The recent Supreme Military Council (YAS) meeting served as an additional showdown between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the country’s military leadership. When the four-day long YAS meeting ended on August 4, it failed to fill key posts, raising questions about the future command structure of the Turkish military, as well as the overall direction of the civil-military relationship.
A prime function of the YAS was to discuss the status of military personnel expecting appointments or retirements in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The established traditions regarding the promotions and appointments in the Turkish military’s upper echelons, which are based on tenure and seniority, have been implemented strictly. Although the government and the president have the final say in appointment and promotion decisions, traditionally, the civilian authorities endorse the list suggested by the top military brass.
The AKP government’s active interference in appointments this year has been an important exception to the rule. In the words of one Turkish security analyst and close observer of military affairs, Nihat Ali Ozcan, it was “the biggest crisis ever encountered by the Turkish armed forces in its history” (Hurriyet Daily News, August 4).
The ongoing investigations into different coup plots in which several active and retired military officers are charged over their involvement in plans to overthrow the government eventually affected the promotions. On the eve of the YAS meeting, a court summoned 19 officers, and various retired officers, to testify in a probe, including the current First Army Corps Commander, General Hasan Igsiz. None of the suspects surrendered to the police, and appealed against their arrest.
The government refused to consider the promotion of military officers, implicated in the coup plots. Particularly, the government objected to Igsiz’s appointment as the commander of the Land Forces, who was implicated in two investigations. His alleged involvement in a campaign to defame the government through setting up various web sites, known as “Internet Memorandum,” angered Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, the government delayed the promotion of 11 high ranking officials for whom arrest warrants were issued in the ongoing coup investigation, known as “Sledgehammer.” These various cases are connected to a probe into an alleged gang, Ergenekon, seeking to dismantle the incumbent government.
Reportedly, the current Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Ilker Basbug, insisted on Igsiz’s promotion, raising tension between the government and military. There was a consensus that the current Land Forces Commander, Isik Kosaner, would replace Basbug as the new CGS. However, in the absence of an agreement on who would replace Kosaner due to President, Abdullah Gul, and the government’s refusal to sign Igsiz’s appointment, the decision was postponed.
Thus, when the results of the YAS were announced on the fourth day, it left the two key posts, CGS and Land Forces commander, unfilled. Naval Forces Commander, Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit, and Air Forces Commander, General Hasan Aksay, remained in their posts for another year, while Necdet Ozel was appointed as the new head of the Gendarmerie General Command (Anadolu Ajansi, August 4). Several efforts were made to address this crisis, through various meetings between the president, top government officials and military headquarters.
To complicate matters further, General Atilla Isik, who was expected to assume the Land Forces command instead of Igsiz, announced his request for retirement on August 5. The Turkish press speculated that Isik was protesting the government’s interference with the military’s inner workings over the appointment. Arguably, Basbug sought to mobilize force commanders to submit their resignations to protest against the government. Through such moves, it was further argued that Basbug was seeking to shape the future line of command, by opening the way to promote officers close to him. In particular, Basbug was allegedly seeking to block the new Gendarmerie commander Ozel’s succession of Kosaner as the CGS in 2013 (Bugun, August 6). Isik dismissed such speculation, and denied the allegations that he offered to resign due to pressures from within the military (www.ntvmsnbc.com, August 6). Nonetheless, this development delayed the resolution of the appointment crisis.
On Sunday, Erdogan announced a breakthrough, saying that the government and military had reached an agreement. Following president Gul’s approval, the standoff over the new command structure ended. Kosaner was appointed as the chief of staff, while the current EDOK commander General Erdal Ceylanoglu, who was appointed as the Commander of the First Army in the YAS meeting, was appointed as the new commander of the armed forces. Aegean Army Corps Commander, Hayri Kivrikoglu, became the Commander of the First Army. Ceylanoglu assumed the command of the armed forces, instead of the more senior General Ozel. Although this practice contravened the established rules, it secured Ozel’s path to become the CGS in 2013, replacing Kosaner (www.ntvmsnbc.com, August 9).
For supporters of the Erdogan government, this development marks a step towards greater civilian control over the military. In their view, even the fact that the current military leadership insisted on the promotion of officers under investigation highlighted its disregard for the ongoing judicial process and civil supremacy. They see the government’s insistence on shaping the top command chain, despite the military’s opposition, as a strong vindication that civil-military relations will be normalized, and the military will have to learn how to obey the rule of civil law. For critics and opposition parties, however, the government is interested in curbing the power of the military in order to consolidate its power in Turkish politics. By pointing to the timing of the court orders, they argue that the government is using the ongoing legal process to sweep the anti-government officers from office.
However, underlying this crisis is a power struggle between the military and the Erdogan government, and it appears the government has won in the latest showdown. Nevertheless, it may be too early to suggest that it signals an outright victory. Depending upon the outcome of controversial legal cases, civil-military relations may evolve in a different direction than desired by the government and its supporters.