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17:34, 21 June 2018 Thursday
Update: 15:21, 22 August 2011 Monday

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How should we read the resignation of four top generals in Turkey?
How should we read the resignation of four top generals in Turkey?

Until the Turkish Parliament and -- eventually -- its people decide on a new constitution, we are still part of the First or Third Republic, depending on how you see it.”


By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin

In reaction to the ongoing trials about military officers, which involve a large number of high-ranking military officers, four top generals resigned in the last period of July. "The resignations came just a day before the twice-yearly meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which deals with key appointments and decides on promotions for senior officers."

Power struggle between the military and the civilian establishment...

"The resignations are emblematic of the shift in recent years of the power relationship between the military and the civilian establishment in favor of the civilian establishment," said Sinan Ulgen, chair of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent think-tank. "Very few people in Turkey are against this shift."

According to news of Today's Zaman, he said that the power balance started tipping in favor of the political elite just over four years ago. On 29 April 2007 the military published a text on its website– the so-called e-coup – bluntly warning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against putting up Abdullah Gül, then foreign minister, as its candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. The government firmly rebuked this last serious attempt of the military to meddle in politics, Gül became president and the AKP walked away stronger and more confident, winning a landslide victory in subsequent national elections.

"The history behind these resignations dates back to the previous Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting. During that meeting, the government prevented the indicted generals from being promoted, a first in the history of the country. Last year, the crisis lasted for several weeks. There were rumors that collective resignations might be seen in the army, and the generals held extraordinary meetings at the General Staff, but the government did not change its decision," says Ali Aslan Kilic, from Today's Zaman. "This year, it was said that the military was making preparations to take revenge. But the government did not step back. To avert a similar crisis, Prime Minister Erdoğan asked the military not to propose the promotion of indicted generals at the YAŞ meeting. To this end, a mini-summit was held under the chairmanship of President Gül."

While according to Christopher Torchia, top four military commanders, including the chief of staff, resigned in protest against the arrest and prosecution in the past few years of hundreds of retired and active-duty military officers in alleged coup plots; "it's an expression of displeasure with the civilian government and, frankly, leaves in disarray the promotion process that was about to begin," Bulent Aliriza, director and senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Turkey Project, said. "This is their clearest possible response to Prime Minister Erdogan."

According to reports, retired chief of general staff Isik Kosaner's resignation came after the message of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "I don't want to see any surprises in the nominations list." After this meeting, according to the report of the Guardian, "in a farewell message to 'brothers in arms', Koşaner said it was impossible to continue in his job as he could not defend the rights of men who had been detained as a consequence of a flawed judicial process.

"There are two important reasons for this move", Cengiz Aktar, professor for EU relations at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, told the Guardian. "On the one hand the AKP government's increasing interference in the appointment of military personnel – which was previously handled solely by the military itself – and on the other hand the arrests in the Sledgehammer coup trials."

Hurriyet's Ismet Berkin criticized military's past actions and he questioned the position of military leaders in his article entitled "The Real Reason Behind The Turkish Generals' Mass Resignation": "All right. While the story thus far is all well and good, I wonder what did our military leaders do after all of this information became public knowledge? Did they apologize to the Turkish people for lying to us? Did they come forward and say, "Well, yeah, we tried to do something we shouldn't have. We broke the law. And we went way beyond what a military is supposed to do. We are sorry."? Did they say this? Did they?

Well no. In fact, they did just the opposite! The leaders of the Turkish military wrote a letter to the prosecutor that put the blame on lower-ranking officers (some colonels and majors) in the army. However, given the strict chain of command in the military, there is no possible way our leading generals did not know about and authorize the lies that were going up on the military websites against JPP in the early 2000s.

To the generals who resigned on Friday I ask: by lying to the entire nation and spreading propaganda against your own government, do you not have some regrets about what you did? And at the end of the day, we wonder, are you as attached to the ideas of democracy and the rule of law as you say you are?"
"The recently re-elected AKP government has reacted calmly to the situation thus far." said Zenonas Tziarras. "Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that this is neither a crisis nor something that cannot be handled,"

On the other hand, "Kerem Oktem, author of 'Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989,' a book about the country's transition from military to democratic rule, said that while there is 'no doubt' that the military has tried to subvert elected governments, there are 'serious shortcomings' in the coup plot trials that point to long-standing problems in the Turkish justice system.

