All heads of Turkish General Staff resign

Interesting times.

According to the UK Telegraph, the Turkish top brass resigned en masse on Friday to protest the Erdogan government’s plans for a military promotions board scheduled for next week.

The generals apparently want to promote officers whom the Erdogan government wants to block, based on the claim that the officers participated in the alleged “Ergenekon” conspiracy of 2003 (known as Operation “Sledgehammer”) against the civilian leadership.

The Turkish General Staff has had a history of occasionally enforcing centrist, secular government by mounting coups.  The most recent occurred in 1997, when the General Staff induced the government of Necmettin Erbakan to resign by imposing conditions on it – largely prohibitions against instituting Islamic customs.

During the Soviet era, the General Staff was concerned about internal threats from Soviet-backed as well as Islamist and Kurdish-nationalist factions.  Since the end of the Cold War, with Islamism on the rise, the Turkish military, along with the judicial and education systems, has been instrumental in enforcing the Kemalist idea of a secular republic.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected as the leader of an explicitly Islamist party in 2003, however.  Much of Erdogan’s agenda has involved weakening the independence of the military, judiciary, and education officials.  Many observers believe that the allegations about the “Sledgehammer” conspiracy, even there is a core of truth to them, are being misused to simply entrap the blameless opponents of Erdogan’s political program.  (Other observers believe the Ergenekon conspiracy theme is entirely fabricated.  See links.)

More than 40 military officers are currently being held on charges of being involved in the conspiracy.  It’s hard to pinpoint what the generals’ intentions are with their mass resignation.  They are too old and experienced to believe that they would be currying popular support by perpetrating a dramatic action.  They can’t expect their resignation to put popular pressure on Erdogan, who just won reelection with a healthy majority of the seats in Turkey’s parliament.

The alternative possibilities are that they have simply given up, and decided to spend their golden years doing something else (perhaps outside of Turkey), or that they are organizing to confront Erdogan.  Militating against the latter interpretation is the fact that Erdogan does have popular support in Turkey, and trying to control the aftermath of a coup against him – even one executed, as in 1997, by memorandum – would be a dicey proposition, with no precedent paralleling the conditions of 2011.

It’s possible that the situation looks different to them, considering the turmoil in Syria, the Arab Spring in general, and the jockeying of Iran for influence in every nation in Turkey’s immediate vicinity.  These exotic considerations have little meaning for Americans at the moment, but for Turkey, they naturally loom large.  The stakes may appear high enough that taking significant risks seems warranted.

Now – this week – isn’t the least propitious time for such a move either, given the world’s absorption in the US budget fight.

In my view, the only way the General Staff could mount a coup under the conditions of 2011 is to have the explicit (if covert) support of Erdogan’s major political opposition, and probably of an outside actor as well.  (The main possibility would be Russia.)  Are any of these things in place?  There is no immediate evidence of it.

Perhaps the mass resignation is the last whimper of Kemalist secularism.  That seems the most realistic assessment.  Only time will tell.  If that is the case, the rate at which civil life deteriorates in Turkey will accelerate more rapidly now, and a key brake on Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations will be removed.  The world will not be the same place when Americans go to the polls next November.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

21 thoughts on “All heads of Turkish General Staff resign”

  1. Hello JD,
    I totally concur, but would add a few more points. The en masse resignation was far more dramatic than would be necessary if General Kosaner and the
    other officers in question merely wanted to make a protest. Among other things, they saw their brother officers railroaded, they know they could easily be next, and if they were simply resigning without ‘covering their back end’ without something in mind, they’d be being suicidal.

    Also, as we both know,even though Erdogan is popular a lot of that popularity is rural, not in Ankara or Istanbul and the AKP has also made it’s share of enemies.And the Army is universally popular in Turkey.

    As you say, time will tell,but I don’t see the Turkish military establishment as having much to lose by trying a coup. Much depends on how thoroughly Erdogan has managed to purge it to date.

    Rob Miller at Joshuapundit.

