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Turkey: Twelve senior officers jailed on suspicion of coup conspiracy

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 24 February 2010
Cite as EurasiaNet, Turkey: Twelve senior officers jailed on suspicion of coup conspiracy, 24 February 2010, available at: [accessed 24 November 2017]
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Nicholas Birch: 2/24/10

Turkish authorities on February 24 jailed 12 senior military officers, both active-duty and retired, on suspicion of plotting a coup. The jailings offer the clearest sign yet of the rapidly declining political influence of the Turkish military, which has overthrown four governments since 1960.

The jailed men were among 49 commanders – including 17 retired generals and three active-duty admirals – detained on February 22 in the biggest crackdown on the military in the 87-year history of the Turkish Republic.

Police arrested the officers on suspicion of plotting in 2003 to blow up mosques during Friday prayers and stir up tensions with neighboring Greece in an effort to discredit the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Details of the plot, code-named "Sledgehammer," were published last month by Taraf, a controversial daily that has revealed numerous alleged coup plots against the AKP since the publication first appeared in 2007.

The military says the allegations are part of a deliberate campaign to discredit it, and insists the documents published by Taraf were part of a war-game played out during a seminar in an Istanbul barracks in March 2003, and not a real plot.

On February 23, Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug called top generals and admirals to Ankara for an emergency meeting, sparking speculation in the Turkish press that the military might be on the verge of intervening. Instead, it contented itself with a brief statement, posted on its website after the meeting, stating that it was closely following what it described as a "serious situation."

It was a muted response from a body that, back in 1997, used constitutional articles charging it with guarding Turkey's secular structure to justify forcing AKP's Islamist predecessor out of power. But a lot has changed in Turkey over the past 13 years. For a start, reforms Turkey pushed through after 1999 to ensure a start to European Union accession proceedings have loosened the military's grip on policy making.

Another major change is implicit in the timing of "Sledgehammer." According to documents published by Taraf, the officers now under arrest met to discuss the alleged coup plans from March 5-7, 2003, less than a week after Turkey's parliament refused to give permission to US troops to use Turkey as a base for an attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Turkey's failure to back the war effort severely damaged its 50-year strategic relationship with the United States, born out of Turkey's military role as guardian of NATO's southeastern flank during the Cold War. As the then-US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made clear in a television interview in May 2003, it was the Turkish military, not the AKP government, that hawks in the Bush administration were angry with. "I think it is perfectly appropriate, especially in your system, for the military to say it was in Turkey's interest to support the United States in that effort," Wolfowitz told the private Turkish news channel CNN-Turk. "My impression is they didn't say it with the kind of strength that would have made a difference."

Viewed with growing skepticism in Washington, the Turkish military dealt its prestige another blow in April 2007, when it posted a message on its website implicitly threatening intervention, if the AKP insisted on selecting a presidential candidate married to a woman who covered her head.

The so-called "midnight memorandum" served to hasten early elections. But the AKP won them with one of the biggest landslides in Turkish history, its votes boosted by up to 10 percent by public anger over military meddling. Emboldened by its victory, the AKP promptly voted for the very presidential candidate the army disapproved of.

Turkey's military-guarded democratic system "was abolished by popular vote" in August 2007, columnist Haluk Sahin wrote February 24 in the daily Radikal. "With those elections, the Republic we know came to an end ... and this week's mass arrests confirm that picture."

The question is what comes next. Pro-government analysts and some liberals have compared the growing clout of Turkey's civilian authorities to the passage from dictatorship to democracy in Portugal, Spain and Greece in the 1970s and 80s.

The head of Turkey's secularist chief opposition party, meanwhile, compared the AKP and prosecutors responsible for arresting the officers to Ottoman officials who collaborated with a British-led army of occupation after the First World War. "When you look at Turkey today, it is as if the country has ... fallen under foreign occupation," Deniz Baykal said on February 23. "They are trying to transform this country by tarring people with invented crimes."

The AKP continues to insist that it is working to bring more democracy to Turkey. The recent comments of some of its senior members suggest otherwise. "If we stumble, these [coup-plotters] will take terrible revenge on us," AKP deputy Avni Dogan told television cameras in mid-February, referring to Sledgehammer. "For 40 years, they have kept files on us. Now, it is our turn to keep files on them."

What made Dogan's comments so controversial was that they came amid growing media debate about the indiscriminate use of phone-tapping. Last December, the telephone conversations of several top Turkish judges appeared on the web. On February 19, another website broadcast the private conversations of Ilker Basbug, Turkey's Chief of Staff.

When Taraf broke the Sledgehammer story in January, likewise, it published transcripts of private conversations between senior officers who were allegedly part of the plot. For analysts who remember the way the military used and abused its powers of intelligence gathering to unseat an Islamist government in 1997, there is a faint sense of deja-vu about present-day events.

The difference is that today it is not military intelligence which appears to be setting the agenda.

Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

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