Turkish meeting shows who is in charge

August 1, 2011 - 10:58 AM
Turkey Military

Gen. Necdet Ozel, Turkey's newly appointed Land Forces Commander and acting Chief of Staff, fifth from left in back, attends a key military council meeting chaired by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, third from right, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Aug. 1, 2011. Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force suddenly resigned Friday, July 29 to protest the arrest of dozens of generals as suspects in an alleged plot to overthrow the country's Islamic-rooted government. Many have questioned whether such a plot ever existed and see the arrests as part of Erdogan's long-standing campaign to establish civilian authority over Turkey's once powerful military. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

ISTANBUL (AP) — In 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat beside the armed forces chief at an annual meeting to decide on appointments in the military command. On Monday, 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 a government with strong electoral support.

The body language said the same thing, too. Journalists were briefly allowed into the meeting room at military headquarters in the capital, Ankara, and 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 Erdogan since 2003. Turks recall a 2001 meeting in which the president lobbed a copy of the constitution at 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 hundreds of retired and active-duty military officers in alleged coup plots. Some observers feared 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 closed on Friday, suggesting they were wanted to avoid inflicting financial chaos on the country in case the currency plunged. The Turkish lira dropped, but it was trading flat on Monday.

Erdogan's roots in political Islam have alarmed hardline secularists in the military and other institutions, and some Turks fear he is backtracking on reform pledges despite the electoral triumphs of his ruling party and vows to draft a new, more democratic constitution.

The opposition Republican People's Party, which is associated with Turkey's old, secular guard, has said the military should stay in the barracks but accused the government of seeking to "defame and 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 on Monday will appoint new commanders, and Gen. Necdet Ozel, until recently the military police commander, was poised to fill the vacuum by becoming the new chief of staff.

Ozel, appointed as army commander on Friday, is also 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 is 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 destabilize the government.

Tasdeler's appearance at the meeting with 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 to prosecutors without resistance.

The Turkish military is involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan and Libya, though it is not directly involved in combat. It is also fighting Kurdish rebels concentrated in southeastern Turkey, where militants on Monday killed three soldiers and wounded four others in an attack on a military vehicle in Van province.

Rebels affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, have killed more than 20 Turkish soldiers in intensified attacks over the past two weeks in their campaign for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

Meanwhile, 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, Mullen said the U.S. and Turkish armed forces have enjoyed a strong and critical relationship, noting: "I've seen no indication in any of this that the (military) relationship has been affected by this at all."

Stratfor, a U.S.-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 Monday, Erdogan also showed solidarity with the generals, accompanying them on a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of national founder 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, walked ahead, no companion at his side.

The generals trailed behind.

___

Selcan Hacaoglu contributed from Ankara, Turkey.