Monday, 23 November 2009

Defense Against Documents: The Turkish Military's Rearguard Action

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Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 2, no. 21 of the Turkey Analyst)

The publication in the Turkish media of another slew of documents allegedly containing plans by elements in the Turkish General Staff (TGS) to stage a series of violent attacks and destabilize the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has once again raised tensions between the military and the civilian authorities. The authenticity of the documents has been hotly disputed. But what it is clear is that – regardless of whether or not they are genuine – the frequency with which such documents are now appearing in certain sections of the Turkish media is forcing the Turkish military onto the defensive and reducing its ability to exercise political influence.

BACKGROUND: On November 19, the Taraf daily newspaper published details of what it claimed was an operation called Kafes Planı or “Cage Plan” in which an alleged covert organization headed by high-ranking members of the Turkish navy was reportedly planning to assassinate members of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities and blame the killings on Muslims and, by implication, the moderate Islamist AKP.

The publication of the alleged “Cage Plan” came amid continuing controversy over another plan allegedly drawn up by a serving naval colonel called Dursun Çiçek and first published in Taraf in June 2009, which apparently sought to discredit both the AKP and the powerful networks run by supporters of the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. Although no reliable figures are available, Gülen is believed to have several million supporters and sympathizers in Turkey, many of whom have been attracted by his repeated condemnations of violence in the name of religion and his calls for dialogue with members of other faiths. One of the measures supposedly proposed in the plan allegedly drawn up by Çiçek was to plant weapons in dormitories run by members of the Gülen Movement in order to tarnish Gülen’s reputation for being opposed to violence.


The fiercely anti-military Taraf newspaper

In a country where much is believed and little is trusted, the publication of such documents invariably splits the population on ideological grounds. Opponents of the military, particularly former Marxists turned liberals and members of Islamist movements, almost instinctively claim that the documents must be genuine. Opponents of the AKP maintain that they must be politically-motivated fabrications designed to undermine the public reputation of the staunchly secularist TGS.

Any objective evaluation of such documents is further complicated by the experience of recent Turkish history. In 1997, elements in the TGS did propagate black propaganda in an attempt to undermine the reputation of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), one of the AKP’s predecessors, during an ultimately successful attempt to force it from power. However, elements in the Islamist movement are also known to have forged documents in order to try to weaken the Turkish military. For example, in summer 2006 – in a chilling tacit admission of the depth of anti-Semitism in Turkey – elements in the Islamist movement forged and distributed documents purporting to show that General Yaşar Büyükanıt, the then commander of the Turkish Land Forces, was of Jewish origin. At the time, Büyükanıt was widely expected to take over as chief of the TGS at the end of August 2006 when the incumbent, General Hilmi Özkök, was due to retire. With a few exceptions, Özkök had tended to be reluctant to confront the AKP. In contrast, Büyükanıt was a known hard-line secularist. Many Islamists feared that, once appointed, Büyükanıt would adopt a more assertive stance towards the AKP and restrict its freedom of movement. Ultimately, the attempt to discredit Büyükanıt failed and he was duly appointed chief of the TGS in August 2006.

Even if there are known precedents for documents similar to the one allegedly drawn up by Dursun Çiçek, the same cannot be said of the alleged “Cage Plan”. Not only did the document published inTaraf include alleged details of planned future assassinations, it also named the alleged members of what was portrayed as a covert organization within the TGS and implicitly admitted responsibility for three attacks on non-Muslims: the murder of the Italian priest Andrea Santoro in the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon in February 2006; the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dınk in Istanbul in January 2007; and the killing of three Christians in the southeast city of Malatya in April 2007. In each case, the youths believed to be responsible for the attacks have been detained and charged. Each is known to have ultranationalist and/or Islamist sympathies. Evidence has also emerged that some members of the local law enforcement authorities were at least aware that the victims were under threat. However, no convincing evidence has yet been produced to connect all three attacks, much less to tie them to a covert organization headed by high-ranking members of the Turkish navy. There are also questions as to why a covert organization allegedly headed by high-ranking, experienced members of the TGS would unnecessarily include such a vast amount of potentially compromising information in a single document. It would seem, at the very least, to be an astonishing breach of the most basic rules of tradecraft. Nevertheless, in the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, it is still possible that the “Cage Plan” is not a forgery but an extraordinary display of incompetence.