More broadly, Oktem said, accusations that the government has amassed too much control stem from an authoritarian tradition of power that 'does not represent or encapsulate liberal views' in Turkey. In his view, the ruling Justice and Development Party followed electoral rules but was compelled to fight off non-democratic challenges by similar means."

In this process, the main opposition party preferred to define this event as a crisis: "While the opposition parties and some journalists depicted it as a worrisome crisis for the state, it soon became clear that this was not the case. Before the main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) leadership decided to interrupt its vacation to convene in an extraordinary session, the government took steps to untangle the crisis, and President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan left the capital in a holiday mood."

Resignations as a milestone

After these resignations, Erdoğan quickly appointed General Necdet Ozel, who was formerly commander of the military police, as the acting Chief of the General Staff.

According to the reports of Israeli Haaretz Newspaper, "the only one of the military chiefs that did not resign is the head of the military police, Necdet Ozel, who is considered a close ally of Erdogan, and who Erdogan already tried two years ago to advance along the route to an eventual appointment as army Chief of Staff."

Moreover, Gareth Jenkins, a military analyst with close contacts to the Turkish military, disputes the notion that Necdet Ozel would become a "yes-man" to Erdogan. "It will take around 10 years before officers placed in the ranks by the AKP and its supporters will become senior enough to reach the top posts."

"But there are moves possible even as the country progresses to become a full democracy. The new top commander, Necdet Özel, is described as a professional with no interests in interfering in politics." says Yavuz Baydar. "Özel may begin a process of reforms -- finally -- in the troubled institution that is rather rotten due to the subversive activities of some of its arrogant staff, which sadly turned it into a focal point of undemocratic operations, into a center for a self-worshipping elite which desperately fought a losing battle to keep its autonomy and impunity. He can help chase away lawlessness and lead its integration into the democratic system. Godspeed."

In other words, the AKP Government overcame the crisis professionally. This means the victory of civilian establishment over military domination. Thus, as Abdullah Bozkurt says, "unlike past YAŞ meetings, in which the prime minister and the chief of General Staff sat together at the head of the table, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat alone at the head of the table this year, which was interpreted as a strong sign of normalization in civilian-military relations in Turkey and as a sign of civilian authority over the military."

As a parallel comment, "he sat alone at the head of the table, a symbol of civilian authority over the generals whose top commanders resigned last week in a dispute with the government." said Christopher Torchia. "The symbolism of the seating scheme delivered the message that Turkey's military, which once staged coups and presided over the writing of the constitution in the early 1980s, had lost another battle in a power struggle with a government that has strong electoral support."

"The photograph from the first day of the Higher Military Council meeting spoke louder than words;" said Soli Ozel. "Prime Minister Erdoğan sat by himself at the head of the table, instead of the prime minister and the chief of staff together as they have done traditionally, signaling equivalence of power."

In related to this picture, the AKP strengthened its own hand by overcoming this crisis. According to Johan Spanner, from New York Times, "a week later, the civilian leadership appointed four new commanders, decisively strengthening its control over its armed forces. The new appointments of a chief of general staff and commanders of the army, navy and air force reflected the Islamic-leaning civilian government's increased assertiveness in its struggle with the country's military establishment, which has orchestrated three coups since 1960 and forced another government from power in 1997."

Moreover, "Friday's mass resignation by Turkey's top general, Isik Kosaner, and the commanders of the country's army, navy and air force was a clear sign that the long-running battle between the military and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been decisively won by the government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan." says Yigal Schleifer and warns: "But the neutralization of the Turkish military as a political force will also bring with it greater pressure on the increasingly powerful AKP, which must now demonstrate that it can continue Turkey's democratization process -- particularly the drafting of a new, civilian-minded constitution -- in an inclusive manner."

As a parallel evaluation, Labor Minister Faruk Celik said that I believe that what happened last night would contribute to the normalization of Turkey as well as putting the military-civilian relations on the right track.

