A biannual meeting of leading Turkish political and military officials seems to be turning into a test of strength.
The biannual Supreme Military Council, or YAS, meetings are usually relatively uneventful, with senior government ministers sitting down with top generals to agree on military promotions. This time, however, the meeting, due to run from August 1-4, has been overshadowed by the fact that, on July 23, an Istanbul court issued arrest warrants for 102 serving officers, including nine generals who were up for promotion.
The nine were accused of participating in a meeting at military headquarters in Istanbul in 2003 in which plans to topple the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government were allegedly debated. The military denies that the plot, which prosecutors say was code-named Sledgehammer, ever existed. Military officials assert that plans to plant bombs in crowded mosques and crash fighter planes were part of a war-game. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The arrest of scores of other military officers as part of a three-year long investigation into another alleged coup plot has polarized the country, with many secular-minded Turks convinced the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is twisting the law to undermine its chief ideological opponents. The timing of the 'Sledgehammer' arrests added to those fears. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
For weeks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been telling sympathetic journalists how uneasy he was at the thought of the alleged Sledgehammer generals being promoted, even hinting that he would block their promotions at the YAS meeting.
But on August 1, a compromise solution, apparently designed to ease AKP-military tension, began to take shape. The main feature of the compromise was a provision to extend the terms of the nine generals in question for another year, instead of promoting them.
In the eyes of government critics, recent events have raised questions about the judiciary’s subservience to the government’s will. The Istanbul court issued arrest warrants late on a Friday evening, just hours after a military spokesman had told journalists that the only way to stop officers being promoted was to issue arrest warrants against them. "Couldn't they find another day," asked Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Action Party, on July 24. "Why do you have to choose a day immediately before the YAS decisions?"
Since coup investigations swung into action in 2007, government officials have always insisted that prosecutors were acting independently. Skeptical observers say that pressure isn't just coming from the government, but from the army too.
That is how political analyst Gulay Gokturk interprets the unscheduled meeting General Ilker Basbug, due to retire in August, called with Prime Minister Erdogan late on 25 July. Immediately after the meeting, Turkey's Justice Minister cut short a visit to the southern province of Hatay to return to Ankara. "Roughly a tenth of the army's generals are accused of coup-plotting," Gokturk said. "Instead of trying to understand why that is the case, Basbug seems to be doing everything he can to ensure his colleagues stay out of jail."
Not one of the 102 men with warrants against them has yet been arrested, despite the fact that another Istanbul court on July 30 threw out the appeals of 17 of them against their arrest warrants.
On July 27, Turkey's Interior Minister Bekir Atalay sat next to one of the nine wanted generals at an official ceremony in Hatay, publicly exhorting him to "clear out" armed Kurdish militants believed to be active in the surrounding mountains. "Respecting the decision of the courts is the job of the Turkish Armed Forces", Atalay told journalists later.
Another wanted general, meanwhile, issued a statement in which he described the arrest warrant against him as "illegal," warning that he would arrest military officers sent to arrest him.
"This is an unprecedented situation, and potentially very messy," says Wolfango Piccoli, Europe and Eurasia analyst for Eurasia Group, a leading political risk consultancy. "Can these men be promoted, or can they not, and what happens if they do get promoted? The military provisions framing all this are very badly worded: there is plenty of room for maneuver."
Gulay Gokturk thinks that following the July 25 meeting between General Basbug and Prime Minister Erdogan, both sides have probably agreed to compromise. Bending the law to ensure a reduction of tension has characterized the two sides since 2005, when the government sacked a prosecutor investigating military intelligence involvement in a grenade attack on a Kurdish bookshop.
This time, however, the AKP government is under heavy pressure from its supporting media not to permit any of the accused officers to be promoted at YAS. The commonest argument used is that it could undermine the AKP's efforts to get reforms of the constitution aimed at changing the judicial system past a referendum due on September 12.
"Will the government ignore these coup plans," asks Huseyin Gulerce, a prominent columnist for Zaman, Turkey's biggest-selling newspaper and a mouthpiece for the powerful Fethullah Gulen Movement. "The appearance of a government which has bowed its neck to the military will have a very negative effect on the AK Party's referendum."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.