What is undoubted is that, if they are not forgeries (which would itself be a crime), the manner in which the documents are appearing in the public domain is illegal. After Taraf published the “Cage Plan”, the TGS immediately filed a court case against the newspaper for defamation, with the clear implication that the military was convinced that the document was a forgery. Even the office of the Prime minister issued a statement explicitly condemning Taraf for breaking the law by publishing a document which was the subject of a judicial investigation to determine its authenticity.

Neither the TGS’s court case nor the AKP’s condemnation of Tarafhas deterred opponents of the TGS from engaging in febrile speculation about what the “Cage Plan” meant and portraying the Turkish military as being a bubbling cauldron of coup plots and barely restrained plans to cause bloodshed and wreak havoc in Turkish society. In fact, the available evidence suggests very strongly that the current mood in the TGS is more one of despondency and impotent despair than of murderous energy.

IMPLICATIONS: The military’s political influence had already begun to wane even before the AKP was returned to power in the July 2007 general election. Ironically, given the lengths to which some Islamists went to try to prevent his appointment, the election had been triggered by a clumsy attempt by Büyükanıt to order the AKP not to appoint the then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to the presidency in May 2007. The AKP responded by calling an early general election, securing a huge increase in its popular vote and electing Gül as president in August 2007. Humiliated by such a display of popular support for the AKP, Büyükanıt could only stand and watch. It was the first time in recent Turkish history that a civilian government had successfully defied the TGS on a major issue.

Since July 2007, morale in the Turkish officer corps has been further eroded not only by what it sees as the AKP’s gradual dismantling of the secular state but also by what has become known as the Ergenekon investigation. Since it was launched in June 2007, the investigation has resulted in over 300 detentions and 194 suspects being charged with membership of what the prosecutors describe as the “Ergenekon terrorist organization”, which they allege was behind virtually every act of political violence in Turkey over the last 20-25 years. Yet despite 5,800 pages of indictments and two million pages of alleged supporting evidence, the prosecutors have failed to produce any convincing proof that the Ergenekon organization actually exists. (See Turkey Analyst, September 28, 2009) Although a handful of the accused are known violent ultranationalists and members of the Turkish underworld, the majority of the accused – who include both serving and retired members of the officer corps – appear to be guilty of little more than opposition to the AKP. Even if they have been involved in criminal activity, there is certainly no evidence of it in the indictments. (See Jenkins’ Silk Road Paper, published August 2009.)

The members of the officer corps know better than anyone else which of their colleagues may, or may not, have been involved in illegal activity. As amongst opponents of the AKP in Turkish society as a whole, the detention without any concrete evidence of military officers known to be innocent of any criminal activity has had a much more intimidating effect than the arrest of plausible suspects.

CONCLUSIONS: Regardless of the authenticity or otherwise of the documents alleging coup plots and assassination plans which are now appearing regularly in publications opposed to the military, the overall impression that they give of the mood within the TGS is seriously misleading. There is always a possibility that a handful of younger officers may group together, form a gang and resort to violence. However, such an occurrence would be a reaction against – not a product of – the prevailing mood in the TGS, which is one of defiant and despondent defensiveness rather than a ferment of barely-restrained aggression. Although it is still premature to talk of the complete demise of the Turkish military’s political influence, what influence it can still exercise is being used in what is effectively a rearguard action; a defense against what it regards as a coordinated campaign to denigrate and weaken it, rather than an offensive onslaught to topple the AKP.

Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program’s Turkey Initiative.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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