Concerning to the tension derived from this issue, "abroad, this unprecedented move by the military top brass led to concerns about the future of Turkish democracy given Turkey's record of coups and military meddling in politics. Some wondered whether this could be the prelude to a more radical ove, such as an attempted military takeover, as had happened in the past. Others questioned what such a development meant for Turkey's NATO membership. Yet others saw in this development the final step towards the so-called Islamization of the Turkish polity or the unchallenged rule of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan." said Soli Ozel. "Contrary to such alarmism, the mood in Turkey was mainly sanguine. Despite efforts by some media outlets to further dramatize what was undoubtedly an important instance in Turkey's political development, most of the public saw the event for what it was: another step in the retreat of the Turkish military to the proper institutional role and functions that befit a democratic country. Nothing more, nothing less."

Merve Alici's sentences are corroborative for Ozel's comments. As Christopher Torchia says, she is a member of Young Civilians, a non-governmental group that promotes democracy, described the resignations as "passive-aggressive" behavior and said she was happy to see that had not created a "crisis" in the old sense of the term in Turkey.

Comments on the resignations of generals...

Ümit Cizre, professor from the Ankara-based Bilkent University, who specializes in civilian-military relations, told Sunday's Zaman that this year's YAŞ meeting brought two fundamental issues into the limelight. "For one thing, the latest crisis was managed by the chief of General Staff, the prime minister and the president, indicating that it was a supra-governmental issue. However, as a bureaucratic institution, the TSK is affiliated with the Defense Ministry. This is ironic," she explained.

Cizre argued that the ministry should not be an extension of military headquarters. "It should conduct the national defense in a democratic manner. For this reason, its status within the public bureaucracy should be downgraded," she underlined. The second issue Cizre raised was that the format of the YAŞ meeting should also be changed, downgrading its status to "advisory committee." "In none of the other NATO countries do appointees have a right to vote. The civilians give the order and the military obeys the order," she said.

On the other hand, noting that the Defense Ministry is still weak under current laws, retired military judge Umit Kardaş says the autonomy of the General Staff still continues. "The General Staff should be attached to the Defense Ministry rather than to the office of the prime minister," he told Sunday's Zaman.

In addition to YAŞ, some experts point to the need to overhaul the MGK as well as the military justice system. Speaking to Sunday's Zaman, Faik Tarımcıoğlu, a former military prosecutor and judge and an ex-Motherland Party (then-ANAP, now ANAVATAN) deputy, underlined that the MGK, acting like a shadow government, must be restructured and that the Military High Court of Administration should be abolished.

According to Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in the United States, "The police force is thoroughly under the control of the (ruling party) and has been militarized over the last 10 years, and the opposition is weak and divided."

"This is effectively the end of the military's role in Turkish democracy," said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet. "This is the symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins."

"Besides this one act, the military doesn't really have that much left in the tank," said Steven Cook, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Mr. Cook argued that the resignations also said a great deal about Turkey as a democracy, because its citizens — even those who dislike Mr. Erdogan's increasingly powerful Justice and Development Party — were no longer willing to accept military rule.

In addition to these comments, "The days of Turkey's military calling the shots are over," said Cengiz Candar, a prominent columnist. "There's a new equation in the politics of the country, and anyone depending on the military to score points on a political issue has to forget about it."

"In the old times when the military and politicians could not get along, politicians used to be given notice and they would be forced to quit," Mehmet Barlas, a columnist, wrote in Sabah. "Now, the reverse is happening. It is not easy to get used to change."

As Seth J. Frantzman emphasizes in his article, Behlul Ozkan, a lecturer at Marmara University in Istanbul claimed in Al Jazeera that "for the first time in Turkish history, top military commanders decided to quit their positions rather than seizing power and deposing the elected government."

Claire Berlinski focuses on the missing question: "But the missing and most important question is this: Who exactly is running the military now? Because the idea that one military commander is the same as any other is kind of a historically famous mistake"

"It is a turning point in relations between the military and politics, a sharp turning point," said Murat Yetkin, the editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, though he added it was too soon to declare the end of the army's role in politics.

