Operation Oraj: Pushing Turkey to the brink of war with Greece

There are numerous examples in modern history of how to provoke a war with an enemy by secretly plotting incidents that will create public uproar at home, giving legitimacy and the necessary backing to wage a bloody war on a neighboring country. Japan’s annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and attacking China six year later, Germany’s assault on Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Union’s (modern-day Russia) attack on Finland the same year were all carried out after so-called “false-flag” operations during which belligerent states had simply fabricated stories and in some cases killed their own nationals to justify a war.

It was only a decade ago when we were falsely led to believe that both US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were acting on “solid” intelligence reports about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It turned out major manipulation was at work to make the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The “usual suspect,” America, has a murky past in conducting clandestine operations in foreign countries, mostly through its intelligence agencies. The 1962 Operation Northwoods, a plot planned by the US Department of Defense to trigger a war with Cuba, was another classic example in the long list of illicit US affairs. Though the plan was not put into action following John F. Kennedy’s rejection of it, it nevertheless portrays the grim picture on how far nations and some groups are willing to go to get what they want.

The Northwoods plot, authored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, involved appalling scenarios such shooting down passenger and military planes, the harassment of US aircraft, the sinking of a US ship in the vicinity of Cuba, the burning of crops, the sinking of a boat filled with Cuban refugees, attacks by alleged Cuban infiltrators inside the US, and the destruction of aerial drones by aircraft disguised as Cuban MiGs. The ultimate aim was to lay the blame on Communist Cuba for these premeditated actions and provide a pretext for an invasion of Cuba.

Last year we discovered a Turkish version of Operation Northwoods with similarly unique twists: Operation Thunderstorm (Oraj) which was a sub-plot of the Sledgehammer military coup operation. The plot was uncovered by investigators during the execution of a search warrant at the Naval Intelligence Department located at Gölcük Naval Command, a major naval base located on the east coast of the Sea of Marmara. The plan sees an escalation of the crisis with Greece by provoking conflict in the air, at sea and on land borders. However, the ultimate target of the plan was not Greece but the Turkish government itself, which many Turkish generals very much despised. Bringing Turkey to the brink of war with Greece was a “means to an end” scenario to prepare the groundwork for an armed military intervention in Turkey.

The Oraj plan, dated February 2003, specifically asks for increased flights over the Aegean and orders commanding officers to instruct pilots to engage in harassment maneuvers with Greek fighter planes. It wants Turkish pilots to be more aggressive and even issues new engagement rules allowing pilots to take shots at Greek fighters, albeit unofficially. The plan suggests reorganizing the Special Fleet with a specific objective of placing a Turkish pilot to shoot down a Turkish jet in his own squadron in case all efforts to provoke a Greek fighter to destroy a Turkish jet fail. Fabricated stories would then be planted in the media, saying that Greece intentionally shot down a Turkish jet. The plotters hoped this would create a huge embarrassment for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

To accompany provocations in the air, both land and sea forces would also be instructed to engage in hostilities. Tensions would increase along Thracian border with Greece, with new guard missions set up in the area. “The naval forces would continuously conduct training exercises in the Aegean Sea. Fighter jets would be kept on standby mode on the tarmac around the clock at Balıkesir, Bandırma, Çiğli, Çorlu and Dalaman military airports and they would be scrambled to the air even if there are reports for minor infractions,” the plan explained.

Another document, dated December 2002, disclosed a secret meeting in Ankara about the Suga plan, where the issue of islands/islets whose sovereignty still remains disputed were discussed to provoke Greece. In a related memo dated Jan. 10, 2003, Navy Col. Mustafa Karasabun submitted plans to make changes in rules of engagement in the Aegean, giving a free hand in provocations. Plotters debated different scenarios on how to best trigger conflict with Greece, short of war. For example, one proposal envisaged creating an impression that the Turkish navy is about to conduct a major amphibious assault on the Greek base on Nisos Leros Island (İleryoz Ada in Turkish) near Turkey. Air assets were to be mobilized to boost that impression. The plan was intended to precipitate a change in the Greek navy’s levels of alertness, resulting in a panicked response, stated Commander Murat Saka, the planning project officer, in a document submitted to a court.