  2. Welcome, rob. You make very good points, which add weight to the possibility that the TGS is really planning something. I’m somewhat torn in terms of what I think we can expect, though.

    Something I forgot to add was the odd event a couple of months ago, when the Turkish military abruptly ended its major exercise Deniz Kurdu — a series that is held regularly and features very large joint maneuvers — without explanation. I’ve watched Deniz Kurdu for years and never seen that happen. It made me wonder if the generals were planning something, and wanted to arrange the troops for a particular purpose.

    Nothing happened in the immediate aftermath, and the situation dropped off the radar screen. But if there has been lengthy preparation by the TGS, there may be more to this big resignation than it initially seems.

  3. Hey JE, caught your post at hotair, but I cant comment there (no open registration in about 2 years)…anyhow…

    The commenters there don’t seem to have any idea what they are talking about. One is carrying on as though Turkey is a 3rd world client state. Another comments about “the advent of Turkey joining NATO”. WTF. I’ve enjoyed a number of your foreign policy posts, but its ridiculous that the only people who respond are such ignoramouses. I suggest you at least add the following in the comments there:

    Turkey is not only the second most potent member of NATO (second only to the United States itself), it manufactures its OWN F-16s, under license. Realistically, there’s no reason they couldn’t continue to do so if the US were to spite them or vice versa. Turkey isn’t some third rate backwater, like most of the Arab countries, who have limited-to-no domestic capability.

    I believe the AKP sees itself as building a cornerstone bridge between the Muslim world and the advanced West. I highly doubt they would “switch” to the Islamic world at the expense of their relationship with the West. They want both. Maybe they can have it, maybe not. Their particular geopolitical situation is unique. It’s closest analogue is probably Mexico, who aspires to be the voice of Latin America, while having close ties to Canada and the US.

    1. Hi, Sinhalin.

      I think your understanding of the situation is essentially correct. This (unverified, but probably with some grain of truth) mass resignation of the be-ribboned war-horsery is most probably the dying screech of the former dispensation whereby the Turkish military had a covert and overt role in government. Far from being the “last whimper of Kemalist secularism”, it is the last whimper of the military veto as Turkey undergoes the final stages in its metamorphosis into a modern constitutional democracy.

      Turkey has made huge economic progress in recent years. This economic progress has consolidated the position of a large educated middle-class which is the basic foundation-stone of all proper democracies, and while Turkey is not without its problems, the process of preparing its government and institutions for EU membership (whether or not the EU accession-application is successful) has resulted in Turkey becoming, by far, the nation in the Middle-East which most conformes to Western ideas of the rule of law and government of checks and balances. Turkish democracy is a work in progress. But progress is the operative word.

      Far from “civil life deteriorating”, civil life in Turkey, both for its own population and visitors, has improved hugely (as one would expect) with Erdogan’s economic liberalism and the resulting economic boom. Turkey is now one of the safest places for tourists. You hear few of the horror-stories you hear from Mexico (a country going in the exact opposite direction from Turkey) – or for that matter – from Florida. Property rights are secure in Turkey, and the courts are independent. You don’t need to be a member of the dominant tribe or ethnicity to obtain equal justice or equal protection of your property.

      There is one other angle to the military tantrum. Part of the unwritten understanding between the military and government was that the military budget would be sacroscant, and that the brass would get its goodies (including its personal perks) free from parliamentary scrutiny. Along with many other corrupt relics of the past, Erdogan has scrapped this remnant of the Kemalist settlement and some in the military aren’t best pleased.

      As you say, Turkey is trying to have it both ways. It is pursuing and prioritising its own interests. That is what independent soverign nations do. Turkey is an increasingly wealthy nation in a strategic location. It has been a good friend of the US, and its soldiers have fought alongside ours. Our relationship in the future will be a more balanced one than heretofore, and will be one based on mutual interest as is proper between soverign nations. Its friendship does not need to be purchased by dole from the US tax-payer.

