Is the Army Vanquished, Or Able to Fight Another Day?
The political turbulence which has seized Turkey since fifty or more Turkish officers, among them three generals and an admiral, were arrested last week on charges of plotting a coup against the regime may be viewed from three different perspectives:
It could be part of the ongoing contest for the soul of Turkey waged for the past decade between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Islamic party and the Turkish secular elite including the Army.
A different viewpoint suggests Turkey's secular upper class and Army were already vanquished by Erdogan, but were too blind to see it. The arrests of high-ranking military figures and their inability to fight back opened their eyes to the real world.
A third viewpoint holds that the secular elite and the military have indeed suffered a debacle, one of many in recent years, but it was only one round in a continuing contest and the two camps have not given up the struggle over Turkey's future.
Among the prominent army chiefs placed under arrest are:
Four-Star General Cetin Dogan, 69. He was picked up in Istanbul by police officers attached to TEM, Turkey's counter-terrorism branch;
Four-Star General Ibrahim Firtina, 67, former commander of the 60,000-member Turkish Air Force, who was arrested at his villa in Ankara;
At about the same time, a special task force paid a visit to Özden Örnek, 67, retired commander-in-chief of the Turkish Navy. He was taken into custody in the middle of breakfast.
Generals on the run since Erdogan took office
After the first batch of 50 officers, the detentions continued. By Friday, Feb. 26, an estimated 67 high officers were in custody.
They were accused by Istanbul prosecutors of plotting to blow up two popular mosques and shoot down a Turkish fighter jet so as to provoke a military crisis with Turkey's NATO partner, Greece, as part of their coup conspiracy.
News of their arrests spread like wildfire through all strata of Turkish society: "The untouchables have been touched!", it was said, reflecting the popular shock at the vision of top military commanders, traditionally beyond the reach of law enforcement authorities, being led off to jail in handcuffs like common criminals.
This alone was judged a major victory for prime minister Erdogan, regardless of whether or not the charges are made to stick.
Such charges are not new. Exactly three years ago, the March 2007 issue of the Turkish magazine Nokta Turkish ran a batch of documents code-named Sledgehammer with details of an alleged conspiracy in the form of "coup diaries" purported to belong to Navy Commander Özden Örnek.
Temporarily released from detention Thursday, Feb. 25, he now claims the diaries were not authentic.
Gen. Dogan, who remains in custody after his indictment Friday, was named in the "coup diaries" as the conspiracy's ringleader, who supposedly planned to arrest tens of thousands of "enemies of the state" and hold them in football stadiums as part of a plot to set up a puppet government.
NATO's second biggest army in trouble
Another alleged plot, dubbed "Cage," entailed massacres among non-Muslim minorities.
Bombs were to be detonated in the Christian and Jewish neighborhoods of Istanbul and businesspeople kidnapped. These events were designed to inculpate the Islamists and bring forth massive international recriminations to hound the Muslim-led administration out of office.
The military's response to the arrests and charges has been feeble and hesitant.
A Turkish Army spokesman did not deny the existence of the "Sledgehammer" document, but said it depicted a typical military a "war game."
Army Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug, who insisted until recently that the coup charges were fabrications, met over last weekend with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül and promised them to clear things up. Few believe he can deliver.
The geostrategic repercussions of these events extend far beyond Turkey's borders. DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources note that NATO's second largest army appears to be on the verge of losing out to a Muslim-dominated government that looks back longingly on old Ottoman Empire which ruled a broad region before Ataturk carried his country into modern times.
The Erdogan administration is also working hard to strengthen Turkey's ties with fellow Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Syria.
Questions are being asked in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels about Turkey's military role should Iran become the center of a war with the US and Israel. Would Ankara opt for neutrality as it did when the US invaded Iraq in 2003? Or would the Erdogan government take proactive advantage of the conflict as an opportunity to further its political and religious aspirations outside its borders?
The next development in the struggle between Erdogan and the Turkish military may provide some answers.