On July 29, Turkey was shaken by yet another development concerning a possible political crisis between the civilian authorities and the country’s upper military echelon. The Chief of the General Staff Isik Kosaner quit his post, followed by three of the four force commanders, Land Forces Commander Erdal Ceylanoglu, Air Forces Commander Hasan Aksay and Naval Forces Commander Esref Ugur Yigit, on the eve of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) scheduled to meet this week to discuss promotions in the Turkish Army’s senior command positions (Anadolu Ajansi, July 29).
While the three force commanders were due to retire at the upcoming YAS meeting, Kosaner still had two more years in his post. As these apparently coordinated announcements came against the backdrop of ongoing tensions between the government and the military over the arrest of a growing number of generals and admirals, concerns were raised as to how it might affect the future of Turkish politics.
The most immediate reason sparking the crisis was the pending trials concerning the activities of military officers, who were allegedly conspiring to overthrow the AKP government since it first came to power in 2002. While the prosecutors initially filed charges against retired officers in the early phase of several cases ongoing since 2008 (Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases) later active duty and high-ranking officials were also implicated in these investigations; currently, over 200 hundred officers, including more than 40 generals, are under arrest.
Against this background, even before last Friday’s crisis, the promotion of some of the officers implicated in the ongoing investigations had been a matter of contention between the government and the top brass. Contact intensified between Kosaner and the country’s civilian leadership failed to find common ground. Last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged victorious from a similar crisis, as he objected to the promotion of arrested officers at YAS (EDM, August 12, 2010). Obviously, with his sense of self-vindication after last year’s experience, Erdogan did not settle for a compromise solution this year, which led Kosaner to quit his post on July 29. Moreover, President Abdullah Gul sought to convince Kosaner to change his mind, but it was to no avail.
The court’s acceptance of prosecutors’ indictment for the arrest of another top general, the commander of the Aegean Army Huseyin Nusret Tasdeler, along with others on the same day was the tipping point, which obviously convinced the three force commanders to resign (interestingly, on the eve of last year’s YAS, again, there was a wave of arrests against scores of military officers, which sparked the crisis). Following intense contacts throughout the day involving Gul and Erdogan, the Turkish government found a quick solution to fix the problem. By midnight on July 29, the only force commander who decided to remain in his post, Necdet Ozel, Commander of Gendarmerie Forces, was appointed as the Commander of the Land Forces and, then, the acting Chief of the General Staff.
Indeed, the written statement Kosaner issued following the announcement of his decision demonstrated his discomfort with the treatment of military officers in the context of the pending trials. He complained about the investigations and their presentation in the media, which in his view, painted the Turkish army as a criminal organization. Kosaner questioned the legality of the arrests and their conformity with legal principles. He claimed that despite his attempts to correct this situation, the authorities had failed to respond to his initiatives. As a result, he concluded that since he was not in a position to protect the rights of his personnel, “the conditions for the continuation of [his] duty in the current respected position no longer existed.” More importantly, Kosaner argued that the arrested high-ranking generals who were set to be promoted at this year’s YAS were “preemptively punished by not being considered at YAS,” despite the fact that no final verdict was reached about their cases (www.haberturk.com, July 29).
The latest development resulted in an immediate division in Turkish politics. President Gul and government representatives downplayed the ramifications of this crisis. For them, this development is only a healthy sign of the normalization of Turkish politics, implying that the military was coming under the control of civilian government. The opposition Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Action Party, in contrast, believe that the empty seats at the helm of the military unequivocally represents a political crisis, triggered by the AKP’s efforts to undermine the status of the armed forces. Both parties argue that the continuation of coup investigations by the courts without any final verdict shows clearly that the government uses these legal charges to maintain pressure on the military (www.ntvmsnbc.com, July 31).
While many analysts see this showdown as yet another victory for the Erdogan government, it nonetheless provides a fresh opportunity to deepen the rift between the government and opposition parties, caused by the “boycott crisis” over the imprisoned deputies following the elections last month (EDM, June 29). As such, it complicates the government’s task of governing the country with a broad-based consensus.
At the same time, several questions remain as to the future of civilian-military relations. The short-term challenge with so many commanders arrested, is to reshape the top echelons of the Turkish military at this week’s YAS meeting. The resignations, ongoing arrests or pending charges against high-ranking generals will raise questions about how to fill key posts. Given the president and the government’s objections to some of the likely candidates, the YAS decisions might alter the usual practices of the Turkish military, based on seniority. In the context of these events coming so soon after last year’s crisis, it is uncertain how the officer cadres will respond to the government’s deepening meddling in the internal affairs of the Turkish military, which was once deemed untouchable.
Acting commander Ozel, who is likely to be appointed as the new Chief of the General Staff, is presented as a soldier with strong democratic credentials by pro-government analysts. He might emerge as the key figure to shape the future of civil-military relations, depending on his ability to persuade the officer corps to accept the new state of affairs. However, if the concerns raised by Kosaner gain a wider following among the officer cadres, Ozel will have to walk a tight rope.