      Turkey is also a nation where a large majority of its population is Moslem. It’s social laws will reflect this fact to some extent. It would be a strange democracy in which the law of the land did not reflect the ethos of its population. Ours does, and the people in our country who are most shrill in criticising Erdogan are, ironicallly, the people in our own society who are most busy in attempting to undermine the division between (their odd notion of) religion and our own secular democracy.

      Of course some of the recent nonsense written about Turkey originates from those who have the odd notion that the quality of democracy, and value as an ally to the US, have something to do with the friendliness of the country in question to Israel! Turkey is a long-standing NATO ally. Does anyone think that it’s public and opinion and foreign-policy would remain unaltered by the murder of it’s (unarmed) citizens going about their lawful business on the high seas by the agents of a foreign (non NATO) power?

  4. What Obama is to America, Erdogan is to Turkey: a threat to fundamentally transform good into evil, democracy into tyranny, and respect for law into rule by force. Turkey, Iran, Russia, Obama: the four horseman of the Apocalypse.

    1. you’re out to lunch, Meg, comparing Obama to Erdogan,( but that ain’t news).

      what is news is your idea that Turkey has respect for law and not for force. While I prefer the generals to Erdogan, the record doesn’t show that the generals or any other bloc in late 20th century Turkey has ruled by law and eschewed force.
      take a look at how the Kurds have been mistreated, particularly in the late 80s and 90s.

  5. On the contrary, we should celebrate that Turkey has marked another important milestone on its way to becoming a properly functioning capitalist democracy. The end of military interference in Turkish politics – as with the end of military interference in politics everywhere it occurs – is something Americans should welcome. After all, that is how things are done at home and in our fellow democracies. And of course, military interference in politics is not “respect for the rule of law”, but the most egregious abrogation of it.

    1. P, you’re just as out to lunch as Meg if you think that Erdogan is leading Turkey toward a properly functioning democracy. Erdogan is a full-blown bullshirt artist leading Turkey toward the type of democracy that Chavez has installed in Venezuela.+

      1. There is absolutely nothing to suggest from his long parliamentary record that the staid and conservative free-market technocrat, Erdogan, is remotely like Chavez. You should look at the record and the facts – not at the fevered hysteria of fringe commentators who equate compliance with the interests of the Israeli right with “democracy”. (The logical processes of the people who “reason” along these lines completely eludes me).

        The real story of Erdogan’s government is a consistent movement of liberalization of the economy, freedom of expression, social liberalization, independence of the courts, and of course, putting an end to military interference in politics. He has been pretty successful in all these areas. I have no doubt that the sight of a devout Moslem at the head of a successful political project is galling to the Islamaphobes of the Israel-first fringe. After all it sets their thesis on its head.

        1. Nothing in my comment or in my thinking should have suggested to you that I equate Erdogan’s moves against democracy with his policies towards Israel and I have to wonder, P, why it is that your thoughts went there.

          There is absolute evidence that Erdogan’s government is moving to stifle the press through harassment of news outlets that oppose his government’s policies.

          1. I presume you can show me some authoritive reports to substantiate this claim………..

            1. There is a lot of stuff, P, and I could dredge up a huge amount . The English-language Turkish press (Hurriyet and the Daily News among them) has written about it

              Couple of months back, two leading investigative reporters, Ahmed Şık and Nedim Şener, were arrested.

              On March 3, anti-terrorist police in Istanbul raided the homes of some 12 journalists, writers, and academics and seized notes, computers, and the unpublished manuscript of “The Imam’s Army,” a book that Şık was writing on the Gülen Islamic movement, which is close to the AKP.


              “In a report published July 12, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg called the state of media freedom in Turkey “particularly worrying” and urged the authorities to take urgent measures to uphold media rights and “foster a more tolerant atmosphere towards criticism and dissent.”

              Minister, we are also deeply concerned by the widespread use by prosecutors of anti-terrorism laws against journalists, particularly Kurdish journalists, to restrict coverage of Kurdish issues. Since the beginning of the Ergenekon affair prosecutors have increasingly resorted to provisions in the Criminal Code to curb reporting. The European Commission estimates that more than 4,000 investigations were under way in 2010 under Article 285 (reporting on a confidential criminal investigation) and Article 288 (attempting to influence trial proceedings).

