Democratic control of the Turkish Armed Forces

It was long overdue. At last, this government, in the eighth year of its rule, stood firm against the futile attempt of generals and admirals to promote military officers who were allegedly involved in grave crimes such as attempting to overthrow a democratically elected administration in a NATO-member country by targeting minorities.

To the relief of many, none of the generals who were accused of crimes in a court indictment and faced bench warrants for their arrests were promoted to higher ranks. This was itself an important message to all the rank and file of the Turkish military that in the future any shady deals an officer might be tempted to be involved in will, in all likelihood, ruin his career.

The man who was in the middle of a high stakes poker game between the government and top brass is Gen. Hasan Iğsız, who was accused of masterminding an Internet smear campaign against the ruling government. He ordered setting up bogus web sites targeting the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He had done all this with taxpayers’ money.

The allegations were unearthed when an anonymous whistleblower sent a letter to the media that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had set up 42 websites as part of their propaganda campaign against “dangerous” civilian groups, which were categorized as “reactionary,” “separatist,” “pro-AK Party” and “anti-TSK.” The armed forces also monitored the activities of more than 400 Turkish and foreign language websites.

The plan was devised by the General Staff’s Third Information Support Unit by a number of colonels and was coordinated by then Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Hasan Iğsız, according to the officer. Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ was also reportedly informed about the plan. Some of these web sites were active as late as 2009.

The smear campaign was not denied by the TSK and in fact acknowledged by Brig. Gen. Hıfzı Çubuklu, the General Staff’s legal adviser, who said the websites had been established following directives from the Prime Ministry in 2000, when the government was led by a coalition under former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. There was no such directive, however, according to Prime Ministry archives. Now prosecutors are seeking his testimony in an ongoing investigation into this matter.

The prime minister, who was the prime target in this campaign, understandably made it clear at the outset of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting that he wanted Iğsız gone and asked the council to deny Iğsız a promotion to the next post as land forces commander. He was unequivocally blunt in saying that he would not sign off on a decision to promote him, and, in fact, he did not approve a decision to that effect on Wednesday night. Outgoing Chief of General Staff Gen. Başbuğ, who was persistent on promoting Iğsız to the position of land forces commander, threatened the government with his resignation along with other force commanders.

The government called Başbuğ’s bluff and dared him to resign prematurely before his term expires at the end of month. The only man who offered his resignation was Gendarmerie General Commander Gen. Atilla Işık, whose name was circulated as a potential nominee for the land forces command post. There are plenty of candidates to fill the vacant posts in case of individual or collective resignations, and this might even make the government look better in the eyes of the public. After all, the decision and final authority to approve top generals in the military rests with the civilian government and the president. The top military brass’ appointment list is ultimately only a suggestion.

Part of the problem in this country is that no civilian government dared to challenge YAŞ recommendations, with the exception of two individual cases under a different set of conditions. It has long been a tradition that top commanders determine the upper echelons of the military and the civilian body merely rubberstamps it without any objections. Against the backdrop of heavy charges leveled against some high-ranking generals, the current government has, for the first time, decided to invoke the rights granted to it by the law.

I think it was the right decision as the government is sworn in to serve the 72 million citizens of this country. If some of these generals had attempted to overthrow the political body that was elected by the clear will of the public and were promoted nonetheless, the government would be in dereliction of its duty to protect its citizens’ rights. What we saw during the YAŞ proceedings is that the military is finally coming into submission to the civilian authority and democratic control, which should have been done a long time ago.

The main disagreement in the current debacle ultimately boils down to the fate of over 100 active duty and retired officers who are facing arrest in the investigation of the Sledgehammer coup plan, as part of which plotters targeted minorities and non-Muslim communities to wreak havoc in the country. The TSK is providing shelter to these suspects and refuses to turn them over to the police. What will happen to these officers when new appointments to the upper echelons are made is at the top of the agenda. Başbuğ wants some kind of deal to save these officers, creating a line of defense in case the investigation and evidence eventually does lead to him.

But times have changed. Prosecutors and judges in this country are not afraid to take independent action to follow the trail of evidence to the very end. The government has no authority to shut down the investigation or order prosecutors to stop digging into illegal military activities. Nobody is above the law and no institution should act with impunity. I think we are finally about to secure the democratic control of the TSK not only in theory, but in practice as well.

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