Green Room

All heads of Turkish General Staff resign

posted at 2:46 pm on July 29, 2011 by

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 The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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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.

If this is indeed the case here, I wonder how long it will be before Turkey is out of NATO and into some other alliance with Iran, Syria and the like.

That could have major implications for the US defense industry. As far as I recall, the Turkish Air Force is mostly American built F-16 Falcons.

I’m not sure about their Army equipment, but whatever their gear is it’s NATO standard, no?

If they leave NATO they are likely to turn to Russia for their small arms, armor vehicles and aircraft.

Will it be like Iran and the F-14 Tomcats, where we cut off spare parts to starve them of operational hours?

Strange things are afoot, indeed.

Brian1972 on July 29, 2011 at 3:03 PM

Brian1972 — the only thing I would differ with you on is Turkey’s arms option if Erdogan loosens ties with NATO. I’m not so sure it will be Russia the Turks turn to. Turkey and China have been making out like teenagers, staging joint military exercises with each other as well as Pakistan. Ankara under Erdogan-on-a-roll may just go the Beijing route, or at least play Beijing and Moscow off against each other.

I think Russia is increasingly wary of Erdogan, not so much because his stripes are showing more (although they are) as because the US and NATO don’t appear to be able or willing to hold him in check. He hasn’t made a big move yet, but I don’t think Russia is counting on us if he does. And Russia, unlike Western Europe and the US, remembers the downside of having an Ottoman Empire rattling around the Middle East.

J.E. Dyer on July 29, 2011 at 3:14 PM

Hmm, I have a friend in a Bible study whose daughter is leaving in a few weeks to be an exchange student in southeastern Turkey for a year. I wonder what the chance is of unpleasant (for a foreign national) political turmoil there during this time period?

bandarlog on July 29, 2011 at 3:29 PM

J.E. Dyer on July 29, 2011 at 3:14 PM

Come to think of it, it does make more sense that the Russians, with all of their Chechnyan troubles would be wary of arming a new Islamic leaning power with regional ambitions.

I tend to think of Chinese heavy industry as kind of crappy when it comes to things like tanks, fighter jets and things like that. If I were Turkey looking to re-epuip a freshly non-NATO Air Force, Russian MiGs and Sukhois is where I would look. Maybe China can export some license built models, but again, I would think the quality of assembly wouldn’t be as good.

We’ll see how it shakes out eventually, but I am convinced if Turkey turns Islamist they will be either leaving NATO on their own, or getting booted out.

That is the big development, and after that it’s anybody’s guess how the new alliances change the strategic balance.

Brian1972 on July 29, 2011 at 3:38 PM

I’m porting over an exchange from my home blog, as it contains some useful additional points:

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.

My response:

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.


J.E. Dyer on July 29, 2011 at 3:39 PM

bandarlog on July 29, 2011 at 3:29 PM

I recommend prayer about this one.

J.E. Dyer on July 29, 2011 at 3:40 PM

With the strongly developing anti-Islamist sentiment in Europe lately, the supposed advent of Turkey joining NATO looks to be fading if not already off anyone’s short list. Perhaps this also has sunk into the consciousness of the general staff. Decades long relationships that had been developing are evaporating.

It would seem the writing is on the wall regarding the Arab Spring. Turkey has seemingly taken a turn lately regarding Israel, helping to sow discord, not being a stable influence as had been the custom. And where Turkey, at the historical crossroad of Mid-East and European culture and commerce, has now become more of a center mass.

You’re right J.E. That part of the world will be a very different place come our next national election. Makes me wonder how it may impact our elections.

Robert17 on July 29, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Said NATO, should have said EU.

Robert17 on July 29, 2011 at 4:29 PM

The nature of Erdogan’s Islamism is not easy to decipher. His popularity is partly based on delivering a more prosperous economy as much as the religious factor. Whatever the Islamic nature of the regime Turkey and Iran will not be natural bedfellows, especially if Erdogan pursues a neo Ottoman foreign policy.

Remember that in the long run ideological/religious similarities usually play second fiddle to national/economic interests. There has rarely been a Muslim hegemony, Catholic Spain and Catholic France were ever deadly 16th/17th century rivals, China and Russia played against each other while publicly lauding Karl Marx…..Turkey can always be a useful counter weight to Iran.

What we are seeing is, perhaps, a revival of 19th century Great game diplomacy where 6/7 powers are constantly forming and reforming temporary alliances.

callingallcomets on July 29, 2011 at 5:42 PM

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Ed Morrissey on July 30, 2011 at 1:09 PM