              The use of these and other criminal code provisions has led to a surge in journalist detentions to a level not seen since the 1990s.”


              and an update on the imprisonment of the two guys is available at the link below….


              1. I actually have a life separate and apart from this blog.

                Your compilation of extracts (some taken out of context, and without reference to other, positive, claims, fails to acknowledge that the Council of Europe has lauded the general progress towards liberalism and true press-freedom in Turkey under Erdogan (and his predecessor). As I clearly stated, progress towards liberal democracy is a work in progress. The principal impediment to progress is not Islamicism in the form of Islamic irredentivism, but pressures on the rule of law arising from the continuing Khurdish insurgency. The Council of Europe has had much harsher things to say about the British and the measures taken during the 20 year war against the IRA between 1970 and 1990 (internment without trial, extrajudicial killings, closing down publications sympathetic to Irish nationalism, and harrassment of journalists who exposed British army wrongdoing)

                Similarly, if you trawl through the reports of international human-rights organizations you will find uncomplimentary references to our own practices such as capital punishment, interference with free reportage at home and abroad, the use of public money to demonize commentators and journalists exposing US subversion in foreign countries, and our covert funding of obnoxious regimes and provision of disgusting weaponary to disgusting despots.

              2. (Not only have I no objection to you having a life, I’m all in favor of it.

                Sorry if I rushed you.)

                If you have a link to the Council of Europe lauding press-freedom under Erdogan, please provide it. I’m absolutely willing to examine evidence against my thesis.

                However, the evidence showing suppression of dissent is abundant while the evidence against all the people being arrested…..isn’t being presented.

                There’s a lot that’s going on in Turkey some of it is good and some not.
                It definitely is a work in progress, but some of the work isn’t progressive at all.

  6. The determinedly secular generals have never disguised their distaste for the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose Justice and Development AK Party narrowly escaped a ban by the Constitutional Court last year on charges of seeking to introduce religious rule..The leaked diaries of a retired naval commander revealed that some fellow officers two of whom are now in jail for alleged links to Ergenekon had plotted at least two coups against Mr Erdogan that were blocked by the then chief of the general staff Hilmi Ozkok. Their supposed aims include sabotaging Turkey s efforts to join the EU not that much sabotage is needed just now several parts of the EU negotiations remain frozen and when Mr Erdogan visited Brussels recently he left largely empty-handed .

    1. The generals have every right to opinions of distaste for Erdogan and maybe Erdogan’s government might consider that arresting army officers and holding them in jail for years beginning in 2007, without trial or even announced charges, isn’t going to end that distaste.

      IF there was some big conspiracy that justified all the arrests, where are the trials and where is the evidence?
      Why do the arrests keep piling up with journalists and scholars being also arrested as subversives?

      It becomes hard to resist thinking that the trials aren’t going to happen until Erdogan restocks Turkey’s judiciary with judges of his own choosing.

  7. Recep Erdogan is a man
    who cites poetry when he can
    and spends I M F loan monies
    from duped democracies
    but just Sharia does he plan.

    1. Turkey is a net contributor to the IMF. Fact.

      The civil legal code in Turkey is based, not on “Sharia” but on the German civil-code. This hasn’t changed under Erdogan. Some Turkish law reflects the Moslem religion of it’s people (It would be odd if it didn’t). However, the big changes in recent years have been to reform laws which are not ECHR-compliant. For example, all laws discriminating against women have been replaced by gender-neutral legislation.

      Of course, “Sharia” is a term which can mean anything you want it to mean – like “liberal” and “fascist” and “commie”. In any case there is no legal recognition of religious courts, or such like. This is in sharp contrast with the Israeli ethnocracy where Hassidic courts and religious laws are a constant thorn in the side of non-Jewish citizens of Israel, and the legal population of the territories it occupies.

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