Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug has issued a stern warning to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) not to attempt to change the current interpretation of secularism in the country and bluntly told the United States that it is time to take action against the camps belonging to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
Basbug is currently expected to succeed Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit when the latter retires in August 2008. His statements came during a September 24 address to military cadets at the Military Academy in Istanbul at the inauguration of the 2007-2008 academic year.
Basbug warned against any attempt to amend the interpretation of the principle of secularism that is enshrined in the current constitution. He restated the Turkish military’s determination to protect what he referred to as the “fundamental characteristics of the republic.” Basbug did not refer directly to the AKP government or the ongoing debate over its recently published draft of a new constitution, which includes a provision to lift the current ban that prevents female students wearing headscarves from attending university. But neither his audience nor the government will have had any doubt about whom he was addressing (Radikal, Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, September 25).
“Secularism is the foundation of all of Turkey’s values and principles. It should not be made a subject for discussion,” said Basbug. “The Turkish armed forces have always had a responsibility to protect [the republic’s] structure and characteristics and they will continue to have a responsibility to do so” (Radikal, September 25).
Speaking before Basbug delivered his statement, General Tevfik Ozkilic, the commander of the Military Academy, explicitly told the cadets that it was the duty of the academy to produce officers who would preserve and protect the fundamental characteristics of the Turkish republic. Ozkilic also made it clear that he was talking about them taking concrete action.
“[The fundamental characteristics] cannot change and cannot be changed. Be prepared to change those who think that they can,” he said, employing a Turkish phrase that is used both for “be prepared” and for “stand at attention” prior to receiving a military command (Radikal, September 25).
Basbug also implicitly criticized the AKP’s plans to create a legal framework to allow Kurdish to be taught in Turkish schools, warning that it would lead to the weakening of the Turkish nation–state.
But Basbug reserved his most direct criticism for the United States. The Turkish military is currently conducting a major search and destroy operation against PKK units in southeast Turkey before the winter snows block the mountain passes in the region. Turkey has long been frustrated by Washington’s refusal either to move against the PKK’s supply depots and training camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq or to allow the Turkish military to do so; even though the PKK is included in the State Department’s list of proscribed terrorist organizations. Recent U.S. pressure on Turkey to join the international community in isolating Iran on the grounds that it is developing a nuclear program and supporting terrorism has merely intensified Turkish anger.
“Since 1984 Turkey has been fighting alone against terrorism,” said Basbug. “Turkey’s concerns in Iraq are also affecting Turkey’s relations with the U.S. The U.S. has to understand and to demonstrate that it is now time for action not words” (CNNTurk, NTV, September 24; see EDM, September 24).
Basbug also expressed the military’s concerns over the possibility of a distinct Kurdish political entity emerging in northern Iraq.
“It is a fact that the Kurds in northern Iraq have been strengthened politically, legally, militarily, and psychologically as never before,” said Basbug, adding in a reference to Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority. “It should be noted that this might inspire some of our own citizens” (CNNTurk, September 24).
He called upon the United States to engage with Turkey not only in combating the PKK but also in preventing the disintegration of Iraq.
“[The U.S.] should be aware that no solution in Iraq can be a lasting one unless it has Turkey’s support,” he said (NTV, September 24).