Additionally; according to Hurriyet Daily Newspaper, Friday's mass resignation is a clear sign of the "definitive impact of the June elections on relations between the government and the army," columnist Derya Sazak wrote in the daily Milliyet on Saturday. "This crisis is the inevitable result of the power struggle between the army and the government that has been ongoing since 2007," Sazak said.

"The period of coups (in Turkey) is coming to an end... Turkey is proceeding toward democracy and bringing an end to military guardianship," wrote Ahmet Altan.

The reaction of U.S. and "New" Turkey

As Christopher Torchia quoted, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he expected an "orderly transition" following the military resignations in Turkey. Speaking to reporters traveling in Afghanistan with him, Adm. Mullen said the U.S. and Turkish armed forces have enjoyed a strong and critical relationship."I've seen no indication in any of this that the [military] relationship has been affected by this at all," he said.

On the contrary of Mike Mullen's explanations, Michael Rubin is worried about Turkey's future: "While some diplomats may cheer the end of the Turkish military's effective political influence at home, the fall of the Turkish military should worry Washington for quite a different reason: If Erdoğan erodes the independence of the military and, through purges and promotions, makes it a reflection of his own ideology, then all sharing of technology and techniques with the Turkish military can theoretically put U.S. national security at risk. I have written here both about NATO concerns about Turkey's dealings with Russia and China, as well as about concerns that Turkey might provide Iran or China with access to the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the backbone of American air defense for a generation to come."

Additionally, Claire Berlinski makes comparison between Isik Kosaner and Necdet Ozel and put his discomfort into words:

"The guys who resigned are the ones who have for years been planning for combat; they're deeply immersed in the details of intelligence, operations, organization, training and logistics. They coordinate with other NATO member states and probably have some important numbers on their cellphones. The military's also responsible for disaster relief (as in, for example, an earthquake--an ever-present possibility in Turkey). Turkey runs one of the largest combat air fleets in NATO. The Navy is heavily involved in NATO, multinational, and UN operations; its roles include control of territorial waters and security for sea lines of communications. The Turkish Navy is key to global anti-piracy operations and to ensuring maritime security in the Gulf of Aden. It's part of the International Security Assistance Force Operation in Afghanistan. Above all--amazing that I should have to point this out--Turkey borders Syria, Iran and Iraq. You can't play amateur-hour with neighbors like that, you just can't.

In 1992, Kosaner was promoted to Brigadier General. He served as the Head of Logistics Planning Department of the Turkish Land Forces and then commanded 1st Commando Brigade. In 1996, he was promoted to Major General and served as the Commander of Military Academy. After his promotion to Lieutenant General in 2000, he served as Undersecretary of Ministry of Defense and Commander of Turkish Peace Forces in Cyprus.

As a General, he served as the Commander of Aegean Army between 2004-2005, Deputy Chief of the Turkish General Staff between 2005-2006, Commander of Gendarmerie between 2006-2008 and Commander of the Land Forces between 2008-2010. He was appointed as Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) as of August 30, 2010.

Obviously a well-qualified man. Four hours after his resignation--more than enough time for serious multi-party consultations and thoughtful reflection on the needs of the service, I'm sure--Necdet Özel replaced him. Özel has never served in NATO or received any training in the United States. There is nothing particularly wrong with him--he was expected to replace Koşaner anyway, in 2013--and he appears to be a dedicated, professional soldier. But his main job since 1995? He's been in charge of the gendarmerie. Does he have the numbers of the other key heads of the NATO command on his cellphone? Has he met them in person? Has he ever taken part in a war game? One assumes, since he's apparently marvelously untainted with charges of coup-plotting, that he has limited experience of war games."

As we can see, while some people see this process as a development in democratization way, the others are very worried about the future of Turkey and Turkish military.

Here, giving an ear to Soli Ozel can be very helpful in order to define this transition process correctly. Are these resignations really the means/signs for the end of militarization era in Turkey or is this an elimination and replacement process in Turkish military?:

"At the turn of the 21st century, given Turkey's socioeconomic developments and a political transformation that was greatly aided by the EU accession process, such a system could not continue. Nor could the military retain the privilege of having the last say in matters political and at the same time continue in its position as insubordinate to civilian authorities. In an age when the accountability of all institutions is of primary importance, the military could not be above the law and scrutiny either.


