Turkey's military under pressure
The detention of 68 serving and retired members of the Turkish military on suspicion of plotting a coup in 2003 marks a shift in the balance of power in Turkey, reports Gareth Jenkins from Istanbul
Last week, 68 serving and retired Turkish officers, including 24 generals and admirals, were taken into custody on suspicion of plotting a coup in 2003. It was the largest police operation against the military in Turkish history, and by week's end 35 officers were imprisoned pending trial.
Though the evidence against many of the officers appears flimsy at best -- and several of the accusations so bizarre as to beggar belief -- the fact that the police moved to detain so many members of an institution that was once widely regarded as being above the law is an indication of how rapidly the balance of power has shifted in Turkey.
The detentions were based on documents published in the fiercely anti-military daily Taraf on 21 January 2010, the newspaper claiming to have uncovered proof of a meeting in March 2003 at the Turkish First Army headquarters in Istanbul at which more than 160 members of the Turkish army, navy and air force -- including many high- ranking officers -- discussed staging a series of violent provocations to destabilise the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and create the conditions for a military seizure of power under a plan codenamed "Operation Sledgehammer".
According to Taraf, these violent provocations would have included goading the Greek Air Force into shooting down a Turkish war plane, bombing two Istanbul mosques in the hope of triggering a violent Islamist backlash, and demonstrating the danger of a religious uprising by staging public protests by military cadets and conscripts dressed as radical Islamists.
Taraf also claimed that, had the coup succeeded and the officers taken power, the military would have set up a puppet government, closed the Turkish economy to the rest of the world -- including by introducing strict controls on the flow of foreign exchange -- and appointed a member of the armed forces to the board of every large firm and holding company in the country.
While the Turkish military has admitted that a meeting was held at the First Army headquarters in March 2003, it nevertheless insists that this was merely a routine training seminar. Some of the documents obtained by Taraf appear to be genuine, it says, but also states that they were only designed to serve as the basis for a war-gaming scenario similar to those carried out in other NATO countries on how the military could react to a national emergency and the collapse of the government.
It has vehemently denied any plans for a coup, and officers who attended the seminar have vigorously refuted the suggestion that any of the violent provocations detailed by Taraf were even discussed.
However, it is no secret that many members of the Turkish officer corps were deeply disturbed by the victory of the moderate Islamist AKP in the general election of 3 November 2002. It is also well- known that some hardliners in the high command were frustrated by the refusal of the then chief of staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, to be more assertive in his dealings with the AKP.
There is also evidence to suggest that some officers discussed forcing Ozkok into retirement and replacing him by someone willing to apply pressure on the AKP and prevent it from changing the often draconian official interpretation of secularism in Turkey.
However, there is no evidence that these hardliners ever considered a full-blown military coup. Indeed, one of the reasons for their frustration with Ozkok was because they knew that trying to browbeat the AKP into compliance with their wishes was ultimately the military's only option.
Yet, even if there is no evidence that the meeting described by Taraf occurred, it is not inconceivable that a small cabal of disgruntled and hitherto-unknown officers met and secretly discussed toppling the government. What is difficult to comprehend is how 160 such officers could do so relatively openly in the middle of a training seminar, particularly as the majority of the participants had been ordered to attend by their commanding officers.
Similarly, while it is possible that an individual could have been naïve enough to believe that a group of cadets and conscripts would have been able to pass themselves off as protesting Islamist radicals, despite the presence of television cameras and inquisitive Turkish journalists, it is difficult to believe that the idea could have been taken seriously by 160 trained officers, many of them in senior positions.
The same reservations apply to the other provocations detailed by Taraf. It would have been much simpler to bomb a government institution, for example, and then blame the Islamists, than target a mosque in the hope of triggering a violent backlash. All military officers also receive a basic education in economics, and they will be aware that the Turkish economy is now so dependent on imports and foreign capital inflows that closing it off to the outside world would result in its collapse.
Inevitably, the absurdity of many of the details published by Taraf have led opponents of the AKP to label both "Operation Sledgehammer" and the detention of so many military personnel as politically-motivated attempts to break the power of an institution that has long regarded itself as the ultimate guardian of secularism in Turkey.
Regardless of the validity of such claims, there is no doubt that last week's detentions and the military's inability to prevent them are further proof of a continuing shift in the balance of power in Turkey.