BACKGROUND: On September 21, a court in Istanbul handed down the sentences in the trial of 365 retired and acting officers in the so called Sledgehammer case. Three former generals – Çetin Doğan, the former commander of Turkey’s First army, Özden Örnek, the former commander of the navy and İbrahim Fırtına, the former air force commander – were sentenced to 20 years in prison, after having initially been given life sentences. Six other generals were sentenced to 18 years in prison. Of the 365 suspects, 330 were convicted. The defendants in the unprecedented, historical trial were accused of having planned to stage a campaign of destabilization – which allegedly would have included bomb attacks against mosques in Istanbul and the downing of a Turkish jet with the purpose of triggering a conflict with Greece – that aimed to bring about the downfall of the AKP government. (See Turkey Analyst, 1 March 2010 issue.)
According to the prosecution, the participants in a war-game that took place in a seminar at the headquarters of the First army in Istanbul in March 2003, had in fact plotted to cause upheaval, creating the conditions for the fall of the government. However, the critics of the trial have from the start held that the indictment was based on fabrications of evidence, and allegations of improper conduct have subsequently been leveled against the court as the defendants’ requests to call witnesses were denied; the defense has also complained that the counterevidence it presented or tried to present was ignored. Inevitably, the impression among a section of Turkish society is that the Sledgehammer trial has been less than a fair trial and that the sentences are politically motivated, that the regime of the AKP is exacting revenge from the military.
The fact that the trial has been hampered by anomalies is in fact universally acknowledged. However, the sentences are nonetheless hailed by the critics of the military as a decisive step in ending the military tutelage over politics, as the final victory of democracy. According to this view, what matters is that an example is set, not whether or not legal niceties have been scrupulously respected. “Even if there was no concrete coup preparation in the Sledgehammer case, I am sure there was the idea in many minds that if necessary a coup could be staged”, said one commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand of CNN Turk. Another commentator, Cengiz Çandar in Radikal, called the Sledgehammer trial Turkey’s equivalent of the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War.
Yet although it is easy to interpret the Sledgehammer sentences as the final installment in the long-running feud between the AKP and the military, the reaction of Erdoğan to the sentences suggests that the reality is more nuanced. Commenting on the verdict, Erdoğan was anything but jubilant; unlike the protagonists of the military among the Turkish punditry, the prime minister did not evoke an epic battle waged by his government against the generals, and he did not seize the occasion to triumphantly proclaim the final victory of democracy and the rule of law over militarism. Instead, his words spoke of dissatisfaction, and implied that he in fact expects the verdict to be overruled in a higher instance, or at least that he hopes for such an outcome: “We still have to wait for the decision of the court of cassation,” he said.
Erdoğan’s stance was echoed in other comments made by representatives of the ruling AKP. Indeed, minister of culture Ertuğrul Günay did nothing to hide his dissatisfaction with the Sledgehammer sentences when he exclaimed “Thank God there is still the court of cassation”. Stating “we have to see the grounds for the verdict first”, Prime Minister Erdoğan for his part made clear that he, unlike so many in the punditry, does not take it for granted that the sentences are justified.
IMPLICATIONS: The dichotomy – the AKP against the military – that is conjured by the conclusion of the Sledgehammer trial is, appearances notwithstanding, deceiving. The sentences do of course confirm that the Turkish military no longer rules the country; a decade ago, no one, let alone Erdoğan, who had to endure being hectored by the generals, would have predicted that a civilian court was going to hand down prison sentences of up to twenty years to hundreds of military officers, among whom several former force commanders. In the run-up to the general election in 2002, the deputy chairman of the AKP, Hüseyin Çelik, worriedly asked journalists if they thought that the military was going to let the party come to power in the first place.
Defying the historical pattern, the AKP not only came to but survived in power – and its leadership did not end up being imprisoned; but the AKP succeeded in ending the tutelage of the military not least because the high command in the final analysis remained loyal; those within the military who did try to subvert the government ultimately failed to solicit the support of the highest echelon of the military.
A critical role was played, among others, by the former Chief of the General Staff, Hilmi Özkök, who remained consistently loyal to the government, and who notably refused to condemn the prison sentences last week against his former comrades-in-arms; “I will not be a judge of the judiciary”, said Özkök in a comment which drew the ire of the families of the convicted generals.
Just as generals like Hilmi Özkök have been loyal with the AKP, so Erdoğan is loyal with the military, as his comments after the Sledgehammer verdict intimate. Indeed, the prime minister has also stated that he finds it difficult to accept that İlker Başbuğ, the former Chief of the General Staff, who is accused of having led a “terrorist organization” against the elected government, is incarcerated.
Erdoğan no longer has any interest in wielding a sledgehammer against the military; the military is emasculated as a source of power, and the prime minister enjoys an excellent working relation with General Necdet Özel, the present Chief of the General Staff. Erdoğan instead has every reason to further cultivate his relation with the military – and not least to ensure that the morale of the officer corps is high – as the country faces a deteriorating security situation. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been on the offensive since July, and the Turkish army has been engaged in heavy fighting in the southeast of the country. Meanwhile, the prospect of an implosion of Syria is of growing concern for Ankara. Erdoğan has declared that Turkey will intervene militarily if the Kurds in Syria take any further steps toward establishing autonomy. To cope with an aggravated Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s borders, and in order to be able to assert Turkish power in Syria, the government depends on the military being in good shape. The sentences that were handed by the court in the Sledgehammer trial cannot but contribute to the further demoralization of the officers corps, and render the military less effective, less motivated as a fighting force.
CONCLUSIONS: On the face of it, the sentences in the Sledgehammer trial demonstrate the subjugation of the military to civilian, democratic, legal authority. The court delivered a powerful message when it handed down severe prison sentences to hundreds of officers; the judge in the Sledgehammer trial defiantly declared that “You cannot apply pressure on us.” However, the recipient of its message is not only the military, but indirectly also the government which depends on the military.
The outcome of the trial of the generals must be viewed against the backdrop of the new power struggle that rages in Turkey, and not against the old power struggle between some of the generals and the AKP government which has long since been concluded.
The new power struggle pits the AKP against its erstwhile ally, the movement of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Gülen movement is entrenched in the judiciary and the police, and it has played a critical role in breaking the power of the military. But during the last year, that power has come to be directed against the AKP as well. The Gülen movement made a dramatic attempt to go after Erdoğan earlier this year when a prosecutor tried to arrest a close collaborator of the prime minister, the head of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), who was going to be accused of treason for having conducted talks with the PKK. (See Turkey Analyst, 20 February 2012 issue) “After that, the turn would have come to me”, Erdoğan said last week.
The attempt to arrest the head of the National Intelligence Agency led to purges of presumed Gülen followers within the police, and several prosecutors were reassigned. The AKP government has since been taking steps to counter the weight of the Gülen movement within the judiciary; and as it clearly hopes that the court of cassation will overrule the Sledgehammer sentences, it can be assumed that the government will take further steps.
It remains to be seen if Erdoğan is going to be as successful in fending off the challenge that is posed to his authority by the Gülen movement as he has been in subjugating the military.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and the Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. 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".