Sledgehammer tactics

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Long the self-proclaimed guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy, Turkey’s once-powerful military is now fighting for its own survival.

In an unlikely role-reversal for a country used to the generals’ interference in the political system, the Islamic-rooted administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has detained some 70 military officers, retired as well as serving, for their involvement in an alleged coup to overthrow his elected AKP government one year after it came to power in 2003.

“Operation Sledgehammer,” laid out in some 5,000 pages of documents leaked in January to Taraf, a small Turkish daily, involved planting bombs in mosques during prayers and downing Turkish fighter jets in a bid to sow chaos and prepare the ground for intervention from the country’s ever-meddling generals.

Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general and alleged mastermind of the plot, has denied the accusations saying that the whole thing was no more than a “simulation exercise” drawn up for an army seminar.

Many generals feel they have been framed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher and leader of the Gulen brotherhood that is supposedly seeking to make Turkey an Islamic state. Although moderate in its stated goals, the powerful and very organized Gulen movement has certainly made a priority of placing its adherents high in the Turkish system, according to Hugh Pope, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, who spoke to Athens Plus.

“There is however nothing proven about the involvement of the Gulen movement or any other group,” Pope added.

The dramatic pre-dawn raids targeting prime suspects, leaks of colorful details and charges in pro-government media before they reach the prosecutor’s office have raised eyebrows among the Turkish public, some media, and independent observers who see at least some degree of political motivation behind the probe.

“The idea that 162 officers discussed a coup plot in 2003 and then nobody said anything about it for seven years is absurd. Such a thing would not have been done like this, in a seminar,” Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, told Athens Plus.

“The details do not make sense. There are simply too many absurdities and contradictions; it’s hard to take all this seriously,” Jenkins said.

Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition party, has rebuffed the operation as a “political showdown.” “Why did you wait for seven years?” he asked recently. “These are commanders who now wear pajamas and slippers.”

An ongoing trial concerning a separate anti-government plot by a shadowy ultranationalist network known as “Ergenekon” has also been criticized as an act of political vendetta. Some question whether the group even exists.

For most analysts, Jenkins included, developments mirror a tug of war between the established elite and an emerging pious Islamic segment of society.

“These arrests are the latest act in a struggle for power between two groups: the urban, highly secular but rather authoritarian establishment and military, who founded the republic of Turkey in 1923, and the more religious but pragmatic people from the Turkish countryside who have flooded into the cities since the 1960s, and whose political representative is the AKP,” said Pope, who has however expressed doubts that this is just a “witch hunt” against the army.

The army has staged three coups since 1960, but the Turkish public has grown sensitive to army interference in civic life. The latest bid, the so-called “e-coup” of 2007 when the military’s website criticized the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, backfired. Erdogan called a snap poll and won a resounding 47 percent of the vote. AKP again won 39 percent in the 2009 election and polls still give the party about one third of the vote, ahead of any other party.

The once-untouchable generals are against the ropes, but the chances of another coup, analysts say, are remote. “The events of this week signal another step toward full control of Turkey by civilian authorities. The country has come far from the military coups in 1960, 1971 or 1980 and is now far too complex and integrated into the global system to face another one,” said Pope.

The generals may be down but they are definitely not out. Despite its declining power, mostly thanks to AKP’s EU-minded reforms, as well as its dwindling popularity, the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. “If the civilian government should lose its way and lose popular support in a few years’ time, it is possible that the military will once again be tempted to act in the name of what it sees as the silent majority,” Pope said.

The standoff however seems to have galvanized the army which has in the past been divided on whether the chief of staff should be more assertive in safeguarding secularism. The chief of staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who has in the past stressed that the era of military coups is over, has lashed out at what he calls an “asymmetrical psychological war on the army.”

“Developments have had a demoralizing but also unifying effect,” Jenkins said. “They have united the core of the military rather than dividing it,” he added.

Greek commentators have expressed concern that the coup probe could harden Ankara’s policy on Greece as the Turkish premier would not want to give the impression of being a softy on a traditional rival, particularly during a standoff with the hawkish generals.

But foreign analysts beg to differ. “Turkey is becoming more introverted, more obsessed with internal affairs,” Jenkins said, suggesting that Greece was not a real priority at the moment.

Under the influence of its energetic Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu Turkey has pursued a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors. Erdogan this week said that Ankara will pull its troops out from divided Cyprus should the two sides reach a peace deal.

However, Pope warned, the spat is certainly sapping time and energy from other priorities such as electoral and constitutional reform – a flashpoint of potential friction between the government and the pro-secularist judiciary – as well as tilting Turkey away from the perennial goal of EU membership, a Cyprus peace deal and normalization of ties with Armenia.

When swinging a sledgehammer, you always risk breaking more than you intended.

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