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.