At a different level of analysis, what we are witnessing is the restructuring of the Turkish military according to the needs and realities of a more modern, economically globalizing, and urban Turkey. The days of the national security state and the inwardly oriented, ideological army that sustains it are over. The next Turkish military will have to be a more professional body that will remain ideologically neutral and politically impartial, as befits a rising "trading state," as Kemal Kirişci calls it, and be more in tune with the new international security environments.


So the elimination of a large number of officers, some guilty as charged and others caught in the web of revanchism or prosecutorial zeal, is a function of the third restructuring. The army of the future therefore will be lighter, more in tune with the international security environment and probably will transform itself into a professional, mainly apolitical corps.


Therefore it should be appropriate to see the symbolically potent resignation of the top commanders as the final stage of the demilitarization and civilianization of the Turkish polity. Henceforth the supremacy of the civilian authority will not be questioned and the new constitution that will be drafted by the current parliament will reflect this new balance of power. Whether the civilian forces in Turkey will manage to deepen the democratic credentials of the polity is the more pressing question today."

End of the First Republic?

As we mentioned above, "this is the symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins." says Asli Aydintasbas.

Yavuz Baydar takes in hand this issue very broadly:

"To suggest that we have finally put the last nail in the coffin of the First Republic is such mythmaking. Such a declaration is hasty and premature. Earlier, when law enforcement started to arrest high and mid-ranking officers in connection with Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and the "dirty war" (in the Kurdish Southeast) trials, again, some left-leaning commentators were in joy to declare "the end of tutelage." They were also wrong.

What about the First Republic? Here we have a diversity of opinions. While some see continuity in the entire period from 1923 -- the foundation of the secular republic -- until now, others, including myself, see sharp disruptions in the coups (and consequently, vertical enforcement of the constitutions) of 1960 and 1980. So sharp, in fact, that we can easily call the last period -- the period from 1980 until today -- the Third Republic. But this is certainly open to discussion.

Nevertheless, at the end of July we neither ended the First nor the Third Republic. It simply does not end when a group of top generals, in dramatic fashion, ask for their retirement and resign. The simple fact of the matter is, Turkey is still ruled by a military-dictated, straitjacket-like Constitution that promotes an outdated ideology, poisonous nationalism, protection of the state against the citizen, restricted freedom for individuals, communities, minorities and institutions and tutelage mainly in favor of the military.

So, the demilitarization of politics has to be completed with a new social contract. Until the Turkish Parliament and -- eventually -- its people decide on a new constitution, we are still part of the First or Third Republic, depending on how you see it."


As you can see, many commentators evaluate this process as a victory of civil authority. Resignations of four top generals are the last steps in this struggle for some people. But, here, we should be careful if we want to explain changing global powers. In the "new" political scene, there are no seats available for dictators or fanatics. They are replaced by more liberal ones. In this way, super-global powers try to reproduce their regimes and systems because these changing pictures are not independent from global powers or global political theories. I read the resignations of top generals from this context. In my opinion, this is an elimination of dictators and replacement process with more liberals rather than a victory of civil authority over military tutelage.

As we mentioned in the past, Ertugrul Aydin, from World Bulletin, mentions the changing structure of secularism in Turkey and in the world in his article, entitled "What is the Future of Laïcité in Turkey?": "With the imposition of liberal values, Turkish laicism is in transition period from French version to Anglo-Saxon secularism. Legal pluralism was among the hot topics before years when there was no official party willing to listen. But with a more powerful civil society actors operating in a flexible secular political environment, supported by the private capital and an official party willing to listen the demands for legal pluralism, the debate may end up with legal pluralism while still saving the secular character of the Turkish state."

As I said above, the victory of the civil authority in this power struggle between Turkish army/militarist establishment and AKP/liberal democrat establishment is not independent from the changing structure of secularism in Turkey or in the world. So, we should read all these issues very carefully.


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