many ways, Basbug is already the acting chief of staff (Posta, July 3).

Basbug’s official appointment in August, though still very likely, is not, however, a foregone conclusion, as it depends on the agreement of both Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would be ill-advised to attempt to block Basbug’s appointment, the detentions of July 1, in which disparate critics of the government were taken into custody on suspicion of links to a tiny, shambolic radical ultranationalist organization (see Terrorism Focus, January 29), suggest that the AKP is increasingly more concerned with utilizing the powers at its disposal than with due process.

Although there is no official requirement, the chief of the TGS has traditionally been drawn from the Land Forces, usually the Land Forces Commander. The candidate is formally chosen at the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS), which meets in early August each year to discuss promotions and transfers. YAS meetings are chaired by the prime minister and attended by the defense minister and all 15 four-star generals and admirals.

At the YAS meeting, the outgoing chief of the TGS proposes a successor to the Ministry of Defense, which then forwards the name of the candidate to the prime minister and president for their approval. In theory, the civilian government is not obliged to accept the chief of staff’s recommendation. In practice, it is very unusual for it to object. Once appointed, the chief of the TGS serves for a maximum of four years or until he reaches the compulsory retirement age of 67. Basbug was born in 1943. If he is appointed chief of staff in August, he will be able to serve for only two years until 2010.

Basbug is widely regarded within the military as one of the most able officers of his generation. After graduating from infantry school in 1963, he served in variety of positions both in Turkey and abroad, including two postings to NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium. A fluent English speaker, he is renowned within the military for his calculated calmness even under intense pressure; unlike the more volatile Buyukanit, who during his two year command sometimes appears to have allowed his heart to rule his head and has issued emotional, poorly prepared public statements condemning the AKP. Like most senior members of the TGS, Basbug shares Buyukanit’s hard-line interpretation of secularism and has frequently expressed concern that the AKP is committed to its eventual erosion.

The detentions of July 1 have thus left Basbug in a dilemma. The vast majority of the members of the Turkish officer corps will have interpreted the detentions, and particularly the manner in which they were conducted, as a direct assault by the AKP-controlled Interior Ministry on the military as an institution. There was already a degree of restlessness among some hard-liners in the military at Buyukanit’s failure to combat the AKP, particularly after the failure of his attempt in 2007 to prevent AKP foreign minister from being appointed President of Turkey. Consequently, Basbug would have been expected to issue a public statement condemning the July 1 detentions, but if the statement were too harsh, he could have presented the AKP with an excuse to veto his appointment as chief of the TGS in August.

Even before the July 1 detentions, AKP supporters had already launched a defamation campaign against Basbug (see EDM, June 18); as they also did in 2006 to try to prevent Buyukanit from being appointed chief of staff. It is an alarming indication of the continuing depth of anti-Semitism in Turkey that in each case the most damning calumny they could level at the generals was to imply that they were Jewish. Neither is.

Basbug’s statement of July 2 was a typically measured response at a time when emotions would have been running extremely high in the TGS: he combined a call for calm with a concise rebuttal of rumors being spread by the Islamist media, while avoiding saying anything inflammatory that could give the AKP grounds to veto his appointment. The statement was also a further indication that if he is formally appointed in August, Basbug will prove, from the perspective of the AKP, a considerably more formidable opponent than his predecessor.