For Turkish military, a telling change of tactics

July 30, 2011

Turkey awoke to a new era Saturday, one in which military generals irked by their government’s behavior don’t stage a coup or throw a tantrum — they seek early retirement.

The decision by the top four figures in the military establishment to step down Friday stunned many in a country long accustomed to its military calling the shots. But as the dust settled, the realization dawned that the dramatic move was just one more step in the erosion of the military’s power in favor of civilian government that has taken place under the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Yesterday was a new phase, a sharp curve toward pushing the military to adapt to the current changes in Turkey,” said Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for Today”s Zaman newspaper. “It shows how toothless the military has become compared to the civilian authority.”

Turkish President Abdullah Gul sought to play down any sense of crisis in comments to reporters on Saturday.

“Nobody should see this as a continuing crisis or problem in Turkey,” he said, according to the semi-official Anatolian news agency. “Without a doubt, the events of yesterday were extraordinary in their own right, but it is all back on track. It is not right to speak of a vacuum.”

Nevertheless, “it was a watershed,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “This was the day the military threw in the towel.”

The resignations were prompted by disagreements between the military and the government over who would be eligible for promotion at Monday’s annual meeting of the High Military Council, at which military officials meet with government representatives to review appointments in the armed forces.

Erdogan had made it clear he was not prepared to consider candidates implicated in ongoing investigations in which about 250 soldiers and officers are awaiting trial for allegedly plotting coups.

Three of the men who responded by resigning — the commanders of the air force, army and navy — had been due to retire in a month in any case. Erdogan swiftly named Gen. Necdet Ozel to replace the most senior of the four, General Chief of Staff Isik Kosaner, in an acting capacity and as commander of ground forces.

That the generals chose to bow out rather than dig in signaled the enormity of the shift away from military dominance that has taken place over the past decade, Barkey said.

“In the old days, the military would warn and threaten and wave a big stick. They can't do it any more,” he said. “In America and most European societies, the whole promotion process is supervised by civilians. Turkey is now like any other country where if you disagree with your bosses, you resign.”

Some expressed concern that the military’s stature is being eroded too far, too fast, by the judicial pursuit of those implicated in the coup plot. Secularists in particular are worried that Erdogan’s efforts to defang the military presage a creeping Islamization of society under the auspices of his moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party.

“Casting a shadow over the military, slandering it and thereby damaging its esteem does not serve our nation. These types of efforts will pull the military into active politics,” said Emine Ulker Tarhan, a senior official with the Republican People's Party, the main secularist opposition party in Turkey’s parliament.

The resignation of the generals, she said, “points to a serious disconnect between government bodies.”

But Erdogan’s resounding electoral victory in June, when he won an unprecedented third term with 50 percent of the vote, seemed to indicate that most Turks support the transition underway.

On Saturday, Erdogan vowed to press ahead with changes to the constitution that will further institutionalize civilian authority over the military.

“Turkey cannot continue on its path with a constitution that was written at a time when democracy was suspended,” Erdogan said in a televised address to the nation, referring to the 1982 charter drawn up by Turkey’s generals at a time when their power was unchecked.

Tuysuz is a special correspondent. Sly reported from Beirut.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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