Turkish Military Chiefs Resign

Losing one of our most important allies to Islamism.

Turkey’s military has been the guardian of the country’s secular identity, making it the strongest challenger to the Islamist agenda of Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling party. The government has asserted its authority over the military by arresting some of its top officials for allegedly planning a 2003 coup, prompting the top chiefs to resign in protest. The West can only watch as it incrementally loses one of its most important allies to Islamism.

The arrests of 22 more people for allegedly conspiring to destabilize the government, including generals, were the breaking point for the military leadership. The Chief of the General Staff, who resigned along with the commanders of the army, navy and air force, accused the Erdogan government of trying to make the military look like a criminal organization. The military has lost the trust of 15 percent of the population since 2008, though three-fourths say they still trust it.

The Turkish government has imprisoned 17 generals and admirals and almost 200 officers for supposedly orchestrating a coup in 2003. Among those arrested are top officials, such as the former commander of the 1st Army and former leaders of the air force, navy and special forces. The government claims that the conspirators were going to bomb mosques, provoke war by tricking the Greeks into downing a military plane, and then use the chaos to seize control of the country. The Erdogan government denies that the prosecutions are politically-motivated. This latest rift brings the tension between the military and the government to a whole new level. One Turkish columnist said, “This is the symbolic moment where the first Turkish republic ends and the second republic begins.”

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a major victory in September 2010 when the population approved 26 constitutional amendments. The civilian courts were given authority over the High Military Courts and the ability to try military officers, while stripping military courts of the ability to try civilians. The parliament, dominated by the AKP, now selects who sits on the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges, whereas before it operated independently.

In June, the AKP scored a decisive victory in the parliamentary elections. It did not achieve the two-thirds majority that would allow it to unilaterally draft and approve a constitution, but it only needs to win a miniscule number of votes in parliament to submit a draft constitution for a referendum. Dr. Daniel Pipes reacted by writing, “Elections taking place today are likely to be the last fair and free ones in Turkey. With Turkey’s leading Islamist party controlling all three branches of the government and the military sidelined, little will stop it from changing the rules to keep power into the indefinite future.”

Turkish officials say that the government is preparing to remove Article 35 from the next constitution that states the military’s duty is “to preserve and protect the Republic of Turkey.” This has been used to justify military coups in the past. The government is also going to significantly reform the military. The general staff will be overseen by the Defense Ministry, if the next constitution passes. Military promotions will not be based on length of surface, but on performance. This gives ruling officials more flexibility in advancing loyalists through the ranks. The Military High Administrative Court and Military Supreme Court of Appeals will be eliminated, and various other changes will be made.

Erdogan is also undermining opponents besides the military. Over 400 people have been arrested for allegedly trying to undermine the government, including professors, journalists and politicians. Eight newly-elected members of parliament are in jail. At least 57 journalists are in jail. Thousands of websites have been closed or blocked, many without explanation, and an Internet filter is being introduced this month (which the government says will only be used voluntarily). The AKP has bought up to 40 percent of the country’s media.

Erdogan has also taken advantage of a law against attacking an individual’s honor. He has sued a comedian, political cartoons, a liberal newspaper editor, journalists, and others who have dared criticize him. It is unknown how many lawsuits he has begun, but within two years of becoming Prime Minister, there were at least 57. In June, Erdogan announced that he was dropping all of his lawsuits against his critics, but the latest clash with the military indicates that he has not relented from trying to solidify AKP control over the country.

Turkey will forever change once the government submits a draft constitution for a referendum. If the AKP’s past electoral success is any indication, it will pass with flying colors. The Islamists ruling Turkey have the luxury of pursuing their agenda through the ballot box, and there is not much the West can do about it.