General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), has publicly warned that Turkey remains under threat from Islamism and Kurdish separatism, while attacking the EU over the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) and individual member states for their alleged support of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Buyukanit was speaking in an extensive interview with the Turkish bimonthly Savunma ve Havacilik (Defense and Aerospace) magazine. Established in 1987 following a request by the TGS, Savunma ve Havacilik has always enjoyed good relations with the Turkish military and is one of the very few publications that it trusts.
After the humiliating failure of its attempt in spring 2007 to prevent Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul from being appointed Turkish President, the military has adopted a low public profile when it comes to Turkish domestic politics. Buyukanit is believed to continue to take the opportunity of his weekly meetings with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to warn him of the military’s concerns about what it believes is the threat secularism by the ruling Justice Development Party (AKP), particularly its recent attempts to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities. Publicly, however, Buyukanit has been more circumspect, avoiding explicit criticism of the AKP while issuing occasional subtle reminders that the TGS remains as committed as ever to protecting secularism (see EDM, January 31).
Even though the military still casts a long shadow over Turkish politics, public opposition to the AKP’s attempts to lift the headscarf ban has been led by the other bastion of the country’s secular establishment, namely the judiciary. On March 31 the Constitutional Court began hearing a case brought by Public Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya calling for the closure of the AKP on the grounds that it had become a focus for anti-secular activities (see EDM, April 1). Whether intended or not, the timing of what is the longest and most detailed interview Buyukanit has ever given to any media organization will have reassured many hard-line secularists that there has been no decrease in the military’s resolve.
Buyukanit did not mention the AKP by name in his interview with Savunma veHavacilik, referring only to what he termed “fundamentalist elements,” whom he described as pursuing anti-secular activities under the cover of “legal organizations,” including associations and religious foundations– presumably in a reference not only to organizations associated with the AKP but also to those run by the Sufi brotherhoods known as the tariqah and the increasingly powerful Fethullah Gulen movement (see EDM, November 21).
Buyukanit was more explicit about Kurdish nationalism. He appeared more concerned by the PKK’s ultimate goals than the brutal violence with which it often tries to achieve them. He criticized all those who called for official recognition of a Kurdish political identity, for instance, by amending the Turkish constitution to include a reference to Kurds as well as Turks–something that he described as an attempt to undermine the concept of the nation-state. He then said that this was precisely the goal of the PKK.
Buyukanit was particularly scathing about unnamed “European countries,” that he accused of supporting the PKK and allowing foundations and associations affiliated with the organization to operate with impunity on their territories. He bluntly warned that such European countries were responsible for “every drop of blood” spilled by the PKK.
Buyukanit also rigorously defended Turkey’s right to strike at the PKK’s main bases and training camps in northern Iraq, citing a string of UN Security Council Resolutions on the struggle against terrorism that he claimed the Iraqi government and the international community had failed to apply in the case of the PKK.
In addition, he implicitly warned the Iraqi Kurds against any aspirations to independence, noting Turkey’s “great desire” for the “political unity, territorial integrity and independence of Iraq,” the “equal treatment of all the ethnic and religious groups” in the country and the “equal sharing of natural resources and revenue among all the Iraqi people.” This an apparent reference to Turkish concerns about Iraqi Kurdish control over the Kirkuk oil fields and the rights of Iraq’s Turkish-speaking Turcoman minority.
Buyukanit did not discuss Turkey’s relations with the US. He made no secret, however, of his resentment at Turkey’s exclusion from the decision-making core of the ESDP. “The progress made regarding the participation of the Western European Union (WEU) in Europe’s security and defense policy does not meet Turkey’s expectations,” he said.
Buyukanit complained that Turkey now enjoyed less influence in European security structures than it did a decade ago, even though the country was a NATO ally and what he described as an “integral component of European security.” Turkey has long objected to the EU being granted access to NATO assets unless Ankara is also included in the decision-making process regarding how and where they will be used.
“Since the transfer of most of the WEU’s powers to the EU, some full members of the WEU have lost almost all of their rights,” Buyukanit said. “Turkey makes a substantial contribution to the EU’s efforts for European security, but it also supports the primacy of NATO in this respect. The inseparability of security obliges non-EU countries to be active in ESDP. No discrimination should be allowed” (Savunma ve Havacilik, April 2008).