Retiring Generals in Turkey have Many Looking for What Comes Next


Isik Kosaner (Photo: NATO)

By Matthew Brunwasser

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The Turkish military is the self-appointed guardian of Turkey's secular tradition. In that role, military leaders staged coups and presided over the writing of the constitution in the early 1980s. But while the generals' resignations were dramatic, analysts in Istanbul say they're not a big deal, more like a last gasp.

"The sealing of a reality that's been around for some time, to change and to diminish the role of the military in politics," said Soli Ozel, the foreign editor of the Haberturk newspaper. "It's a reflection of Turkey's changing, demographic, socioeconomic condition and a civilian government that would not accept the authority of the military above its own."

The gathering this weekend was the military's annual meeting to decide on promotions for the country's top leadership jobs — the heads of the joint chiefs of staff, the army, air force, and so on. It's long been a stage for the conflict between the civilian and military leadership.

In this case, with the generals' resignations, the ruling AKP won. Koray Ozdil is a sociologist at the Tesev think tank in Istanbul. He says that given the party's popularity, the military had to try something drastic.

"One idea is that they were trying to put the government in a difficult situation, but if they tried to do that, it was unsuccessful and had a reverse affect, in terms of making the government more powerful," Ozdil said.

The AKP hasn't been coy about its desire to separate the military from politics, ever since it took power eight years ago. The Prime Minister replaced the retiring head of the joint chiefs of staff within hours and the transition appeared smooth.

In terms of foreign policy, the military has been sidelined for quite some time. The one area where it has held sway has been in the country's strong historic ties with Israel. That, too, has been diminished by the AKP.

"So for the Israeli government, it will be more difficult to resist the justice and development party," said Ozdil.

Analysts say the political machinations over the weekend won't affect Turkey's role in NATO. But there is some concern about how the AKP might use its increased control of the military.

Dimitar Bechev, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, says that in general, civilian control over the military is a good thing.

"But if this means that the AKP is establishing its crony network and hegemony over the military and using the military as an instrument to silence its opponents in other political parties in the county, that would be a move in the opposite direction," he said.

It's still too early to see how the AKP leaves its mark on the military. But Ozel says the nations armed forces are at a crossroads. The Turkish military is a product of the cold war, a colossal force shaped by the obsession with national security. Turkey is now a trading nation and a rising regional power in a globalized world.

"But it needs a light, mobile, technologically advanced, possibly professional voluntary military which is where we are going to end up being," said Ozel.

The supreme military council is expected to last until Thursday.