Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan chose a week of heavy military losses at the hands of the Kurdish rebel PKK to bump up the conflict between his Islamic-oriented government and armed forces to a resounding new climax. His choice of timing was not fortuitous.
Sunday and Monday, July 18-19, Kurdish rebels killed 17 Turkish soldiers.
Monday, too, a Turkish court indicted 196 people, including four retired military commanders, of plotting to overthrow his Islamic-oriented government in 2003 in a conspiracy dubbed "sledgehammer."
Erdogan is deliberately escalating his government's campaign against its secular opponents in the armed forces in time with the deterioration in Turkey's war on the Kurdish rebels.
The indictment, running to 968 pages, accuses the suspects of plotting chaos to pave the way for a military takeover. Ex-commander of Turkey's First Army Ret. Gen. Dogan Cetin, former Navy commander Ozden Ornek, ex- Air Force chief Ibrahim Firtina and former head of the army Ergin Saygun are among the 30 serving or retired military officers charged. They face up to 20 years jail if convicted of attempting to overthrow the government or membership of an illegal organization.
Most were detained in February, but subsequently released – after a newspaper, Taraf, published allegedly leaked copies of documents outlining the alleged conspiracy.
Erdogan manipulates media to blacken military
It is significant that no date has been set for their trial.
The regime is clearly holding its fire to test the public's reaction to the crackdown on the military, the while dripping leaks to the media for building up in popular minds an irrefutable case against a large section of the command ranks, presenting them as so disloyal to the country that they do not scruple to generate a military downfall for the sake of toppling the government and installing a strong military regime in Ankara.
Just a week before the indictment was filed, circles close to the prime minister accused certain army chiefs of conspiring to sabotage the military effort against the PKK in the hope of a war disaster calamitous enough to bring the government down.
In 2007, the Turkish state prosecutor filed charges against what was first described as an elaborate network of retired military officers, journalists, academics, businessmen, and other secular opponents of Erdogan known as Ergenekon. They were further blackened by the claim that Mossad, Israel's external security service, furnished the plotters information, weapons and money.
Last week, the Turkish newspaper Bugun Daily claimed that three years ago, on October 10, 2007, Turkey's central spy agency, the MIT, intercepted a phone conversation between two senior Turkish Air force officers. An officer from the wire communications division, identified only as Firat C., was quoted as reporting to Lt. Col. Selcuk C. that the Heron drones Israel sold Turkey were "very good" at locating targets and causing heavy losses "to our own" – i.e. Kurdish PKK fighters.
Firat C suggested shooting the drones down – or at least changing their flight programs and flight paths to make it harder for them to keep track of the Kurdish fighters.
The lieutenant colonel is cited by the paper as replying: "We'll take care of that."
If charges proven, Turkish generals face treason trials
This leak to Bugun Daily was designed to implicate two serving Air Force officers in a plot to undermine the effectiveness of Turkey's campaign against the PKK by reducing the enemy's casualties.
Then, Monday, the same paper followed up on its story by claiming that Firat C. had a similar conversation with another high-ranking officer, a rear admiral at the Office of Defense Cooperation – ODC in Ankara, identified only by the initials A. S.
ODC is the center for processing US visual intelligence input on terrorist activity at its northern Iraqi havens and passing the data to units in the battlefield.
This story implies, without saying so explicitly, that conspirators within the defense establishment – not content with shooting the Herons down or tampering with their flight paths – were not above sabotaging the Turkish army's feed on the PKK from US intelligence, so long as the Erdogan government could be made to lose the war against the PKK.
If all these charges and insinuations can be tied to specific officers, they will be held guilty of treason.
The next step was another leak, this one a report that at the end of 2007, the case of Firat C. was brought to the knowledge of Gen. Ilker Basbug, the current Turkish Chief of General Staff, who was then commander of Turkey's Land Forces. He ordered an investigation but it was stalled by a turf dispute between the Military Prosecutor's Office and the Land Forces' Prosecutor's Office, following which Gen. Basbug decided not to resume it.
Public begins to believe in military sabotage of Kurdish war
On Tuesday, Turkey's The Star daily reported: Sr. Lt. F?rat Ç. and Lt. Col. Selcuk C., who allegedly planned to down Herons in order to protect Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists, had been promoted to higher ranks since the scandal was first exposed in 2007. F?rat C. was assigned to the Izmir Cigli 2nd Main Jet Base Command and promoted to captain, while Selcuk C. was assigned to the Eskisehir 1st Air Forces Command as a bombardment pilot and promoted to colonel.
Another name mixed up in the affair is that of Air Force Judge Col. Ahmet Zeki Ucok.
He is the main defendant in the trial of members of a gang accused of processing fake medical reports for draft-dodgers. He was apprehended last month.
And so the affair rolls on, high-ranking Turkish officers linked to the most nefarious pursuits, including, now, organized crime, often by innuendo.
The campaign of smears has taken effect. In the past two weeks, the Turkish public has been in uproar over the army's falling reputation. In the absence of any reaction from the Turkish general staff, the impression is spreading, especially among Erdogan's supporters, that extreme hatred of the prime minister has driven some officers to embrace the PKK's cause ("our own people") as a stick for beating the government.
Potential rival, top soldier Gen. Basburg within prime minister's sights
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that Gen. Basbug, who is due to retire in the coming months, is now in the government's sights, because he is perceived as a unifier capable of organizing Erdogen's opponents to challenge him in the coming elections in a year's time.
Pro-government media have suggested he should have retired on April 30, 2010 when he turned 68, invoking Article 49 of the Law on Military Personnel of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
Gen. Basbug knows that the position of Chief of General Staff is his only insurance against arrest and charges of some kind of conspiracy against the regime. He is therefore keeping his cards close to his chest and not divulging his intended date of retirement, although his associates say that he will step down in August.
Meanwhile, government spokesmen are hard put to explain the upsurge of PKK attacks and proliferation of Turkish losses since the May 31 attack on the Turkish Marines base in Iskenderun, in which 6 Turkish soldiers were killed.
The military situation is about to decline further, as indicated by the new strategy the PKK commander Murat Karayilan aired to the London Daily Telegraph Tuesday. From now on his fighters would target major Turkish cities, not just army patrols and bases in the Kurdish heartlands, he said. They will go for "metropolises of western Turkey, including those popular wit tourists and businessmen," he warned.
With the government and armed forces at daggers drawn in Ankara, no military leadership in the world would be capable of waging an effective war on terror, especially one that spans four countries – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon – and hope for victory.
It is worth remembering that as a NATO member, Turkey has assigned an important contingent to Afghanistan to fight alongside the United States.
As we closed this issue, the Turkish daily Vakit published a photo of a young man, alleged to be the son of the chief of staff, with a convicted member of the Kurdish insurgent PKK, on its front page. It was said to have been taken during a police raid of a suspected PKK cell.
Gen. Basbug refrained from immediate comment.