Turkey's military and political leaders face a battle to restore order in NATO's second-biggest army. (UMIT BEKTAS/REUTERS)

Turkey’s civilian leaders prepared to use an unprecedented opportunity this week to choose generals they trust after the country’s top military commanders resigned in protest over the detention of comrades facing coup conspiracy charges.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan convened the Supreme Military Council as scheduled on Monday despite the presence of only nine of the 14 generals who would normally attend the twice-yearly meeting to decide key promotions in NATO’s second-largest armed force. The meeting will run four days.

Long-running strains between the secularist military and the ruling Justice and Development Party, which has Islamist roots, boiled over Friday when Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner stepped down, along with the army, navy and air force commanders, to take early retirement.

The fifth general missing from Monday’s meeting was one of about 250 officers now jailed on charges linked to various alleged anti-government plots dating back to 2003.

The resignations will enable Erdogan to consolidate control over a once-omnipotent military that has staged a series of coups since 1960 but whose power has been curbed by European Union-backed reforms since it pushed an Islamist-led government out of power in 1997.

At the heart of the matter is the alleged “Sledgehammer” plot, based on events at a 2003 military seminar. Officers say that evidence against them has been fabricated and that allegations of a coup plot arose from a mere war games exercise.

Chairing Monday’s meeting, Erdogan sat alone at the head of the table, where normally he would sit beside the chief of staff. Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz also attended.

Erdogan moved quickly after the retirements to designate the gendarmerie chief, Gen. Necdet Ozel, as acting chief of general staff. Ozel, who has been portrayed positively as a constitutionalist in pro-government media, is not expected to be confirmed as the overall commander until key promotions are announced Thursday.

Erdogan later joined the generals in a traditional visit to the mausoleum of soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, high on a hill above the capital.

The army has hitherto regarded itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s secularist vision for a republic he established in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

After laying a wreath at Ataturk’s tomb, Erdogan wrote in the mausoleum visitors’ book: “Our armed forces are making a major advance in their defense duties and through improving their vision.”

— Reuters