Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel has taken 15 days of medical leave, which is expected to expire this Sunday, May 24.
In a democracy, it is normal for a top general to take a leave for holiday or medical reasons, etc. However, in the case of Turkey, where civil-military relations are unsettled, Gen. Özel's leave has prompted wide-ranging speculations that the army chief's medical leave will be followed by a request to retire a few months earlier than the planned date at the end of August. At the beginning of August, the biannual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) will take place during which retirements and promotions of generals and admirals will be decided.
Gen. Özel is set to retire on Aug. 30 if the government does not opt to extend his mandate for another year during the YAŞ meeting.
Several developments taking place related to the military have become a source of speculations surrounding Gen. Özel and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). His medical leave and speculations that he will retire afterward emerged at the same time as a claim by an opposition deputy that the government will stage a military incursion into neighboring Syria within days and that Gen. Özel's medical leave is aimed at fending off any pressure that may be coming from the government regarding such an incursion. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are the number one enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has long sought Assad's downfall. Claims of invading Syria, however, were denied by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
The office of the Chief of General Staff on May 11 denied the speculations and said the following in a written statement: “Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel underwent a successful medical operation and his health is stable. Land Forces Commander Gen. Hulusi Akar will serve as acting chief of General Staff during Gen. Özel's sick leave.” According to well informed sources, Gen. Özel underwent surgery on his prostate and is now in good health.
Meanwhile, the TSK is also understood to have been left in the dark about the government's policy on Syria, which has long been shaped by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT).
Tension between military and government
Gen. Özel's medical leave has also revealed ongoing unease between the military and government on several issues.
For instance, the recent arrests of several gendarmes, including a colonel, alongside prosecutors and other civilian officials as part of an ongoing investigation into the January 2014 interception of Syria-bound trucks belonging to MİT, have widely been cited as among the many reasons for the TSK's increased discontentment with the government. Arrests of military personnel came shortly after President Erdoğan accused the officials of treason.
The total number of those arrested in the wake of the MİT truck incident has reached 54, with those arrested charged with "treason and espionage."
The trucks were allegedly carrying arms to Syrian opposition groups. In January 2014, a number of MİT trucks were stopped by gendarmes in two separate incidents in the southern provinces of Hatay and Adana after prosecutors received tips that they were carrying arms to Syria. Although the government has claimed that the trucks were transporting humanitarian aid to the Turkmen community in Syria, opposition parties have continued to question why, if the operation was within the law, the government intervened to prevent the trucks from being searched.
Meanwhile, there is a general consensus in Turkey that the Turkish government was caught red-handed supporting extremist groups in Syria when the MİT trucks suspected of being loaded with arms were intercepted by the gendarmerie last year. The criminal charges being leveled against those gendarmes, along with various civilian officials, are widely seen as an attempt to punish those who disclosed that the trucks were carrying arms.
Partial subordination of the Gendarmerie General Command (JGK), a paramilitary force, to the Interior Ministry under a controversial 67-article internal security bill approved in Parliament in March is another source of tension between the government and the TSK. This means that the policing powers of the JGK will be tied more closely to the Interior Ministry instead of to the military, which is a long-overdue change. Yet if the government had a real and genuine agenda of democratization, even partial subordination of the JGK, if not full subordination, to the civilian authority would have been a significant step in furthering civilian-military relations in favor of the former. Hence, the TSK should not have an excuse to be unhappy over the subordination of this paramilitary force to the Interior Ministry as far as policing powers are concerned.
But the gendarmerie has become a tool for the government to continue its crackdown on those opposing its highly repressive policies as well as covering up some of its ill-conceived policies, as was the case in the MİT truck incident.
Purge within the military?
Another speculated area of tension between the military and government is regarding the Gülen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement. Erdoğan and his AKP government have been accusing the movement -- its one-time ally-turned-enemy -- of orchestrating a high-profile corruption and bribery investigation that went public in December 2013 to unseat his AKP government. As part of the war that Erdoğan and his government declared against the Gülen movement while preventing the corruption scandal from being investigated, there has been an ongoing and major purge within the police force and judiciary as well as in other institutions, though to a lesser extent. At the same time, there has so far been no credible evidence produced against those being targeted by the government.
Erdoğan in particular, along with his AKP government, has been exerting pressure on the TSK to also initiate a purge within the military among officers they claim to be members of the Gülen movement. But the TSK has appeared to resist this pressure as it says there should be solid evidence that they take orders from the Gülen movement and that they have violated military protocol.
Gen. Özel, in an answer to reporters over allegations of purges within the military, said during the Aug. 30 Victory Day reception last year at the presidential palace that they had been receiving many tips as to alleged members of the Gülen movement within the TSK. However, he said the tips were anonymous and that they cannot initiate a legal process without credible allegations -- comments that angered President Erdoğan.
The TSK is of the opinion that while there may be officers who belong to different religious communities or ideologies, what is essential is that they abide by the TSK's principles regardless of their ideologies.
Remarks made by Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz on May 13 that a large number of tips were received by the government about alleged links between officers and the Gülen movement has renewed interest in the issue of purges within the military and the unease between the government and military.
The TSK stresses that information suggesting that officers have links with the Gülen movement should not be false or unsubstantiated, and said that many such tips are baseless.
It is common knowledge that the TSK does not have any sympathy for either the Gülen movement or the AKP government, and in the early 1990s and onward the TSK purged hundreds of officers on the grounds that they were involved in religious activities. The TSK at the time did not produce any evidence to prove such allegations.
TSK refrains from acting unlawfully
According to a retired colonel who spoke to Today's Zaman, however, the military is no longer in favor of sacking officers without any legal basis as such unlawful acts in the past caused serious unease within this military institution.
But according to retired Gen. İsmail Hakkı Pekin, who was among the officers that served prison sentences over charges of planning a coup to unseat the AKP government, it is highly likely that a purge will take place this year. Otherwise, he said in an interview with the Zaman daily on May 18, the government may declare Gen. Özel a member of the Gülen movement in an attempt to defame him ahead of his retirement this year.
A source familiar with the military, meanwhile, told Today's Zaman that there may even be purges, though in small numbers, among lower-ranking officers. In addition, he speculated that some purges may also take place among higher-ranking officers who will complete their term of duty at their current rank. Instead of extending their term of duty for another year, they may be forced to retire.
The question remains as to whether the alleged purges will take place in response to Erdoğan's massive pressure on Gen. Özel.
If there are any purges they will most likely take place ahead of the YAŞ meeting at the beginning of August.
According to backstage rumors in Ankara, the purges, if they take place, may occur in return for the government agreeing to allow current Land Forces Commander Gen. Hulusi Akar to replace Gen. Özel when he retires.
Published on Today's Zaman, 22 May 2015, Friday