Erdogan rubs in his supremacy over Turkish military's top brass

The power shift alarms secularists, as Turkish PM asserts his control at annual meeting to decide on appointments in the military command, amid claims that he wants to discredit the military
Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, was imperious at the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara yesterday. Adem Altan / AFP
Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, was imperious at the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara yesterday. Adem Altan / AFP

ISTANBUL // In 2010, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, sat beside the armed forces chief at an annual meeting to decide on appointments in the military command. Yesterday, 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.

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 the government.

The body language said the same. Journalists were briefly allowed into the meeting room at military headquarters in the capital, Ankara, and Mr Erdogan sat with his fists on the table while the generals flanking him kept their hands below and out of sight.

The emphatic imagery helped settle the public mood in Turkey, where an earlier era of instability dwells in the national psyche, despite political reforms and major economic and diplomatic advances under Mr Erdogan since 2003. Turks recall a 2001 meeting in which the president lobbed a copy of the constitution at Mr Erdogan's predecessor during a quarrel, spooking the markets amid a financial crisis.

On Friday, the nation's top four military commanders, including the chief of staff, resigned in protest against the arrest and prosecution in the past few years of several retired and active-duty military officers in alleged coup plots. Some observers had feared that Turkey was on the brink of a new crisis, but in removing themselves from the scene, the commanders effectively yielded to the government.

It was notable that the top brass announced their exit after the markets had closed on Friday, suggesting they wanted to avoid probable financial chaos in the country. While the Turkish lira's value dropped, it was trading flat yesterday.

Mr Erdogan's roots in political Islam have alarmed secularists in the military and other institutions. Some Turks fear he has backtracked on reform pledges, despite the electoral triumphs of his ruling party and vows to draft a democratic constitution.

The opposition Republican People's Party, which is associated with Turkey's secularist tradition, has said the military should stay in the barracks, but accused the government of seeking to "discredit" the armed forces, and manipulating the judiciary for political ends.

The prime minister, who has presided over an extraordinary surge in Turkey's international profile, has handled the military upheaval with the same forceful style. The military council meeting that he chaired yesterday will appoint new commanders, and Gen Necdet Ozel, until recently the military police commander, had been poised to fill the vacuum by becoming the new chief of staff.

Gen Ozel, appointed as army commander on Friday, had been the acting chief of staff. The seats of chief of staff of the navy, air force and military police are also vacant. The appointments process, which could include dismissals or trigger more protest resignations, was expected to take several days.

One of the commanders at the meeting has been ensnared in the coup plot investigations. Turkish prosecutors on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Gen Nusret Tasdeler, army head in the Aegean Sea region, along with 21 other suspects, including six more generals, in an alleged internet campaign to destabilise the government.

Gen Tasdeler's appearance at the meeting with Mr Erdogan suggested he was in a defiant mood, or felt that he had done nothing wrong, though other implicated generals have eventually turned themselves in without resistance.

The Turkish military has been involved in Nato operations in Afghanistan and Libya, but it is not directly involved in combat. It is also fighting Kurdish rebels concentrated in south-east Turkey.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday that he expected an "orderly transition" following the military resignations in Turkey.

Speaking to reporters travelling in Afghanistan with him, Admiral Mullen said the US and Turkish armed forces had enjoyed a strong and critical relationship, noting that he had seen "no indication" that the military relationship has been affected by the resignations.

Stratfor, a US-based analysis group, said in a report that "a norm of accepting civilian supremacy over the military is beginning to take root", but predicted that the military would likely continue to press its views on national security issues, and that the ruling party would acquiesce for now.

On a day of symbolism yesterday, Mr Erdogan also showed solidarity with the generals, accompanying them on a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of the man who founded modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former army officer and war hero who replaced Islam, a pillar of Ottoman rule, with a state creed of secularism. The prime minister, in a blue suit and sunglasses, had walked ahead, no companion at his side.

The generals trailed behind.

Published: August 2, 2011 04:00 AM

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