With all this, conspirators hoped to portray the government as inept and incapable of handling the threat coming from Greece. With the resulting public outcry, the escalation of the crisis was to help secure a declaration of marshal law by Parliament in some provinces, including İstanbul. The military would then be empowered with the tools necessary to crush what they saw as a growing internal threat in Turkey. Prosecutors believe the Oraj plan was cooked up by Bilgin Balanlı, who was the air chief marshal at the time and next in line to become the chief of the Turkish Air Force this year, before his dreams was quashed by his arrest. He was given orders to do so by former Air Force Commander Gen. İbrahim Fırtına, who was the commander of the War Academies in 2003.

The ring leaders were the heads of the three commands in 2003 — Gen. Çetin Doğan of the İstanbul-based 1st Army Command, Gen. Fırtına and Adm. Özden Örnek of the Naval Forces Command — all of whom are currently in jail pending trial. The mastermind was Gen. Doğan, who was named the number one suspect in the Sledgehammer indictment. He was recorded in March 2003 debating with his officers in İstanbul on how to implement the plan with a controlled increase of tensions and hostilities against the Greek Air Force. These three men set up “special teams” for the planned coup from their staff and trained them for the post-coup period. Unlike Operation Northwoods, some parts of the Oraj plan had already started to be implemented. For example, a confidential memo written by Navy Col. Cem Gürdeniz in February 2003 discussed increasing flights over the Aegean Sea as part of the Oraj plan. It also said the harassment of Turkish fighters by Greek jets and their prevention from undertaking given tasks would be brought to the attention of the public through the media.

An actual timeline of events corresponds with the steps detailed in the Oraj plan. According to a January 2004 report in Greek newspaper Eleftheros Typos, there was a huge spike in the number of alleged violations of Greek air space by Turkish fighters in that period. In 2003, there were a total of 3,900 violations committed by Turkish fighters, up from 3,200 in 2002. In contrast, the preceding years saw a lower number of violations. In 2000 this figure was 398 and in 2001 it was 957. In 2003, when the Oraj plan was active, 1,020 incidents of so-called “dog fights” between Greek and Turkish jet fighters were reported.

From the press coverage back in those years, it was clear that Greece was understandably upset over the unprecedented number of violations, prompting Athens to raise the issue with Ankara. In fact, both governments were willing to reduce the number of dangerous dog fights in the Aegean to reduce the tension, but the call apparently fell on deaf ears in the air forces. Frustrated by the lack of progress on the issue, Greek government spokesman Hristos Proropapas in October 2003 said: “Many circles both in Athens and Ankara do not want the violations to continue. But there are generals sitting in Ankara.” He was pointing his finger to untouchable generals who secretly launched plans to oust the AK Party government in the 2003/04 period.

Even former Greek Ambassador Michalis Christidis called a press conference in Ankara in June 2003 to share his government’s concerns directly with the Turkish public. Stressing that Greece had taken note of an unusual increase in the number of violations over the Aegean, the ambassador also underlined that there was a qualitative change in the way these violations had occurred. “Most of the Turkish fighters were armed. Two-thirds of the violations happened within six miles of Greek air space and some of them were committed very close to residential areas,” he said. By then Greece must have realized something was definitely wrong on the Turkish side and alerted the Turkish government, which was unfortunately weaker against the powerful military at the time.

There are two critical factors that helped calm the situation and prevented coup generals from succeeding with Operation Oraj. First, then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök was against the coup and tried to rein in unruly flag commanders serving under him. He had succeeded in keeping the top brass in disarray so that they could not mount a successful and unified campaign against the government. In a pre-emptive strike at his own generals, Özkök even gave an interview to Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia in October 2003 to ease Greek concerns. The second and most powerful factor was the decision by the EU to give Turkey an official date for accession talks in December 2004. This strengthened the hand of the civilian government against the powerful military and helped foil coup plans.

The trial is still going on and we’ll see what more evidence will come out during cross-examination.

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